SIFF 2021: Summertime


Three years removed from his breakthrough film and indictment of Oakland gentrification Blindspotting, director Carlos López Estrada sets his sights a few hundred miles south for another story of the underrepresented in an increasingly white city. While Blindspotting sported a traditional narrative structure, in Summertime, Estrada channels his experiences directing music videos for a more multimedia viewing experience. Jumping between dozens of characters, the film intertwines poetry, music, and dance for a unique storytelling medium.

Taking place over a single day in L.A., the film is an ensemble production of 25 people just trying to get by in a town that increasingly caters to the upper class. Each person deals with their own personal struggles and breaks into a revelatory poem when pushed beyond what they can endure. Tensions build for each character until many of the plotlines come to a head in a Smiley’s burger joint where a surprise visit, from the only characters who have aged more than a day, delivers an over-the-top ending to the film.

Can a gimmick make a movie? There is a lot to enjoy in Summertime. The poetry is moving and well performed, and the standout dance scene staring women in red dresses is beautiful. However, as a film, Summertime feels slight. A complex narrative is not necessary for a film to be successful, but this film is lacking in any depth. The excessive scope of the film leaves little time for nuance; each character is simplified down to one or two quirks that could be shared in the five minutes on screen that everyone gets. The poetry does offer some thematic continuity, but the film never stops feeling like a collection of Estrada’s music videos.

Estrada desired to create a fully unique film in Summertime, and in that he succeeded. The collection of poems is a strong basis, and the musicality of the productions flows well. Unfortunately, the film’s lack of depth results in it having little staying power. The themes are oversimplified and the screenplay, outside of the poetry, is exceedingly clunky. Summertime is an enjoyable watch in the moment, but one that inevitably leaves the viewer hungry for something more substantial.

SIFF 2021: Charter

charter | Sundance Institute

A mother’s bond with her children is precious, and any barricade between them can be detrimental to the well being of both parties. Director Amanda Kernell’s sophomore outing Charter deals with the psychological trauma stemming from the separation of mother and child.

Amid an ugly divorce and custody battle, Alice (Ane Dahl Torp) is awoken one night by a call from her son Vincent (Troy Lundkvist) crying. Her ex-husband Mattias (Sverrir Gudnason) intercepts the call and hangs up before Alice can decern what is wrong. In fear for Vincent and her teenage daughter Elina (Tintin Poggats Sarri), Alice travels to their home, and after days of Mattias denying her access to see them picks them up from school and absconds with them for a chartered holiday in the Canary Islands.

There is much that goes unspoken in the film to its benefit. The reason that Vincent called Alice crying in the middle of the night is never expressly given. Similarly, there are indications that Elina may be at the receiving end of some sort of abuse from her father, but no matter how much she and her mom reconcile, Elina never admits her father has done anything wrong. In this way, Alice becomes a bit of an unreliable narrator. She is doing what she genuinely believes to be in the best interest of her children, but whether they need saving is never expressly stated. The only thing the film shows Mattias doing that is unquestionably wrong is attempting to kiss Alice after she has already pushed him away once.

The success of Charter rests squarely on the back of its lead actress, and Torp proves more than capable lifting the load. Separated from her children, Alice experiences extreme lows which Torp actualizes miraculously. Coupled with excellent makeup giving her heavy bags under her eyes, she expresses pain perfectly. Conversely, when Alice is reunited with her children, Torp shows how loving a mother her character can be. Between joyful karaoke sessions and loving embraces in the face of disaster, Torp delivers s full realized character.

Buoyed by an excellent lead performance, Kernell’s Charter is a devastating exploration of the pain suffered by a woman separated from her children. Narrative details are blurred just enough to paint Alice as a potentially unreliable narrator, but while the story’s reality may be intentionally opaque the adoration between the characters is real and believable. Charter is an excellent drama in every aspect.

