Sunday, June 10, 2018

SIFF 2018: Texas Songwriters, California Filmmakers, and Single Fathers of Every Kind

Ben Dickey introduces Blaze at the Egyptian
Because I started reviewing films for The Stranger's SIFF Notes during the first week in April, the 25-day film festival has felt more like a three-month affair to me. Granted, it still sped by relatively quickly, even as I attended two conferences (MoPOP's Pop Conference and Crypticon), worked on several non-fest reviews and previews, got back together with someone--and broke up with that person all over again (suffice to say, I'm a little...tired).

I also caught up with a few non-fest movies and television shows, like Black Panther and iZombie, but I've tried to make SIFF my priority. Consequently, I caught over 30 films, even though I didn't attend any press screenings or take any time off work. Here are a few more words about the films I saw.

Blaze

Ethan Hawke's third narrative feature, a time-fractured docudrama about country songwriter Blaze Foley (nĂ©e Mike Fuller), is his best yet (I haven't seen his sole documentary, Seymour: An Introduction). Little Rock musician Ben Dickey is convincing as the unpredictable Blaze, but the standout is Austin native Charlie Sexton as the slippery Townes Van Zandt (he and Hawke previously worked together in Richard Linklater's Boyhood).

Hawke in conversation with Indiewire's Eric Kohn
Other notable performers include Alia Shawkat as Blaze's wife and Alynda Segarra (Hurray for the Riff Raff) as his sister. In a brief scene, Segarra sings with Kris Kristofferson, who plays the Fullers' memory-challenged father, which reminded me of Michael Almereyda's casting of Sam Shepard as Hawke's ghostly father in his modern-day adaptation of Hamlet. Based on Hawke's career to date, it's hard not to see both multi-hyphenates as models for the kind of career he would like to have. Oddly, the clip collection SIFF assembled for their tribute to Hawke omitted this film, a favorite of mine from both actor and director.

Eighth Grade

The directorial debut from author, musician, and stand-up comedian Bo Burnham is far better than it has any right to be. I mean, he's only 27, and he's already enjoyed success in several fields. Turns out, he can direct, too. At the SIFF premiere, he gave much of the credit to 15-year-old Elsie Fisher, who plays acne-prone Kayla Day, but this isn't as performatively magnanimous as it sounds. Burnham wrote a wise and witty script, but without the right actress, the kind who can elicit sympathy even as she tortures her father with self-aborption, that wouldn't have been enough.

Burnham and Fisher in a rare moment of levity
The point of the film isn't exactly a new one, but we can always use more perceptive perspectives on adolescence, and the 21st-century milieu changes everything. If Kayla has more than a few things in common with Pretty in Pink's Andie, right down to the supportive single father (nicely played by Josh Hamilton, who also appears in Blaze), she lives in a world that is totally wired. If anything, she lives in two worlds: the real one, where she feels like a hopeless outcast, and the virtual one where she follows unworthy crush objects on Instagram and uploads affirmative videos to YouTube.

Despite all her trials and tribulations, we know she'll be fine in the end, because she doesn't let disappointment slow her down. I'm twice the age of filmmaker and actor combined, and yet Kayla is as much of an inspiration for chronic self-doubters like myself as for kids her own age, of which there were many in the audience, all eager to ask Fisher questions at the lively Q&A. By the fest's conclusion, Eighth Grade had won Golden Space Needle awards for best film and actress. It opens at the Egyptian on July 19.

Hal

I've been a Hal Ashby fan for as long as I can remember, at least since 1978's Coming Home, so I had high hopes for first-time filmmaker Amy Scott's documentary. Fortunately, she delivers. The setup is a simple one, and it works perfectly: she uses Ashby's major films, including Harold and Maude and Being There (which played at this year's fest), as a structuring device. She also has Ben Foster, who appears in Debra Granik's Leave No Trace, read from Ashby's no-bullshit memos, and he proves a fine fit.

Fisher looks towards SIFF's Beth Barrett
The problem with this sort of setup is that the last section, a consideration of Ashby's less significant (and more heavily compromised) films, feels anti-climactic, but I'm not sure there's a more honest way to sum up his career. Towards the end of his life, Ashby had several ideas for literary adaptations that might have put him back on the map, but he didn't live long enough to realize any of them. There really isn't a positive way to spin that story. It's tragic that he didn't get the chance to make a single one, but making seven great films, largely as intended, is the exact opposite of tragic. If anything, it's miraculous.

Leave No Trace

When it comes to any film, regardless as to the subject or director, I try to keep my expectations in check. I let my enthusiasm for Hal Ashby run away with me when it came to Hal, so I was relieved that Scott came through, but as impressive as I found Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, I kept an open mind about Leave No Trace, a loose adaptation of Peter Rock's novel, My Abandonment (co-written with producer Anne Rosselini). The primary reason: Ben Foster grates on my nerves, especially when he plays bad guys (Alpha Dog3:10 to Yuma), but give the guy credit: he never phones it in.

Hal producer Brian Morrow and film critic Michael Dare
I should have had more faith in Granik, not just in terms of her casting, but her directing. Playing a single father on the run from straight society, Foster beautifully underplays from start to finish, which makes thematic sense, since Will is keeping a lot inside, but it also makes structural sense, because his daughter, played by Thomasin McKenzie, provides the film's point of view as surely as Jennifer Lawrence's Ree did in Winter's Bone. And the New Zealand native is every bit as good in a slightly less showy part.

As much as I hate to pit the films against each other, I would give the edge to Leave No Trace, largely because there are no real antagonists in the latter. Every time Will and Tom tangle with authority figures of some kind, they turn out to be pretty reasonable people. It's no spoiler to say that Will is his own worst enemy, but he's still a loving father and Tom is still a good kid. She owes that to him, but that doesn't mean he's a reliable provider.

Friends have compared the film to Matt Ross's Captain Fantastic, and there are clear parallels, but at heart, it's more like Jeff Preiss's Low Down, in which John Hawkes, who starred in Winter's Bone, plays jazz pianist Joe Albany, a single father with a lot of love and a host of parental challenges. In look and feel, it also has a lot in common with Kelly Reichardt's Oregon-set films about poverty and dislocation, like Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy.

 SIFF programmer Megan Leonard and Anne Rosselini
Just as local label Light in the Attic will be releasing the soundtrack to Blaze, they'll be releasing the soundtrack to Leave No Trace. When I spoke with Rosselini at the screening, she credited my friend, Pat Thomas, for putting her and Granik in touch with Kendra Smith who sings the closing track. According to Thomas, it represents her "first new music since 1994." At the Q&A, Rosselini said that Smith, a former member of Rain Parade and Opal, "lives about 99% off the grid." Former Fug Michael Hurley and Marisa Anderson, who will be opening for Joan Shelley on June 19, also appear in the film as denizens of the trailer park where Will and Tom wind up during one of their breaks from forest living.

From the music to the extras, it was lovely to see so much local involvement in Leave No Trace, especially the Northwest itself as a place to which you can escape, but where you can never really get away from yourself.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Other films I saw and enjoyed: Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story, Belle de Jour, Peter Strickland's portion ("The Cobbler's Lot") of The Field Guide to Evil, First Reformed, McQueen, Puzzle, and Sorry to Bother You. 

Films that didn't quite live up to their potential: Dark River, Let the Sunshine In (I know I'm in the minority with Denis' film), Ryuichi Sakamoto: CodaWestwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, and Wild Nights with Emily.



Endnote:
Click here for my first SIFF '18 dispatch.