Film

Three Promising, Timely Features to Seek Out at the Brooklyn Film Festival

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The nineteenth Brooklyn Film Festival, which runs till June 12, boasts 107 features and short films, spanning Canada, Iran, the Philippines, Belgium, China, and many other countries. Two of its features — Love Is All You Need? and Forbidden Cuba — are very timely, exploring, respectively, America’s still prevalent homophobia nearly twenty years after the horrific killing of outed Wyoming teen Matthew Shepard and the potential for U.S. exploitation of Cuba now that the borders have opened. (More on them below.)

One festival movie, however, is a timeless lark: a rollicking, touching family yarn called Creedmoria, screening June 9 and 12.

Unlike in John Irving’s novel The Hotel New Hampshire, there’s no incest to be found in Alicia Slimmer’s Creedmoria. But the two works share a tomboyish, free-spirited high school heroine who’s undeterred by having no friends; who’s touchy-feely close with her gay brother, whom she protects from bullies; and whose dog suffers from uncontrollable flatulence. There are similarities to Tony Richardson’s 1984 screen adaptation of Hampshire as well: Slimmer favors sped-up montages, and she takes a cutesy, absurdist approach to such tragedies as heart attacks and attempted teen suicide.

Like her sassy protagonist, Candy (Stef Dawson), Slimmer grew up in the 1980s in suburban Queens, in close proximity to the mental institution Creedmoor. (The title is an ode to the haggard but lovable residents of this ward, whom only Candy and her tortured brothers relate to.) You would not know the film is set in the Eighties from the hairstyles, clothes, or soundtrack (which jumps from Seventies FM radio rock to mopey Eighties hits by the Cure to Nineties Iggy Pop and Tears for Fears), but the simplistic underlying message is right out of an Eighties John Hughes flick. Candy and her siblings are pushed by their uptight mother (the only family member, fittingly, to flaunt her New Yawk accent) to act “normal,” but they’re not, and never can be, and isn’t that inspiring?

This is a trite story, to be sure, and never as funny nor as outrageous as you might hope. But Slimmer’s undying faith in these characters’ lovability gets under your skin, and the movie stays warm and endearing throughout. Like John Waters — who also fixates on grotesquely loud yet vulnerable suburban American families — she has a sly way of mixing pathos with outlandishness. And Dawson — a tawny, pouty pixie who, oddly, could pass just as easily for 32 as she could for 18 — keeps the proceedings energetic.

Kim Rocco Shields’s Love Is All You Need?, while employing many of the same hyperkinetic film techniques as Creedmoria, is a slam-bang downbeat parable. (The film’s festival play dates have passed.) Using the Shepard murder as context, Shields invents a new small-town America in which same-sex married couples are the God-fearing, child-rearing majority, and heterosexuals are variously snubbed, crucified, and beaten by them and their kin. As in Requiem for a Dream, no frame in this dizzying two-hour film lasts more than five seconds; stupidly optimistic monologues — in this case, brainwashing religious sermons and football coach speeches — are played, with pointed irony, over people behaving horribly; and there is constant cross-cutting between two or three equally doom-laden climactic events (all of Love operates at a fever pitch).

We need timely polemics like Love. They may seem shaming and preachy to liberal audiences, but if just one homophobic high school or college bully watches it and has a change of heart, that is no small feat. The problem, though, is that Shields is somewhat halfhearted in her vision. If homosexuals are the unabashed, dominant figures here, why, for instance, are they never openly affectionate with one another, as heterosexuals are today? (The only lust depicted is clandestine lust.) To be fair, Shields sets her film in a conservative town with a Christian university, but the homosexual frat boys and sorority girls are referred to as sexually active, so it rings false when they register as timid as the closeted heterosexuals — or ‘ros — they taunt. In turn, the film itself is rendered timid.

That said, Shields pulls off one very clever twist (it’s also the sole moment of humor). In the film’s fictional universe, the powers that be have long ago rewritten Romeo and Juliet as Romeo and Julio, but a liberal English teacher (Jeremy Sisto) boldly decides to stage the play with the lead roles changed back to a man and woman. This is met with undying furor. The movie also yields an outstandingly raw performance from thirteen-year-old Kyla Kenedy, as a brutally picked-on middle schooler. Her third-act meltdown transcends the film’s lack of subtlety; it breaks your heart and lingers in your brain.

Art Jones’s Forbidden Cuba (screening June 7 and 11) is the first American film to be shot in the title country since 1959. Finishing it involved multiple hidden cameras, shooting without permits, and the filmmakers’ undergoing hours of scrutiny from government figures, but none of that treacherousness is felt here. It’s an unexpectedly gentle, easygoing film.

Like in Local Hero, a quiet, enterprising executive, Gil (Jones), is sent by a heartless firm to a third-world country, where he finds inner peace and nobility. In the movie’s penultimate shot, this formerly buttoned-down businessman, his suit pants now shorn to threads, walks happily alongside a half-naked local kid.

Luckily, this is the only time Forbidden Cuba resorts to thunderous obviousness. The heart of the story is Gil’s bonding with a goofy operative, Jer (the very funny Matthew Gordon), whom the firm employs to monitor Gil’s progress. They make an endearing pair, as Jer teaches Gil the joys of Wiffle ball and spontaneous swimming.

Given the guerrilla filmmaking behind it, we would forgive Forbidden Cuba for looking shoddy, but it doesn’t. The movie, somehow, is a beautifully lit and -staged road odyssey, and Cuba’s beaches and countryside are as intoxicating to the audience as they are to Gil.

Gil’s main mission is to locate and seize a fellow exec who’s “gone rogue”; it’s like a muted version of Martin Sheen’s search for Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. The whole film, in fact, is muted, enjoyably so. In its oddball way, it ends up endorsing Cuba as an idyll for spiritually empty, midlife-crisis-surviving men — as a place to offer such wretches a second chance at grace.