But you’re here to read about movies, and after catching just a handful of screenings during the first few days of the festival, it just so happens that we wound up seeing a whole lot more. Out of the films we saw, some met our expectations (GTFO), others exceeded them (The Look of Silence), and others still took us completely by surprise (Bob and the Trees). If anything, the final tally of films we saw at IFFBoston highlights the festival’s diversity of content. The doc section covers an enormous amount of topical ground (though studies of hatred ranging from reckless to violent are surprisingly common), while selections among the narrative offerings fall anywhere in between observational cinema and quirky preciousness. There’s something for everyone, though as you’ll find, not everything we saw was to our tastes:
Director: Debra Granik
Say that you’re the director of a lauded movie that won piles of awards nominations during its time in the spotlight. Say that that movie only wound up winning a few trophies, but also introduced the world to Jennifer Lawrence. What do you do with all of your success and your surfeit of clout? You make a documentary focusing on one of the supporting actors in that movie, obviously. Stray Dog sounds like a weird misstep for Debra Granik in light of Winter’s Bone’s 2011 triumphs, but if you let that color your perception of the film, you’re the one who’s stumbling. Granik and her cameras are glued to Ronnie “Stray Dog” Hall, Thump Milton in Winter’s Bone, Vietnam vet and all-around wonderful person in real life. The film is a documentary only in a nominal sense. Apart from intentional choices in editing, Granik isn’t present here, and that’s because she doesn’t need to be. Hall’s story, which is also the story of his wife, Alicia, and her two sons, Jesus and Angel, is every bit as rich and nuanced as even the most finely calibrated narrative. IFFBoston’s ’15 selection is dominated by documentaries, but Stray Dog is one of the few among them that shows what a truly great doc should look like.
Director: Shannon Sun-Higginson
Maybe the most impressive detail in Shannon Sun-Higginson’s GTFO is that until its epilogue, the film doesn’t touch on the Gamergate controversy (though it might have been well-served by forgoing mention entirely). There are good reasons for that, of course, chief among them being that Gamergate’s shameful convolutions can’t be unpacked in the margins of a 70-minute doc about sexism in gaming. It demands its own movie. Someday, Sun-Higginson might even make that movie. For now, her chronicle of the gender gap in the world of videogames is a concise primer on the industry’s misogyny, from the desks of female game developers to the consoles of devoted, and in some cases competitive, female gamers. GTFO will be anathema to dudes who inwardly quiver at the thought of losing a game of Halo to a girl. Then again, it might be key to helping these people achieve a necessary catharsis. Sun-Higginson isn’t interested in judgment. She’s more about understanding and digging down to the root of the problem, which she does with sharp reporting and incisive if brief interviews (plus a few spritely chapter interludes).
Director: Rania Attieh, Daniel Garcia
If Lars von Trier’s Melancholia had a drunk one-night stand with Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, then Rania Attieh’s and Daniel Garcia’s H. might well be the product of their inebriated union. The film divides its time between two women named Helen, played respectively by Robin Bartlett and Rebecca Dayan. Both Helens live in Troy, a sleepy New York town in the grip of extranatural paranoia after an apparent meteor strike. H. is a slow burn that plays in an elliptical sandbox. Little of consequence happens here, which at first is fine because the script gives the appearance of going somewhere. There’s promise of revelation sprinkled throughout the film’s mounting inexplicable weirdness. People go bloodshot in one eye after a buzzing sound with no obvious source of origin pierces the air. They stand with their foreheads to walls. Eventually, they disappear, and all the while the Helens try to figure out what’s happening around them. Behind the scenes, Attieh and Garcia might be too. They’ve made a movie of ambiguous, eerie beauty that’s as unsure of the answers to its mysteries as the audience.
Welcome to Leith
Director: Michael Beach Nichols, Christopher K. Walker
The story of how white supremacist Craig Cobb took over the tiny town of Leith, North Dakota would be infuriating if it weren’t so goddamn scary. How can hate take over an entire voting block? It helps to know that Leith’s population is less than two dozen and that it’s just over one square mile in size. Filmmakers Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker start out by showing us the real Leith, comprised of the sort of earnest, salt-of-the-earth people we expect to find in middle America, each of them without a trace of prejudice in their hearts (save for their righteous fury toward Cobb). Then, we’re treated to a step-by-step instruction guide for seizing control of an unsuspecting and unguarded populace through cult of personality and the power of the Internet. But Welcome to Leith tries hard not to try hard. Nichols and Walker let the material speak for itself. They even have the audacity to care about where a man like Cobb might come from. The answers may be more existentially terrifying than his noxious beliefs.
