Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Independent Film Festival Boston 2018.04: Tre Maison Dasan, The New Fire, Never Goin' Back, and Don't Leave Home

Ah, Saturday at IFFBoston, the longest day. It used to be you could squeeze five movies out of the festival this day - they would know who the truly hardcore were by who raised their hand for 18 movies at the last show and who had managed 19, but not this year

First up: Tre Maison Dasan, who did not line up in title order:

Left to right, that is Maison, director Denali Tiller, Dasan, Dasan's scene-stealing cousin Alivia, Tre (who goes by T.J. now), and Dasan's mother Jacqueline.

They are all pretty great, happy to talk about how weird it was to have Tiller shooting this movie and self-aware enough to realize that they all used the word weird. They were up-front about how you can't make this sort of movie without having an effect on what you're shooting, but that's okay; nobody feels bad about helping at-risk kids out a little. Of course, you could tell that there was some negotiating going on from the number of scenes where T.J. has a bag from McDonald's as the filmmakers knew what would get him in a good enough mood to open up.

The best part was just seeing that T.J. and Jacqueline were doing okay. T.J. went through a lot over the course of the time he was being filmed and wasn't starting out in the best place, so seeing him upbeat was great. Jacqueline was released from jail early on, and was pushing the Kickstarter for a children's book she had written to help other kids in her son's position.

Then, to the Brattle!

I think that's WBUR's Bruce Gellerman, The New Fire director David Schumacher, Caroline Cochrane of Oklo, and pro-nuclear activist Armond Cohen. Yeah, that's right. I am amazed that I got that out of notes scribbled on the back of a CVS receipt that has been transferred from pocket to pocket for a month.

I wonder if enough good science docs get made in a year to make for a festival during some off month at the Brattle or Somerville (October, perhaps); they get a good turnout at IFFBoston but seldom seem to be great movies. It kind of pains me to say that, because they're some of the ones I look forward to the most, and I should really be more in the tank for the nuclear power movie than I wound up being. If nothing else, they make for some of the more unusual Q&As, because there is always a few people in the audience whose expertise is way beyond what the movie actually gets into, and they are going to try and hijack the discussion in specific, detailed ways.

After that, it was back to Somerville for Never Goin' Back, and as much as I enjoyed it, I kind of sighed when I saw the A24 logo in front. They do good stuff, but an indication that a movie has already got distribution with no Q&A afterward is a missed opportunity to see something that might not play in a theater otherwise. Then again, I might have just gone for Support the Girls instead, and that's also got distribution. So who knows?

Finally, I went downstairs for Never Leave Home, a decision that was 60% "this film starts and ends before everything else playing after 9pm", and I still found myself drifting in and out, missing enough that I couldn't even pretend to write something about it. Filmmaker Michael Tully did videoconference in for a post-show Q&A (apparently some other film festival got him in person even though IFFBoston has played all his films and he says he loves us), talking about how he liked bouncing around genres, with Irish folklore horror one he wanted to do. Like a lot of people who play in that genre, he raved about his location scouts, saying they were planning to go to a lot of different places for different scenes, but instead found what they needed in one place… Which of course was haunted.

Tre Maison Dasan

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2018 in the Somerville Theatre #5 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

Tre Maison Dasan will often be described as a documentary about growing up with at least one parent incarcerated, but it's not quite that: It's about being a kid whose mother or father is in jail, and that's something different. These three boys have too little control over their situations to overcome much, so the audience is placed in a position of mainly watching and trying to understand without much judgment. It's a tricky sort of documentary - the filmmakers can't really want the drama that creates a traditional storyline - but one that often proves engrossing and illuminating.

The title names the three kids in the general area of Providence, Rhode Island, from youngest to oldest: Tre Janson is thirteen and already starting to find trouble; he and his father compare ankle monitors when Tre visits him in prison, and that father often seems like the most stable one in the family, considering how erratic Tre's mother Kerri can be. Maison Teixeira is eleven and on the autistic spectrum, living with his grandmother so he can both be close to close to his father and attend a special-needs school while his mother is out in California. Six-year-old Dasan Lopes is probably the most fortunate - not only has he been taken in by extended family, with a cousin who is like a sister to him, but his mother Stephanie is just about to be released as the film starts, and is determined to make things work..