SIFF 2021: Bad Tales

Bad Tales (Favolacce) - film review on DMovies

Twin brothers Damiano and Fabio D’Innocenzo take a provocative look at the quiet horrors of suburbia in Bad Tales. This subject area is well suited for excessively dark satire, Todd Solondz has made a career out of it, but balancing the twisted nature of these films with the perfect amount of levity is imperative in creating a watchable film. Too much levity can come across as meanspirited at best or as an endorsement of atrocities at worse, conversely not enough levity results in a deeply unpleasant viewing experience. The Fratelli D’Innocenzo hope that with Bad Tales they created a film that land in the perfect middle.

The film follows the summer vacation through the beginning of the school year for a few families living in the suburbs outside of Rome. The Placido family is helmed by the patriarch Bruno (Elio Germano) who has a hair trigger for abusive tirades against his two children, Dennis (Tommaso Di Cola) and Alessia (Giulietta Rebeggiani). The Guerrini family consists of the unemployed Amelio (Gabriel Montesi) and his son infected with the measles Geremia (Justin Korovkin). The kids in these families as well as a handful of others attempt to have a normal childhood, but the passive aggressive and repressive suburbia upbring leads them into dark decisions unbeknown to the checked-out parents.

Bad Tales is a perfect example of a film that is greater than the sum of its parts. There were many aspects of the film that did not work. For a film that takes place in the heat of summer and relies on the simmering heat as a narrative device, the film inexplicitly employs a cooling color correction. This decision was distracting throughout. Additionally, for as dark as the subject matter gets at times, The D’Innocenzos offer little humor to cleanse the palate from the harshest moments. This leaves many stretches of the film to feel sluggish as things get increasingly worse. Fundamental issues like these should be a significant hinderance to the film, yet while they are still apparent, when considering the film as a whole, it works despite these issues.

The Fratelli D’Innocenzo state their claim as Italy’s provocateurs with their second film Bad Tales. While their relative inexperience betrays itself in some of their technical and screenwriting decisions, the pair show a lot of promise through their ability to deliver a successful product, issues notwithstanding. Bad Tales is a good though imperfect satire form a pair of filmmakers to watch going forward.

SIFF 2021: There Is No Evil

There Is No Evil - An interview with director Mohammad Rasoulof - VIFF 2020  - Set The Tape

Mohammad Rasoulof like his filmmaking compatriot Jafar Panahi has been under legal scrutiny by the Iranian government over his films. This trouble has advanced to the point that There Is No Evil had to be shot in secrecy and is banned from screening in Iran. Consisting for four stories containing capital punishment in Iran, the Golden Bear winning film’s controversy in its home country is immediately apparent.

The anthology film contains four stories with state executions near the center. The first is of a man for whom executions have become a part of his everyday job. The second is of a man who runs when forced to do his first execution. The third is a story of a man who unknowingly executes a friend of his girlfriend, and the final a story of a man dealing with the repercussions of declining to execute anyone years prior.

While on the surface each story is connected through the capital punishment through line, themes of freedom and personal choice are just as pertinent to the films message and reflect the director’s legal status more aptly. An Overzealous execution policy is just a symptom of a government who believes they can control every aspect their people’s lives.

At two and a half hours long, the film’s breadth is its biggest weakness.  While the four parts share the thematic consistency, in both pacing and quality they are very uneven. This results in some of the lesser moments dragging and cause the film to feel each of its 150 minutes. Each story clocking in at 35-40 minutes a piece also hinders the films composition. At that length, the stories stand on their own in a way that is not as conducive for an anthology film. In most aspect there just appears to be too much film.

Excessive length aside, There Is No Evil, delivers upon Rasoulof’s directorial intentions. Through different viewpoints he creates a fully actualized condemnation of the country attempting to silence him.

SIFF 2021: Valentina

OUTshine Film Festival - Valentina

Uprooting your life and moving to a new town as a teen is tumultuous in the best of circumstances. Learning a new city and making new friends so late in one’s schooling is asking a lot of a young adult. In Cássio Pereira dos Santos’s Valentina, the titular character is forced to endure this hardship while also balancing getting ahold of her estranged father for important paperwork and keeping her gender assigned at birth a secret.

