Desierto
Desierto
Photo by Carlos Somonte

What to See at the L.A. Film Festival and Dances With Films

It's an elitist notion that you can see the next big films only by leaving Los Angeles for Toronto, France or New York. While other fests are frantically loading their schedules with women and people of color (so they can sport an #OscarsSoWhite hashtag without looking hypocritical), L.A. Film Festival director Stephanie Allain has been doing that hard work for years; the fest consistently presents movies that take a hatchet to the boring white-dude indie tropes.

On her slate this time out are documentaries tackling LGBT rights (Political Animals), the juvenile justice system (They Call Us Monsters) and the Koch brothers (Company Town). On the fiction side, characters grapple with PTSD (Blood Stripe), missing caregivers (My First Kiss and the People Involved), gentrification (72 Hours: A Brooklyn Love Story?), the slaves of gods (Like Cotton Twines) and Afro-punk love (Dream States).

Ryan Coogler (Creed) is the festival's guest director. Ava DuVernay (Selma) will take home the annual Spirit of Independence Award, and Lowriders, a Latino-driven pic about East L.A. car culture, will open up the week with a world premiere.

Because we are #blessed with talent, L.A. also gets the little indie film fest that could: Dances With Films. Going bold with the slogan "Defiantly Independent Since 1998," these guys personally sit through every single movie sent their way, digging for the gems in the dung heap. You really have to be a movie lover to start an independent-film fest among giants, but DWF keeps kicking. While the fest doesn't have the star power of LAFF or nearly as many films on its slate, it always delivers a few fresh new voices every year.

Here are the films we'll stand in line for with a smile at both fests. Oh, and you can take the train to both and laugh the whole way at all the Cannes suckers. —April Wolfe

April Wolfe's Five Best Bets at the L.A. Film Festival

Jackson

Director Maisie Crow started as a documentary photographer with an impeccable eye for stories and color. Jackson — her doc following three women with a stake in either keeping open or closing the last remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi — is sure to be well-told and beautifully filmed. It seems every festival year we get an "important" work of art, something that cuts through the rhetoric, and Jackson shows all signs of being very important.

Tracktown

One of the more creative premises offered in the festival this year can be found in Tracktown, Jeremy Teicher's and Alexi Pappas' film, which has real-life Greek Olympic runner Pappas portraying Plumb Marigold, a kind of projected version of herself. She's an ultra-focused athlete. She doesn't have boobs or a boyfriend, and she keeps to her schedule, but her orderly life unravels when an injury makes her rest for a day. If you're fascinated by the people who give up any chance at a regular life to turn their bodies into machines — I definitely am — Tracktown seems as if it will give a pretty rare insight into a young runner's mixed-up life, with a little bit of romance and nostalgia for what might have been.

11:55

An updated version of High Noon with a Latino Navy veteran protagonist? Any film that uses a time constraint where something has to happen before noon gets my approval. Victor Almanzar, a bit player from Empire, gets to play the lead and co-write the script, using his military experience for authenticity, but what's most compelling about this plot is that it's simple. A guy shoots someone, runs away to join the Marines and eventually has to return — as we all do — to face his past. Expect some moving performances and realistic characters.

Girl Flu
Girl Flu
Courtesy of Dorie Barton

Girl Flu

I will never tire of movies depicting the otherworldly tragedy that is a girl getting her period for the first time and realizing that everything that was ever good is suddenly gone. Girl Flu promises to intertwine this age-old cautionary tale with the geography of Los Angeles, where little Bird is uprooted to Echo Park and cannot go home to Reseda again. You guys, Reseda is innocence. The film stars Katee Sackhoff, Jeremy Sisto and Heather Matarazzo, some fan favorites and indie darlings who likely will elevate a little coming-of-age dramedy into Grade-A charming.

Villisca

Horror films based on small-town American history are always fun. Villisca uses the still-unsolved 1912 ax murders of Villisca, Iowa, as a basis for this contemporary ghost-hunters-in-a-murder-house story. And they even filmed in the actual house where the murders took place. Bored teenagers who have nothing better to do than try to contact the angry ghosts of a brutal massacre likely will make terrible choices, leading to some classic horror frights. Please, dear God, do not go in the cellar.

Michael Nordine's Five Best Bets at the L.A. Film Festival

Beyond the Gates

When in doubt at a film festival, go with the horror movie. Co-writer/director Jackson Stewart's Beyond the Gates looks to be among the most promising titles in the festival's Nightfall section (tagline: "films that will make you squirm"), fusing video-store nostalgia with a narrative centered around a ouija-like VCR board game that may hold the clue to a disappearance. Analog fetishism is a prevailing trend in the horror realm of late — V/H/S is now a franchise unto itself, ditto the Super 8–heavy Sinister — and Stewart's film about two brothers trying to track down their father by any supernatural means necessary could be a worthy addition to the genre.

