Thursday, October 25, 2018

Independent Film Festival Boston 2018.178: Wildlife and Border

Another year, another opportunity to point out that, despite it being as far away from the main festival on the calendar as possible, the Fall Focus is a bit part of what makes the Independent Film Festival Boston great. Folks don't just crave good film for one week a year, and it's great to recharge.

This year, because the Brattle had a lot of things scheduled around it, the whole thing was compressed to a very packed weekend, so I don't know how much Nancy was able to put themes and double-features into the program (you kind of just fit what you've got together). If I had to sell these two as going together, I'd say they were both stories about family secrets and the end of innocence, but that's an awfully broad category; you could probably fit some character from 95% of every narrative ever crafted into an "end of innocence" bucket.

What struck me as more interesting was that they are utter opposites in what independent film can do in terms of realism and risk taking. My review of Wildlife started from a fair amount of grumbling about how it's kind of the type of independent film you make when your goal is to make an Independent Film, the sort where people like Jake Gyllenhaal can say he took a pay cut or a producer credit so that he could make something real. It's what respectable grown-up movies are supposed to be, or so we're told, but there's not much spark to its meticulous construction and respectability.

Contrast that with Border, which is dark and creative. There are probably five or six things that would get the people pitching it laughed out of a Hollywood studio executive's office, but it delivers weird ideas that nevertheless resonate, it gets the absolute most out of its resources, and it's uncompromising as it makes its points while also building earnest interest in what's going to happen next. There is invention here, and I'll happily take that over respectable realism most days.

(Though I do wonder a bit if intersexed people might watch this and think "the closest thing that we get to representation in years and we're portrayed as grub-eating, baby-stealing trolls?" It's a sympathetic movie but kind of a rough metaphor!)

I did wind up liking both films more as I wrote about them, which is a good sign - there's something to be found, even if a movie doesn't really grab you by the gut. But, boy, it's better when they do.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 October 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, DCP)

Wildlife is a sort of anti-blockbuster, almost to a fault, the sort of thing that is real and honest but in a way that can seem just as generic as the fantasies on the other end of the spectrum. Just looking at it, one sees that director Paul Dano cast a pretty Paul Dano-looking kid to play the main part, while Carey Mulligan often seemed to be playing Julianne Moore playing her character. It's a very familiar indie rite of passage, this sort of collapsing marriage period piece.

The collapsing marriage is that of Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his wife Jeanette (Moore); they have recently moved to Montana from Idaho, and that wasn't their only stop over the last few years, making 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) the new kid in school again. Jerry doesn't last long in his new job - he's headstrong in the wrong ways even when he's not drinking - and his pride has him pass up others in order to join a crew fighting a wildfire sixty miles away. Jeannette has already taken a part-time job teaching swimming at the YMCA, where she catches the eye of local businessman Warren Miller (Bill Camp), which could at the very least lead to a better job at his auto dealership.

It's an oft-told story in the general sense, and even the idea of telling it from the point of view of the kid who is right on the cusp of understanding what's going on has some miles on it. In this case, that perspective doesn't hold the filmmakers back in either a positive or negative sense, but it also doesn't contribute much - there's no aspect of the story that ever feels hidden, kept out of Joe's view, and relatively little sense of his life and how it's disrupted. That's no knock on Ed Oxenbould, the young actor with a certain resemblance to the director, who plays the part's sweet, admiring ignorance well and makes the frustrated, confused outbursts seem genuine; he's fine. If anything, he should have more to do; too often, Dano just cuts to him in the middle of a scene where what's going on with the adults is quite clear seemingly just to remind the audience that he's there and doesn't entirely know what's going on.

Full review at EFC.

Gräns (Border)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 October 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, DCP)

Based upon a short story from the writer of Let the Right One In and adapted by the filmmakers behind Shelley, Border certainly has the pedigree to be fine art-house horror, though that's no guarantee - hitting the right balance of myth and metaphor is tricky business. Happily, this one is genuinely peculiar from the start and reveals more intriguing, resonant depths even as it builds its mythology in detail.

It introduces the audience to Tina (Eva Melander), who is not exactly the most welcoming face to be greeted with upon arrival in Sweden, but the local border guards keep her up front for a reason: She's got an uncanny ability to identify smugglers and those trying to evade customs, able to smell the shame and fear on them - most recently, finding a memory card full of child pornography that has the head of a task force (Ann Petrén) eager to have her help find the source. She's never wrong, at least until Vore (Eero Milonoff) passes by her post, sharing the same sort of features as Tina and setting off her radar in a way that her housemate and presumed boyfriend Roland (Jörgen Thorsson) does not. It raises a lot of questions that her father (Sten Ljunggren) has long avoided answering.

Though Border impresses in a lot of ways, the way it immerses the audience in its supernatural world by emphasizing details that are human and even almost mundane is key. That balance is established right away, as director Ali Abbasi takes something as familiar as customs and lets Tina be an odd part of it - lots of zooms to her lumpy face and frantic sniffing - and it not only grounds the fantasy in something real, but it establishes something important in how integrated and unquestioned Tina's abilities are; that may be in the background, but it's a crucial part of Tina's part of the story. Abbasi's approach lets him stretch and push the edge a little further, so that the audience is ready when the moments of horror and wonder come.

Full review at EFC.

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