“It Stays With You,” reads the daily planner for this year’s Independent Film Festival Boston. It’s an easy enough slogan to decipher at a glance: IFFBoston is all about great movies, and great movies have a way of lingering in your brain space the way the best barbecue has a way of sticking to your ribs. But in the weeks leading up to the festival’s opening night last month, April 26th, I must confess my wonder at its substance as a unifying theme for an eight-day bonanza of cinema. The movies do indeed stay with us, but that’s the baseline expectation. If they didn’t, we’d have very little reason to watch them.
It took me until Saturday’s screening of Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest’s documentary For Ahkeem to really appreciate the importance and value of IFFBoston’s 2017 motif. When you spend a week and a day of your life ensconced in the spongy embrace of a movie theater seat, watching images glide indifferently across the screen for several hours at a time, you start to forget why the movies matter. Such are the consequences of mainlining a drug as powerful as feature filmmaking. But let’s pull the scope back a bit. Even a regular moviegoing habit can increasingly numb us to the essentials of the medium. We don’t watch movies because we like making our eyes bleed. We watch movies because they say something about us, because they change us and because they transport us into the lives of others in ways no other art form can.
For Ahkeem felt like a disciplinary slap to the mug at IFFBoston’s halfway point. It forced me to reevaluate all the films I’d seen leading up to its screening, and led me to watch every subsequent film on my “to see” list from a refreshed perspective. You could describe Levine and Van Soest as flies on the wall in their subject’s life, but be warned that they’ll roundly reject the characterization. In For Ahkeem, they represent a presence in young Daje Shelton’s life instead of a force, much less active participants. They do not intervene. They do not speak up. They do what documentary films are best at doing: They observe, witness, and record. (There’s a possibility that the pair finagled a small portion of their footage to suit the needs of the production, but if so, it’s scarcely noticeable.) All of their focus is placed on the shoulders of Daje, nicknamed Boonie, a teen growing up in an unforgiving part of St. Louis best qualified by bullet wounds, as in one early scene where she and her friends reminisce over the gunshot scars on their bodies almost as casually as if they were gossiping about boys.
The film is set during the days leading up to the officer-involved slaying of Michael Brown, and in the period of nationwide outrage following the exoneration of Darren Wilson. Daje’s life is the definition of struggle, at home, in the classroom, and everywhere in between. She breaks school rules, which gets her in trouble with her teachers, which gets her in trouble with her mother. This is just one cycle among many that shape her existence, the greatest of them being the school-to-prison pipeline that sees an astronomical percentage of black students in Missouri booted from one system and inevitably entangled in the other. (Not her, for what it’s worth, but others around her, her friends, her family, and Antonio, the eventual father of her firstborn child, who we see dragged down that aqueduct and into the courts as Daje sits helplessly on the sidelines.) It’s vicious. For Ahkeem, however, is not itself a vicious film. It isn’t judgmental, either, just incredibly moving and faithful to its material. Levine and Van Soest clearly see the urgency and sad modernity of Daje’s story, but they don’t abuse their privilege as her storytellers just to get a response from their audience. Instead, they appeal to us by maintaining tight proximity to Daje and letting her be.
For Ahkeem embeds itself in our consciousness through simplicity: The work is matter of fact and frank, an expression of blunt truths that we may wish to ignore, but which it forces us to acknowledge via the business end of a camera. It’s a confrontational movie, as so many movies in IFFBoston ‘17’s line-up happen to be. Take Menashe, for instance. Joshua Z. Weinstein’s stunningly unpolished vérité debut is a picture set within the insular and rigid bounds of Borough Park, the center Brooklyn’s Hasidic community, in which the title character fights to gain custody of his son from his brother-in-law, following the death of his wife. And then there’s Stumped, Robin Berghaus’ documentary portrait of Will Lautzenheiser, a quadruple amputee who turns to comedy as a tool for coping with and working through his hardships. And while we’re at it, I should mention Lemon, the saga of an awkward white dude aching for love and validation, who literally and repeatedly soils himself in his Herculean but doomed efforts at self-improvement. These are films on a mission. They have a distinct purpose. They have goals. They have messages.
