Cory recaps the first block of films he saw at this year’s NaFF.
Film festivals are kind of like one of those stair machines at the gym you do to make yourself feel better about the rigor of your workout. They can be a continuous grind and pose no end in sight, and make your feet burn like a summertime campfire. Then again, film festivals are also not like stair machines, because they are also very enjoyable, and replace climbing M.C. Exercise’s never-ending staircases with a barrage of wonderful films. The feet-burning still applies, though, well, at least for me, I have flat feet, and Sperry’s, like the Honey Badger, don’t care.
I guess the two don’t really have all that much in common then. Oh, you stop. I’m tired. I’ve been at a film festival all week.
The 49th annual Nashville Film Festival concluded yesterday and I, your faithful and true 615 Film correspondent, trudged along the cinematic spectrum since last Friday, and as of this plastic letter-pecking, have seen 14 titles (also managed to sneak in a non-festival quick watch of the Gabrielle Union home invasion thriller Breaking In, which is like Home Alone, but serious, but still manages to pop in a bumbling Gerard Way-lookalike burglar who fumbles about his assignment like Don Knotts walking through a field of mouse traps. It’s not bad!).
Film festivals in the late spring mix together the buzzed-about indie darlings that first grace Sundance and SXSW, socially-urgent documentaries that demand attention and those weird little flicks that grace blocks like NaFF’s Graveyard Shift.
Out of Sundance, the fest gave this intrigued patron an early look at Bo Burnham’s charming, apt middle school dramedy Eighth Grade, which cuts deep into the pitfalls of having to be a kid in the worst possible time in life. The exact nature of the script and tone make you almost wonder if Burnham is actually just one of those 15-year-old kids that looks very old for his age. New kid on the block Elsie Fisher breathes an awkward command into her Kayla, a teen trying to tie together the closing moments of her eighth-grade year with regrets of not being who she wants to be then, and fears of not being who she wants to be when the first class of high school begins.
Burnham’s observant, humane touch reminds you of a young Jason Reitman (Juno is a good comparison piece, though this film prefers keen quiet to rat-a-tat dialogue), and if that’s going to be the comedian’s niche, then we’re all better for it. Patience is a hard thing to find in a film like this, as is humility to let the era tell the story. Reitman’s great at that, and in Eighth Grade, so is Burnham. Here, the kids are alright, even if they aren’t quite all ready. Burnham challenges us to look back on our own pasts and give those meme-ready phone surfers a big break. And, hey, maybe even a hug and an encouraging word. After all, the future is in their Instagramming hands…but, thankfully, not, like, immediately. Staff writer Kevin Allen wrote a longer piece that echoes a lot of my feelings. Also, long live the great Josh Hamilton, who has given me the blunt vision of what I will look like when in a paternal role.
Sundance standout Blindspotting (pictured at the top), birthed from the creative firework stand of Hamilton actor Daveed Diggs and his dramatic partner Rafael Casal, takes us into gentrified Oakland, where the weekend warriors of flannel and purveyors of edamame lunches (so, hipsters) are settling in to the long diversified city. One that stands home to great artists (i.e. N.W.A., Kendrick Lamar) and the legendary Raiders (well, for now), as well as a difficult history of racial discrimination and police misconduct. Diggs and Casal walk a tightrope of weaving in long stretches of fiery spoken poetry into the narrative of Diggs’ Collin, who is just days away from his prohibition ending. Things aren’t helped when on a late-night drive, Collin stands witness to the shooting of an unarmed black man by an Oakland cop. From there, Colin must navigate the perils of seeing such a horrendous act, and his own struggles to stay out of trouble’s way, particularly when best friend Miles (Casal) is such an unpredictable and emotional live wire. For a film dealing with such striking subject matter, it’s got a brisk sense of humor, with Diggs and particularly Casal doling out creative spoken word routines on their day, where their city is headed and other things good friends observe when they kick the can around. But, they also use this form to address the tougher themes as well — ones of racial identity, of a city in transition, of pent-up frustrations and fears — the ones that give the piece its foundation. Music video director Carlos López Estrada splices in visual flair and almost a surrealist sense of creativity in telling this story, which brings in the electricity, wit and narrative possibility of live theater with the emotion and presentation that’s unique to film.
It’s an explosive debut for all involved, with Diggs and Casal delivering layered, fleet-footed performances, and turning in an inflammatory script that makes sure to nail its central thesis home in the most lasting fashion. Diggs gets the grand charge at the end, and wallops with a left hook monologue that’ll leave you dizzy, but it’s Casal’s performance that will spark and haunt you. If take the dark energy and looming eyes of Al Pacino’s work in The Godfather Part II and Joe Pesci’s playful-yet-dangerous charm in Goodfellas, and add on a layer of Broadway-ready bravado, you get what Casal channels here. It’s the supporting performance of the year, and brushes shoulders with some of the greats to support a cast. I’m unsure I’ve seen a commanding acting debut like this since Christoph Waltz’s historic turn in Inglorious Bastards. If Casal isn’t least considered for an Oscar this fall, it’ll be a embarrassing omission for one of the year’s landmark feats of acting.
We stay in Oakland for our documentaries with Circles, a challenging-yet-uplifting look at restorative justice through the eyes of the man trying to bring it to the city’s youth. Director Cassidy Friedman does what all the best documentarians do – he stays out of the way of his compelling subject, Eric Butler, an ex-Colts practice squad member who, after being displaced from his home in Hurricane Katrina, found himself working to bring restorative justice to at-risk Oakland youths. There’s a common misconception with the principle Butler mounts his work on. Restorative justice is not just an encouraging word and a friendly hug – it’s a laborious, hard-as-concrete process that requires for a lot of patience and emotional truth to surface for the youth in question and those that care for them. Butler works with kids who are skipping class, are academically underachieving and are, in general, paving rough paths for themselves post-education. But, instead of trying to just slap the wrist and walk away, the work requires intensive bonding and circles of trust to help the youths in question realize the error of their ways and come to grips with the pain and turmoil that so often lies under the skin. And, go figure, correction with an eye toward empathy and change tends to work better than simple suspension.
