Friday, June 01, 2018

Independent Film Festival Boston 2018.03: Leave No Trace & Rodents of Unusual Size

I don't try to build theme nights at a festival, but when they appear naturally, as this "memorable pockets of rural America" double feature did, they're kind of fun.

First up was Leave No Trace at the Brattle, with producer Linda Reisman, writer/director Debra Granik, and WBUR's Erin Trahan moderating. Granik has been someone friends and I have been known to use as a frustrated example when talking about how opportunities for men and women are not exactly fairly distributed - this comes eight years after Winter's Bone, which launched Jennifer Lawrence's career and saw Granik nominated for an Oscar, and you can sure find a lot of examples of men getting a chance at bigger productions without having anything that successful. She didn't talk much about that - what's to say, really, that anybody in the audience for this film doesn't already know? - and maybe she's not particularly interested in making that sort of movie. She does this type so well, after all.

She and Reisman talked a lot about how they put this one together, praising the location scout in particular for finding them a lot of great spots to shoot. There were also some entertaining stories about how Thomasin McKenzie was fantastic but working with a young actor from New Zealand on this sort of film could be kind of challenging - you have to audition from the other side of the planet, and having her call to talk about her research and practice her American accent. They also mentioned that the screenplay wound up having a few major changes from the original novel (My Abandonment by Peter Rock). It's an interesting set of seemingly opposite impulses, casting a wide net to find McKenzie and clearly having a strong structure, but also building around the locations and pulling a lot of people they met there into the cast.

It was a good Q&A, and went on just long enough that I was seated at the Somerville just as Rodents of Unusual Size was starting and thus wound up in the front row staring straight up at those projected way bigger than life.

Quinn Costello, one of the film's three directors, came to talk about his film, with Jackie from the festival handling the host duties. Costello served as the film's editor and talked about how, once they'd hatched the idea of the film, he and the other two directors sort of tag-teamed while they were on the ground, as they were not necessarily all there at the same time.

It was a fun movie which sometimes led to fun questions, including whether they had eaten any nutria (whether from first or second hand experience, he gave the impression that it was not better than steak like some of their subjects claimed). Asked about the title, he said that the filmmakers weren't looking to go for the Princess Bride reference - it's not used in the film at all - but that pretty much every zoologist or other scientist they talked to went to the that unbidden, so they might as well use it so long as MGM wouldn't charge them an arm and a leg.

Leave No Trace

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

It's been far too long since Debra Granik's previous feature, Winter's Bone, although it's important not to ignore Stray Dog, the documentary she made a few years ago, which followed a group of veteran bikers, as likely being a major influence on this long-awaited follow-up. Its details echo in this very different story, although not so blatantly that what she and her cast do here ever feels like mere transcription - it's a terrific little film that makes one hope the industry will give her what she needs to make its like more often.

This one opens in a state park in the Pacific Northwest, where widower Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter of about fourteen, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), are camped out and have been for some time. Both are intelligent and resourceful, and occasionally go into town to convert the benefits and medication Will gets at the VA into resources, and regularly drill concealing their camp so that they will not be discovered. It can't last forever, of course, but when they are found, the social workers make great effort to minimize the difficulty adjusting - a fellow veteran (Jeff Kober) not only offers Will a job, but a guest house where he and Tom can live without being overwhelmed. It may still be too much for him.

The time Granik spent with the bikers of Stray Dog likely gives her a better-than-average handle on the details of Will's PTSD, especially in terms of what helps and how much; people who have seen the previous movie will have two smiles on their face when a few small dogs show up as the film goes on. She and co-writer Anne Rosellini leave enough details laying around that a general picture can emerge but avoid moments where one person ever tells another what happened or what to do. Will's state of mind isn't going to be patched by reverse-engineering the origins of his trauma, and there's not some solution that applies to those afflicted generally. Granik builds a story that highlights how internal Will's guilt, shame, and fear is while still finding ways to keep things somewhat active.

As Will, Ben Foster gives a performance that's not nearly as showy as it could be even though his illness is never concealed; the tight reign Will keeps on his demons does not hide them. For all that Will can come across as being on pins and needles, Foster makes sure and Granik make sure to show that, even if Will is twitchy under the surface, he's trained to be focused. Will is sad as much as nervy, with a sort of selfishness that elicits pity as much as worry. That sense of being on edge is often reflected in Tom, although actress Thomasin McKenzie seems to grasp that Tom's nervousness is learned rather than inherent, and as Tom's curiosity and kindness, and growing sense of self, eventually asserts itself, McKenzie is able to show her emerging as a fascinating your woman.

