Wild Bunch

Amy Taubin on BAMcinemaFest 2012

Tim Sutton, Pavilion, 2012, still from a color film, 70 minutes.

BAMCINEMAFEST RETURNS with another superb lineup of independent movies, many hyped and headed for summer release and others flying under the radar. In the first category, Benh Zeitlin’s glorious Cannes Camera d’Or and Sundance Grand Prize winner Beasts of the Southern Wild is the one to see. BAM will give it the quality projection it deserves, and the promised postscreening Q&A features the articulate director and some of the actors, hopefully irrepressible Quvenzhané Wallis (now eight years old) who plays Hushpuppy, the film’s guiding consciousness, and Dwight Henry, who plays her tough-loving father.

Beasts aside, the most exciting movies in the festival don’t have distribution. In fact, their makers—Tim Sutton, Keith Miller, Dan Sallitt, the team of Melanie Shatzky and Brian Cassidy—ignore the rules that have turned the once promising independent film moment into Hollywood cheap and lite. Only one of them, Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, has a hopeful ending; only one, Shatzky and Cassidy’s Francine, employs a “name” actor. All of them eschew glamour but have moments of rare beauty. And one of them, Sutton’s Pavilion, is exquisite beginning to end.

An impressionistic coming-of-age movie, Pavilion depicts a fifteen-year-old-boy and friends hanging out in the summer. The first half is set in the lush green woods and sparkling blue lakes of upstate New York, where the boy is vacationing with his mother. The second half switches to the flat, arid Arizona desert, where he stays with his unemployed father in a series of motels that are an embarrassment to both of them. Shooting with the lowly Canon5, cinematographer Chris Dapkin finds the light in both settings: The sun’s rays pierce through foliage and reflect from the water to dapple and dance on faces and bodies and the surfaces of objects, and the harsh unfiltered light bakes the highways and strip malls of the Southwest and turns the metal-fenced parking lot that the boy sees from his motel window into a prison. Seth Bomse’s editing is just as essential as the camerawork to the movie’s balancing of the ephemeral with the concrete.

Pavilion is, in the most basic sense, an action film; that is to say the kids—mostly boys but, at significant moments, also a girl or two—spend their time biking, hiking, swimming, climbing trees. The movie shows them doing all of this for real in extended shots and sequences. They are not particularly skilled or graceful, but they have the kind of adolescent recklessness that occasionally makes you fear for their lives. As the elliptically constructed, elusive narrative gathers force (it’s barely an undercurrent until the understated final scene), you might become aware that your growing anxiety has as much to do with the central character’s fragile psyche as with the physical dangers he sometimes courts. Sutton’s direction of his nonprofessional cast is as marvelous as his control of all of the movie’s elements. Pavilion is one of the rare films to depict the beauty of young teenagers without either neutering or exploiting their sexuality.

BAMcinemaFest privileges music, and many screenings are followed by live performances. (Sam Prekop of the Sea and Cake, who supply the subtle but pulsing score for Pavilion, will perform with Archer Prewitt after the film.) In this context, indeed, in any context these days, a film without a score can seem bare and awkward, as did the first two or three scenes of The Unspeakable Act. But soon the movie established its own rhythms, and the intelligence and emotional clarity of the script and of the central performance were more powerful for being thus exposed. It’s an American Rohmer movie, I thought, an insight then confirmed in the closing dedication. The tip-off came largely from the casting of Tallie Medel, in a remarkable debut as Jackie, a sixteen-year-old girl who is passionately in love with her slightly older brother. Medel resembles the young Béatrice Romand of Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee (1970), in both her idiosyncratic dark beauty and her forthright, intelligent presentation of self. Jackie’s desire is not primarily sexual, and the titular “unspeakable act,” while much spoken about, is never consummated. What she claims she really wants is to live with her brother forever, a desire that is explored and gradually transformed in the course of the best psychotherapy sessions one could wish for.

If the festival gave an acting award, I would hope it could be split between Medel and the equally brilliant novice actor Shannon Harper, who stars in and is in multiple ways the reason for the existence of Miller’s powerful and poignant Welcome to Pine Hill. The movie opens with a scene in which a burly black man and a spindly white man argue about who is the owner of a dog. The black man is played by Harper, the white man by the director (this is evident from the credits), and the scene bristles with the kinds of antagonisms produced by race and class differences and which are important to get out on the table; while they never occur in the narrative per se again, they do underlie the movie’s production. If you go to Welcome to Pine Hill’s website, you will discover that the scene is a variation on the real-life first encounter of the two men, which led to Miller’s desire to build a film around Harper, despite the issues surrounding a white director making a movie that is set in a black milieu. But if ever there were an example of an actor making a film his own, this one is it. Harper gives a stunning, fully immersed performance as a former gangbanger who’s done his time and is working as an insurance claims adjuster. No sooner has he begun to enjoy having a regular paycheck than he discovers he has a rare form of stomach cancer that will kill him, painfully, in a matter of weeks.

If Welcome to Pine Hill sounds like a downer, it’s not near as difficult to watch as the two unsparing films by Shatzky and Cassidy: The Patron Saints, a documentary shot with intimacy and great respect in a nursing home, and Francine, the team’s debut fiction film, which stars Melissa Leo as a woman who loves animals too much to keep from damaging them and herself. On the other end of the emotional spectrum are several charming programs geared to both children and accompanying adults. In Crazy and Thief, basically a black-and-white home movie, Cory McAbee follows his two-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter as they invest the streets of Brooklyn with the magic powers of their imaginations. “Take Me to the Balloony Bin!” is a compilation of shorts built around balloons including three classics and Josh and Benny Safdie’s captivating The Black Balloon. This edition of BAMcinemaFest made me believe that the American art movie has returned to life.

BAMcinemaFest 2012 runs Wednesday, June 20–Sunday, July 1 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.