Over the next two weeks, we’ll be publishing short-form reviews of films playing at the Independent Film Festival Boston 2018, which runs from Wednesday, April 25 to Wednesday, May 2. The films considered below are scheduled to play during the festival’s first two days.
Wednesday, May 25—Opening Night
EIGHTH GRADE , written and directed by Bo Burnham
With Eighth Grade, Bo Burnham skips the common methods employed by works like Freaks and Geeks [1999-2000] and Dazed and Confused —trips into historical nostalgia—to instead tell a middle school story featuring students from Gen Z. Of course, we still recognize slices of traditional life between their constant scrolling of social media feeds—encounters with embarrassing adults who pretend to be hip, or awkward dinner conversations with their parents. But most of all, Burnham’s film achieves its sense of universality through Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an insecure eighth-grader whose interior life seems totally invisible to her classmates and teachers even as she reaches the very end of her middle school years. Fisher gives one of the year’s best performances thus far. She’s disconcertingly natural: When Kayla is afraid to talk to her crush, or to confront the “popular girls,” you can see the character herself doing some acting—we see her working to hide every vulnerable emotion she’s feeling. Who doesn’t short-circuit at those moments? Eighth Grade hits many such notes (relatable, emotional) without becoming too sweet or melodramatic. Burnham and cinematographer Andrew Wehde soften the images with warm lighting, and it gives the film a tinge of nostalgia even as it occurs in the present day. We root for Kayla because we’ve survived those years ourselves—and because we want her to do the same. -Monica Castillo
Somerville Theatre / 7:30PM / not yet rated. Set for general theatrical release on July 13.
Thursday, May 26
CRIME + PUNISHMENT , directed by Stephen Maing
Crime + Punishment represents a subgenre not often seen within cinema: the nonfiction crime epic. And it’s a nonfiction crime epic set in New York City—so while it may be a rarity, it still belongs to a specific cinematic lineage. It claims that lineage itself when members and supporters of the “NYPD12” walk toward the frame in unison while a slow-motion effect kicks in, and music along with it; their coats and ties ripple in the wind, like they all just arrived from the opening credits of an NYC-set genre film circa 1974 (the song is Curtis Harding’s “Face Your Fear,” itself a conscious throwback). That’s an oft-used flourish—the slow-mo walk—but the movie earns it. Director/editor/cinematographer Stephen Maing has divided the film’s narrative into movements (each begins with a shot of the city’s skyline or landscape), and most of the early ones are dedicated to introducing and profiling the people seen walking in that shot (by the time he’s making them look cool, you know enough to look past it). The “12” are police officers bringing a lawsuit against the state of New York based on their claims that an outlawed quota system for arrests and summonses remains in place on an unofficial basis. Among them, we first hear from Officer Sandy Gonzales, who provides evidence suggesting the quota system has not been discarded, and that he’s facing retaliation for refusing to adhere to it. Maing’s film then moves through different burroughs and precincts and workplaces to find other figures affected by that very system—and once a new figure is introduced, they remain in the movie’s rotation until the end. Those additional subjects include a young man who’s been constantly targeted by police for arrest despite the fact that none of those arrests have led to a conviction (he’s seen awaiting trial on Rikers Island for yet another baseless charge); a private investigator hired by that man’s mother for the sake of proving his innocence (the P.I. is a former cop himself); and numerous other NYPD employees who join Gonzales in the legal case against the city (including Officer Felicia Whitely, and Sergeant Edwin Raymond). Later movements are less character-specific, with some focused on the 12’s public relations (meetings with activists or the media), and others cataloging their methods of evidence-gathering (sometimes using cameras hidden in watches or pens.) Process, really, is the primary guideline: Maing keeps the footage rigorously focused on matters related to the quota case’s development and resulting effects. And so the film does suffer from the inherent limitations of its access: Crime + Punishment is a procedural that can only depict the process from one side (representatives of the NYPD, like former Commissioner William Bratton, are presented as shadowy authority figures—like villains in a Alan Pakula movie, to cite another cinematic lineage), and even then, it’s a necessarily unfinished portrait (the NYPD12’s lawsuit remains in limbo as the state works to have the charges dismissed). Yet the film does have aims beyond the narrative or the aesthetic. The officers speak themselves about the importance of arguing their case in the court of public opinion—and the structure of Crime + Punishment provides them a worthy forum. -Jake Mulligan
Brattle Theatre / 7PM / not rated.
SADIE , written and directed by Megan Griffiths
There’s a moment in Sadie where Rae (Melanie Lynskey) is arguing face-to-face with the man she’s been dating (John Gallagher Jr.), then receives a text message from the man who’s been trying to date her (Tony Hale). When her phone buzzes with that message, she grits her teeth for a fraction of a second, as if the vibration had come with an electrical shock. It’s a beautifully observed moment—gesture revealing truth—in a movie that usually knows how to emphasize them (the score is by Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, but the film’s soundscape is often serenely quiet). Rae is married to a third man, who’s absent from both her life and from the film—he’s effectively abandoned her and their teenage daughter Sadie (Sophia Mitri Schloss) by constantly reenlisting in the US military. But this hasn’t changed Dad’s status as a hero to Sadie: She considers herself an heir to his valor, and therefore determines her actions with a wartime mentality (when her only friend is assaulted, she calls in an easily-traced bomb threat from the bully’s phone). Writer/director Megan Griffiths’ interest in the child’s behavior is psychological, but also, more simply, it’s symbolic—the lead character becomes the living embodiment of ill effects wrought on young American minds by having only known wartime (there’s a VHS of Platoon  on Sadie’s bedside, which is either an heirloom or just another symbol, because she was definitely born in the DVD era). But that’s not to suggest that she’s the only character in this film with thematically-appropriate trauma: Rae and Sadie live in Washington State mobile home, and nearly every neighbor seems plagued by one secret or another—the argument mentioned above occurs when Cyrus (Gallagher Jr.) inadvertently reveals his addiction to “painkillers”. Yet Sadie is the one most blatantly used for dramatic and thematic purposes: her vaguely-sociopathic behavior prods those secrets and anxieties and subtexts until they come out into the open. Perhaps “that’s the point”—that wartime places an extraordinary amount of inorganic trauma on the otherwise typical lives of those living through it. But it’s a point the film, and its characterizations, suffer for having made. Sadie does recover from its missteps, though, even as it tells a story about characters who can’t. The performances of Lynskey and Schloss heal it—particularly in the film’s melodramatic denouement—with gestures cutting deepest once again. -Jake Mulligan
Somerville Theatre / 7:15PM / not yet rated.
