This weekend marked the opening of the 2017 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and while it is frequently overshadowed by its more established sibling, the Sundance Film Festival, Slamdance has by now (in its 22nd year) developed its own formidable reputation for premiering up-and-coming filmmaking talent.
This year’s lineup of independent and low-budget films, all of which will be on-hand seeking distribution, includes no less than eight first-time female directors competing in the festival’s narrative and documentary programs. That’s an unusually high number and heartening, given the recent reporting that women directors have lost ground in the mainstream film industry. Diverse voices are still making themselves heard, though we may have to look increasingly away from the multiplexes.
A number of the eight films hail from outside the United States, and they vary widely in tone, narrative style, and subject matter. Here’s our quick takes:
A sensitive, occasionally whimsical German comedy about a mother and daughter coping with the loss of love in both their lives, Beat Beat Heart derives much of its charm from demonstrating how the proverbial apple falls far from the tree sometimes. Kerstin (Lana Cooper) exists in a half-dreaming state, waiting in vain for her former lover to return to their home in the German countryside, when one day she receives an unexpected visitor: her mother, Charlotte (Saskia Vester), who has suitcases in tow but nary an explanation for why she has arrived sans her longtime lover.
The sitcom-friendly premise is elevated by writer/director Luise Brinkmann, who subverts expectations by having her two female leads’ openness to new romance be inversely proportional to how long they’ve been single. As such, Kerstin is content to grow moss in her loveless state, while Charlotte is excited to try online dating for the first time. Much of the film takes place in the characters’ minds: Kerstin’s daydreams become her reality, and there is a scene in which Charlotte imagines a Tinder-like social media universe as a literal forest full of eligible bachelors. But that doesn’t stop the outside world from messily intruding, whether that’s in the form of housemates, neighbors, or the reality that endings can be complicated but love is simple to understand. (Beat Beat Heart will screen on January 24.)
The harrowing documentary The Children Send Their Regards features graphic testimony about childhood sexual abuse suffered at the hands of Austrian clergy members, as told by grown-up survivors. Some interviewees have relatively little to say, while others talk endlessly, hinting at bottomless depths of pain, shame, anger, and the extent to which the trauma has colored their lives. In addition, director and co-screenwriter Patricia Josefine Marchart enlists the testimonies of psychologists, who explain how the predatory priests exploited their statuses as men of virtue, and legal experts, who lament the difficulties in bringing such monsters to justice.
Though a bit overlong and not for the weak of heart, this is powerful viewing. Many of the survivors return to where their abuses took place, and these sequences feature off-balanced, dizzying camerawork that reflects their permanently skewed vision of what should have been safe spaces. Also, Marchart repeatedly cuts to footage of her interviewees as children, reminding the viewer of what innocence was lost—in the most horrific ways imaginable. (January 25.)
Cheryl Nichols’s poignant Cortez starts off as a road movie centered on a severely immature musician, Jesse (Arron Shiver), who is on a quest to find a life-rejuvenating hot spring in the American Southwest. The rocker reunites unexpectedly with an old flame, Anne (Nichols), whom he hasn’t seen in more than a decade. This is followed by another incident, which turns everything on its head and sets up a situation in which Jesse’s tendency for selfishness finally meets its match.
Nichols utilizes long takes consisting entirely of her characters alone with their thoughts, forced to confront the decisions that led them to where they are. The movie is a character study of a man-child, who is spiritually and emotionally empty, despite his material success. However, unlike most depictions of men-children, Jesse’s march to adulthood is played more for pathos than laughs. In trying to make up for the past, he tends to make things worse, sometimes to a harrowing degree. The labyrinthine mountain passes and overgrown wilderness adjacent to Anne’s town serve as a fitting metaphor for Jesse’s emotional state as he seeks the antidote to his malaise. (January 24.)
