Tuesday, April 1, 2014

2014 Atlanta Film Festival: 6 short films directed by women

Last night at the Atlanta Film Festival, I caught one of the finest block of short films I've ever seen at any film festival (usually there are one or two offerings in a shorts program I don't care for). I had agreed to attend the program without knowing that its focus was attuned to the work of female film directors and that, thematically, the films were all about young girls. As I say on MOVIE GEEKS UNITED! all the time, 9 times out of 10, a movie directed by a woman is going to impress me, simply because their voices are yearning to be heard--and you can intrinsically feel this in their films. I believe women directors have a better (or at least more novel) handle on nuance, emotion, character development, and pacing, while sporting a unique take on humor and drama that just always feels immanently fresh and exciting to me. These six short films prove my point.

Thirteen Blue (Jacqueline Lentzou, Greece) 
On the verge of womanhood, Ellie (an expressive Emmanuela Sfyridi) spends her summer mornings silently assessing her image in the mirror, trying to reconcile the girlish body she once had with the more curvy one she's getting. Waiting impatiently for the birth of a family friend's baby, this only child  finds herself alternately engaged with and alienated from her family, and when some tough news comes her way, she reacts with both horror (in one superb close-up of Sfyridi's stunned face) and a wandering introspection. Lentzou frames her films images impeccably in widescreen, with a masterful sense of composition that often cleverly obscures the action in inventive ways. The film's color palette is memorably vibrant (Owen Laird's cinematography--the film was shot on Super 16mm film--is filled with warm yellows and pale pinks), and the always sharp editing reminded me of the best of the Dogma 95 movies. In 18 minutes, Lentzou's THIRTEEN BLUE really impresses us with its depth of feeling and its gentle but arresting visage. 

Damn Girl (Kira Richards Hansen, Denmark) 
In this terrific character study, Hansen trains her camera on Alex (Rosalina Kroyer), a young girl who spends her days with her all-boy crew doing boyish things. But this can't last forever and it's not long before one of the guys starts seeing Alex in a different light. Bathed in industrial browns and blacks, Hansen's film really gets the life of young boys correct with their tough talk and rough play. But, through the excellent scripting by Signe Soby Bech (this is a really funny film), it also effectively trains in on what it's like to be a young woman trying to figure out in which direction to go next. In a lightning-quick 13 minutes, DAMN GIRL (which I think was originally called FUCKING GIRL, and I can see where that might be a more problematic title, but I think it's a better one) gives us generous doses of realism and, yet, more sparing but still exceptional tastes of powerful sentiment and romance.

So You've Grown Attached (Kate Tsang, US)
Tsang captures our eyes from her very first black-and-white image: a grey-suited man with an inky face, glowing eyes, and spiders on his lapel. We find that this is Ex (Simon Pearl), and the film withholds from us only a short time the knowledge that he is Izzy's imaginary friend. Izzy--in a wonderfully acerbic performance by Madeleine Conner--is a kid that hates everything. Her reaction to a mere slice of pizza is to begin stabbing it over and over again with a plastic knife. Ex is her only way to engage with the world, and he's happy about that. But when other concerns begin to catch her eye (more specifically, the boy next door), Ex has to come to the realization that his days with his best friend are numbered. On a pure craft level, this was perhaps the best film of the bunch. The art direction, costume design, animation, scoring, editing, sound and widescreen photography are all absolutely brilliant, worthy of comparison to Tim Burton. But Tsang never lets these elements overtake the heart and humor of her story, as evidenced by the inevitable ending, which still remains ridiculously moving. A really energetic short film. SO YOU'VE GROWN ATTACHED is 15 minutes of sweet, vigorous intelligence matched with equally solid optical confections.  

Without Fire (Eliza McNitt, US)
Wonderfully shot with a you-are-there documentary feel by Hunter Baker, McNitt's forceful 20-minute film follows a Navajo girl (Magdelena Begay) struggling to survive brutal desert conditions and abject poverty while dealing with her stern, asthma-afflicted mother (Misty Upham, who's quite splendid). Working with disguarded junk, the daughter finds an inventive way to help ease their survival blues while proving her worth to her demanding mother. A quiet film with a measured pace and sure sense of location (the filmmakers spent three torturous weeks in the desert making the film, and the director even contracted dysentery when she drank the available tap water), WITHOUT FIRE is devastating and yet supremely hopeful throughout.  

Painted Lady (Brittany Shyne, US)
Anchored by an eloquently precocious and largely silent lead performance by Sumayah Chappelle (Dave Chappelle's niece), Shyne's PAINTED LADY finds quiet drama in a subject rarely touched on in films. The concept is refreshingly simple: Bree is a nine-year-old dealing with her first menstrual period. With this, director Shyne reaches a high level of frank intimacy that is tasteful and yet poetically real (impressively, the bounces from slightly discomfiting moments to ones of serene beauty). Visually, her film's major asset is Chappelle who, with her beautiful eyes and rather melancholy manner, says everything we need to know without ever having her voice heard.  She's an exceptional young actress who deserves to have a promising career, and Shyne was perfectly brilliant in casting her. 

Crystal (Chell Stephen, US/Canada)
Though I loved all of the films in this shorts program, I'd be lying if I didn't say I had a favorite, and Chell Stephen's tremendously funny character study CRYSTAL easily won out in this regard. It had me cackling loudly and literally throughout--from the moment where Crystal takes a slap in the opening shot, I was hooked. The director has a confident and raucous filmmaking style that's an attraction unto itself (visually, the movie is as wildly bold as the character its portraying). But, for me, most of the laughs stemmed from Kate Stephen (the director's sister) as the title character, an ass-kickin' country girl with a rich fantasy life (heavily influenced by her favorite music videos) and absolutely no patience with anything or anyone she encounters. She's hilariously tough, whether telling her diner co-workers to fuck off or punching out a dude trying to appeal to her softer side. By the end of this 16-minute nuttiness, I was clamoring for about 80 minutes more with this riotous riot grrrl with the delicate bangs, the short-cut pink-t, and the stern face. Light the countryside on fire with Crystal's name, folks, because once you see this film you won't be able to forget its maker or its incredibly vivacious star--a one-two-punch of a sister team.