The film takes a difficult turn when Butler’s son Tre gets caught in the belly of Oakland’s criminal justice system after an unbelievable misunderstanding sends him to jail. Here, Butler tries to juggle the work he’s doing at his school of employment – where the institution is working to help pull one particular young lady out of a difficult family and social situation – with his efforts to keep his own son from succumbing to the traps he works to keep school kids out of every day. It’s in this journey the film takes a new life. It was already an instructive look at how powerful restorative justice can be when implemented and maintained properly, but when systemic oppression hits home, the subject becomes not only a laudable public servant, but a portrait of firm grace in the face of adversity. There will be plenty of imaginary heroes that will grace movie screens this summer, but Circles shows us what a real hero looks like, and what real heroism takes. Films like this don’t leave you; nor should they.
Social justice is a common thread at the festival, and few stories spark the ire and demand for change that the ill-fated traffic stop of young black woman Sandra Bland did in 2015. Say Her Name: The Life of Death of Sandra Bland follows the real-time search for answers in Bland’s suspicious detainment and eventual death in a Texas holding cell. The situation was a defining moment in the Black Lives Matter movement, one where the lack of understanding and frustrations surrounding her treatment in custody sparked nationwide protests and particular unrest in the area of Texas where Bland died. Considering the horrid history of policing against minority groups, Bland’s story slots into a sickening history of police misconduct, racial profiling and systemic ineptitude. The documentarians keep the film at an even hand, offering the city’s sheriff and district attorney opportunities to explain their side of deliberations at the same wavelength with Bland’s family, friends and legal team. That’s vital for understanding from the state’s side of things for how they feel this process might’ve gone differently and comes with dispiriting admissions from the sheriff’s office in the case’s operational failures.
The film tries to dig to the truth of what might’ve happened with Bland’s situation, though, the answers aren’t as clear-cut as anyone would hope. Though, it’s apparent Bland is a victim of a system that failed her, and the film openly tries to advocate for changes to happen to prevent acts like this happen again. As a work of in-depth research into Bland’s story, and a testament to her character (the film is inter-spliced with personal vlogs on her social messages that offer glimpses into her personality – aspects often lost in the conversation), it’s an important watch. It slots in appropriately with HBO’s new series Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, which is taking a season-long look at policing in America. Here, you begin to understand the dangers of racial profiling, systemic breakdowns in jailing work, and the maddening inability for de-escalation tactics to take a forefront in the conversation on police conduct. Look for it to reach the station later this year.
- Mickey Reese’s Alien, a B-movie sci-fi fever dream that looks at Elvis through the lens of his immense, almost, cough cough, otherworldy status. It’s an odd duck of a project and follows in the footsteps of those David Lynchian Adult Swim short films that the network stashes in its lineup at 2AM for unsuspecting night owls. It’s a film that doesn’t entirely work, which only increases the creepy charm, and enhances the parts that do (the last shot is bombastic). Elvis might’ve left the building many years ago, but it’s nice that weird little DIY ditties like this still can find a place in the grander spectrum of festival programming. Someone needs to get writer/director Mickey Reese on the phone with folks on Williams Street, stat.
- Zerzura is the Sergio Leone homage no one was expecting. Best described as a Saharan acid fantasy western, the film is an electric curveball for independent cinema, and a must for anyone who misses the character-and-scope-driven westerns that Leone made his mark with. The western isn’t dying – it’s just gone international. Director Christopher Kirkley delved into Tuareg cinema before, and his understanding of the area and its visual strengths really make this a spectacle as much as an exact journey. Though, its strongest element has to be Ahmoudou Madassane, the star and composer. He carries the film with his cadence of screen presence and melodious soundscapes, plucking away at one of 2018’s best scores. No film will be a singularly fascinating as Zerzura this year, so seek it out if you can.
- Triumph: The Untold Story of Perry Wallace tells a Nashville story that deserves national attention in the sports world – the one of former Vanderbilt star Perry Wallace, the first black collegiate athlete to fully integrate into the SEC. Wallace’s tale is indeed one of triumph, as he bravely stood against harassment from racist white southerners to make sporting history, but also one of collective shame for those that stayed silent during Wallace’s time on the team. He was voted a captain his senior year, but never got strong showings of support at the time from the very teammates he played with. It’s a delicate balance to tell a story like Wallace’s, one that aims to inspire but also condemn. It took Vanderbilt until the year 2004 to properly acknowledge Wallace for his accomplishments after a scorching-but-righteous interview Wallace gave post-graduation painted Vanderbilt as lacking in doing all they could to make someone like the basketball star feel welcome and supported. The school actually funded the documentary, a further step in trying to rectify its spotty past with one of its most important athletes and alumni. Wallace passed in 2017, and it’s a shame we’re just now beginning to see him get the attention he so richly deserves. But, director Rich Gentile does his story justice, delivering a full, compelling tribute to who Wallace was, what he did, what he endured and what he stood for.
Our second part of Cory’s recap will be published soon, with opinions on films like Minding the Gap, First Reformed, Leave No Trace, Loud Krazy Love, Thunder Road, Hot Summer Nights, Dark Money, Crime + Punishment, hillbilly and more.