Composed of a series of static shots, Kuro centers on Romi (Tujiko Noriko, who also co-directed with Joji Koyama), a young woman caring for her severely paralyzed lover, Milou (Jackie). Speaking in Japanese (with English subtitles), Romi recounts how they met and their early courtship—and then, nary missing a beat, the tone shifts into the disturbing story of an elderly gentleman, Mr. Ono, for whom Romi once served as a nurse. Or did she? As the film progresses, the narration becomes increasingly unreliable, the voice-over further disconnected from the actions on-screen, and the story ever more fantastical. Could this all be a story Romi is telling herself, in order to be distracted from the drudgery, loneliness, and resentments inherent in caring for an ill loved one? Or could the entire film be taking place inside Milou’s brain? Noriko and Koyama’s debut is highly subjective to the end, but with its evocative imagery and moody musical flourishes, it leaves a decidedly bittersweet taste. (January 23.)
Unlike most traditional sports-movie narratives, Supergirl picks up after its subject, teenager Naomi Kutin, has already earned the record as the world’s strongest girl for powerlifting three times her own body weight. This inspirational documentary, directed by Jessie Auritt, trails Naomi and her family as they attempt to build on that success. It works on multiple levels: as a primer on the world of competitive weight-lifting and as a coming-of-age tale about Naomi growing into her own, her interests starting to extend beyond sports. In addition, the film is a warm-hearted portrait of a loving yet somewhat unusual family—unorthodox precisely because they are, in fact, Orthodox Jews living in a traditionally conservative community. Ultimately, Auritt’s aim is not to reveal the tensions between any of these aspects but to link how they’ve each contributed to the development of a well-rounded, well-adjusted teen, who is more than capable of shouldering whatever the world puts on her. (January 24.)
Sometimes a lack of information is infinitely more troubling than the facts, and that’s the case with Frauke Havemann’s post-apocalyptic Weather House. Though the exact disaster that occurred is never made clear, the viewer can discern its effects on the characters, who seem to be in a perpetually shell-shocked state and hesitant to venture outside. Meanwhile, every now and then one of them will silently collapse and die. The somnambulant order is disrupted by the arrival of an armed man looking for his wife, but for the most part, this is a slow-burning exploration of the effects of isolation as the housemates gradually lose any sense of purpose, identity, or connection to reality. Fittingly, Weather House is disjointed viewing, mostly consisting of long takes in which little happens, interrupted by rapid-fire montages of emotionally charged action. Yet the film also has a deadpan sense of humor, making it watchable even at its most ominous and disturbing. (January 26.)
Another drama about loneliness and emotional disconnect, albeit more wry, Wexford Plaza revolves around two character types who all too rarely headline their own movie: a plus-sized young woman named Betty (Reid Asselstine), recently hired as the new night-shift security guard at the titular strip mall, and Danny (Darrel Gamotin), a decent but flawed bartender of Southeast Asian descent. Amid desolate parking lots and a crumbling retail infrastructure, their relationship develops over nights filled with excessive drinking and blackouts, the latter resulting in misunderstandings that gradually spin out of control. The performances are spot-on—especially Asselstine as the sexually precocious Betty—but the film’s real strength is writer/director Joyce Wong’s construction of its complementary halves, each told from the point of view of a different yet equally unreliable narrator. The result is a seemingly simple love story that turns out not so simply—and maybe not even to be a love story. (January 25.)
Who Is Arthur Chu? starts off as the profile of an 11-time Jeopardy! champion before evolving into the origin story of an outspoken social justice crusader, one whose lifelong outsider status fuels his ire toward injustice of all forms. This rousing documentary by Yu Gu and Scott Drucker follows Chu as he gradually finds his voice as a writer and speaker while simultaneously exploring the sheltered Chinese upbringing that left him with a permanent chip on his shoulder. Social media metrics and “real-time” reactions to his words and deeds pop up throughout, tracing Chu’s growing fame and notoriety. However, once he starts taking on the misogyny of the modern video game industry, they have a claustrophobic effect as he becomes under sieged by trolls. His growing confidence as a public figure is contrasted by his struggle to connect with loved ones and family. Overall, this is a satisfying revenge-of-the-nerd story that will be cathartic to many. It constantly reminds us that reaching the top is often just the start of the journey. (January 24.)