You see movie stars every time you go to the multiplex, but they all seem to look the same. It’s a cliche to say that everything’s a superhero movie now, but even when it’s not a superhero movie, the lead actors always seem to look like one: they’re chiseled, tall, square-jawed, smooth-talking, and super white. That’s a West-Coast problem, and it’ll need a West-Coast solution. But on a different level, the solution is already present: no Bostonian can say that we’re limited to the options at the multiplex. Our city plays host to a handful of independently operated movie theaters, a large selection of local film festivals dedicated to specific ethnicities and backgrounds, numerous university-funded screening programs—and for the rest of this week, it plays host to the the eight-day Independent Film Festival Boston. The nonprofit film series is entering its 15th year, and its 2017 iteration is spread across more than three screening locations, with programming that includes features, short films, fiction and nonfiction, panels and parties, innumerable filmmakers in person, all the works. It is surely the biggest film festival of Boston’s calendar year, and more importantly, it lives up to the responsibility that comes with that: You could spend all eight days at IFFBoston, and you wouldn’t see any two films that looked alike. JM
STUMPED, directed by Robin Berghaus
Nonfiction. Not rated. Screened on opening night.
The festival began this past Wednesday with Stumped , which profiles local figure Will Lautzenheiser. The beginning of the documentary introduces us to Mr. Lautzenheiser, who is seen with all four limbs amputated; the film then flashes back to two years earlier, explaining that he lost them due to a life-threatening bacterial infection. From there Berghaus documents Will’s recent life in Boston, where he lives with a partner (Angel Gonzalez), considers the risks of experimental arm transplants (via surgeons at Brigham and Women’s), and does stand-up comedy on the side (he cheekily explains, with prosthesis in hand, that his act already has “a hook”). So many stories surround Lautzenheiser, to the extent that Stumped begins to feel like five movies in one: It could be about the use of comedy to process trauma, or about the relationship between an unprepared caretaker and his recently disabled partner, or about the question of whether to risk one’s health for the sake of a radically life-altering surgery, or about the intense rehabilitation that follows such a surgery, or about any number of other instances along the way. Those would all be something like procedurals. Stumped is more like a bio-doc. It tells those stories via brief recollections and interviews, divided into thinly separated chapters, bringing in person after person and location after location, until you get the sense of the whole community that’s surrounding Will. To that point, the film is exceptionally specific on a medical level, with regards to both articulating conditions and crediting individual doctors or cases. Stumped is diligent and frank. Which is not equivalent to intimacy—that’s rarer, coming only in brief moments. Instead the film has the feeling of work by a damn good reporter: even at 72 minutes, one of its primary quality is comprehensiveness. JM
ONE OCTOBER, directed by Rachel Shuman
Nonfiction. Not rated. Screens on Sun 4.30, 12:45pm. Somerville Theatre.
Like many other nonfiction films playing at IFFBoston, this one begins with a quote: “New York is never the same city for more than a dozen years altogether.” The 56-minute One October  then presents footage of New York radio personality Clay Pigeon as he interviews people on the street in October 2008, with an obvious focus on the then-ongoing financial meltdown—the implication being that the New York City of this past “dozen years” was defined by the happenings of that specific month, perhaps more than any other. Pigeon is an Iowa native looking for pithy interviews that illustrate “the New York spirit,” and he stops the kind of people usually held up to represent that vague ethos: a jogger with a bright future, a Harlem woman with a colorful past, a day laborer with conservative leanings, a homeless man with a well-practiced schtick, etc. He maintains a thoroughly conversational tone, but he also asks intimately personal questions, and with no regards to timing, often pressing his subjects to open up about their life’s traumas with little to no prelude. That process and the resulting interviews tell you more about Pigeon than they tell you about the city. You learn about his format (the sound-bite nature of radio programming), and you learn about what he’s interested in (the surface of people—because that’s all that fits into his timeslot). One October stays with his interviews, so it exhibits the same limitations. The film does spot quite a few New York archetypes, but it doesn’t manage to complicate them. JM
MAINELAND, directed by Miao Wang
Nonfiction. Not rated. Screens on Sun 4.30, 2:45pm. Somerville Theatre.
From a distance, you might say that everything documented in Maineland  is dictated by capital. Miao Wang’s exceptionally knotty documentary follows two unrelated Chinese teenagers, Stella and Harry, as they go abroad to Maine’s private Fryeburg Academy to attend high school. The cinematography is by Sean Price Williams, but the central element is the sound design—we often hear voiceover commentary from Stella and Harry, which keeps the visually-boring face-to-camera interview scenes to a minimum. In terms of what they’re actually saying, both the parents and the children are fixated on the economic benefits of the transfer: “I want Stella to integrate with Americans,” her Dad says bluntly, explaining that he expects her to be doing business abroad as an adult; Stella falls in line, planning to pursue a business degree once she reaches an American college, despite the fact that she’d rather study education. So it’s fair to interpret money as the center of the film. But then again, that’s to take the subjects at their word. One central scene watches as a girl about to interview at Fryeburg is subtly coached on the right things to say. Maineland uses scenes like that to remind you what you’re watching: this may be nonfiction, but everything’s a choreographed presentation anyway. And for the kids themselves, that can be disheartening. In front of her parents, Stella speaks about the economic advantages her time abroad will give her later on. But to the filmmakers, she admits she’s romanticizing her future time in America, having been excited by the presentations of our own entertainment industry, specifically the High School Musical  movies—which of course is nothing like what she’s going to find in rural Maine, making her presentational stances all the more complicated. And once the kids actually get to America, they start speaking for themselves, which includes some thoughts about their parents’ own subconscious agendas, which are typically more selfish than they admit (maybe they have a business that needs to expand into the U.S.) You might say the movie is documenting motivational uncertainty, then, which is necessarily loaded with drama and subtext. And to confirm it, the concept is compounded once more, this time by the American students and teachers at Fryeburg. Though accommodating on a technical level, they meet the foreign students with typical condescension: signs for “English-only common spaces,” classes that begin with “so where are you from” routines, the usual passive-aggressive stuff. In a key moment, some of the international students—who admit that they mostly keep to themselves and feel separated from the larger student population—aim to make a short documentary about how they’re perceived by the native Mainers. That leads to a series of mostly white students looking into the camera, befuddled, and failing to adequately explain why the Chinese students have failed to integrate on a social level. If they were being totally honest, they probably could explain it, or at least try to. But like everyone else in the movie, they’ve got their own presentational stances to adhere to. JM
DEAN, written and directed by Demetri Martin
Fiction. Rated PG-13. Screens on Sun 4.30, 7pm. Somerville Theatre.
