If you would like to see the most exciting films being produced in America today, the BAMcinemaFest makes it almost too easy to do so. Now in its fifth year, the festival—which assembles something like a greatest hits of independent cinema by cherry-picking the standouts from bigger festivals the world over—enjoys a clear curatorial advantage over its competitors: quality over quantity, a gamble which has proven effective. By keeping its offerings bold but slender, the festival suggests confidence in the value of each selection—and since former coups include success stories like Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson, that confidence has often been vindicated.
Still, the festival has the tendency to lavish attention on a handful of populist ringers, as with its trumped-up “Special Presentation” of the overrated Beasts of the Southern Wild last year. This time it’s David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12, neither of which are as good or interesting as their reputations suggest. Instead, the most interesting films of the 10-day festival—Jem Cohen’s stirring and mysterious Museum Hours, Sebastian Silva’s hilarious Crystal Fairy, Andrew Bujalski’s utterly bizarre Computer Chess among them—may not have the fest-circuit buzz of the biggest Sundance darlings, but they are vibrant and essential all the same.
Zach Clark’s provocative comic melodrama White Reindeer is the best film of the festival and also among the most striking and original American films to emerge in some time—perhaps since Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel, which played BAMcinemaFest in 2011 and seems an apparent influence on Clark’s idiosyncratic sensibility. Like Perry’s film, White Reindeer seems built to frustrate genre expectations at every turn, undermining every tonal and stylistic rhythm it establishes. And so what begins as an exaggerated mockery of our most grotesque commercial custom—the gaudy, mostly secular Christmas celebration, particularly as it’s enjoyed in suburbia—shifts toward a surprisingly earnest paean to the restorative power of the holidays. There’s never been anything like it. Frequently funny, oddly touching, and featuring a virtuoso lead performance by veteran indie actress Anna Margaret Hollyman, White Reindeer charts its own strange course toward the sublime.
Also getting somewhere is This Is Martin Bonner, the latest from director Chad Hartigan, whose debut hit five years ago, when he was just 25. Like much of the work of his contemporaries, that debut (Luke and Brie Are on a First Date) concerned affluent twentysomethings mumbling their way through romance. Bonner, on the other hand, concerns a friendship between two men several decades older—Travis Holloway (Richmond Arquette), an ex-con just released from a 12-year prison sentence, and the eponymous hero (Paul Eenhoorn), a taciturn Australian in his late 50s recently relocated to Reno after struggling for years to find work. It is uncommon for a young filmmaker to work so far outside of his age bracket and milieu; it is even more uncommon for one to articulate the anxieties and hardships of middle-age with such sensitivity, sophistication, and perceptiveness.
Like Martin Bonner, the coming-of-age story It Felt Like Love might seem old-fashioned, but the revelation is in the depth and nuance with which it is executed. There are many films about young women discovering their sexual identity, but few this observant and incisive, conveying the truth of lived experience with rare candor. Despite this being her debut feature, director Eliza Hittman reveals an assured, fully developed authorial voice; she is attuned not only to the precise emotional tenor of fraught adolescence, no small feat itself, but to a filmmaking tradition which encompasses everything from the Dardennes to Carl Dreyer. And she has found her muse in Gina Piersanti, whose face she hones in on with a fascination audiences will no doubt share.
Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman’s documentary Remote Area Medical is similarly fascinated by faces, but here they are severely afflicted: cheeks marred by cysts and teeth crumbling from degenerative disease. Their owners are among the many thousands who, unable to pay for the medical service they sorely need, showed up for a pop-up clinic in Bristol, Tennessee, where the Remote Area Medical team of volunteer doctors and dentists offered free treatments over a three-day weekend. The real subject here is the state of healthcare in America, and Reichert and Zaman wisely forgo making heroes of the RAM itself, emphasizing instead how ineffective such temporary measures are. Its most powerful scene, in which volunteer coordinators attempt to distribute 500 entry tickets to the thousands who have been waiting for days, plays out less like an issue doc than an outright horror film, a vision of the apocalypse happening in our backyard.
In Matt Porterfield’s spare, affecting drama I Used to Be Darker, the apocalypse moves inside, to the living room, where young Abby (Hannah Gross) watches her parents separate—and her once-safe world comes to its sudden, tumultuous end. The title comes from a lyric on singer-songwriter Bill Callahan’s album Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, which was inspired by Callahan’s breakup from folk singer Joanna Newsom. A loose adaptation of that album, Darker is refreshingly languorous for a relationship drama, allowing its tension to develop at a naturalistic, almost lazy pace. The effect is a small world that feels vital and wholly lived-in—kind of like this essential, smartly curated festival.