Set in the bucolic mountain town of Ketchum, Idaho, the Sun Valley Film Festival (now in its fifth year) is nothing like the chaotic and bustling scenes in Cannes or Sundance, more like a loose and friendly group of filmmakers, film fans and even celebs, moving around Ketchum from theater to lounge to theater to dinner to after-party. The casual film goer, the aspiring filmmaker, or even the hardcore film geek who otherwise doesn’t have an entrée into this world—these are the people to whom SVFF caters, and while there are those of us who head up year after year, the festival is equally welcoming and accessible to the newcomer as it is the returning veteran, to the networking industry person as it is to the devoted buff with no business connections. In other words, you’re as likely to bump into Oliver Stone, Bruce Dern, Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard or Kevin Smith as you are to…well, me.
With a casual air, general lack of pretense and absence of velvet ropes, the SVFF tries not to overload attendees with decisions. Even the gregarious Executive Director Teddy Grennan and charming Festival Director Candice Pate are always ready to point you in the right direction, be that to a film, a reception or to local eatery Grumpy’s for a cheeseburger and giant beer. Their program is small and manageable: One lounge functions as festival HQ, a performance space for musicians and a setting for bourbon tastings, and there is generally only one reception or party at any given time. As a result, the festival tends to take on the air of a moveable feast, with attendees peeling off to see a film, only to rejoin the group later on for a meal, post-screening drink or a concert at local watering hole Whiskey Jacques.
Sticking with the “keep it simple” theme, Laura Mehlhaff assembled a compact, but expertly curated selection, mixing upcoming releases with a few retrospective offerings and a solid selection of smaller US and international films: 19 narrative features, 12 feature-length docs and a collection of shorts, including a collection of films courtesy of the festival’s partnership with Nat Geo WILD. While it’s often difficult for smaller festivals to land quality world premieres, this year’s SVFF managed to corral seven features (two narratives and five docs) and six short films that fit that bill, as well as two features that Sun Valley audiences were the first in the nation to see: Matthew Brown’s The Man Who Knew Infinity with Jeremy Irons, Dev Patel and Stephen Fry, and Bob Nelson’s The Confirmation, starring the impressive cadre of Clive Owen, Matthew Modine, Patton Oswalt, Robert Forster, Stephen Tobolowsky, Tim Blake Nelson and Maria Bello.
Among the indie offerings were the films that vied for the festival’s One in a Million award, which goes to one documentary and one narrative feature length film, each made for under $1,000,000 (and, full disclosure, it was this writer’s honor to be asked to serve on the narrative jury this year). Then it should be a given that the narrative winner comes fully recommended: Celia Rowlson-Hall’s MA, a bold and experimental look at the Virgin Mary’s story, this time set in the American Southwest. Visually stunning, MA is a riveting and wholly original production, completely devoid of dialogue, told in movement and incidental sound alone. The documentary winner was Holly Morris and Anne Bogart’s much-praised Babushkas of Chernobyl, currently making its way through the festival circuit.
Among my favorites at the fest was Robert G. Putka’s Mad, an intimate dramedy focusing on a particularly dysfunctional mother-daughter-daughter relationship. Recently divorced, bi-polar and potentially suicidal Mel (Maryann Plunkett) agrees to commit herself to a psych ward, while equally damaged daughters Connie (Jennifer Lafleur) and Casey (Eilis Cahill) fight (in increasingly brutal and hysterical ways) over how to care for their mother. While this darkly comic film is not particularly visually inspired, its excellent screenplay is anchored by a trio of exceptionally strong performances by Lafleur, Cahill and Plunkett. Putka’s definitely one to watch.
Another narrative winner (literally and figuratively) was SVFF audience award-recipient Don’t Worry Baby from writer/director Julian Branciforte. What at first glance would seem to be yet another generic family comedy-drama about an underachieving twenty-something, his disapproving parents and a question of paternity, the film becomes something quite different, due largely to the performances of the ensemble cast and the unwillingness of Branciforte’s screenplay to take the easy way out. The cast of John Magaro (The Good Wife, The Big Short), Christopher McDonald (The Good Wife,Boardwalk Empire), Dreama Walker (Don’t Trust the B—— in Apartment 23 ,The Good Wife...I’m sensing a theme), Tom Lipinski (Suits) and Talia Balsam (Mad Men and…. The Good Wife) are perfectly picked, and despite a bland title, the end product is anything but cookie cutter.
For such a compact and uncomplicated festival, the SVFF does manage to pack in the happenings. Each morning began with free “Coffee Talks” with industry insiders—2016 guests included actor Amy Smart (Justified) and her husband, lifestyle guru Carter Oosterhouse, as well as the aforementioned Mr. Stone, who was in town to accept the SVFF’s Lifetime Vision Award at a gala mountaintop dinner in his honor and to participate in an extended Q&A following a tribute screening of Natural Born Killers.
Other SVFF events included the Screenwriter’s Lab, which this year was hosted by writer/actor/director/producer Mark Duplass, who was also on hand to accept the festival’s Pioneer Award; a “Hollywood Heritage” screening of Bob Rafelson’s 1972 film The King of Marvin Gardens, followed by a Q&A with actor Bruce Dern; daily lunchtime salons with industry insiders, isuch as veteran producer Cassian Elwes (The Butler, Dallas Buyer’s Club) and The King’s Speech screenwriter David Seidler; the Film Lab, hosted by Sundance Film Festival Director of Programming Trevor Groth; and copious live music events featuring Welsh powerhouses the Joy Formidable, Seattle rockers Thunderpussy, and an Old Forester whiskey-tasting.
All in all, SVFF is a film festival for all. Not too exclusive, not overwhelmingly busy, and at only 4 days long, eminently navigable. Of course that’s not to say there aren’t a few invite-only events or that you can simply stroll up and do shots with Oliver Stone, but the level of accessibility here is higher than average if you play your cards right. You may even wrap up the festival drinking quarts of Tecate with a group of filmmakers on Ernest Hemingway’s grave. No, really.
Mark Rabinowitz is a Louisville-based freelance writer, publicist, film producer, and regular contributor to Paste. He is the co-founder of Indiewire.com and his beef stew makes grown people cry with joy. You can follow him on Twitter