Call Me Lucky
There’s a midpoint where comedian Bobcat Goldthwait’s profile of comedian Barry Crimmins, whose impact on the Boston comedy scene is still felt today, hits the brakes and ceases to be relentlessly hilarious. In that moment, Call Me Lucky becomes a story about Crimmins’ boyhood trauma instead of a story about his accomplishments as a funnyman. To an extent, the latter suffuses the former. The more we learn about Crimmins, a survivor of child rape, the better we’re able to contextualize his career as a comic firebrand and a staunch social/political activist. This isn’t simply a film about a man who told jokes on stage. It’s a deeply felt film about humanity and empathy. Goldthwait calls on a plethora of character witnesses to establish Crimmins’ influence—Lenny Clarke, Kevin Meaney, Patton Oswalt and others—but the movie is at its most arresting when the camera’s only subject is the cantankerously magnetic Crimmins. Call Me Lucky is at times a bit hectic and overstuffed, but despite the clutter it’s an awesome ride that’s as likely to draw tears as laughter.
Bob and the Trees
Director: Diego Ongaro
A few years back, director Diego Ongaro came to IFFBoston packing a short film dubbed Bob and the Trees, which tells the story of a logger named Bob and, well, the trees. This year Ongaro and Bob are both back, but the short has been expanded into a feature where Massachusetts logger Bob (Bob Tarasuk) faces mounting hardships on a job during the polar vortex of 2014. It’s a deceptively simple synopsis that does little justice to the strength of Ongaro’s character study. Bob is a compelling figure—he likes good beer, golf and gangsta rap—but what makes him so striking is that he’s real. Bob and the Trees borrows much from Tarasuk’s life experience as both a farmer and a lumberjack. When we see Bob chop down a tree, we’re actually watching Bob chop down a tree. When we see him tend to his livestock, we’re actually watching him do that, too. Ongaro doesn’t blur the line between fiction and reality so much as he dissolves it. We’re watching art imitate life as life imitates art. The results are haunting, moving, and above all else exciting thanks to the production’s honesty. If you need a good reason to support film festivals, look no further than movies like Bob and the Trees. They need the platform as much as you need to see them.
The Look of Silence
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
After 2013’s The Act of Killing, you may have assumed that Joshua Oppenheimer had said all he needed to say about Indonesia’s 1965 anti-communist purge. You have assumed wrong. Oppenheimer has followed that genre-bender with The Look of Silence, in which optometrist Adi Rukun confronts the men responsible for his older brother’s death in the massacres half a century ago. Like The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence stares head-on at systemic barbarism without flinching, but they diverge in format. The Look of Silence operates within documentarian boundaries—it’s “traditional,” whereas The Act of Killing tinkers with the notion of what a documentary can be. But if The Look of Silence follows the rules, it’s no less powerful for it. The film even dares to be hopeful: Adi’s mission reveals a pulse of dismissal and denial—the past is the past, goes the constant refrain. But in mining the human spirit’s ugliest caverns he finds the strength to forgive, while Oppenheimer finds compassion amid brutality.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) has adapted to survive his high school years through social drifting. His only friend is Earl (RJ Cyler), though Greg describes him only as his “co-worker,” a nod to the after-school hours they spend making crappy versions of Criterion films (e.g., Pooping Tom, Breathe Less). But then Greg’s mom forces him to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate who has been diagnosed with leukemia, and his days of keeping people around him at arm’s length are numbered. Put kindly, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is well-intentioned, but beneath its crowd-pleasing veneer (this is such an audience picture that it’s guaranteed to find an enthusiastic following off the festival circuit), this is a troubled effort. Compare it to The Fault in Our Stars as much as you like—that movie paid heed to character and treated its stars like human beings. Cooke, at least, instills empathy in Rachel through her performance, but Greg and Earl both resemble trope collages while the film’s boughs bend from the low-hanging fruit of winking referentialism.
(A special thanks from us at Paste to the many, many organizers and volunteers who make the Independent Film Festival Boston possible for all their hard work and for putting together an outstanding fest.)
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65 percent Vermont craft brews.