By Gary M. Kramer.
Now in its 21st year, the Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore is a showcase for eclectic independent features, shorts, and documentaries. This year’s program features films both homegrown and far-flung. Here is a rundown of several films that played at the fest.
Mickey and the Bear establishes Annabelle Attanasio as an emerging voice in indie American cinema. From the opening shot of Mickey (Camila Morrone) being awakened by water dripping on her head to the final gripping sequence, viewers get a glimpse into her bleak life as a teen in Anaconda, Montana. Mickey is stuck caring for her widowed father Hank (James Badge Dale) a vet who suffers from PTSD. Their relationship is more like a married couple than father/daughter and sometimes it gets uncomfortable. Attanasio shows how Mickey suffers Hank’s mood swings, and how she also wants her independence. Her boyfriend Aron (Ben Rosenfield) is pressuring Mickey to get married and have kids even though she is focused on graduating high school and hoping to go to college. She palpably longs for escape, but her responsibilities frequently get in the way of her dreams; she keeps getting pulled back in. Mickey does find a glimmer of hope when she becomes intrigued by Wyatt (Calvin Demba), a new kid at school. Their relationship is sweet, and it counterbalances the stress she faces when Hank gets drunk and taken in by the local police.
Every shot in Mickey and the Bear is artfully composed – a zoom into a mirror as father and daughter lay sleeping is intimate and revealing, and a sequence at a lake with Wyatt is quite striking. The performances are also quite strong. Morrone is especially affecting as the put-upon Mickey. Viewers come to understand her so well, even when she makes foolish decisions. James Badge Dale is potent as Hank, a man who washes down pills with alcohol and fires off shots to release his pent up frustrations. Dale injects his character with just the right mix of rage and pathos to keep Hank from being a cliché. Attanasio does include some on-the-nose elements, like Mickey’s job at a taxidermy shop that signifies her sense of entrapment, but her clear eye and a strong sense of place makes it easy to excuse these missteps.
Another female-helmed indie drama screening at the fest was writer-director Hilary Brougher’s South Mountain. Inertia is a powerful force in this chamber drama, set largely in and around a house in the Catskills over a two month period. The film opens on a lazy summer day right before a series of major changes occur in the life of Lila (Talia Balsam), a fifty-something art teacher. Her teenage daughters are about to head out for the summer and her husband Edgar (Scott Cohen) is hiding in the bedroom watching his girlfriend deliver their baby on his phone. Lila soon learns that her marriage to Edgar, which has been strained in her past, is likely over. In her effort to process the absence of her husband, Lila must acknowledge that she has long pretended to be happy and has perhaps lost connection with the people in her life.
Balsam gives a shrewd performance in his low key, elliptical drama, sizing up her daughter’s friend Jonah (Michael Oberholtzer) in her sauna, or grieving for a relationship she wants to hang on to – even if she’s been humiliated. When Lila rebounds, having a tryst with Jonah, South Mountain moves from pity party to a redemptive drama and it soars when Lila shows a little backbone. But Brougher stops short of making a film about female independence (e.g. An Unmarried Woman). Instead she concentrates on the impact of the situation on the entire family, a decision that makes the film more benign than impassioned even as it allows for tender scenes, such as one of Edgar buttoning Lila’s dress. The film is ultimately as minor as the emotions it generates, but Brougher captures the rhythms of her characters’ lives so well it makes viewers wish the film had been stronger.
The Maryland Film Festival hosted the World Premiere of Queen of Lapa, a documentary directed by Theodore Collatos and Carolina Monnerat, about Luana Muniz, a 59-year-old transgender prostitute who now runs a hotel for trans youth in Brazil. Muniz is a fierce den mother who warns her charges against danger and tries to keep them from fighting. She dispenses wisdom such as, “Don’t depend on anyone,” and quips, “Everything bad I’ve done in my life, I’ve done perfectly.” She is also very much an actress, exhibiting a sense of world weariness and pulling out a fan for dramatic effect during an interview. Muniz is seen performing at a club, posing for photos, or talking about her legacy as well as fighting against discrimination, injustice, homophobia, and racism. Her account of being arrested is fascinating; Muniz is a great storyteller.
