Entering its 16th year, the Brooklyn Film Festival opens May 31 in a Williamsburg that has gone, in the span of a few years, from movie-theater-less to practically overrun with them. The revitalized neighborhood has seen the births of indieScreen (one of the fest’s venues), the Spectacle, the Nitehawk, Williamsburg Cinemas, and, of course, Videology, a former video store that wisely transformed into a theater-cum-bar. With the now-global brand of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, behind it, the festival is achieving an increasingly high visibility. Neither a haven for alterna-flicks nor exclusively a site for Indiewood (though both feature prominently), the festival is rather a mélange that, like the neighborhood in which it’s found, seems bent on catering to a wide array of tastes.
The debut feature of co-directors Damon Maulucci and Keir Politz, Detonator is one of the strongest pictures at the fest. Starring Brooklyn’s own Lawrence Michael Levine (visible everywhere in the contemporary indiescape, from Green to Gayby to V/H/S/2) and featuring the equally ubiquitous Sophia Takal and Joe Swanberg, the film almost plays like a modern Mikey and Nicky (Elaine May’s largely forgotten 1976 classic, starring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk) shot through with the sentiment of Old Joy.
As in Kelly Reichardt’s masterpiece, Detonator explores the friendship of two old pals who have gone their very separate ways: Once members of the titular punk band, Sully (Levine) has become a suburban husband and father, the sort of guy who clips his cell phone to his belt, while Mick (Benjamin Ellis Fine) is a strung-out wanderer about to do a short jail stint, unaware that he’s not 17 anymore. Most of the film takes place over the course of one long, dark night, as Mick’s impulsive decision to steal the band’s old demo from a violent ex-friend places him and Sully in danger. Touching in its portrayal of doomed friendship, Detonator examines the process of shedding one skin for another, the poignant transition so many alterna-kids make of removing the tats and donning the necktie. It’s also effective at exploring the ties that bind such newly minted “mainstream” adults to their abandoned pasts. Anyone who’s juggled a career and youthful idealism seems likely to be touched.
Somewhere Slow, the second feature from Jeremy O’Keefe, also concerns the conflict between lives of responsibility and flights from them. With the raggedy charm of an early Hal Hartley movie, and a storyline that could have come from a Georges Simenon novel, the film follows Anna (Jessalyn Gilsig), a Stepford-ish cosmetic product saleswoman who, the day she loses her job, witnesses a double murder during a gas station robbery. All this prompts her to hop a bus to the Maine house she grew up in, leaving her husband and life in the dust. In the process she yokes herself to a young drifter (Graham Patrick Martin) who helps ease her out of her shell. The narrative might be familiar, but Somewhere Slow gets by on Gilsig’s endearing performance; as Anna’s layers of affectation recede, watching her new identity emerge becomes fascinating. Additionally, the film’s quiet, often-understated delivery ensures that sentimental moments—seemingly around the corner—never actually make it to center stage.
While boilerplate indie storylines like those listed above are certainly common at the festival, you can also find their opposites: crowd-pleasers that long for a Hollywood delivery out of their budget range. These pictures—notably HairBrained, Billy Kent’s comedy that opens the festival, and Cut to Black, Dan Eberle’s neo-noir that closes it—may be made on an independent scale, but they’re absolutely constructed for mainstream audiences. To their credit, the genuine love these pictures’ creators exhibit for Hollywood genres lends them an endearing charisma. HairBrained is a misfit buddy comedy (and a Bad News Bears-esque sports picture) about a 14-year-old genius (Alex Wolff) who enters college, becomes friends with a 41-year-old undergrad (Brendan Fraser!), and revitalizes the school’s quiz team. Wolff is charismatic as the brilliant but socially inept brain, and the chemistry between him and his doting, often dunderheaded older buddy charges the film.
Cut to Black recalls—if only in intention—Christopher Nolan’s first film, Following. Like that cult favorite, Cut to Black was clearly made on a shoestring budget, but it’s after the full grandeur of debauched neo-noir tales. The film’s labyrinthine plot revolves around an ex-cop turned private eye (Eberle himself) hired to investigate the stalker of a wealthy friend’s daughter. As in so many noirs, the narrative complexity grows and grows—but, most likely, so will the viewer’s appreciation, especially of Eberle’s evident love of the films that inspired him. Again, here’s a story that’s nothing new, but as with so many pictures in this festival, the passion is.
The Brooklyn Film Festival runs May 31–June 9 at indieScreen and Windmill Studios NYC. For a complete lineup of screenings and tickets, visit brooklynfilmfestival.org