Her progression toward adulthood and potential independence is just as fascinating to watch and a marked contrast to Will's fear of the world, and it winds up a fascinating inversion of how the audience first encounters the pair: One of their first interaction has Will admonishing his daughter not to go through their food too fast, to which she replies that she's hungry, and Granik has them play it like he's being sensible and pragmatic and she's being wasteful, but as the film goes on, Tom and the audience come to understand that it's natural for a kid to be hungry, and for more than just food, and the rationed diet and experience Will gives her can't sustain her forever. The environments of the film reflect Tom's journey, as the lush and edenic park gives way to the still pleasant colors of the tree farm before plunging into dark, cold territory and a final act that adjusts the template and mood carefully, with an eye to how things may never be truly simple again.

It likely won't be all bad, though; one reassuring thing that sinks in as the film goes on is that there doesn't seem to be anybody in the movie who is not trying to help as best they can, though some have a bit more certainty in how they go about it than is perhaps merited. Granik is careful with how these good intentions and the world that sometimes belies them, making for a beautiful film full of smart details that serve its often loose, episodic story well without shouting a metaphor - the mileage she gets out of Tom discovering beekeeping, for instance, is subtle but masterful.

"Leave No Trace" is independent film at its best, poking around unseen corners to tell a story and create emotion without the need to be all things to all people. It's got same affection for the dirty parts of rural America and the fringes as Granik's previous work, something the cinema never has enough of. Let's hope it isn't quite so long before we see another feature like this from her.

(Formerly at EFC)

Rodents of Unusual Size

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2018 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

I went on vacation to New Orleans just a couple months before seeing this movie, and while I would not have made other plans if that sequencing was reversed, just seeing its poster or even an image or two of nutrias might have given me pause, especially when I got to the part about how members of this 20-pound species can make their way up sewer pipes and into toilets. But that's also a big part of the appeal of this documentary: Discovering that there are peculiar and fascinating things not far out of plain sight.

In this case, that's the nutria, a rodent with a rat-like tail on one end and orange tusks on the other, imported from Argentina around a hundred years ago to be raised for their pelts. They got loose during a flood and spread throughout the bayou, trapped by Cajuns until the 1980s, when the bottom fell out of the fur market. No longer hunted by humans and not having any natural predators (they breed faster than alligators can eat them, especially in the winter), their population exploded, and as invasive species tend to do, they had a devastating effect not just on the local wildlife but on the very bayou itself, to the point where the state of Louisiana has offered a bounty of five dollars for every nutria tail brought in.

That paragraph could serve as the entry on nutria in a textbook that has a lot of material to cover and it's fair to wonder how one gets an entire film out of it, but Rodents of Unusual Size becomes a nifty little documentary because it's about something that initially seems small and singular but which actually touches upon much larger things. Filmmakers Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, and Jeff Springer started from a simple starting point - these unusual animals and the people who trap them - but they are quickly able to expand the subjects covered to the idea of invasive species and how human and environmental systems interact. It is, aside from being a fine primer on its own topic, also just a good introduction to understanding just how far-reaching consequences can be.

This may sound dry, but the filmmakers find a highly-entertaining group of people to follow. They tend to gravitate to Thomas Gonzales, a Cajun trapper who has been hunting these varmints for decades and has seen his home wiped out repeatedly by hurricanes; he's genial local who nevertheless has something of a sad story. There are other interesting folks out in the bayou, from those trying to scrape by to the well-off people living by a golf course that sabotage traps because… well, they're affluent folks who think they know better. There's also an entertaining contingent inside New Orleans - a jazz musician/restaurateur who talks about both dealing with nutria growing up and what Katrina did to his district before trying to cook them up and convince people to eat them, as well as a higher-end chef and a fashion designer trying to get some practical use out of these critters. It is, more than is the case with many documentaries, a decent cross-section of the area, with prominent African-American, white, and Native American subjects of various ages and income levels.

The filmmakers bring energy to the telling as well, dropping a lot of early information in a lively animated section toward the front, and calling on some local talent by having Wendell Pierce narrate and The Lost Bayou Ramblers compose the soundtrack. The filmmakers recognize that they don't have to keep digging to find complexity that isn't there or to create conflict, and as a result, the film kind of needs to stretch itself - it's 70 minutes long and can often be found circling the same points or drifting into general "Louisiana is unique and cool" territory (which, to be fair, is not exactly ever bad material).

Nevertheless, it gets the job done - you'll learn something quickly and be fairly entertained while you do - although, be warned, there is no chance of a "no animals were harmed" credit at the end; nutria are shot, skinned, cooked, have their tails cut off, and generally disposed of, if you're squeamish about that. Myself, I'm glad I didn't run into any of these beasties while down there, but quite enjoyed seeing a movie about the situation.

(Previously on EFC)

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