Film festivals require serious stamina. Five years ago at the Toronto Film Festival I set a personal movie-viewing record—four films in one day. When I found myself in the hotel room at 11 o’clock that night eating my first real meal of the day, I knew I had slipped over into that troubled class of people whose obsessions often drive them to forget life’s necessities. Like food. Or water.
If you love movies, though, it’s a price worth paying—or at least rationalizing. (Who wants to be the only one who misses the must-see hit of the fest while sitting in a dog John Travolta did to up his indie cred?) My strategy this weekend for making a dent in the ninety-plus movies at this year’s Minneapolis–St.Paul International Film Festival was considerably more sane—three movies, two days, and only the good stuff.
The first, a Saturday matinee at St. Anthony Main Theater, was the Danish film Bonkers (or Knetter, as it’s known less colorfully in its native Netherlands). Though ostensibly part of the fest’s “Childish Films” program, it’s certainly not without adult themes, which may explain why there were only three kids in the audience.
Jesse Rinsma (a Dakota Fanning look-alike) plays the nine-year-old protagonist, a cheery little girl who tries to hold her family together after grandma dies and she’s left alone with her manic-depressive mother. Convinced that a baby brother would change the family dynamics for the better, she sets out to find her single mom a mate, at the same time dodging a social worker who wants to put her in foster care.
At a lean eighty-three minutes there’s not much room for character development or subtlety, but director Martin Koolhoven has an eye for quirky detail and a winning way of balancing his rather weighty material with the sort of silliness you’d expect from a movie that introduces a circus elephant into the plot. The cast is immensely likable and the film’s family-is-what-we-make-it message is an easy one to root for. It’s not exactly Happy Feet, that’s for sure. But shouldn’t we all be a little grateful for that?
In many ways, Waitress, which screened Saturday night at Oak Street Cinema, is also a triumph of pitch-perfect tone and casting. In Hollywood parlance, it would be dubbed a romantic dramedy—equal parts romantic comedy and drama, which typically means it doesn’t fully succeed at either. The Fox Searchlight release (opening at the Uptown Theater May 11) comes off considerable buzz from the Sundance Film Festival, where everyone was still in shock over the recent murder of its writer/director, Adrienne Shelly, who has a supporting role in Waitress (and a small part in the Bukowski adaptation Factotum that was shot in the Twin Cities).
Keri Russell’s turn as an unhappily married small-town Southern waitress who falls in love with her ob-gyn has echoes of Jennifer Aniston’s role in The Good Girl, which also cast an impossibly attractive actress better known for her TV work (in Russell’s case the addictive Felicity) as a depressed service-industry wage slave with a good-for-nothing husband, an awkward new love, and an unexpected pregnancy. That Waitress is set in the South opens the door to a host of other clichés, not the least of which is the mythology of the healing power of Southern cooking (Russell’s character makes pies to match every mood and occasion). Here, as in Fried Green Tomatoes, though, there’s something sweet and respectful about the treatment because there’s enough nuance in the writing and enough commitment in the performances to warrant our emotional investment.
The last film of the weekend, the offbeat Australian comedy Ten Canoes, which screened at Oak Street on Sunday, would seem, on the surface, something destined for only the hardiest of film geeks. Filmed in a remote area of Australia’s Northern Territory and mostly in an aboriginal language, it’s a story-within-story set a thousand years ago that shifts from color to black-and-white and is told at a pace that one might generously call . . . leisurely.
The film’s English-speaking narrator (David Gulpilil) spins the tale of a tribal leader who, upon discovering that his brother is planning to steal one of his three wives, tells an ancestral story of murder and betrayal that seems likely to sour those plans. Gulpilil’s narration both comments on the action and interacts with the audience, reminding us that “my story is not your story, but it is a good one.” And this low-key charmer is indeed a good one.