I always try to make the journey back to my hometown of Wichita, Kansas not just because the Tallgrass Film Festival is one of the great under-the-radar fests in the country, but because it gives me a chance to catch up – their savvy programmers are always grabbing things that I just plain missed at festivals earlier in the year. Saint Frances, for example, won the Audience Award at SXSW this year, and it’s easy to see why – this is a smart, small-scale drama about a woman (the stellar Kelly O’Sullivan, who also penned the script) trying to get her messy life together. The conflicts are familiar, but O’Sullivan has a keen ear and observant eye for the details of dealing with children (and the many conflicts and escalations that pepper one’s day while doing so). She’s a real find, as a performer and a writer, while little Ramona Edith-Williams, as her six-year-old charge, is an unapologetic scene-stealer.
The Wall of Mexico also made a splash at SXSW this year, and though its title makes it sound like some kind of timely political commentary, that doesn’t quite cover it. There are certainly echoes of the current climate in this story of a young white laborer who goes to work as the night watchman on the border estate of an aristocratic Mexican family, but it’s more a story of (often extreme) behavior. He quickly becomes obsessed with the family’s two gorgeous party-girl daughters, who are kind of like Kardashians with post-graduate degrees, and directors Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak crisply capture the way an attraction can take over your brain. It does, in stretches, get a bit too high on its own supply, but the lived-in performances (particularly Marisol Sacramento and Carmela Zumbado in the tricky roles of the sisters) really land this one.
From its opening frames, Kirill Mikhanovsky’s Give Me Liberty parachutes the viewer into an environment of absolute chaos, turning its characters loose into a messy din of squealing tires and wailing accordions, and it’s the right approach; he figures that we’ll come along for the ride, and we can deal with proper introductions in due course. A black comedy of dark desperation, it finds Vic (Chris Galust), a medical transport driver, sidetracked by a series of favors and fuck-ups, firing off every imaginable variation on “I’ll be there in five, ten minutes” into his CB radio. Mikhanovsky somehow sustains that pace and energy for about an hour, and it’s stressful but undeniably entertaining; he makes some peculiar stylistic decisions, and bites off a bit more than he can chew in the climax, but this is wild, compelling, risky picture nonetheless.
Justin Chon’s last feature, the provocatively-titled Gook, managed to balance its bleak subject matter with enough humanity and camaraderie to steer it clear of the misery parade territory of too many “gritty” indies. He doesn’t quite manage to do the same in Ms. Purple, the story of a young Asian woman who does depressing and degrading sex work to finance the care of her bedridden father, and calls upon her long-estranged brother to lend a helping hand. Chon finds a couple strands of levity – a possible romance, and the brother and father’s little “outings” in the city – but his dialogue is too on the nose, and his central metaphor is mighty heavy-handed. That said, Ante Cheng’s cinematography is gorgeous, and the acting (especially Tiffany Chu’s work in the title role) is first-rate.
Lara Jean Gallagher’s Clementine is one of those movies that’s rendered so carefully, at such a low volume, that it’s hard to know (or guess) where it’s going. Our protagonist, Karen (Otmara Marrero, excellent) is a tricky, troubled character, and Gallagher’s script seems to set up her journey back from heartbreak as the primary story. But then Karen meets Lana (Sydney Sweeney, also wonderful), and a bit of identity displacement seems to be happening – this young woman could end up being, to Karen, what she was to the woman she lost. Or maybe not. The isolated, lake house setting allows Gallagher to construct what amounts to a two-hander (with occasional interruptions and solos), and by its closing scenes, the aforementioned unpredictability creates a palpable, alarming sense of unease. Its modest style and slowed rhythms will alienate a fair amount of viewers, but if you can tune in to its wavelength, it’s a winner.
One of the more ubiquitous types of festival films is the ugly rom-com, in which our leads exchange witticisms and confessions in a series of maddeningly dull close-ups and two-shots, because how can you possibly mix character-driven screenwriting with stylish aesthetics? And maybe that’s why Tallgrass’s Opening Night selection, Straight Up, feels like such a miracle; it’s both visually arresting and dizzyingly witty, a film that marries a fast-paced, sensitive, but uproariously funny screenplay with a crisp, striking sense of composition and movement. Writer/director James Sweeney is good at both jobs, right out of the gate – and he and co-star Katie Findlay make a first-rate on-screen team, as a couple who have everything in common, including a total disinterest in making their romantic relationship physical. They trade insights, barbs, and truths; it’s all very funny, until, heartbreakingly, it isn’t. I love this movie.
It’s refreshing to see a film so casual and accepting of sexual variation at a Midwestern festival, since much of the rest of the country sees us like… well, like the subjects of Red, White & Wasted, i.e., a bunch of rebel flag-waving, Trump-supporting, gun-hugging yahoos. Taken on its own terms, Red, White is still a tough sit, seemingly initiated (on the eve of the 2016 election) as an anthropological peek into the Orlando-area “mudding” subculture, but ending up a pointe portrait of the most rabid of Trump voters, and the insecurities that fuel them. The trouble is, it’s all wrapped up in the old documentary form of peeling back political differences to find the common humanity and shared woes and all of that, and it’s just plain hard to tune in like that anymore; every time we find ourselves feeling something like sympathy or even empathy for the family at the film’s center, they’ll casually drop another racial epithet or observation. It’s well made and certainly enlightening, but it ends up being a case study in how the old math – namely, the notion of documentary cinema as a great equalizer – no longer really applies.
The profile documentary is a standby at any modern film festival, and your correspondent caught three that are worth a peek. Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo takes its title from the kind of roles the hard-boiled character actor played in the first decade or so of his career, before he became impossible to bury in secondary roles. Director/ cinematographer Brett Harvey makes full use of his subject’s great, hard, well-worn face, and sees how the actor can peel back his tough-guy façade to reveal his softness and candor. He has a fascinating story – of a shockingly young introduction to a life of drugs and crime, hard time in San Quentin, rehabilitation and recovery, and unexpected late-life stardom – and he tells it well, with warmth and humor. Inmate #1 is more than a little flabby (it drags a bit in the middle section, and it has about five endings too many), but the way Trejo speaks, and the service he does, is truly inspiring.
Stanley Nelson’s Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool is a fleet-footed work, and for good reason: there is a lot of ground to cover here. But the jazz icon left stories, and storytellers, everywhere he went. The story they (and he, in voice-over narrations pulled from his autobiography) tell is, like Dylan’s and Bowie’s, one of change. So one of the greatest services of Nelson’s film is its intense interest in how Davis developed his specific style, and discarded each for the next one; it’s fascinating to dig into the nuts and bolts of rebuilding a sound. The film tends to fall into the same patterns his life did, and in the interest of a manageable running time, Nelson is unable to do much more than acknowledge his subject's considerable faults. But this is nevertheless an enlightening portrait of a genuine genius.
And What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael arrives at a moment of what feels like urgent necessity, to remind us that film critics can be combative and contradictory and go against the grain – “If they like you,” Kael confesses, “I think you should get worried.” Director Rob Garver sprinkles the movie with little pearls of wisdom like that (another timeless doozy: “The big picture is almost certainly the bad picture”), and while the checklist of touchstones – Bonnie and Clyde, “Trash, Art,” Last Tango, Nashville – and controversies - Raising Kane, Shoah, the Paulettes, Renata Adler – are fairly predictable, it’s fun to savor her words again (many of them read, and well, by Sarah Jessica Parker) and to hear from those who regarded her with both admiration and disdain. Fast-paced, well-cut, and as lively as its subject.