Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Boston Film Festival Day Two: Racing Dreams and In/Significant Others

In order to avoid saying more unkind things about the BFF (I think I said all I had to say about this day in the TWIT post) - and because actually getting the review of In/Significant Others finished seemed to take forever, let me just say that I really liked Racing Dreams. It's a fun documentary that should play well to almost any audience.

In fact, most of the docs at BFF looked pretty good; it's an odd irony of film festival scheduling that the documentaries almost always feel fresh and exciting, likely to show the festival-goers something they had never seen before, but are often shunted into smaller screens or less-convenient times. This holds true at the boutique theaters and on television, too. It's a shame more people don't take a chance on them. Not all docs are good, but I strongly suspect that the top 10% is better than the top 10% of fiction features.

Unrelated thought on this documentary... I hope that I don't have aunts and uncles stumble upon this and call me up asking how I couldn't have known about the WKA, because some cousin did that for three years. I don't think it's the case, but it's also not out of the question.

Racing Dreams

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 September 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Film Festival 2009)

I admit that I don't give auto racing a whole lot of thought in general, but one aspect which I gave particularly little thought to was where new drivers come from. Make all the jokes about stock car racing being about putting one's foot to the floor and occasionally turning left, but driving a race car is a skill that can lead to fiery death without proper training. So where do these guys learn the ropes? Well, a lot of them start by racing go-karts (which can obtain speeds of up to 70mph) in the in the World Karting Association (WKA), and they start young.

How young? Well, Annabeth Barnes is 11 years old at the start of the film, and though she's just moving up to the junior circuit, she's already got a website to which she can point visitors to the WKA's annual convention. Also at that convention are two others kids that Marshall Curry's cameras will follow over the next year: 12-year-old Josh Hobson of Birch Run, MI is expected to be a force on the junior circuit; 13-year-old Brandon Warren (like Annabeth, hailing form North Carolina) is moving up to the senior circuit, though he has a reputation for rough driving. Their paths will cross at the five national races, but what they do in between is even more interesting: Brandon, who is being raised by his grandparents, has his father come back into his life; Annabeth starts to notice boys and regret how time spent racing comes at the expense of time with her friends; and Josh's family struggles with how to support what is a rather expensive and time-consuming hobby.

Oh, and Brandon thinks Annabeth is kind of cute. The feeling is mutual, and watching the two of them together (or talking on the phone, or talking about each other) is one of the many delights of the movie: They're a refreshingly honest pair of tweens, talking into the camera without reservation because they've got nothing to hide, but also not putting on a performance. Annabeth and Brandon make a nifty visual, too: Annabeth is tall while Brandon is short; she looks like a Disney Channel star whether she's in her racing gear or the pink she favors when hanging with her friends, while he's buzz-cut and has the look of a wild man about him. It's a fun little dynamic, and it doesn't take away from their individual stories.

Though Josh and Annabeth are racing against each other, Josh's story winds up being a different angle: While Brandon and Annabeth seem to be having fun first, saying they'd like to race cars when they grow up in the way enthusiastic kids do, Josh is serious and focused. He's not unpleasant or bratty - he seems like a thoroughly pleasant kid - but he has a level of concentration that allows him to ignore his parents' concerns about what this is costing, or to study and imitate every aspect of how real NASCAR racers act, right down to how they thank the sponsors. His consistent high finishes aren't joyless, but there is something inevitable about them.

The Hobsons aren't the only ones with concerns over the cost of racing, although they are the ones who talk most frankly about it, figuring that each national race costs about five thousand dollars, no small expense for a family from blue-collar Michigan. (It's amazing how racing maintains an image as a blue-collar sport, considering how corporate and expensive it is, even at this level!) Director Marshall Curry does a very good job of putting his subjects at ease on this and every other topic that comes up, which is especially impressive in the case of what goes on with Brandon's family, where grandfather Phil's worries about Brandon's father Bruce are illustrated in a way that isn't violent, but might make the audience wonder if the fact that he's on-camera means nothing to him. After all, even Brandon seems to be on his best behavior when the camera's rolling, for all the talk about suspensions from school, liking to fight, and perhaps being sent to military school. It's a credit to Curry that we still feel like we're getting a complete picture. He also does nifty things with Annabeth's solo story, letting us think about whether she's being stage-mothered without hitting us over the head with it.