These three are an interesting group of kids and you can see why producer/director Denali TIller chose them; they've got big personalities and distinct situations. One of the more interesting choices she makes is that none of the parents are in jail for smoking weed or something else that would make this a film about all the ways in which the American justice system is prone to excessive incarceration. That's a worthy topic, but there's something fascinating by the situations shown here, as all three parents try to take ownership of their past misdeeds. Watching them do so does sometimes implicitly raise the question of what the system should do, but it's the way they handle it that's most powerful, from how Maison's father seems to be trying to keep his son from to thinking too highly of him to how Dasan seems unable to process that his loving mother could have done something so awful

Full review on EFC

The New Fire

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

This documentary about the future of nuclear power - one which, it argues, should not be "disappearing as soon as possible" - feels like it's either being made much too early or as a high-level pitch for investors. It has a very optimistic attitude, which is welcome enough, but relatively less in the way of numbers. Not a bad introduction, but maybe it's too simple for the choir that it will inevitably be preaching to.

It makes its initial argument in impressively clear fashion: That while renewable energy sources like wind and solar power have been making great strides in both volume and price per kilowatt-hour, they are far from being able to cover the "baseload" - a predictable, constant supply of electricity not dependant on weather or other variable factors - that the United States and the rest of the world rely upon and which is generally supplied by burning hydrocarbons such as coal and natural gas. Director David Schumacher is fairly quick in terms of outlining why continuing along with that is not a great idea (if you're part of the audience for this film, you are probably at least somewhat familiar with how humanity is driving climate change), but relatively thorough in talking about the size of the hole that needs to be filled.

The film is also fairly competent in talking about the upgraded forms of fission power that could displace coal, oil, and the like, coming at them via start-ups aiming to implement them in the near future: Transatomic, founded by Leslie Dewan & Mark Massie, aims to create safer large reactors cooled by molten salt rather than water; husband-and-wife team Caroline Cochrane & Jacob DeWitte are behind Oklo, which envisions small sealed reactors powering "microgrids". Both groups find themselves bumping up against regulatory agencies that, beyond being properly cautious, are designed to be navigated by large, established players.

Full review on EFC

Never Goin' Back

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2018 in the Somerville Theatre #5 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

An enjoyably crude comedy about two people whose simple-if-ill-advised plan for a weekend at the beach is detailed by a bunch of disasters both of their own and others' making, Never Goin' Back is a bit of a standout right now because they don't necessarily make a lot of these movies about teenage girls. And while it's noteworthy for being unusual now, it will probably age well because it's genuinely funny throughout.

The girls are Jessie (Camila Morrone) and Angela (Maia Mitchell), high-school dropouts sharing an apartment in Fort Worth with Jessie's older brother Dustin (Joel Allen) and his friend Brandon (Kyle Mooney). Jessie's seventeenth birthday is next week, and Angela's just announced they'll take a trip to Galveston to celebrate. The thing is, she's paid with their rent money, which is not necessarily a problem, since they've got double shifts at the diner all week. That doesn't necessarily take into account Dustin's plan to make some money selling drugs with his new buddy Tony (Kendal Smith), which could easily go south because, even when this group isn't high, none of them are really that bright.

Dumb folks are usually the sidekicks or supporting characters in a movie because it is not easy to move a story forward in a satisfying way based upon a bunch of decisions that don't exactly make sense. Writer/director Augustine Frizzell gives Jessie & Angela goals that at least seem reasonable on a certain level, even if they're almost certainly doomed, and there's a certain mild delusion that the audience can sympathize with - that even if what they're doing is unlikely to work, what they want, whether it be a couple days off or just a toilet Jessie isn't afraid to sit on, is not unreasonable, and you can kind of get behind the world being fair.

Full review on EFC

Don't Leave Home

Seen 28 April 2018 in the Somerville Theatre #2 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

The last show of a long day, and I'm not going to lie: Even at the time, I didn't feel like I retained enough to put an entry into Letterboxd, and that was a month and a half ago. I was wiped out, so I can't give this one a truly fair assessment.

Still, if it pops up in a good slot at Fantasia or makes it to a local theater, I'll certainly consider giving it another shot. It kind of hit me as a sort of generic Irish-folklore horror story with a nifty concept - various pieces of art consuming people, repeated as one work inspires another - and a terrifically creepy set of locations, from the inside of a manor that seems uncomfortably large as the home of a clergyman (even if he is also an artist who presumably comes from money) to a gazebo setting that absolutely feels like it could swallow a person up. Writer/director Michael Tully and his crew make piece feel otherworldly even when they're not materially different than the area around them.

To the extent that horror operates on feel, this movie generally hits its target. To the extent that a movie needs to rely on one event leading to another, it seemed a lot fuzzier. The great horror movies find ways to make that work, with the irrationality overwhelming the characters and the audience (or the heroine finding a way to overcome her fear and cut her way through to a goal); this one had me stuck in between, and not in a good way.

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