Fortunately, my Saturday more than makes up for Friday’s disappointments, with five solid narrative features in a row. This is what film festivals are all about.
I start at noon with ”Pink,” a Greek film written and directed by, and starring, Alexander Voulgaris, another 27-year-old filmmaker with a promising future. Voulgaris plays Vassilis Galis, a musician and documentary filmmaker who has difficulty relating to everyone in his life until he meets a 12-year-old Ukrainian immigrant girl named Snezana Tkachenko (Romanna Lobats). They bond as one outsider to another, and neither makes anything of the age difference, perhaps because Vassilis is emotionally around the same level of development as Snezana. He was about her age when his mother abandoned his family, stunting his ability to trust or form relationships with others. Vassilis’ and Snezana’s relationship isn’t romantic, precisely, but it’s intimate to a degree that most American audiences would find inappropriate. Still, the film is much more sweet than pervy, and its story of human connections and inability to connect is credible and touching.
Even better than “Pink” is the next film, ”The New Year Parade,” which depicts a year in the life of a family in crisis. The parents’ marriage is dissolving after 26 years, their grown son is weighing independence versus loyalty to his father, and their teenage daughter is coping with their breakup while making her first tentative attempts to form romantic relationships of her own. This is all set against the backdrop of the Mummers Parade, an event that takes place each New Year’s Day in Philadelphia, in which local clubs create elaborate costumes and scenery and compete for prizes. This probably doesn’t sound particularly groundbreaking in the abstract, but what sells the film is its incredible naturalism, the way it seamlessly blends found moments with written scenes and improvisations done on the spot into a whole that has the texture and complexity of lived experience.
In the Q&A afterward, writer/director Tom Quinn and actress Jennifer Welsh, who played the daughter, explain that most of the cast had never acted before and that, while Quinn wrote a full 105-page script for the film, he threw it out while shooting, allowing the cast to mostly improvise their own dialogue. The whole process took about three years of shooting on and off, but the final product creates such a precise and believable world, and portrays it in such a consistently thoughtful and honest manner, that it seems worth the effort.
By coincidence, the next film on my schedule was assembled in much the same way, but to even greater effect. ”Ballast” is, simply, the finest film I see at the festival: the most moving and real, the most fully realized vision, the kind of film that sticks with you and pops back into your head at unexpected moments. (It previously won the Best Directing and Best Cinematography awards at Sundance and here wins the IFF Boston Grand Jury Prize for narrative film.)
It’s a small, simple, quiet film, with no more than 10 characters and only three of significance. It depicts the events following the suicide of Darius, a black man in his mid-30s living in the impoverished Mississippi Delta region, as his twin brother, his ex-girlfriend, and their 12-year-old son deal with the death and with their renewed connections to one another. The harshness of life in the Delta has hardened all these characters, made them internalized and emotionally reticent, so that the barest hint of feeling has great poignance. And the way the film is shot—hand-held and using available light, but without ever getting that self-conscious “look how indie we are!” feeling—is spare and elegant and ineffably beautiful.
Writer/director Lance Hammer follows the film with a Q&A that is itself unusually moving, describing the “tremendous sense of sorrow” he felt in the Delta region and his commitment to getting the place and its people right. He cast all non-professionals from the Delta, finding them by visiting black churches in the area and even approaching people he saw walking down the street. He wrote a full script but never showed it to the cast. He counted on them to make the phrasing and cadences of speech authentic, going through a “three-month rehearsal process to generate scenes that came from them and not from me.” I’ve spent very little time in the Delta, but I know the mid-South, and I know Southern black folks, and to me, it felt pitch-perfect.
From the determinedly indie values of “Ballast,” I move on to one of the festival’s most nearly Hollywood films, one with an actual movie star in the lead and recognizable supporting cast. Still, as the writing/directing debut of indie darling Chris Eigeman (who gave indelible performances in films like “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona” and “Kicking and Screaming”) ”Turn the River” has a credible indie pedigree and exhibits many of the strengths and weaknesses that define “indie” as a genre.
The film stars Famke Janssen, gorgeous and charismatic as ever, as a woman with a gambling problem, an unhappy past, and an ill-advised plan to reunite with her tween son, whose father has sole custody. I can find no fault with Janssen’s performance, nor with that of Rip Torn as her grizzled mentor (appropriate, since Torn was playing this kind of role himself 30 years ago), and the great Lois Smith pops up for a few minutes to be delectably nasty. But the film itself seems to take place in that reality-plus-a-dose-of-cute realm where so many indies play out. It gives the viewer the sense that the filmmakers have spent a little too long in the industry and that, no matter how noble their intentions, have lost contact with the texture and mechanics of life in the outside world.
Still, Janssen generates enough audience goodwill that the film is totally watchable, and she’s just as charming and beautiful in person when she and Eigeman come out for their Q&A. Both are self-deprecating and likable, though Eigeman carries just a hint of the haughtiness that his characters always have. They make some not-terribly-interesting observations about character motivation and how much they enjoyed working together again (having met while working together on “The Treatment”), and then they’re gone, leaving only a trail of glamour in their wake.
It’s the last glamour I’ll see for a while. The next film on my list is the decidedly unglamorous Stuart Gordon horror-comedy “Stuck.” Over 20 years after its release, “Re-Animator” is still Gordon’s best-known film, and its anarchic spirit and willful bad taste are still fully in effect in “Stuck,” a film about what happens when a motorist accidentally hits a pedestrian and gets him lodged in the windshield of her car. Based very loosely on a horrific true story, the film is good, queasy fun, as the pedestrian (Stephen Rea) persists despite massive blood loss and rallies against his captors, the insipid motorist (Mena Suvari) and her drug-dealer boyfriend (Russell Hornsby).
The festival continues in Part Three of Film Threat’s Independent Film Festival of Boston Wrap-Up>>>