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Friday, April 18, 2008

The 2008 New Directors/New Films Festival

New Directors/New Films, the festival that the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center co-present each year in New York (appropriately in the early spring), is often a fantastic opportunity to sample developing cinematic talent. For me, the highlights of this year’s festival fell neatly into pairs: two narrative features and two documentaries.

Paradoxically, Frozen River is a crowd-pleaser about a family trying desperately to hold its head above the water of poverty. It features a wonderful lead performance by Melissa Leo as Ray, the single mom of two sons in a desolate small town in upstate New York. Misty Upham is also excellent as Lila, a Native American woman whose risky habit of smuggling illegal immigrants into the U.S. leads first to a nasty fight between these two scrappy survivors, and then to their becoming unlikely business partners of a sort, and eventually, friends.

This is writer/director Courtney Hunt’s first feature, and she has done a terrific job pacing the story so that its inherent suspense never falters. (Reed Morano’s photography, austerely beautiful, or beautifully austere, captures the locale incisively and enhances the emotion and the tension as well.) Wry, edgy humor is balanced with the warmth (and the ache) of Ray’s not-always-blissful relationships with her two sons. Lila, too, has a son, from whom she has been unwillingly separated, and this gives her smuggling a poignant motivation (at first she just seems like a reckless, opportunistic lawbreaker).

The ending of the film is a little too pat, and probably it spares our feelings too much; the story flirts with grim danger and horrific consequences but then finds ways to avoid them. Still, this soft landing may help the movie to become an indie hit. It was the grand prize winner at Sundance, and drew an enthusiastic crowd to the opening night of ND/NF.

XXY is an emotionally subtle, completely enthralling Argentine movie with a subject that may both attract and repel a potential audience: the teenage protagonist, Alex, has been raised as a girl, but was born with both male and female genitalia. She and her family face the possibility of “corrective” surgery — and the also alarming (for her parents) possibility that she may prefer to live her life as a man. The film takes place during one poignant and crucial weekend of this fragile period.

Never clinical, by turns wryly funny and deeply moving, XXY is best when it concentrates on Alex (Ines Efron) and a visiting teenage boy (Martín Piroyansky) and their changing reactions to each other. Their relationship takes some sharply surprising twists and turns – I guarantee that you won’t guess where the film is headed.

Some of the plot elements (the boy is the son of a plastic surgeon evaluating Alex without her advance knowledge; Alex’s father saves sea turtles whose fins have been mutilated by boats) are less subtle and more contrived than the characters and the performances. The setting, a fishing village on the Uruguayan seacoast, is unusual and lovely. The ending hits just the right bittersweet note. The film, novelist and screenwriter Lucía Puenzo’s directorial debut, deserves to find a wide audience.

Moving Midway is a marvelous documentary that ranges far beyond its nominal subject – the literal moving, on wheels, of an historic plantation home away from suburban creep into a more rural area – into aspects of history and sociology, family and friendship. Director Godfrey Cheshire revisits Midway, the North Carolina plantation home where he spent several childhood summers, and begins a very personal, discursive look at The Plantation, in myth (think Gone with the Wind) and reality, at race, and at his own relatives, not all of whom come off favorably. Along the way he discovers an African-American cousin, the descendant of slaves owned by his great-grandfather (who slept with a cook), and they strike up a really moving friendship. Technically adequate but far from slick, the movie reaches audiences on multiple levels, and is both thought-provoking and smashingly entertaining.

Trouble the Water covers some of the same ground as Spike Lee’s monumental When the Levees Broke, but whereas Lee built multiple Hurricane Katrina stories into an emotionally overwhelming mosaic of pain, sorrow and anger, this new film follows one family’s story, in depth. Directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal discovered a couple who had taken home videos of their family’s encounter with the storm in one of New Orleans' poorest, hardest hit neighborhoods. This footage, though often shaky and grainy, serves as a very effective core. Then Lessin and Deal show us what happened to Kimberly and Scott Roberts afterward.

These very real people also make utterly riveting movie “characters.” You experience their anger, frustration and hope along with them, fueled by the bureaucracy and prejudice they encounter. By the time, near the end of the film, that Kimberly performs her own song “I Know I’m Amazin’,” the audience is completely entranced. This identification with the people in the film was taken a step further at the New Directors screening, when Kimberly and Scott (and their 10-week-old baby girl) took the stage with the directors afterward, and received a rapturous standing ovation. A commercial release seems likely, but has not yet been confirmed.


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