Valentina (Thiessa Woinbackk) and her mother Márcia (Guta Stresser) are forced to leave the larger city, where Valentina has found a level of acceptance, so that Márcia can start a new job as a nurse. In one of their first days in the new city, both women visit the local school to enroll Valentina who and ensure that she can register under her social name. As part of the registering, Valentina is also encouraged to attend summer school as she missed a year due to details unspoken but likely related to her transition. In these classes she meets Júlio (Ronaldo Bonafro) and Amanda (Letícia Franco) whom she becomes fast friends with, but regardless of their friendship, Valentina keeps the fact that she is transgender a secret because acceptance is never a given.

This is the part that I admit in full disclosure that as a trans woman myself, my feelings on the treatment of Valentina are going to supersede all other aspects in filmmaking when reviewing this film. Thankfully, Valentina treats its protagonist, and the actress who played her, with the upmost of respect. First and foremost, the actress Thiessa Woinbackk is a young trans woman herself. The casting decision is the bare minimum that needs to be done when making a film about the trans experience, but enough people fail at it that I am calling it out. Even beyond that, the material is extremely courteous of Valentina. Trans bodies are almost always commodified and exploited, but the film does not go out of its way to sexualize or objectify her. When given an opportunity to undress the character for a medical examination, Valentina declines and the film never broaches the idea again.

While the respect for its trans character is a welcome relief in any film, Valentina is especially impressive in its capturing of the experience. The singular moment that stood out as a film talking with its trans actor to create something that feels real happens at the darkest point of the film. Valentina having been first outed and then threatened is assaulted while out for a run one evening. Rather than doing any bodily harm to the young girl, the masked men cut off a handful of her hair. For many trans girls, the hair is the first part of their body that can help alleviate body dysphoria. By attacking this symbol of femininity nothing graphic needed to be done. The emotional devastation was sufficient to get the point across.

As countries continue to take steps demonizing trans people and legal restricting a young trans person’s access to healthcare, positive representation becomes increasingly important. Valentina can help fill the void of positive portrayals of trans girls. Staring a brilliant young trans woman, the film paints a picture of a young girl who wants nothing more than to live her life as a normal teen. Valentina is a nearly perfect piece of transgender representation, and Woinbackk has the makings of an excellent queer star.

SIFF 2021: Goddess of the Fireflies

Goddess of the Fireflies

Angst, rage, and experimentation are essential components to a great coming-of-age story. In her early 90s period drama, Goddess of the Fireflies, Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette delivers on these pillars of young adulthood with excess. Leaning heavily into the grunge aesthetic of the era, Barbeau-Lavalette delivers on the teen spirit that Kirk Cobain would recognize, for better and for worse.

Catherine (Kelly Depeault) begins her 17th year on the planet under less than stellar circumstances. Her parents cap off her family celebration with squabble ending in property destruction and at school she is mocked by the burnout crowd she idolizes. After one humiliation to far, Catherine becomes determined to fit in with the people she wants and drops some of her birthday money on mescaline. From that moment on, Catherine takes control of her life even if by doing so she turns down some self-destructive paths. The blur of sex and drugs that follows encapsulates the joys of life experienced by someone to young to comprehend consequences.

When dealing with stories about young people experimenting with sex and drugs, there is a fine line between preachy and glorification that needs to be carefully skirted to deliver the most effective story possible. Barbeau-Lavalette avoids either pitfall by not denying the joy Catherine experiences while high but also providing serious consequences. Her addiction to drugs is undeniable, but while her home life is crumbling to pieces her burnout friends offer her a needed familial support. They may use drugs in excess as an unhealthy vice, but her friends Marie (Éléonore Loiselle) and Keven (Robin L’Houmeau) have an undeniable positive impact on her life. Even when reality catches up to the group and the negatives consequences of their lifestyle materializes, Catherine can go to this group for support more than her parents.

