The Pandemic Can’t Stop The 29th Heartland Film Festival

Tony Hale (left) and Paul Walter Hauser (right) in "Eat Wheaties!," the festival's featured opening night film.

Courtesy of Embelle Films

The 29th Annual Heartland International Film Festival begins Oct. 8, with screenings at Tibbs Drive-In, Conner Prairie … and in your living room or on your smartphone. This year’s primarily virtual-by-necessity event allows attendees to watch the 76 films a la carte ($9 each), access every film from home ($129), or experience the entire festival including drive-in events ($179), with other packages priced in between.

So much for logistics. What about the content? I screened as many of this year’s films as the festival and filmmakers would share—and as many as my eyeballs could take—to find reasons to tune in to Heartland for its 11 days rather than fall back on Netflix and HBO.

The highest profile film of the festival, the opener “Eat Wheaties!,” is also one of its highlights. Tony Hale (“Veep,” “Arrested Development”) stars as a sad-sack sparked by the notion that his college classmate, the actress Elizabeth Banks (not actually appearing in the film), may show up to his high school reunion. It’s a cringe comedy, but one with heart, and a terrific supporting cast including Paul Walter Hauser, Alan Tudyk, Sarah Chalke, and Danielle Brooks.                                

(Full disclosure: the author of the novel it’s based on, “The Locklear Letters,” is a friend. Long story. Suffice it to say, though, that if the film wasn’t the breath of fresh air that it is, I’d just quietly tell him instead of you.) 

“The Outside Story” is another charmer, this one about a heartbroken introvert (Brian Tyree Henry, from the FX series “Atlanta”) who discovers his neighborhood, neighbors, and self while locked out of his apartment. A few moments are overplayed, but not enough to throw it off balance. Henry is an actor to watch.

I’ll admit to being initially resistant to “Molta Bella.” Why? Well, I’ve been burned before by self-indulgent movies featuring a male wannabe-artist lead who finds his muse. But where this story of a writer and a musician in Sicily could have been just a knockoff “Once” meets “Before Sunrise” (two films I like a lot), “Mota Bella” proves remarkably warm and engaging. Actress Andrea von Kampen’s rendition of “Hard Times Come Again No More” is, like the Italian scenery, lovely.)

The tune referenced in the title of “Song Without a Name” is one of heartbreak. The exquisitely directed and shot black-and-white Peruvian drama focuses on a couple whose baby is kidnapped from a clinic immediately after its birth. Yes, it’s as grim as it sounds. But the way director Melina León handles space and distances, as well as the subtlety of the performances, make this one worthwhile.

“Song without a Name” is far from the only harrowing story from the international film lineup at this year’s festival. “Sisters Apart” sends a German soldier in search of her sibling in their native Iraq. The heroine at the heart of “Diapason” is an Iranian woman who faces the choice of letting a murderer free or paying for his execution. And in “All for My Mother,” a teen orphan is as committed to running races as she is to finding her mother. All feature strong lead performances in unconventional roles, at least by the standards of American cinema.

Few political leaders have as unconventional a background as Vaclav Havel, who went from playwright to inmate to president of Czechoslovakia. The Czech biopic “Havel” doesn’t shy away from the quirks of his personality, including his admitted cowardice and his penchant for affairs. While it may help to come into it with a bit more knowledge of Eastern European history than mine, such background isn’t mandatory.  

Often the strongest films in these festivals are the documentaries, and this year is no exception. You don’t have to be a sports fan to appreciate the human drama of “The Last Out,” in which the MLB dreams of Cuban baseball players collide with the cold realities of borders, scouts, agents, and handlers. The film has a palpable sense of trepidation as it documents the prospects’ careers unfolding in real-time, with every move and every pitch uncertain.

At least two of the docs were created by the loving children of their subjects. While such relationships can sometimes get in the way of objectivity, in these cases the films are enhanced by that intimacy. “The Donut Dollies” follows a pair of women, including the filmmaker’s mother, back to Vietnam, where they served as the equivalent of cruise directors entertaining troops. In the process it celebrates the ladies who tried to bring some joy to men whose lives were on the line, while also speaking to memory and friendship.

And while the stories of Alzheimer’s sufferers are frequent at festivals, “Storm in a Teacup” provides a particularly moving variant in which a leading Australian visual artist approaches a career-capping retrospective as his wife and work partner’s faculties diminish. It helps that the film has a solid structure and a fascinating protagonist in the artist Leon Pericles, with the filmmaker, his daughter, as an active participant.

There seems to always be a competition film in every festival. If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to get an emoji added to the pantheon of miniature illustrations, “Picture Character” is the film for you. It’s a fun and instructive introduction that follows three would-be emojis and their supporters through the development and selection process. The downside is that we don’t get access to the final meetings where their creators face the decision making panel. The upside: insight from from the designer Shigetaka Kurita, who created the first emoji in 1999 using a 12 by 12 pixel grid.

Finally, for pure joy, “Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story” is the rare music documentary where biography and music are beautifully balanced. Immediately after the credits rolled I went searching for more of this singer/composer/transgender activist’s warm and compelling music.

There’s plenty more that I’m still looking forward to watching, including a new adaption of the classic play “Blithe Spirit” starring Isla Fisher and Judi Dench; “The Last Shift,” with Richard Jenkins as a fast-food worker on his final day; and the documentary “The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show.” There’s also an Indiana spotlight series, a slate of Israeli films, a batch of independent horror flicks, some Alfred Hitchock, streaming sessions on film financing, panels featuring the festival’s filmmakers, and more.

You’ll just have to make your own popcorn.

More on all of the Heartland Film Festival offerings here.