I’ve sung the praises of the Tallgrass Film Festival on these pages before, with fully acknowledged bias: it’s my hometown film festival, which I’ve covered since its inception. (I even placed a short film in its inaugural edition.) The festival’s 16th edition, held last weekend in Wichita, Kansas, continued the traditions they’ve cultivated over the past century and half: appreciations of legends (Pam Grier, winner of this year’s Ad Astra Award) and up-and-comers (Martin Starr, this year’s “Soaring Talent Award” winner); indies from other festivals that probably wouldn’t make their way to this mid-sized, Midwest market otherwise; and premieres of titles with lower budgets and/or local interest. Here’s a rundown of what I saw in Wichita, including a few to keep an eye out for in your market.
This is Love
Rudy Love is a local legend in Wichita. He’s a wildly gifted musician and songwriter who turned his giant family into a soul/funk band, and kept brushing up against making it big without ever quite closing the deal. He became something of a Zelig figure in the history of soul music, popping up here and there with a songwriting credit or backup singing job, and when those ran out, he kept coming back to Wichita, doing local gigs and sessions in basements studios. Director John Alexander’s pacing is relentless and his cutting is hyper-kinetic, a choice that will alienate some viewers, but it fits; he replicates the energy of the music, and also has a lot of story to fit in, of Love’s many, many near-misses with fame, screwed by shady record execs and unfortunate timing, always going back to the music, because that’s all he could rely on. Love’s warmth and generosity made him an easy mark — but they also make him an ideal documentary subject.
(Tallgrass Film Festival)
Martin Starr is marvelous — grounded, genuine, and wryly funny — as a novelist struggling to get it together in this low-key comedy/drama from writer/director Sean McGinly. He treads a fine line of playing a character who’s sort of jerk-adjacent, but often not without cause (there’s a terrific running bit about his inability to let a specific social faux pas go), and never to the detriment of his overall likability. As a result, it’s not the typical, Apatow-ian story of a burnout who cleans up his act for a good lady; he begins the story as the increasingly-serious boyfriend of a single mom, and his journey is one of figuring out how to be a good partner to her, and father figure to her kids. Starr, as ever, has an inimitably wry way with a good line (watch the matter-of-fact way he explains, of an artist friend, “All of Jeff’s work is Tupac-related”), while McGinly’s offhand approach is augmented nicely by the handsome but appropriately austere cinematography. It’s a really lovely movie, and another strong argument for Starr’s migration to leading roles.
If a richer, sharper performance was delivered at Tallgrass than Condola Rashad’s monster turn at the center of this emotionally brutal drama, I didn’t see it. She plays the title character, a mentally ill homeless Iraq vet who stumbles into the viewfinders of an earnest documentary crew, which decides to focus their movie on her quest to clean up and reunite with her young daughter. By blurring the lines of style, director Milcho Manchevski does a bit of cinematic self-indictment; this is a story, as is so often told, of good white people helping, but as we observe how her selfish benefactors speed up her cycles of self-destruction, there’s little doubt that they’re not helping at all. Mercilessly executed yet sensitively acted, it’s a tragedy in miniature.
Behind the Curve
It’s the absolute certainty with which Mark Sargent says it: “In reality, you are in a terrarium.” Sargent is a prominent voice in Flat Earth, the movement of conspiracy theorists who have reframed accepted scientific theory as a choice between “what you see” and, y’know, math. Director Daniel J. Clark focuses on a handful of prominent members, and the various factions and in-fights therein; there’s something sort of delicious about watching them weaponize their nonsense on each other (“Are they so conspiratorial that they believe it?” asks one Flat Earther of the rumors another is spreading, with a jaw-dropping lack of self-awareness). But Clark also has something important to say about how these absolutist movements end up alienating people from their family and friends — and how their “debate me, expert” rhetorical approach doesn’t just apply to Flat Earth. It’s a compelling snapshot of a fringe, but also an acute analysis of the larger culture it represents.
(Tallgrass Film Festival)
Daughters of the Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders
Dana Adam Shapiro (Murderball) directs this fascinating and nuanced portrait of that period in the 1970s and 1980s when the scantily-clad cheerleading squad for “America’s Team” fully penetrated popular culture, and what, exactly, that meant. Grappling with the contradictions of their image (as author Mary Evans notes, they were “Bible Belt good girls, but they were also selling sex”) and contextualizing them within the era of women’s liberation, Daughters asks potent questions of feminism and anti-feminism (and the kind of sexual freedoms that became a point of controversy between first and second saves), as well as exploitation. Shapiro lets alums and observers tell the story, moving fast (it runs a tight 75 minutes) and keeping it personal, resulting in a thoughtful film about what seems a fluffy subject.