“Shorts Kenmore: Documentary,” program includes
COMMUNITY PATROL , directed by Andrew James
NO JAIL TIME , directed by Lance Oppenheim
REWALK , directed by Philip Shane & Michael Lesser
A VIEW FROM THE WINDOW , directed by Azar Kafaei and Chris Filippone
By documenting a specific act of collective action, the black-and-white Community Patrol focuses on the complexities of community policing in a Detroit neighborhood—it follows a group of ministers as they lead a march intended to disrupt the supply of a drug dealer who’s living and dealing next to a church. There’s a direct relation between this short work and director Andrew James’ recent feature-length film, Street Fighting Men ; the footage that comprises Community Patrol was shot at the same time as the feature but didn’t make it into the final cut (on that note, a disclosure: I’m acquainted with one of the producers of this film). While the exact reason for the shift to monochrome is unclear (the feature was in color), this newer film’s narrative purpose is perfectly discernable: Despite its necessarily uncomfortable contents, the short both documents and further enables a needed dialogue regarding accountability and the concept of patrolling. Without editorializing, Community Patrol raises serious questions about who has the authority to control a neighborhood—as well as about how that authority is created, or maintained.
No Jail Time, an Op-Doc produced and distributed by the New York Times, documents an extremely specialized film festival: one devoted to documentaries produced by lawyers to aid in the sentencing and post-conviction hearings of their clients (they’re known as “sentencing mitigation videos”). The central figure at that festival, Doug Passon, uses the event as a forum to instruct lawyers about creating effective minidocumentaries using traditional cinematic methods—he even presents the concept of the “hero’s journey” as one that can be used to frame their client in the best possible light, using language right out of film school. “Is documentary filmmaking the absolute truth?” he asks, before answering himself. “No, it’s not. What it is is the emotional truth.” He’s referencing one of the central philosophical questions that faces nonfiction filmmakers—and indeed, the work profiled in No Jail Time almost proves that filmmaking is inherently suited toward manipulating its audience.
Rewalk is a story about an incredible technical device (a “powered exoskeleton”) that’s helping paraplegics to walk. But it’s also a story about Gene and Terry—two veterans who are testing the device out and hope to see it developed toward further use (the film also depicts work done to get ReWalk devices approved for home use by the FDA). The story is so compelling that it practically tells itself—which helps when the camerawork becomes unstable, or out of focus, or when the film crew is spotted in the frame during cross-shooting. Despite these technical blunders, Gene’s drive to compete in the Generosity 5K (a fundraising race) on behalf of ReWalk still propels the narrative forward. He is a classically sympathetic character: We hope for his success in the race, and for the success of the larger cause running alongside him.
There is an obvious irony within the beautiful sound design of A View from the Window: The film is described as “an immersive glimpse of a school day through the eyes of deaf children,” but it’s a harmonic blend of sounds—score music, birds cawing, playgrounds creaking, children laughing—that creates the work’s powerful emotional landscape. For a majority of its runtime, this short is perfectly carefree, exuding a quality of childhood innocence—and it also shifts its own momentum freely, at one point allowing for a minute-long interlude exploring what it’s like to be a black deaf male in America today. It’s a refreshing film. -Kori Feener
Somerville Theatre / 9:30PM. Program also screens on Saturday, April 28, at 1:30PM.
WHITE TIDE: THE LEGEND OF CULEBRA , directed by Theo Love
There’s an intensely-mannered quality right from the start of Theo Love’s White Tide, a documentary heist-film which takes a number of visual cues from the comedies of directors Edgar Wright and Wes Anderson. It also recalls a disclaimer employed by Domino —“based on a true story, sort of”. Love’s film allows primary subject Rodney Hyden to lead the audience through his attempts to uncover a buried fortune: two million dollars worth of cocaine (other interviews with involved parties give further context). What’s unusual is the way Hyden’s story is told—or rather, the way it’s retold: Love includes comedic recreations of the events being recounted in the interviews (which is a relatively common nonfiction technique), and he allows Rodney to play himself (which isn’t.) It creates an overwhelmingly-aestheticized journey where unlikely characters come together in an attempt to strike it rich—and where symbolically-loaded turtles run amuck within the frame, alongside numerous other unexpected sight-gags. The film’s primary question is one that has animated many narratives before: ’If you knew about a treasure, would you have the gall to get it?’ For Rodney, it’s a resounding yes. -Kori Feener
Somerville Theatre / 9:30PM / not rated.
INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2018. 4.25–5.2. FOR INDIVIDUAL TICKETS, FESTIVAL BADGES, AND OTHER INFORMATION ABOUT THE FESTIVAL, SEE IFFBOSTON.ORG.