All of this provides more than enough fodder for those with little interest in actual racing, but Curry captures that well, too. An early scene with Annabeth addressing the camera over a simple graphic elegantly describes the opposing forces that the driver has to balance, and then the action begins. Curry and his crew do an excellent job of capturing the action of all ten races (five for each of the two age levels), drawing the audience in even though who will be the points leaders at the end of the circuit is not very much in doubt after the second race or so. There's an attempt to inject some drama into the final race, but Curry and his co-editors maybe oversell it with some very heavy foreshadowing. The actual action of kids driving open-topped go-karts that can hit seventy miles per hour is more than enough.

As frightening as that sounds, we're reminded toward the end that karting is only the first step on the road to NASCAR stardom - the next is to start racing full-size cars... At the age of twelve.

Also at HBS.

In/Significant Others

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 September 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Film Festival 2009)

In/Significant Others is the very definition of an average movie. No moment raises a flag - well, okay, some do, but they may be among the film's most interesting, at least in hindsight. No actors perform poorly. No scene seems to go on too long. And nothing ever catches fire to excite us.

And, really, something should. Writer/director John Schwert starts tossing his various intersecting plot-lines at us early: We've got Greg Rizzo (Mark Scarboro) trying his hand at stand-up comedy, trying to equal the success of his brother Jack (Brian Lafontaine). Greg left a steady job to do that, which is not making things easier for his wife Leslie (Ashlee Payne) and sick baby. We've barely had a chance to meet Iraq war vet Bruce Snow (Burgess Jenkins) before he's shot and killed a man, who had supposedly attacked his wife Salem (Tiffany Montgomery). It turns out, though, that it was Christina Ludum (Andrea Powell) - the woman Salem had been seeing while Bruce was away - who had a problem with him. Of course, Salem and Christina meet in the café where Jack's fiancée's sister (who, naturally, has addiction problems) works.

Just in case the film didn't seem to be covering all of its indie-drama bases, we spend some time seeing the characters interviewed documentary-style, which is at least sort of interesting because the person doing the interviews is terrible at his job. At first this seems like a strike against the film, until we get through a couple and realize that the interviewer (Brett Gentile) and his sound guy (Scott Miles) are going to be actual characters in the film. It's not pulled off perfectly - they aren't given the same depth as the other characters, but still get involved in the plot. Still, there were a couple of moments where I figured that these guys were the film's most original creations, and that there's an entertaining movie to be made about a guy who wants to be a documentary filmmaker but simply cannot form any sort of rapport with his subject.

The filmmakers form one of the main ties between the various stories, and it is honestly a very contrived way to bring the two stories together. Take the filmmakers away, and what's going on with the Snows and what's going on with the Rizzos connect only in the most tangential way. The themes of the two halves don't exactly complement each other, either: The story with Bruce, Salem, and Christina is a crime story built on guilt and manipulation, while Greg, Jack, Leslie, Susan, and Joanne are a story of family bonds and obligation. It feels more like two movies that happen to take place in Charlotte and have been edited together than a single film with multiple main characters.

If the film was split in two, each would have a pretty good cast. Brugess Jenkins is the standout; he presents Bruce to us without a great deal of outward torment, but also manages to keep us from seeing him as a sociopath or the villain of the film. Relative newcomer Tiffany Montgomery is similarly impressive as Salem; her frailty is evident despite the lack of hysterics. LaFontaine and Scarboro are very good as well, catching the vibe of brothers who know each other all too well perfectly. Lafontaine, especially, does a fine job of not shying away from the things that may make his character difficult to like.

Watch enough movies, and you'll see a lot that have quite a bit in common with In/Significant Others. Some are better, though many more aren't as good. Schwert and company manage to come up with some memorable characters and moments, which puts them ahead of the pack.

Also at HBS.

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