Desierto

After directing Aningaaq, a seven-minute companion piece to his father's Gravity, Jonás Cuarón returns with Desierto. Like an update on Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy, the closing-night selection stars Gael García Bernal as a would-be immigrant hoping to surreptitiously enter the United States and be reunited with his son; Jeffrey Dean Morgan is the self-styled border guard who will do anything to stop him. Cuarón has a lot to live up to, being the son of an Oscar winner and all, but this timely thriller looks to be another step in the right direction.

HEIS (chronicles)
HEIS (chronicles)
Courtesy of Anaïs Volpé

HEIS (chronicles)

Perhaps the festival's strangest, most inventive-sounding offering, writer-director-producer Anaïs Volpé's feature debut concerns a young artist who returns to her mother's Paris home. There, she's met by her brother (who never moved out) and the conflicting expectations of her family as a whole (who don't understand what she's doing). HEIS (chronicles) is part of a cross-media project that also involves an art installation, a five-episode companion series and an evocative poster featuring an adorable chimpanzee. Volpé doesn't lack for ambition, and if HEIS lives up to that ambition, it could easily be a standout.

Mercy

Family reunions often are occasioned by unfortunate events, and so it is in writer-director Chris Sparling's Mercy. Four brothers (two from one father, two from another) make their way home to be at their mother's bedside as she prepares to depart this mortal coil. The resulting reunion sounds unhappy for reasons beyond the obvious — namely, the surfacing of buried family secrets and an inconveniently timed home invasion. If you remember James Wolk's Mad Men performance as the unsettlingly charming Bob Benson, imagine how he'll do in an actual thriller. Sparling penned Buried, so his track record with close-quarters suspense inspires confidence.

Paint It Black
Paint It Black
Courtesy of Amber Tamblyn

Paint It Black

Amber Tamblyn makes her directorial debut adapting White Oleander author Janet Fitch's punk rock–infused book, which tells of a young woman's turbulent relationship with her boyfriend's mother in the wake of his passing. Alia Shawkat and Janet McTeer play the women in question. Variations on this particular theme have produced a number of classic psychodramas (Ingmar Bergman's Persona, Robert Altman's 3 Women) and, though something on that elevated plane may be too much to hope for from a first-timer, hope springs eternal at film festivals.

April Wolfe's Five Best Bets at the Dances With Films Festival

The Homefront

Eight years into a devastating invasion of America, a family squats in their countryside home, trying to keep up appearances — but they're getting pretty kooky. In Fidel Ruiz Healy and Tyler Walker's The Homefront, every boring conversation this family has seems charged with energy because they're trapped, with nowhere else to go. From the looks of it, there are shades of Dogtooth through an American lens, the same dark humor bordering on dangerous delusion.

Mikael

The story of Mikael reads like an Iraqi Rocky; this time you've got a 33-year-old Iraqi-American man who travels back to Kurdistan to pick up where he left off years earlier in his quest to be a soccer superstar. A totally uplifting underdog story set in a place more likely to evoke stereotypical images of war and suffering, writer-director Kordo Doski's Mikael has promise to be a tearjerker sports favorite.

Shortwave

Ryan Gregory Phillips' Shortwave seems as if it took a page from Primer's book of low-budget sci-fi tricks. In an isolated location, a woman starts picking up on some sinister shortwave radio signals from her husband's experiments. The two are still reeling from the loss of their child, so you've got some added hysteria in the mix of this quiet little alien thriller.

We Go On

Low-budget horror has to get crafty these days. It Follows turned a collection of random people, including a grandma, into a threat, and We Go On is following its lead (get it?). A guy obsessed with death offers a huge reward for anyone who can prove the afterlife is real, and as it turns out the afterlife is not all fluffy clouds and smiling angels. Once he gets a glimpse of it, he can't really go back. Bonus points to co-creators Andy Mitton and Jesse Holland for turning this into a mother-son buddy movie as they try to figure out how to put the "after" back into "afterlife."

Pop-up

Stuart McBratney's indie triptych out of Australia follows three people with intersecting lives, which is a trope we've seen before, but the trailer showed glimpses of some finely tuned dialogue equally matching humor and drama, which is rarer than you'd think. Pop-up also has the advantage of not being American, so the actors are cast for their acting and not necessarily their flawless beauty.

L.A. FILM FESTIVAL | ArcLight Cinemas, 9500 Culver Blvd., Culver City, and the Culver Studios, 9336 Washington Blvd., Culver City, among other venues | June 1-9 | Regular screenings $15 ($13 for Film Independent members), special screenings/events $25 ($20 for Film Independent members), festival passes starting at $350 ($315 for Film Independent members) | lafilmfestival.com

DANCES WITH FILMS | TCL Chinese 6 Theatres, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood | June 2-12 | Screenings $13 if purchased before June 2 ($15 after), festival passes $325 | danceswithfilms.com

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