Early Light


Andrew Dosunmu, Mother of George, 2013, RED Epic, color, sound, 106 minutes. Adenike Balogun (Danai Gurira).

NOW IN ITS FIFTH YEAR, BAMcinemaFest has become a place not only to discover small, unheralded gems but also to preview idiosyncratic movies scheduled to open later in the summer or in the fall. The discerning audience that the festival has cultivated gives great word of mouth. The two not-to-miss movies, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (opening in July) and Andrew Dosunmu’s Mother of George (opening in September), suggest that the once promising project of American independent film has not entirely devolved into Hollywood calling cards or Malick “homages.”

Set in Crown Heights’ Yoruba community (which makes BAM the ideal place to see this movie), Mother of George stars two remarkable actors, Danai Gurira and Isaach De Bankolé, as a married couple who are having difficulty conceiving a child. Refusing to allow the patriarchal line to come to an end, the potential grandmother insists that the wife resort to a traditional practice, which is difficult for men and women who have begun to assimilate to accept. Shot in scope ratio with an extremely shallow depth of field (cinematographer Bradford Young employed the RED Epic), every image suggests the way one sees and feels when one is between two worlds. Just as visually striking, albeit meaningfully impoverished, Computer Chess is an adolescent nerd’s anxiety dream crossed with a faux documentary about a computer chess tournament set in a predigital world of Portapak video and fifty-pound computer terminals with eight-inch screens. Patrick Riester is perfect as a naive contestant wandering the corridors of a Kubrickian hotel where ghostly cats and sexually aggressive women lurk at every turn.

Less striking stylistically, Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner and Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 are moving, honestly introspective narratives about halfway-house counselors who forge empathetic relationships with their troubled clients. The difference between the two films is that the fear of future in Martin Bonner is particular to middle-aged men, while in Short Term 12, traumatized teens are helped toward becoming independent adults. The ensemble cast of the latter film is so in sync and true to the experiences of their characters that at many moments, one might mistake fiction for documentary.

Also distinguished by some wonderful young actors, Tom Gilroy’s The Cold Lands is a geographically contained road movie about a bewildered, newly orphaned boy (Silas Yelich) who forges a relationship with a barely adult traveling salesman. And in Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love, a fourteen-year-old girl (Gina Piersanti) in mourning for her mother pretends to vast sexual experience when she tags along with her older, sexually promiscuous girlfriend. The objects of the girls’ indiscriminate desire are a group of aspiring white rappers with regular jobs who hang out after hours watching porn and improvising lyrics, “Some girl, I popped her pussy like acne,” being a high point of their macho posturing. Piersanti captures the heroine’s desperation to be certified as sexually desirable, but in her insistence on fragmenting every scene, Hittman doesn’t give this expressive and intelligent actor the space she needs to get under the character’s skin—or ours. (I worried more about the girl’s dog than I did about her.) Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl (2001) is clearly the movie’s inspiration, but while narratively elliptical, Breillat almost never breaks within individual scenes. Hittman’s revision of Breillat’s characteristic editing strategy makes It Felt Like Love feel like Breillat-lite.

Tom Gilroy, The Cold Lands, 2013, color, sound, 101 minutes. Atticus (Silas Yelich).

The festival doesn’t lack for comedies, the most amusing of which is Michael M. Bilandic’s graduate art school satire, Hellaware. Here a hapless, aspiring documentary photographer seizes the Bushwick moment with his images of a Delaware-based (hence the title) rap group who’ve taken Insane Clown Posse much too seriously. On the other hand, Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies is proof that even a first-rate cinematographer (Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Ben Richardson) has zero effect on Swanberg’s lugubrious improvised dialogue and predictable plots. What two class acts like Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick are doing with Swanberg and his crew of interchangeable, self-pitying bushy-browed, brunette guys is something that their agents should have to explain.

The documentary selection is first rate. Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman’s Remote Area Medical is on site with the titular volunteer team that provides basic care to people in need. Here the relief corps sets up shop for three days at the vast Bristol Motor Speedway in Pikesville, Kentucky, where thousands of people who haven’t seen a doctor or a dentist since grade school (if ever) camp out in line for days to get their abscessed teeth pulled or have a basic physical exam. The organization formerly served in third-world countries but turned its focus to the US when it became clear that the need is just as great here. As a vérité doc, Remote Area Medical eschews specific political analysis, but one suspects that most of the clinic’s grateful clients voted Republican and will continue to do so. Anyone who believes, as Bush 43 claimed, that everyone in America can get the medical care they need by going to an emergency room should be forced to watch Remote Area Medical with their eyes in the kind of vise Kubrick applied to Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.

While Lucy Walker’s brilliant The Crash Reel is headed for HBO this summer, it takes the big screen to do justice to the kineticism of its championship snowboarding sequences. The focus is the once gravity-defying Kevin Pearce, who suffered a massive head trauma practicing for the Olympic tryouts in 2009 on the twenty-two-foot walls of Park City, Utah’s half-pipe. (The height of the walls for competitive snowboarding has, we’re told, tripled, while helmets only provide protection for seventeen-foot falls.) The movie follows Pearce’s near-miraculous recovery and his attempt, despite the opposition of his immensely supportive and loving family, to return to the slopes. Walker then opens out from Pearce’s misperception of his own body’s capability to the problem of brain injuries in general, and how they can lead to the chaotic emotions and dangerous behavior that, with increasing frequency, have become headline news. Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq’s These Birds Walk is a vivid, enormously affecting depiction of the daily life of a few of the runaway boys who live in one of Karachi’s Edhi orphanages, part of a huge philanthropic organization that has been the life work of Pakistan’s devoted, elderly Abdul Satar Edhi. As a depiction of the codes of male behavior among poor kids in Pakistan and the adults who find meaning through caring for them, it is an eye-opener beginning to end.

BAMcinemaFest chose for its opening night film David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a Malick-infatuated Texas melodrama about which the less said the better.

Amy Taubin

The fifth annual BAMcinemaFest runs through June 28, 2013 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.