When you pick a show at your local multiplex, you go in already loaded with info from a trailer or Rotten Tomatoes rundown. Picking a film fest flick, though, can be a crap shoot. Choose correctly and you can stumble on a gem. Make a wrong decision, and you’ll be wondering why you ever strayed from your Netflix queue.
With a choice of more than 140 films you probably haven’t heard of, navigating the Indy Film Fest can be a particularly daunting task—more like going to a casino where you know that not everyone leaves a winner.
Want the safe bets for this year’s Indy Film Fest?
Try one of the anchoring “event” films. While they weren’t available for pre-screening, there’s a good chance of satisfaction for the opening-night film on April 26, given its pedigree. Tully was written and directed by the Juno team of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman, and features Charlize Theron as a mother of three who develops a friendship with her babysitter (Mackenzie Davis). The Awards Night feature on April 28, RBG is a high-profile documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsberg. And closing night, May 5, features a likely crowd-pleaser in the comedy The Long Dumb Road, with comic Jason Mantzoukas (Google him and you’ll go “Oh, THAT guy.”)
As for the rest, well, I screened more than two dozen films from the American Spectrum and Documentary categories—admittedly still a small percentage of this year’s offerings—in an effort to assist you in your betting.
Conclusion: Your odds are better with documentaries.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t fictional gems to be found. It’s just that there are so many more ways that a fiction film can go sour. Weak performances. A fuzzy script. A disappointing ending. Filmmakers who fall in love with their material and don’t know when to cut. A premise that doesn’t answer the fundamental question, “Why should I care?” Yet another film about twentysomethings trying to figure out where they are going in life.
Any of these chronic festival-flick maladies can lead to a painful 90 minutes.
Of the fiction films I screened this year, the one I can most comfortable recommend is also the most conventional. When We Grow Up plays like the pilot for a This is Us/Parenthood spin-off. But it’s got appealing performances, nice details, a smooth, unobtrusive style, and includes some interesting takes on adoption issues. Written by and starring Cathedral High School graduate Grace Hannoy, it concerns a trio of adult siblings who return home to comfort their mother after the loss of the family dog.
On the flip side, unless you are a masochist, you can avoid Diminuendo, the unfortunate swan song for actor Richard Hatch, who died shortly after filming. In it, a troubled movie director gets a second chance of sorts when he’s tasked with helming a biopic of his partner and former leading lady who was lost to suicide years earlier. Leading the cast: a robot version of the actress. It seems to want to be Ex Machina or Her, but instead it’s just an ugly mess.
Over to the documentary pile.
Three Identical Strangers is outstanding. It starts with a smile-inducing series of incidents involving the re-acquaintance of three brothers, separated at birth. The joy of their connection—and their rise as semi-celebrities—gives a kick to the first half of the film. But then deeper questions are asked, the glow of the story diminishes as realities settle in, and the result is as compelling as any screen thriller and as heartbreaking as any recent dramatic film.
The World Before Your Feet and 306 Hollywood offer two different ways of looking at the common world around us. In the former, a man tasks himself with walking every street of New York City. What he’s looking for in the 8,000-plus-mile journey, even he doesn’t know. But he does find out, among other things, that lots of barber shops incorporate a Z instead of an S in their names. In 306 Hollywood, brother and sister filmmakers take an archeological approach to grappling with the death of their grandmother by analyzing all of the objects in the house where she lived most of her life.
Also likely to get you examining your own life is Finding Hygge. The Danish word (pronounced hoo-ga) refers to a philosophy and lifestyle that attempt to “decouple wealth from well-being,” according to one of the film’s subjects. And, to the film’s credit, it also includes those cashing in on the movement and explores how, in practice, hygge can come across as exclusionary. The slick production is the first feature-length documentary by Fishers-based 12 Stars Media.
I appreciate a film that takes something familiar but—at least for me—unexplored, which is why I found Scary Stories of interest. Here, the subject is the series of books that sent kids from the ’80s and ’90s under their blankets with flashlights. Much of it was shot in Gary, Kokomo, and Elkhart.
And while I’ve never been to the Indianapolis Speedrome, I appreciated the look at one of its gutsiest events in The Eight, which explores the history of and participants in its famed figure-eight race.
Of course, that’s just the tip of the celluloid iceberg. To help others in their cinematic searches, feel free to add your recommendations in comments below.
Indy Film Fest, April 26–May 6 at Newfields. Times vary.