Portland Film Festival may be a relatively new festival, and it may not quite carry the cachet—yet—as Sundance or Cannes or Toronto, but it has some pretty great pleasures all its own. It’s not every fest when you can party with Jason Momoa and Haley Joel Osment and Doug Benson and Bronx Obama and the producer of Oscar-nominated No—I mean, really party with them, not just watch them party behind a velvet rope. And it’s certainly not every fest where you can take a few hours off of watching films to play a part as an extra in the iconic hipster show Portlandia.
I had already seen the fascinating doc Glena before I ever got to the festival, as well as eventual Best Northwest Film winner BFE and a handful of others. But the festival brought plenty of surprises, nonetheless. The first, and maybe the best, came on the second night of the fest (my first night there). It was the world premiere of Isaac Feder’s Sex Ed, and neither the film nor the event disappointed. Hundreds packed the beautiful Crystal Ballroom in downtown Portland, and after some great shorts and an especially spirited performance by local hip-hop dance group Hippoh Dance Project, the main event was on.
Sex Ed is obviously Feder’s bid for a studio picture. It has a certain slickness of production, and many of the same beats that a Ron Howard picture with the same premise would have. And the casting formula feels familiar as well—take one well-known name (Osment), and surround him with some proven supporting players (Laura Harring, Abby Elliott, Chris Williams, Retta) and some promising relative newcomers (Lorenza Izzo and Glen Powell, both of whom should be headed for big-name status very soon). It’s a solid, calculated approach.
But that doesn’t mean it’s without heart. Quite the contrary. Sex Ed does show that Feder can make a studio-esque comedy on a low budget, but it shows a lot more, as well. The film is very entertaining, very funny, and actually very committed to its subject matter. As Osment’s character Ed becomes more and more committed to his cause of standing up for these kids ill-served by the traditional sex ed curriculum (or lack thereof), so do we. And that’s a pretty good accomplishment for any movie. Sex Ed won the Best Narrative Film prize.
Other world premieres during the festival included Love in the Sixties, a spirited look at Austin, Texas, cultural icon Aralyn Hughes; Best Documentary winner Tamara W, a sobering portrait of a transgender escort and her struggles with addiction and abuse; Plant This Movie, a call to a shift in land use to backyard (and front yard!) farming; and Half Brother, a mumblecore-inspired narrative feature about a man learning a little bit more about his divorcing Dad than he wants to know. It’s always a thrill to see a filmmaker watch his brainchild come to fruition on the big screen in front of an audience, and it’s a testament to the young festival’s growing clout that they managed to land so many premieres.
For a certain segment of the population (and that segment is sizable in Portland), there could be no greater celebrity sighting at a film festival than an appearance by stoner icon Doug Benson. Portland Film Festival boasted not one, but two, of those appearances. Benson held a live taping of his popular podcast Doug Loves Movies, and then came back the next day to show his new film The Greatest Movie Ever Rolled, a sequel of sorts to his 2007 documentary Super High Me (as he acknowledged in the comments afterward, “Yeah, I figured I’d just ride this Morgan Spurlock spoof thing a little longer”). The podcast was as entertaining as ever, but the film itself was the big revelation to me. I had avoided Super High Me because—well, let’s not mince words—it looked ineffably stupid. But The Greatest Movie Ever Rolled is absolutely hilarious, and even a bit poignant in places (Benson’s dedication to connecting with his fans is really admirable). Super High Me has now earned a place in my Netlfix queue.
On the other hand, I knew enough not to be surprised by the pleasures in Jason Momoa’s debut film, Road to Paloma. I had gotten to know the hulking actor a bit at Sarasota Film Festival, and had seen the movie. Although far from perfect, the film is an undeniably emotional experience, an important story well told, and is shot with gorgeous confidence by Momoa and cinematographer Brian Mendoza, who was also in attendance. The pair did a workshop on digital cinematography at local photo shop Pro Photo Supply, sponsored by Canon, then scooted off for multiple local news interviews before hitting the theater for Q&A’s after each of the two showings of their whole movie. The crowds may have come for Khal Drogo or Conan or Aquaman, but they left knowing they’d seen the work of some true artists.
More than anything, Portland Film Festival reflects the beautiful, crazy, eclectic, nutty city it lives in. There are Filmmaker talks every morning, and of course they come accompanied by local, fair trade coffee. As befits a city with one of the nation’s most educated and creative populations (not to mention the epically great Powell’s Books), the festival has an emphasis on screenwriting and storytelling, and the breadth of workshops the fest offers on that subject is impressive indeed. The closing night party is in a park on the banks of the beautiful Willamette River, in the shadow of two of Portland’s iconic rivers.
It’s all so very civilized. It’s all so very refreshing. It’s all so very Portland. The Portland Film Fest is a rising star in the festival world, my favorite in the Northwest.
Michael Dunaway is the producer and director of 21 Years: Richard
Linklater a New York Times Critics Pick starring Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke; Creative Producer for the “Sarasota Film Festival”:www.sarasotafilmfestival.org; Movies Editor of Paste; host of the podcast The Work; and one hell of a karaoke performer. You can follow him on Twitter.