For better or worse, chaos is the force of a film festival. Everyone’s either buried in their cell phones, buried in their schedules or buried in conversation … rarely identifying with much else. It happened to me today. After grabbing my spot in line, and basically closing my eyes and pointing to the schedule to determine the toss-up of films about to screen, I kept wondering why everyone in front was staring at me. It took me a few minutes to realize that Brian Welch of the band Korn was literally two elbows behind me conducting an interview.
Two things crossed my mind: how did I not see this before and why is he wearing so much make-up for a radio interview? Regardless, I’m to blame for my own obliviousness to the greater world around me. Luckily, there are always the movies to ground us in those realities.
After two days, the festival has presented us with an array of good-to-great titles so far. The two misfires (which will get short shrift in later posts) have been few and far between. The best film so far (and carrying some of the loudest buzz) has been Yen Tan’s 1985. Filmed in inky black and white, 1985 details the skittishness of a young man named Adrien (a wonderful Cory Michael Smith) returning home to his Texas family from New York during the holidays. If the movies have taught us anything, Christmas reunions rarely yield better results than familial discord and terrorists taking over Nakatomi Plaza.
In this version of a personal holiday apocalypse, the young man is homosexual, gravely struggling with when and how to come out to his Bible-thumping father (Michael Chiklis) and subservient mother (Virginia Madsen) about his lifestyle. Couple that decision with the medical epidemic and uncertain furor brewing in America over the AIDS crisis and 1985 becomes a film about a specific place and time that widens into a crushing exploration of identity.
A few narrative cliches aside in the beginning (such as his father’s masculine chest pounding), Tan’s film overcomes those missteps, especially when Adrien reconnects with old girlfriend Carly (Jamie Chung) and the delicate way they dance around their past and newfound outlooks on life. There were times I wished the film solely focused on them. But, 1985 has more than that on it’s mind.
Technically, Tan allows for the emotions to weave in front of us in controlled long takes that provide each actor a moment to shine. Nothing is quite so heartbreaking as a make out session that begins in one place and ends in another very heavy mood, or the backyard conversation that slowly zooms in on Michael Chiklis as he reveals he’s not quite the cultural rube his son believes.
Before long, 1985 sneaks up on you as a masterful drama that lingers in your psyche for the nuanced ways its characters exude honesty. And, the fact it ends on an especially happy moment in Adrien’s life only compounds the sadness that’s spilled out before.
In the short film category, I’ve resigned myself to the belief that none of the efforts I appreciate ever win. By definition, a short film forces the filmmaker to compress his vision into a compact form. Most short films that win an award tell a simple story or parable. The ones that craft the biggest impression on me are the few whose atmosphere and style belie a higher attention to storytelling through mood and tone.
In that regard, the two short films that reside head and shoulders above the pack were Fry Day by Laura Moss and Lovestreams by Sean Buckelew. Both films do tell a unique story, but they’re framed, edited and composed with such veteran-like vitality that they put the rest to shame.
Fry Day follows teenager Lauryn (Jordyn DiNatale) as she wanders a dusk-laden Florida field at night taking and selling Polaroid pictures to groups of people. The reason everyone is joined there? To celebrate the execution of serial killer Ted Bundy. She meets a high school classmate and he goads her into joining him and his friends for a drive around the area. What begins as random teenage hijinks soon turns into something more sinister for Lauryn.
Director Moss, working mostly at night, carefully pushes in closer and closer on Lauryn as the film progresses. Actress DiNatale strikes the perfect balance of coy beauty and timid acquiescence. What the film reveals is quite shattering. It ultimately suggests that, even though its easy to put one evil person into the ground, there are many more bad people lurking in the fringes of naive adolescence.
Sean Buckelew’s animated Lovestreams begins in that all too familiar AOL-like Instant Messenger box that I lived in for about four years in the late 90’s, connecting with faceless (but not personality-less) people from around the country. Watching the chat between two people turn from friendly into romantic and then flowing headlong into a rush of digital/imagined lifetime between the two feels like a minuscule budgeted Ready Player One. I confess, I got more nostalgic over this than anything in Spielberg’s billion dollar adventure epic.
The Dallas International Film Festival runs from May 3-10 at the Landmark Magnolia West Village. Check http://www.dallasfilm.org for schedules and tickets.