I’ve reached the halfway point at the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival. I’ve seen nine films so far and attended three panels. I’ve paid way too much money for a bottle of water. I’ve shared the same air with Ryan Gosling, Dustin Lance Black, and Quincy Jones. Most importantly, I’m feeling creatively invigorated because I am seeing some really exceptional work. What’s most encouraging about these film festivals is that they remind you IT CAN BE DONE. Independent films do get made. Lots of them. Every year. You can’t underestimate the power of perseverance.
Below are a few highlights of what I’ve seen so far. Admittedly, I’m a bit brain dead (a mild case of film fatigue, perhaps?) so I’m lifting the logline descriptions from the Los Angeles Film Festival program. I’ll add my two cents as well, but why not leave the heavy lifting to the marketing department? That’s what those clever wordsmiths are paid for, right? The first three films mentioned are documentaries and the last one is a narrative feature.
ELEVATE: In her outstanding directorial debut, Anne Buford follows several promising Senegalese teenagers with dreams of the NBA as they journey from their homeland to American prep schools and eventually college hoops, navigating cultural hurdles with amazing grace every step of the way.
“Grace” is a good word for these boys. They are introspective and eloquent about the experience they’re going through, and their devotion to their families and homeland is both moving and admirable. American teenagers could take a cue from these guys.
WISH ME AWAY: Country Singer Chely Wright knew she was a lesbian at a young age, but she also knew that her orientation was in direct conflict with her aspirations to one day perform at the Grand Ole Opry. Wish Me Away chronicles the days leading up to Wright’s coming out announcement…and it provides both an intimate look at the fear and torment behind her high-risk decision.
This is a film about courage and love. Chely Wright was at the world premiere screening that I attended and several members of her family were there to support her. While the world of country music hasn’t exactly welcomed her back with open arms since she came out, I think she’s found peace in living a more authentic life and she’s found acceptance by a whole new extended family.
WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM: Heather Courtney’s artful, honest portrait of an America that’s rarely seen on screen begins in 2008. A group of young men, working class natives of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, join the National Guard, less out of a sense of patriotism than sheer ambivalence. Courtney’s camera captures the lives of the enlistees, their families, and their girlfriends with exceptional candor, and even before they’ve begun their dangerous tour of duty in Afghanistan, a powerful statement about the cost – economical and emotional – of soldiering has been made.
This utterly astonishing film is about a different type of courage – and the physical and psychological damage that accompanies it. Courtney’s access to the experiences of these young guys is staggering – she followed them to Afghanistan and had a front-row seat during their ever-perilous tour of duty, which included performing sweeps for roadside bombs. It was like watching a real-life Hurt Locker with actual flesh-and-blood people you come to really care about, making it disturbing and potent edge-of-your-seat drama. Mark your calendars because it will be shown on PBS on November 10. SEE IT.
AN ORDINARY FAMILY: A dramedy about two brothers (one straight, one gay) driven apart by their opposing world views, An Ordinary Family introduces us to the adult children of the Biederman family as they come together for their annual vacation to relax and dig up unresolved issues.
This is a lovely, subtle film that perfectly captures the intimacy, humor, and complexities of family dynamics. It is anchored by deliberate yet unobtrusive direction (kudos to director Mike Akel!) and some very genuine, engaging performances. I hope this earnest feature continues to find success on the film festival circuit and beyond. And I’m glad I got to see it with my friend, Kevin! Thanks for joining me, Kev!
Okay, time to get to tonight’s screenings!
NEXT UP: The Second Half of the Los Angeles Film Festival