The late teens is a time rife for finding oneself, and experimentation of all manners is an important aspect of this time. When capturing this age on screen, it is important to not overly focus on the result of any one experimentation. Growing up is all about the journey both good and bad. Barbeau-Lavalette wonderfully captures this nuance in Goddess of the Fireflies by putting her characters forward. Catherine’s highs and lows are given equal weight in the film, and while the climax offers a definitive answer as to the result of fully embracing the excess, walking down that path had significant positives on her life as well. The film acknowledges that a blend is always the most fulfilling solution when growing up.

SIFF 2021: The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet is an absurdist drama by Argentinian filmmaker Ana Katz. In it, she uses a listless protagonist as a vessel for a variety of vignettes exploring universal truths while maintaining a dry sense of humor throughout. Coincidental parallels in the film to worldwide pandemic offer an unexpected connection to some of the more absurd premises. All of this is enhanced by gorgeous black and white cinematography and a screenplay that constantly builds upon itself.

Sebastian’s (Daniel Katz, the director’s brother) dog will not be quiet while Sebastian is at work, and she is driving the neighbors crazy. Sebastian rectifies this issue by taking his dog with him to work which promptly results in his firing. From there, Sebastian goes on an increasingly absurd journey including a stint working with a collective of communist farmers and eventually getting married (his wife is portrayed by Julieta Zylberberg) and having a child during a worldwide emergency where all air more than four feet off the ground is toxic to breathe. Through each of these events, Sebastian maintains a positive demeanor and is always there to help anyone in need.

The risk in films that are as episodic as The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet is that if the through line is not strong enough, the film falls apart. Ana Katz was able to avoid that misfortune by making Sebastian’s unbridled optimism and philanthropy act as a constant straight man for the absurd situations Katz writes for him. This grounded presence also helps in processing the more extreme scenarios. As the film flirts with surrealism, the audience can look to Sebastian for a baseline while the absurdist atmosphere envelopes them.

Through a collection of head scratching vignettes, Ana Katz exposes a multitude of human insecurities in her film The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet. Buoyed by a tightly focused screenplay and a lead performance tailor made for the feature, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet delivers everything that can be asked of a film this disconnected from the Hollywood cinematic scene. It is well worth the 73 minutes for anyone looking for something unique.

SIFF 2021: Summer of 85

Summer of 85': why you need to see the best teen drama of the autumn

Summer of 85 is well respected auteur François Ozon’s foray into the queer coming-of-age subgenre. Set in the mid-80s as the title indicates, Ozon leverages the sexually regressive past as a building block for family drama and young ignorance. All that coupled with a unique framing device Ozon attempts to tell a brimming, complex narrative in a concise 90-minute package.

While caught in a storm, Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) capsizes his boat only to be saved by David (Benjamin Voisin). That fateful encounter begins what will eventually become the most important romance of Alexis’s young life. Enchanted by David’s flirtatious nature, Alex spends all of his time with his crush including getting a job working at David and his mother’s (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) fishing shop. As the weeks go by, Alexis is eventually forced to understand that summer flings are fleeting in nature and that first loves never last for as long as we want.

Love stories are only as relatable as their actors can portray. Unfortunately for Summer of 85, stilted acting deprives the film of some of this relatability. Even when both boys give into their emotions in the story, the actors especially Lefebvre play everything guarded. This restraint works well when they figuratively dance around their feelings, but it becomes immersion breaking when the two are supposed to be in the throes of love. There is no vulnerability in Alexis’s character which is an essential component of a good coming-of-age story. This frigidness of character is further hampered by the films pacing. The six-week relationship between the boys is condensed to one montage a handful of scenes. The film’s short runtime means that these emotional moments were so fleeting that a few awkward takes stunted the film’s emotional core.

François Ozon understands that the queer coming-of-age drama is no longer a unique topic, so he expanded the premise beyond a traditional narrative by introducing a sprawling framing device to Summer of 85. While a fine decision in theory, some awkward acting and minimal romantic moments deprives the film of its heart. What’s left are countless scenes of Alexis talking about his lost love without showing a believable picture of the love in the first place.