You could say the same about any movie made under any circumstance, of course, but IFFBoston’s movies suggest higher imperatives. Weinstein invested several years of his life trying to make Menashe, missing out on locations, losing actors, and juggling all manner of delays throughout the film’s production; another filmmaker might have given up, washed their hands of the project, moved on to the next thing. But Weinstein had a story to tell, and by gum, he was gonna tell it. You might call him determined, but you could also call him stubborn, which dovetails nicely with the persona of his protagonist, Menashe (Menashe Lustig), the black sheep of his neighborhood—an Orthodox Jew who refuses to wear a coat or a hat, and who routinely ducks the dictates of his rabbi and the mores of his culture so as to stay close with his child. He isn’t a rebel, per se, but there is something innately rebellious in his behavior, which sees him on the receiving end of frequent scoldings. Nor is the film itself a work of rebellion, though it is a work of critique, layered with humanity.
Those layers pay off in its final bittersweet shot, the inverse of its opening shot: Menashe saunters through a crowded street, immediately distinguished from all others around him by dint of his garb (or lack thereof). How you read the ending image depends on your vantage point, but whether you see Menashe’s ultimate transformation as an act of sacrifice or conformity, the film itself remains an act of naked examination. It makes no moves to disguise its intentions. We can draw lines between it and Stumped, too, which trades examination for candor. Cinema should be so lucky to see a film as upfront and accessible as Stumped, where the star lets it all hang out in every way possible; we see Lautzenheiser shower, we watch him eat (meaning, we watch his partner, Angel Gonzalez, a jovial man who effortlessly lives up to his first name, feed Will pizza), we look on as he fights like hell through his physical therapy sessions, all the better to appreciate what we in the audience take for granted thanks to our limbs.
The images Berghaus captures through her lens are images we can’t erase from our minds. It isn’t so much that Stumped is inspiring, per se, as much as it is humbling. Rather than fetishize Will’s situation and exploit him for creative gain, the film puts us in his shoes (pardon) as much as it possibly can, fuses our perspectives with his own, so when he jokes about the worst thing about losing your arms, the anxiety we feel just watching him on the screen dissipates. (The worst thing, by the way, is that you can’t masturbate without someone giving you a hand, though really, that makes it the best thing. Ba dum, psh.)
What persists once all negative feelings fade away is Will: His spirit, his indomitable heart, his sheer, well, willpower. (Sorry.) That might be the very best representation of IFFBoston’s mantra out of the entire line-up, though if you want a movie to stay with your patrons, it helps when the star makes themselves available. (If you were at the festival, you no doubt saw Lautzenheiser out and about, not just at Stumped’s Q&A, but in theaters, watching movies, just minding his own business and enjoying all the pleasures the fest has to offer.) It also helps when you show movies that elicit strong reactions, which brings us back to Lemon, which would win the “Most Polarizing Feature” award if such an award existed. Prior to IFFBoston, Janicza Bravo’s film showed at Sundance, International Film Festival Rotterdam, and South by Southwest. And from those three festivals alone, it’s already gained a divisive reputation. Let me delight you by calling it one of the year’s most vital films to date, then caution you by describing it as the type of film only a Rick Alverson fan (or a John Magary fan, or a Coen brothers fan) could love. If you like your character studies sung in the key of misanthropy, Bravo’s feature debut will be your jam. If not, well, you’ll dig its level of craftsmanship.
