This year has afforded me an excellent opportunity to “attend” a number of film festivals without ever leaving my hometown and how fun it was to get a chance to participate in a forward-thinking one such as the Bentonville Film Festival, now in its 7th year. Chaired by Oscar-winner Geena Davis and held in Bentonville, Arkansas and other areas of the Northwest part of the start, the week-long event aims to champion the underrepresented voices in media and they’ve routinely been heralded for making good on their commitment. One of the Top 10 film festivals reaching over 85,000 attendees each year, content includes Movies, TV, Digital Content, Books, Music, Games and Technology. With a limited time frame, I was able to screen five films available in the line-up, though as my preview piece indicated…I could have see a number more!
A Spotlight Presentation to kick-off the 2021 Bentonville Film Festival, COAST is the first feature film for a lot of important people behind the scenes. Directors Jessica Hester and Derek Schweickart are helming their first full length movie off of screenwriter Cindy Kitagawa’s California coastal-set piece that has ample amounts of opportunity to explore coming of age-dom from new angles. That it gets tangled up in too many side plots and secondary characters is unfortunate because when it does clear the playing field and just focus on one idea at a time it finds some remarkable truth in its storytelling. I didn’t find enough of those moments here, despite a cast that feels tremendously ready to move in whatever direction Hester/Schweickart pointed. Fatima Ptacek makes for a dynamic lead as a teen trying to find herself amidst family problems, friend issues, and navigating the rocky waters of adult love. The scenes between her mom, played by Cristela Alonzo, and Oscar-winner Melissa Leo feel like they are from another script/movie entirely. I think it has a good soundtrack…I’m not sure though because it all begins to blend together after a while. It doesn’t feel as ‘cool curated’ as other indie productions with a similar aura.
The second documentary I’ve seen this year that follows a former contestant of RuPaul’s Drag Race, WORKHORSE QUEEN winds up being the fresher of the two only because of its rather somber acknowledgement of the reality in reality television. Mrs. Kasha Davis may not have won the show but watching her valiantly try to get on, stay on, then keep herself in the public eye after is a real lesson in gumption. Director Angela Washko has put together a doc with a good flow, perhaps just a hair longer than it has to be, that highlights the contributions of its star without resorting to self-serving promotion. True, there’s a bit of ‘woe-is-me’ attitude at times that may grate on viewers but who doesn’t wish they were on the other side where the grass was greener. For me it only served to humanize Davis more, along with stories of growing up and sorting out a complicated relationship with parents that both inspired and rejected who he was.
The Disappearance of Mrs. Wu
Having recently rewatched The Joy Luck Club (and choking on my sobs through the last ten minutes) I was excited to see Lisa Lu starring in a movie at the Bentonville Film Festival. As one of the mothers in that film and an esteemed actress in her own right, I knew I had to make time for THE DISAPPEARANCE OF MRS. WU in my schedule. I should have let it disappear. Look, I hate having to give a bad review in a short space for a movie that has good intentions, but this is a flimsy dud that doesn’t serve anyone involved at all well. Director Anna Chi assembled several familiar faces of character actors for her film, but no one seems to be acting in the same movie…mostly because Chi throws in too many cliché plot mechanics to count on one hand. The acting is down in the dumps too, some of it hopelessly amateur from newbies and painfully bad from seasoned veterans. Don’t even get me started on the accent imposed on us by the half-sister of a late actress known for her work in a famous galactic franchise. Though there is some semblance of beauty in the film’s resolution, that too is spoiled by Chi’s inability to end the film properly, extending a final image far too long and robbing whatever emotional impact was there from its purpose.
The Daphne Project
Even if THE DAPHNE PROJECT hadn’t turned out so well, you would have had to give co-writers/directors Zora Iman Crews and Alec Tibaldi some major credit for having the chutzpah to attempt a mockumentary that even strayed near the brilliance of 1996’s Waiting for Guffman. There’s some parallels between Christopher Guest’s classic bit of hilarity and this gem which hints of a star in the making in Crews but the actress has something a bit more subversive up her sleeve that speaks to this generation of the self-obsessed only interested in self-promoting. As a NYC actress that insinuates herself into a super off-Broadway production of “The Bacchae”, Crews is rip-roaringly funny but can turn on a dime to show expressive vulnerability…or is it all just a smart act Daphne puts on for the cameras? The supporting cast can be shaky, with some struggling to keep up with Crews who is often sprinting far ahead of them but by and large this 67-minute indie maintains its solid state of comedic affairs.
I Was A Stranger
Actress Reiko Aylesworth moves behind the camera to direct her second short I WAS A STRANGER from a screenplay by April E. Brassard and the 17-minute piece benefits from its directors experience on serialized television. Episodic in nature, the story of a woman fleeing her abusive husband plays like the final segment cut from an hour-long episode of primetime drama. The little we know from the set-up actually works to the film’s advantage, giving star Elizabeth Rodriguez the opportunity to fill in these blanks for us with just her eyes and reactions to one-sided telephone conversations. Pulled over near an RV community that regularly see outsiders stop by needing to escape their own lives, they welcome her and offer the kind of kinship she needs and protection she hasn’t felt in a while. It’s a simple, slice of life story with good acting from its diverse cast. I’d be interested in seeing this expanded to something more substantive, especially with the cast Aylesworth has assembled. You can watch the film for free via Vimeo here.