When it began in 1998, Dances With Films felt like a suicidal novelty act — a film festival devoted to movies lacking so much as a single recognizable name in the credits, held in a city where celebrity is the highest form of culture. Attendance was spotty in those early years, dependant on how many family members and friends the selected filmmakers could recruit for their screenings. But under the stewardship of its indefatigable co-founder Leslee Scallon, Dances With Films has stayed the course. Now, as it closes out its first decade amid the major studios’ rapid colonization of the indie-film landscape, the festival feels more vital than ever. Here you won’t find any high-concept “calling card” movies made by schmoozy film-school grads lusting after a studio deal, or Oscar-baiting vanity projects in which some has-been matinee idol goes angling for “artistic credibility,” or anything starring a member of the Arquette, Tilly or Wilson clans. Instead, you will find more genuinely encouraging vital signs from the American independent film movement than could be detected in all of Park City this past January.
Chief among those discoveries is writer-director Nate Meyer’s Pretty in the Face, a beautifully acted, stingingly honest ensemble drama about an overweight teenage soccer player (David Reynolds), his morbidly obese mother (Theresa Dyer), her emotionally distant musician brother (Nathan Amadon) and his self-loathing, sexually inexperienced girlfriend (Meagan Moses). In his debut feature, Meyer rushes headlong into issues — depression, body image, sexual frustration — that most movies (indie or otherwise) never touch or, if they do (e.g., Little Miss Sunshine), slather them in the ersatz, we’re-all-beautiful-on-the-inside platitudes of a Richard Simmons infomercial. Meyer’s world is starker than that — in one scene, a woman finds out her boyfriend is cheating on her while his dick is in her mouth — but there’s also a tough-love compassion at work, the achievement of a filmmaker who empathizes with his characters without pretending he knows how to solve their problems.Meyer dons a lot of hats on Pretty in the Face (including those of producer, editor and cinematographer), some of which he wears more easily than others. Even by the standards of today’s DIY, digital-video aesthetics, the movie is an ungainly visual mess.
Another director-cinematographer, Thomas L. Callaway, brings a glint-edged classicism to his macabrely funny neo-noir Broke Sky, about a pair of Waco roadkill-removal experts who find themselves in a pickle after reeling in a decidedly human-size catch. The movie gets its juice from Callaway’s energetic direction and from game lead performances by Will Wallace (as the open-faced rube who longs to buy his wife the double-wide trailer of her dreams) and veteran John Carpenter supporting player Joe Unger (as the grizzled veteran whose past holds a deep, dark secret).
There are flashes of inspiration too in New Zealand writer-director-actor Andy Conlan’s The Last Magic Show, which follows the quirky courtship of a second-rate stage illusionist and a germophobic hospice nurse; and in Shelli Ryan’s Jake’s Closet, yet another allegorical permutation of the zombie movie — this time as metaphor for a young boy’s anger over his parents’ impending divorce. (Call it Kramer vs. Kramer vs. the Living Dead.) Finally, I urge you to check out directors John Bohm and Pete Tapia’s Father G and the Homeboys, an inspiring but never treacly documentary based on L.A. Weekly writer Celeste Fremon’s book about Jesuit priest Greg Boyle and his career-long efforts to end gang violence on the streets of Los Angeles. Movies like this tend to canonize their subjects, but true to Boyle’s own plainspoken, self-effacing manner, Father G keeps the focus on the young men and women whose lives have been touched by this kindly benefactor — some of whom have emerged with a new sense of self, while others have fallen back into violence and drug abuse. More importantly, Bohm and Tapia put the onus on our politicians and policymakers to see gang culture not as a problem unto itself, but merely as one head on a hydra of poverty and despair that can only be slain by education and economic growth. Sunset 5; thru Thurs., July 12. www.danceswithfilms.com.