Bravo works overtime making every scene in Lemon’s 85-minute running time as unpleasant as possible, daubing the woes of her manchild antihero, Isaac (Brett Gelman), in hideous brushstrokes: The film is spiteful, petty, jealous, enraged, disdainful, tragic, and nauseating all at once, the tale of a man caught in the tornado of his life’s undoing when his girlfriend (Judy Greer) breaks up with him after a decade of toxic partnership. Bravo’s voice is timely, critiquing white male primacy in 2017 with empathy, sharp wit and combined editing and camera techniques that give Lemon a pleasingly coltish timbre. This is a film that’s as modern as it is urgent. (It’s also the exact kind of movie you want to see at the venerable Brattle Theatre late at night on a Saturday, a repugnant pick-me-up and the perfect counter-programming to standardized indie movie fare on the festival’s docket, a’la the stilted, overly-saccharine The Incredible Jessica James or the nostalgically-bent The Hero.)
Lemon, as its title implies, isn’t a film suited to all tastes. For those possessed of twisted inclinations, it’s a home run. For those with more sensitive palates, there’s Sylvio, which has some overlap with Lemon in the category of “weird indie cinema,” but with a much greater emphasis on weirdness and a much reduced emphasis on black comic misfortune.
Who knew that a film about a shades-bedecked gorilla possessed of a deep, abiding love of hand puppetry could be so moving? Sylvio reads as silly on paper and is only slightly less silly in practice, but that silliness gains degrees of profound absurdist gravity from the cast’s straight-faced approach to the material. They’re making a movie about an ape and his artistic fancies, contrasted against the soul-sapping reality of his debt collecting day job, but for all their earnestness you’ll swear they’re making the sober, real-world version of that movie instead. But movies about the clash between aesthetic ambition and commercial enterprise rarely feel as warm as Sylvio does (and for that matter, they’re never as straight-up strange, either), thanks in large part to the relationship between its co-leads and co-directors, Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney, who somehow manage to expand Sylvio Bernardi, Birney’s social media age creation, from a Vine-length punchline into a character compelling enough to sustain his own feature.
It’s a gentle film that runs on a current of bizarre humor, but the key to coaxing its audience onto its wavelength is heart. Sylvio is an odd little flick, but its sweetness makes its oddity into an endearment. In direct comparison to Lemon, it’s heartwarming, an underdog picture where the dog is a simian and the objective is personal fulfillment. The big difference, of course, is that we recognize Isaac right away, because we all know emotionally constipated slash stunted white men who wrestle to be relevant and in charge at every available opportunity. (In that respect he’d probably get along well with Steve Coogan in The Trip to Spain, too, or at least he’d try. Coogan may be the most inveterate and shameless mansplainer working in film today, according to the version of himself he plays in each chapter of the Trip series.) We don’t necessarily “get” Sylvio at a glance, though the more time you spend with him, the more you’ll empathize with his yearning to just be accepted for who he is, and not what other people want him to be. (Sort of like John Turturro in Gillian Robespierre’s new film, Landline, though it’s a real head-scratcher as to which of the two happens to be hairier.)
And perhaps that’s another way the movies stay with us: Through self-identification. The more that we see ourselves in the films we watch, the more that they ingrain themselves in our minds. Landline is that kind of film; so are Zoe Lister-Jones’ Band Aid and Demetri Martin’s Dean, family movies all, in the sense that each of them gravitate around family drama. Maybe you grew up with dysfunctional parents and siblings, and maybe you’ll spot some of that dysfunction in the bickering and turmoil of Landline’s Jacobs clan, mother Pat (Edie Falco), father Alan (Turturro), youngest daughter Ali (Abby Quinn) and eldest daughter Dana (Jenny Slate), each of them guilty of their own indiscretions and transgressions against one another (and themselves). Or maybe you’re married, and you and your spouse can claim credit for marital squabbles fully worthy of being described as “epic,” as do the leading couple in Band Aid, Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Adam Pally), two people with a breathtaking talent for turning anything into an argument, especially dishes in the kitchen sink. We all know, though, that a fight about the dishes in the kitchen sink is never about the dishes, and so Band Aid goes, leading us from one skirmish to the next, until about an hour in, when we realize the source of all the chafing between its leads.