(Tallgrass Film Festival)
White Tide: The Legend of Culebra
It’s the ultimate “Florida Man” tale, in which a Florida man named Rodney Hyden decided he could dig his way out of his recession-era debt by chasing down the bag of buried cocaine at the center of a local urban legend. Director Theo Love’s good-humored, fast-paced documentary account is stylish and entertaining, with an ingenious central conceit: the opening credits announce “Introducing Rodney Hyden as Rodney Hyden,” and Love creates aesthetic incongruity by placing his very unconventional antihero into his snazzy reenactments of heists, car chases, and double-crosses. The characters surrounding him are colorful — his sidekick “Andy” is like Brad Pitt’s True Romance character made flesh — and White Tide wisely resists the urge to take itself too seriously. Wild, irreverent, and weirdly heartwarming.
Rodents of Unusual Size
The nutria looks like a cross between a rat and a beaver, with webbed feet, orange teeth, and an average weight of 20 pounds. They work their way up and down the Louisiana coastline, eating vegetation and causing trouble, and the various questions of how, exactly, to deal with them — posed by everyone from hunters and trappers to fur-makers and chefs — forms the spine of this entertaining (though not for the squeamish) documentary. Filled to the brim with regional color and charming characters, but it’s more than just another celebration of New Orleans and its people/culture/music; it’s something of a Bayou Rat Film, a movie about changing times and dying industries, and the people they leave behind.
The Ark of Lights and Shadows
Martin and Osa Johnson were a pair of documentarians and explorers, from (wouldn’t ya know it) the small Kansas town of Chanute, who spent much of the 1920s and 1930s making an “authentic filmed record” of the world’s disappearing civilizations. Jan Svatos tells their story in this combination of documentary, biography, and love story, using images and footage, preserved at the Library of Congress and in their archive in Chanute, to supplement their own writings. The style of those sequences is might conventional — actors read their words as music soars underneath — and the contemporary framing device doesn’t work at all. But their footage of endangered animals and indigenous peoples maintains its power, and it’s such a fascinating story, it’s hard to get too persnickety about its telling.
Light in the Water
Lis Bartlett’s feel-good documentary tells the history of the West Hollywood Aquatic Team, an openly gay swimming and water polo club established in 1982 — the same year the AIDS virus began to surface, bringing a new stigma to the life. But the club provided camaraderie and fun in this time of devastation and death, and the best sequences of Bartlett’s documentary are those in which the club’s longtime members tell their stories of being in the closet, and easing out, in this volatile time — during which even membership in this group was a risk, socially and professionally. Light in the Water is a bit surface, shallow even (sorry), but it’s an incredibly likable and inspiring piece of work, and a valuable history of a difficult time.
(Tallgrass Film Festival)
Eleven Hundred to Lubbock
Sara Radle writes, directs, stars, produces, edits, and does the music for this freewheeling comedy/drama (winner of the fest’s Jake Euker Stubbornly Independent Award), playing a short-tempered introvert who is forced to interact with the goofball friends of her recently-deceased brother. The film’s attempts to mix serious grief drama and gross-out comedy aren’t altogether successful, particularly when the serious stuff takes over in the third act — earnest dialogue scenes are too simplistic, the seams of the story beats begin to show, and she really pulls the taffy on the ending. But the performers are all engaging, particularly Talie Montgomery as the most gregarious of her new friends, and Radle herself executes her character’s arc convincingly; her breakdown, when it comes, feels raw and real.
Writer/director Will McFadden stars in this low-budget relationship drama as the title character, half of a white couple that inexplicably gives birth to a black baby. As you might expect, that opens up a whole can of worms — particularly relating to the close relationship between his wife (Sarah Butler) and his African-American co-worker and best friend (Jamie Hector). This film’s main flaw is its solemnity; it’s played with such unwavering seriousness, and the turns it takes the back half are so soapy, it flirts with self-parody. It is, after all, kind of a funny situation (there’s an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show that proves it), and opening up the tone a bit could’ve made this a much richer picture. That said, the performances are solid (Butler and Hector are especially good), while McFadden has a good ear for the subtext of polite conversation, and the ways unspoken tension manifests itself in long-term relationships.