Stand-up comedian Demetri Martin aims for auteur status with Dean , leaving “personal” elements in every corner. He’s the writer, director, lead actor, and more—he plays a sketch artist, and some drawings are even taken from his own published works. As for the script, it has significant thematic ambitions, which you suspect are personal as well. Dean considers the divergent grief of a go-getter father (Kevin Kline) and his introvert son (Martin) after they lose their family’s matriarch (unseen); the father buries himself in self-help philosophies, the son wallows in highly indulgent forms of melancholy, and the difference between the coping strategies drives the two further apart (until it doesn’t anymore). Kline has two or three staggeringly well-performed scenes, most of which take place alongside a real estate agent (Mary Steenburgen) he’s smitten with. In the best one, she’s setting up a dating profile—he tries to flirt by asking questions, but naturally he asks too many, and she starts to mistake it for condescension, turning the whole exchange bitter. Apart from those highlights, though, Kline’s stuck playing Dad-comedy—fumbling with a new cell phone he doesn’t know how to use, among other cliches. In the meantime, the emphasis is tilted unevenly towards Martin, who’s playing an archetype of his own: the holier-than-thou depressive, caught in arrested development, trying to come of age. It’s the Woody Allen thing, or the Rushmore  thing—or at least, that’s what it’s going for. Martin doesn’t get there. But during the best scenes between Kline and Steenburgen, he gets close to greatness anyway. JM
THE CREST, directed by Mark Christopher Covino
Nonfiction. Not rated. Screens on Thu 4.27, 9:45pm. Somerville Theatre.
In the field of professional documentaries, the “travelogue” has developed an unjustly bad rep. But it’s a form with a tradition that goes back as far as nonfiction cinema itself—and at IFFBoston 2017, at least one film fully adheres to that form. The Crest  follows two long-separated cousins on a family vacation to the Blasket Islands, off the western coast of Ireland. The ludicrously picturesque location was the home of their ancestors, including An Ri, the storied “king” who lived there five generations ago. But the young men—Andrew Jacob and Dennis “DK” Kane—are equally interested in the surf. They hadn’t met prior to the trip, but they already shared that interest: Dennis carves boards, and Andrew illustrates them. Once abroad, swells are rare, which gives the film time for a series of vacation-adjacent digressions: There’s a stop at a family reunion, footage lensed in museums and at nearby landmarks, a brief history lesson on the literature of the Blaskets, and even a section on the Kane family’s much-beloved bus driver. Eventually the pair get to surf, but it’s the time on the shore that gives the film its distinction—it’s not quite a surf-movie, more like an about-to-surf movie. The landscape photography is emphasized throughout, with the camera panning across the sweeping beauty of the Blasket’s plains often, from high and low angles alike. The waves the pair do eventually find are hardly legendary. And beyond the intricate historical connections, the family’s vacation is relatively typical one as well. But those sights of the Blasket’s rich textures, which so clearly inspired the writers and painters of its past… they almost justify the whole trip by themselves. JM
FINDING KUKAN, directed by Robin Lung
Nonfiction. Screens on Thu 4.27, 8pm. Somerville Theatre.
If nothing else, the last few years of entertainment have revealed that people, not just those lumped under the vague term “minorities,” want to see credit where credit is due. But what happens when someone’s, or something’s, existence is erased altogether? In 1941, co-producer Li Ling Ai and director Rey Scott released Kukan, an Oscar-winning documentary about the Chinese resistance to Japan during the beginning years of WWII. Scott lugged a 16mm camera around the country, capturing various divisions of the Chinese population on color film, including 20 straight minutes of Japan unloading bomb after bomb in a massive aerial attack. It’s the type of cinematic feat that seems both too well-framed and too horrifying to be real—President Roosevelt found himself impacted by the film after a private screening at the White House. So how was it lost for half a century? And, more importantly, how is so little known about Ling Ai when, comparatively, there’s so much information on Scott? Hawaiian-Chinese filmmaker Robin Lung steers her fascination into the depths of obsession in Finding Kukan, and we slip inside her mind. A lost film becomes a whitewashed story, as an under-discussed co-producer becomes an erased part of history. While the gripping revelations in Finding Kukan circle around the details Lung digs up and the places she finds them—partial remains, faulty memories, outdated facts—the documentary’s impact comes from her driving questions as a producer. It feels like America is only just now beginning to compensate for all of the races, genders, sexualities, and other factors it used to push influential people out of the frame. And Lung’s film aims not only to right a wrong, but also to remind viewers that we need to hold our history books accountable. Hollywood is trying to address its lack of diversity in current productions, but it’s also important to start from the beginning. NC