That leaves Dean, a film that would feel too familiar for its own good, sans the talents of its architect. Take Martin out of Dean, and you have an otherwise standard indie comedy about a young person, the eponymous Dean (Martin), facing the unpleasant realities of human existence, specifically death. But that’s the good news about the film, because you can no more take Martin out of it than you can stave off your own eventual, inevitable passing. Martin has a uniquely wry comic perspective, minimalist and yet stuffed with wit and subtle insights; the film rests a great deal on his clean, austere drawing style, and also on his uncanny knack for blending banter with slapstick. (There’s a killer slow-mo sequence where Martin makes an ass of himself at a party, and every second of his embarrassment is expanded into what feels like millennia. It’s a perfect example of how to drag out a joke just enough before it wears out its welcome.)
But Dean’s hook is its existential ennui. Losing a loved one sucks. Losing a parent probably sucks the most. You’ll wish Dean created more parallels between Martin and Kevin Kline, who plays Dean’s father, Robert, to substantively link their individual arcs to one another beyond the obvious. When his mom dies, Dean handles his grief in classically male fashion, by running away, whereas Robert attempts to keep on forging ahead, but for all it matters they might as well be starring in different films. Still, if you know the pain of saying goodbye to someone you care about, you’ll appreciate how well Martin captures that pain on celluloid. (This partly explains why the film received rousing applause after screening. The other part, unsurprisingly, is that Dean is a solid, charming, mournful little flick, a pleasing refresher course for blockbuster season.)
Of course, our life experiences don’t have to align with experiences captured in movies in order for the movies to mean something; they just have to say something in the right pitch, with just the right amount of clarity. And Miao Wang’s stunning documentary Maineland does precisely that, speaking to us in a language we understand, while balancing that language against that of foreign visitors on American soil. Harry and Stella, teenagers hailing from China’s upper class, travel from their hometowns all the way to Maine, Fryeburg Academy, to be exact, about an hour and change from Portlan, smack-dab in on of the whitest regions in the U.S. of A., and end up enduring overwhelming culture shock. That’s the simplest way to synopsize Wang’s film, which quite easily lends itself to classic structures of narrative filmmaking by dint of its myriad layers and thematic complexity.
At face value, the movie is about education in an increasingly globalized academic landscape, but Wang bores through the surface of her subjects’ journeys with a focus that nearly suggests impatience. She means to cut through to Maineland’s implications straight away, to pull back the curtain on the acts put on by young Harry and Stella, and by their parents, and most of all by their Mainer hosts, who puzzle over the tendency among parachute students to maintain social connections with their countrymen but take every action possible—unwitting or otherwise—to isolate them with the unflattering practice of othering. Maineland is too smart to put all of the burden on its American participants, but Wang’s keen observational style reminds American audiences that this great nation isn’t quite as inclusive to outsiders as we’d all like to believe, and doesn’t that remind you just a little bit of For Ahkeem?
The movies stay with us, alright. They stay with us because they afford us opportunities to expand our awareness of the world. (They also stay with us because, let’s be real, sometimes we just have to watch Aubrey Plaza scream obscenities at hapless passerby, as she spends most of her time doing in Jeff Baena’s The Little Hours.) They stay with us because they are us, because they give us the tools we need to see inside of ourselves—our hearts, our minds and our souls, if you’re enough of a sucker to buy into such a crazy notion—when we’re incapable of doing so unaided. I’ll sit quivering in anticipation of the release dates of each of the films mentioned here, eager to talk about the jaw-dropping climax of The Trip to Spain, about Jenny Slate’s incomparable gift for articulating disgust in Landline, about the rampant, cheerful surrealism of Sylvio and about the damn near gleeful pessimism of Lemon. But know this: If it takes one month, two, three, or more for these movies to hit theaters, it won’t matter, because they’ve cemented themselves in my memory—as all the best movies do.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.