However, too much of what Collatos and Monnerat present in their immersive documentary are scenes of the younger denizens, and these episodes are only intermittently interesting. The youth have a camaraderie that is both teasing and supportive, and they recount unfiltered stories of abuse they have encountered on the job, as well as discussions of their bodies, sex, and issues of passing. The parallels between them and Muniz are useful as the hotel creates a makeshift family – especially when one youth reveals how Muniz helped her overcome the shame of an STD. But too much of the film, which runs only 80 minutes, feels unnecessary or repetitive, failing to illuminate these marginalized people who deserve the dignity that this film allows them.
The hourlong, comedic documentary, Who Let the Dogs Out recounts Ben Sisto’s quest to answer the musical question about the provenance of the titular earworm. Sisto is an engaging, entertaining guide through the surprisingly knotty history that ended rather than begun with the Baja Men’s Grammy-winning dance recording. Sisto traces the origin of the song from the Caribbean to London and parts of the United States uncovering similar but different versions as well as lawsuits and copyright and ownership issues. But while the film, directed by Brett Hodge, is fleet and at times amusing, it misses the opportunity to address larger issues of what a novelty song means in our culture and why knowing who unleashed “who let the dogs out” is so important.
Of local interest – it is set in nearby Chevy Chase, MD – Don’t Be a Dick about It is Ben Mullinkosson’s canny documentary about his cousins. Peter, 22 suffers from autism and epilepsy. He loves Survivor and reenacts his own version at home, called “Peter’s World Adventure.” His family tolerates most of his behavior, but Peter’s younger sibling, Matthew, loves to push his brother’s button. However, Matthew has his own issues: he is terribly afraid of dogs. Mullinkosson captures the growth and dynamics of the siblings and their family well in this lovingly made “home movie” that documents their lives over the course of a summer. If the film starts out slowly, it sneaks up on viewers, charming them by the end with its intimate portrait.
Don’t Be a Dick about It deftly captures the siblings’ passive-aggressive behaviors—Peter sneaking into Matthew’s bedroom to play “Reveille” to wake his brother up, or Matthew irritating Peter by biking in the path where his brother is walking. Peter bugs Matthew when he talks to random people in public. But they do love and care for one another and that comes through even if Peter admits, “Sometimes I wish he wasn’t my brother.” Don’t Be a Dick About It immerses viewers in the lives of it subjects. In doing so, the film provides a feeling of real empathy.
Among the shorts at the Maryland Film Festival, a few stood out. MAY, directed by Julian Turner, is a subtle, compelling drama that depicts the relationship that develops between Genevieve (Maria Dizzia) and Randolph (Azikiwea Green) one night when she meets him to get something he has. The film’s emotional ebbs and flows are captivating as the power dynamic shifts back and forth between these characters—one white and older, one black and younger. What makes MAY magical is how neither the viewers nor the characters know where things are headed, but they all want to find out.
The festival screened the World Premiere of Hannahs, by India Donaldson, which also charts the unlikely connection between two strangers. When one young woman named Hannah greets another young woman named Hannah on her doorstep, they slowly develop a bond that may or may not last. Donaldson slowly reveals the uneasy dynamic between these two women, and keeps the viewers on tenterhooks until the quietly powerful finale.
Two documentary shorts were also quite striking. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sudden Birth* (*but were afraid to ask) is Scott Calonico’s highly amusing short about a police training film that shows officers what to do when they encounter pregnant women about to give birth. The film unearths interesting facts about the actors in the production; the policeman was played by a real OB-GNY whose twin brother was also a OB-GYN. Moreover, the directors of the film were a married couple – and it is interesting to learn why the wife directed the birth sequence that shows, in no uncertain terms, “where babies come from.” Calonico’s tone is playful, even if the film-within-a-film, features wooden acting and astonishingly graphic birth scene.
Lastly, All Inclusive is Corina Schwingruber Ilic’s mesmerizing, wordless short, set aboard a cruise ship that shows how awkward enforced fun can be. Shot with a masterful eye, that creates hypnotic images, this film is both celebratory and satirizing in the best possible way.
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.