The critic's parlor game of identifying a festival "theme" seems a time waste when there are so many movies to discuss. A showcase for American independent films fresh from South by Southwest, Sundance, and points beyond—many of them films with a pronounced NYC-centric leaning—cinemaFest has been around long enough by now to have cultivated a small pool of veterans and standbys.
Ry Russo-Young, whose You Wont Miss Me showed promise in the festival's inaugural edition, returns this year with Nobody Walks, which details the network of emotional loyalties and infidelities that develops when an unattached outsider (Olivia Thirlby) arrives to do postproduction work at the Los Angeles home of a married sound designer (John Krasinski), upsetting the family ecosystem. The abiding theme is the betrayal of professional ethics—the title is a play on L.A. commuting but also a statement of equal-opportunity moral judgment—while what is most pleasing is the quiet professionalism of the filmmaking, particularly cinematographer Chris Blauvelt's sensitivity to the textures of SoCal light through all times of day.
Bill and Turner Ross offer another happy case of artistic progress. Co-authors of 2009's small-town symphony 45365, the Rosses arrive at BAM with Tchoupitoulas, an effulgent, impressionistic New Orleans travelogue. Stuck downtown after they miss the last Algiers Ferry, three West Bank adolescents pass the night among the city's boozers, buskers, and burlesque performers. The kids fade in and out of focus, even disappearing completely in a digressive backstage scene in which strippers pass around the chorus of "Iko Iko," as the film is dedicated more to approximating the sensory-overload POV of dazzled innocents or their imaginings than to observing the innocents themselves. There is nevertheless a cumulative sense of character development here, as the last close-up of runt-of-the-litter William Zanders, whose aspirational interior monologues recur throughout the film, unmistakably shows a young man whose eyes have been opened to the heretofore-unexpected number of possibilities and snares in the wide world: "Boy, I could get sucked up into the sea," he says, looking onto the Gulf. "Just like that."
The Rosses' film is one of a spate of unaccompanied-minors stories at cinemaFest, including Brooklynite Cory McAbee's cutesy magic-realist home movie of his own children, Crazy and Thief—a stern warning against maintaining a steadfast buy-local policy—and Tim Sutton's Pavilion, a studiously arty MFA-photo-program portfolio of abstruse, shallow depth-of-field images documenting a teenage BMXer's move from green upstate New York to barren Arizona, a journey that provides a listless viewer opportunities to scrutinize the decorative molding in BAM's big auditorium. Bart Layton's true-crime documentary The Imposter, however, takes the simple tack of working with a fascinating story and not screwing it up, reopening the strange case of Frédéric Bourdin, the 23-year-old French professional orphan who managed to pass himself off as a missing 16-year old from San Antonio, even (willfully?) deceiving the boy's family, despite having an ineffaceable accent and bearing no real resemblance to the missing child.
Another dysfunctional-family album, Walk Away Renée, Jonathan Caouette's sequel-of-a-sort to his 2003 Tarnation, concentrates on the filmmaker's schizophrenic mother, bringing viewers up to date on Renée's decay as Caouette co-stars with her on a Texas–to–New York road trip, with her new institution their destination. Caouette deserves some credit for devising a way to pay his family's undoubtedly significant medical bills by starring them in music videos scored to mawkish, whispery, acoustic noodling, but this is excruciating stuff.
Also contained partly within institutional walls, but free of Caouette's solipsism and tugging sentiment, Melanie Shatzky and Brian M. Cassidy's The Patron Saints records the rituals and individual stories within an unnamed nursing home. With a style at once austere and caressing, this documentary is more formally considered than most of the fiction films here, excepting Shatzky and Cassidy's bleak narrative debut, Francine, starring The Fighter's Melissa Leo. I caught this duo's student work at a School of Visual Arts screening some years back, and I was pleased to observe their ongoing engagement with the castaway sections of America, combined with a deepened empathy.
Craig Zobel's Compliance looks inside another national institution that right-thinking film-festival audiences can be counted on to revile: the fast-food restaurant. The iron maiden plot is set in creaking motion when a crank caller contacts Ann Dowd's dowdy ChickWich manager and, identifying himself as an investigating policeman, fingers pretty young employee Dreama Walker for theft, using the pretext of authority to have the manager detain and strip-search the underling in the stockroom. Manipulating a succession of dupes over the phone, the "officer" then metes out steadily increasing humiliation-by-proxy to his victim. This is, we're told, "Based on a True Story," but few viewers will be taken in even for a second by the caller, making the premise seem more absurd than really sinister.
Seeming glibness, however, can ring louder than such deliberate severity. Humanity's inherent fascist leanings, Compliance's very subject, are more resonantly dealt with in Roberto Rossellini's playful dark comic fable of 1952, La macchina ammazzacattivi—the title now giddily translated as The Machine That Kills Bad People and the film beautifully restored. Here, simpleton village photographer Gennaro Pisano finds himself gifted with the miraculous ability to quietly eliminate the objectionables in his town who have proliferated since American visitors, once the welcome liberators of Paisan (1946), have grown fat and returned to the scene of their heroic exploits to build hotels and spread the infectious taint of money.
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