SIFF 2021: I’M FINE (Thanks for Asking)

I'M FINE (Thanks for Asking)

“How are you?” always feels like a loaded question when the answer is anything but great. In I’M FINE (Thanks for Asking), directors Kelley Kali and Angelique Molina use the backdrop of the pandemic to explore how toxic that question can feel when the answer is anything but fine and how easily everything can spiral down when holding on by a thread.

Director Kelley Kali also stars in the film as Danny a single mother who was recently widowed. She and her 8-year-old Wes (Wesley Moss) have been living in a tent by the side of the road for some time in absence of a steady income from deceased Sam. Danny reminds Wes to keep their “camping” a secret before dropping her off with a friend, donning her roller-skates in absence of car, and setting out to make the last few hundred dollars for an apartment security deposit. As she traverses L.A. under the scorching sun, she becomes increasingly desperate to procure the necessary funds after a client shorts her. Eventually, with the help of a little weed, she gives in to a friend’s inquisition and betrays that everything is not fine. Unfortunately, her defense mechanism of answering “I’m fine” proves justified when even in the people who proport to care about her she finds he no solace.

More than anything, I’M FINE (Thanks for Asking) captures thefeeling of futility that accompanies poverty. For Danny it seems that everything that could go wrong does because she has nothing so every misstep has significant consequences that no amount of good luck can overcome. This hopelessness is best visualized by a moment where Danny stumbles in a puddle and the film cuts to a shot of her fully submerged in water while her envelope of cash floats out of grasp. While striking, this sequence also betrays the flaw in the film. Danny’s misery is the point, but the film does feel a little overindulgent in the melodrama at times. It is not significant enough to sour the picture, but enough to call out.

The most significant thing that I’M FINE (Thanks for Asking) has going for it is that it represents a slice of America largely ignored by Hollywood. As a houseless woman of color, Danny’s story is often told as a charity case through the lens of an affluent white person if at all, but Kali and Molina portray her as a full person who is so much more than her housing status. She is a loving mother who would do anything for her child and is just as worthy of a cinematic depiction as anyone.

SIFF 2021: The Pink Cloud

The Pink Cloud Is a Beautiful Pandemic Nightmare About What's Lurking Inside

In the opening seconds of The Pink Cloud, director Iuli Gerbase explains that her first feature was written in 2017 and shot in 2019 and that any similarities to real life events were merely coincidental. While these caveats are not uncommon in films, to put a message like this front and center implies a significant link between the film’s presence and real-life events. In this case, it turns out that Gerbase inadvertently predicted the quarantine reality that would consume the world between the film’s inception and release.

The film begins with the titular cloud descending upon a young dog walker and taking its first life. Later that morning Giovana (Renata de Lélis) and Yago (Eduardo Mendonça) are woken up from their one-night stand by the sound of sirens alerting the city to the unprecedented emergency. The two thirtysomethings despite being unacquainted the morning prior are then forced to quarantine together until the cloud goes away. As the days together turn to weeks, weeks to months, and months to years, the relationship between the pair originally only searching for an uncomplicated fling is tried, broken, and repaired only to be tried and broken again.

Despite being conceived in a pre-COVID world, it would be impossible to evaluate The Pink Cloud without making parallels to the real-life quarantine that has impacted much of the world over the past 12 months. Giovana and Yago’s experience with the imposed quarantine resonates with the world experience of the audience in a way that Gerbase could never have anticipated. She perfectly encapsulates the feeling that, while the reason for a quarantine may be valid, the tedium from a life in quarantine is not without serious mental consequences of its own. The characters all struggle to attain the acceptance stage of grief because as time progresses hope seems fruitless.

Any year prior to this, The Pink Cloud would likely receive festival-only buzz wherever it was shown. Iuli Gerbase shows substantial skills as a first-time director, but her film is enough outside the formula of what breaks out of festivals for it to reach a wider notoriety. However, since the film was able to perfectly tap into a collective trauma her debut is permeating the cultural zeitgeist as the first great COVID film.