The 2018 San Francisco International Film Festival starts April 4th and runs through the 17th. Here are a few films that caught my eye. Keep a look out for reviews as the festival gets underway.
There is a strange and ultimately unsuccessful gimmick at the heart of American Animals that I wished had worked. Telling the tale of a real-life botched heist by a band of upper-middle class white college guys, director Bart Layton (in his feature debut) injects his film with interviews of the film’s real-life protagonists, to an overwhelming degree. At one point, Layton even puts one directly in the movie, interacting with his acting counterpart. It’s a bit too wink-wink and for me reduces the film’s impact. That’s too bad because he’s assembled a killer cast that includes Evan Peters (American Horror Story), Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) Blake Jenner (Everybody Wants Some!!) and Emmy award winner Ann Dowd (The Handmaid’s Tale). Every performance here is pitch-perfect but constantly pulling away to the real life talking heads (emphasizing how much they don’t look like the people playing them) dilutes any element of surprise if you’re unfamiliar with this case. Instead of propelling the narrative, it stops it in its tracks. Still, the visual flair and smart casting shows a lot of potential and I look forward to what Layton brings us next.
A major hit at Sundance this year (and Grand Jury Prize winner), The Miseducation of Cameron Post finds a career-best performance from Chloe Grace Moretz as a teen girl sent to a Christian gay conversion camp by her guardians in 1993 rural Pennsylvania.
It’s a credit to writer/director Desiree Akhavan that she is able to navigate the horror of her film’s subject (and one that isn’t two decades away with our current VP) with the natural playfulness and reality of being a teenager. These shifts in tone are believable and honest as they happen in the moment. The time period provides a wealth of nostalgic name drops (the awesome grunge-era band The Breeders feature heavily in two fantastic scenes) and gives us a pre-cell phone, pre-social media age where the vulnerability of teen interaction was face to face.
Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty) is terrifying as the doctor leading the conversion at God’s Promise, where she counts her brother (a superb John Gallagher Jr. from Short Term 12, a distant cousin to this film) as her first ‘success’ story. Great support is given by Sasha Lane (American Honey breakout Sasha Lane), Forrest Goodluck (the ‘Native American David Bowie’) and Emily Skeggs (as Cameron’s roommate), all of whom are fully fleshed characters who find empathy and validation within themselves.
In this vivacious doc, co-directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West present Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she is, ever the quiet activist. In fact, ‘quiet’ is how most people in the film describe her (that adjective pops up more than half a dozen times). But in her non-bellicose nature is a private confidence that pushes her. Pushes her to be the only female lawyer in her class. Pushes her to create shattering defenses of women’s and civil rights that put her the history books.
Her unlikely friendship with arch-conservative (and now deceased) Antonin Scalia at first seems strange but when Ginsburg details what she learned from her hard-working single mother (“Don’t ever yell in an argument”) you realize how important it was for her to forge relationships that can endure opposite ends of the spectrum beliefs. It’s a fascinating perspective in an era of caustic social media scream wars that permanently damage relationships.
Speaking of her late husband Marty, Ginsburg says “He was the first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain.” This might be the most rewarding part of the film, that amongst her greatest achievements is, at its heart, a true love story. A true yin and yang of support and balance, like a two-person court. This is an absorbing and thoughtful film of a woman of interminable strength and perseverance and a must-see.
Sometimes there is a fine line between homage and and rip-off. Most people, for example, consider the majority of Quentin Tarantino’s work to be inspired by and homages to his favorite kinds of films from the 70s (exploitation, etc). With We the Animals, first time feature director Jeremiah Zagar has created a kaleidoscope of influences ranging from the ethereal wonder of Terrence Malick to the dreams-as-art fantasy of John Cameron Mitchell. There are even clear lines of Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Florida Project here in this tale of three young brothers, one of which has a big secret, navigating a mostly parent-less existence. Every one of those elements merges together to create stunning moments of magical realism. It’s one of the most emotionally satisfying and visually breathtaking films of the year.