By Gary M. Kramer.
At this year’s Miami International Film Festival, there are some interesting debuts, some intriguing slow-burn films, and some compelling documentaries. Here is a rundown of a half-dozen titles screening at this year’s fest.
Pahokee is the first feature-length documentary by co-directors Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan. Set in a small Florida community (there are 6,000 residents), and shot in an observational style, the filmmakers immerse viewers in the lives of four teens during their last year of high school. As such, watching Na’Kerria Nelson compete for the Miss Pahokee High School crown, or BJ Crawford play in the high school football games, are engaging and exciting; it is easy to root for these kids and share their emotions. Likewise, seeing Jocabed Martinez, a Mexican student, working in her parent’s taco restaurant, or Junior Walker caring for his baby daughter, generates compassion because of the obvious love these teens have for their families. Pahokee does not focus as much on the students’ academics – though there are many scenes where Na’Kerria, BJ, and Jocabed are seen discussing and applying to college. Instead, the film features a controversy over a football game, an episode of violence, the prom, and graduation. Jocabed gives a particularly moving speech as class Salutatorian. There are also some lyrical scenes of the community that infuse meaning and atmosphere to the film. What emerges is a portrait of what life is like for these kids who are not normally seen on screen. Their dreams and reality are worthwhile, and like the film, deserves to be seen.
Another film set and shot in Florida – this one having its World Premiere at the fest – is Jose Daniel Freixas’s undemanding drama, Vandal. Nick Cruz (Daniel Zovatto) is a graffiti artist who tags under the handle, “Damage.” He has caught some attention for his work, but Nick cannot seem to channel it properly. The same can be said for Freixas, who is making his feature debut here. His film is so full of clichés and slang it feels paint-by-numbers. Nick is reeling from his mentor Pharo’s (Willy “Chillski” Perez) suicide, and his brother Michael (Juan Pablo Raba) is in jail. He just met Silk (Otmara Marrero), a tattoo artist and fellow tagger, and falls for her, although she has an association with Nick’s rival, Sizmik (Beau Knapp). The story has almost everyone Nick meets praise his potential, and warn him to quit while he’s ahead, but the headstrong Nick – buoyed by the opportunity to paint a tribute to Pharo on his first legal wall – ignores common sense. As Vandal tracks his series of bad decisions, the film gets quite amateurish. The performances by Zovatto and Knapp seem to be competing for who can be more over-the-top. Nick’s emoting over every setback is painful, and a scene featuring Sizmik abusing Silk is easily Vandal’s low point. To the film’s credit, it showcases the graffiti art and Miami’s neighborhoods well. And there is a nice epilogue of Nick doing a video that almost redeems the film. Alas, graffiti artists are defiantly outlaw, and Vandal is too conventional.
Journey to a Mother’s Room is a slight Spanish import about Estrella (Lola Dueñas), a seamstress and widow who is now practically a shut in. She lives with her restless teenage daughter Leonor (Anna Castillo) in a modest apartment. Leonor doesn’t like her job ironing clothes at the factory her mother used to work at and arranges a job as an au pair in London. Estrella’s loneliness magnifies after Leonor leaves, and she tries to busy herself during the long stretches between brief phone calls with her daughter. Dueñas gives a very expressive, internalized performance, and while Journey to a Mother’s Room benefits from the painstaking work of the actress, too little happens too slowly here to have much impact. The film practically chokes on its stifling atmosphere, which may be debut filmmaker Celia Rico Clavellino’s point, but it ends up being enervating rather than invigorating.
Writer/director Cathy Yan’s Dead Pigs is also a feature debut. This ensemble film weaves together the stories of five characters, all experiencing a crisis. Old Wang (Haoyu Yang) is a pig farmer whose livestock is mysteriously dying. In debt, he begs his sister, Candy (Vivian Wu), a salon owner, for money. Candy could get the money if she sells their family home which is desired by greedy developers. But Candy’s resistance is the hiccup facing the property company, who is working with Sean (David Rysdahl), an American architect, to close the deal. Meanwhile, Xia Xia (Meng Li), a rich girl, befriends Wang Zhen (Mason Lee), a busboy, when he returns the cell phone she left behind in his restaurant. Yan makes each of the storylines interesting and the relationship that develops between Xia Xia and Wang Zhen is especially sweet. She also never makes the literal and figurative dead pigs of the title too heavy-handed; from a baby pig being the signature dish at Wang Zhen’s restaurant, to the animal corpses Old Wang tries to sell and later throw into the river, these symbols of wealth and failure resonate. So too, does the melancholy of each character. Even if the film contrives some of its plotting, Old Wang’s financial troubles nicely mirror the emotional despair Xia Xia experiences, and Sean’s growing despondency. The performances are uniformly strong with Vivian Wu a standout in the plum role of the defiant Candy Wang.
Dead Pigs was executive produced by director Jia Zhang-ke, whose film Ash Is Purest White also screens at the Miami International Film festival. This romantic drama chronicles the relationship between Qiao (Tao Zhao, Zhang-ke’s wife) and Bin (Fan Liao) over a sixteen-year period starting in 2001. Bin is a respected underworld figure. His girlfriend, Qiao, is quite feisty; she protects Bin and keeps the members of his brotherhood in check. When an act of violence occurs, putting Bin’s life – and hers – in jeopardy, Qiao pulls out an illegal gun and fires off some warning shots. The act gets her arrested, and – loyal to her man – she serves a five-year prison sentence. Ash Is Purest White picks up in 2006 when Qiao is released from jail and seeks out Bin for some closure. Jia shoots his film in an intimate style, but he also uses the transformation of China as a backdrop or mirror for the couple’s fraught relationship. With Bin off screen for long stretches, the film becomes a fascinating character study. Zhao’s riveting performance as the unflappable Qiao will keep viewers entranced. The actress conveys both patience and strength with her near-blank expressions, and she is particularly compelling whenever Qiao is manipulating people – usually men – to get what she wants. Ash Is Purest White is long and leisurely paced, but the films culminates with a quietly powerful shot.
The Weight of Water is a pleasing documentary featuring the blind Erik Weihenmayer kayaking through the Grand Canyon. Weihenmayer, who was previously featured in the documentary Blindsight (2006), about scaling Mount Everest, explains that he wanted to do more adventurous expeditions after mountain climbing. As such, he learned how to roll in a kayak so he could ride the rapids. He is guided by Harlan Taney, who knows the Colorado river well, and call out directions, such as “Hard right!” “Hold that line!” and “Charge!” as they navigate their way through the dangerous waters. Weihenmayer’s expressions as he kayaks through the rapids – shot in slow-motion – shows his joy and wonder, and director Michael Brown makes sure viewers can see and hear Weihenmayer flip over or upside down in the water. Brown includes many scenes of him just enjoying the calm water, listening to the canyon walls, and sensing the majesty of the environment. The Weight of Water also chronicles Lonnie Bedwell, another blind kayaker on the trip, and his story is equally interesting – especially when Bedwell experiences a small moment of independence on a run. Weihenmayer has anxiety about Lava Falls, the most difficult and final of the rapids, and while his run is impressive, the film is gently inspiring.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.