Three Imaginary Girls

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Cha Cha Real Smooth

SIFF 2022 is upon us, in a hybrid edition that (as Amie ran down) includes a bunch of premieres amid over 100 features. While many in-person screenings are scheduled at the usual places (Uptown, SIFF Film Center, Egyptian, Pacific Place, Majestic Bay, Shoreline Community College, Ark Lodge Cinemas) a good number of titles will be available on-demand and viewable from what I hope is your happy place (your home) through 4/24.

Like last year I’m posting short reviews of the films I’ve been able to check out in advance, and will update this list a few times up to closing weekend, noting which are being shown in-person only and which are available to stream.

4/22 update: SIFF 2022 closing weekend offers a good number of buzzy films to see in-person (Cha Cha Real Smooth, A Love Song, Utama, Wildhood, and also Marcel the Shell, which I can’t wait to see on Saturday). And there’s still time to catch some great stuff on the SIFF Channel: Finlandia, The Good Boss, Hannah Ha Ha, A Love Song, and Utama are all available to stream through Sunday 4/24, and are well worth your time and attention. That’s (almost) a wrap!


Cha Cha Real Smooth
{in-person only: 4/23 8p Uptown; 4/24 1:30p Uptown}
Cooper Raiff writes, directs, and stars in this very charming Sundance winner as a recent college grad named Andrew, now back in his hometown (living with mom Leslie Mann and stepdad Brad Garrett, both great) and trying to figure out what’s next in his life. One possibility: becoming a hype man / party-starter at bat/bar mitzvahs, a potential calling identified after he accompanies his younger brother to one, where also in attendance are a woman named Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Domino’s marriage (to a very good, expectations-confounding, and ever fine-as-hell Raúl Castillo) dulls the sorta-sparks, but it’s nothing a crowd-pleasing and surprisingly tender indie can’t handle.

A Spanish fashion designer travels to colorful Oaxaca, Mexico, pretending to be a photographer but actually seeking to appropriate traditional clothing motifs for an upcoming Europe-targeted line. She unexpectedly falls in with the colorful two-spirited Muxe community, complete with its dramas and resonant life stories – an intriguing balance of outsider’s view and firmly-established world. The film’s marvelous visual texture jives nicely with the subject matter, and just when you think it has outdone itself with a completely unlikely transition to another stunning shot, it manages to thrill again.

The Good Boss
This Spanish film broke records with its 20 Goya award nominations, which is very understandable: that country’s (and the western world’s) 2020s pulse is clearly observed in the biting narrative. Javier Bardem is superb as the titular patrón at a scales factory, caught up in chaotic imbalances and ever-compounding tangles – many of which are, of course, attributable to him. It’s all great fun to observe, while nerve-wracking to imagine dealing with, and that’s kinda the point. The (im)possibilities of true equity and equilibrium in a market-driven reality are explored with humor and chaos and poignancy and efficiency; it’s a full two hours long, but the minutes fly.

Hannah Ha Ha
This short-ass movie that won big at Slamdance 2022 follows a busy and content and kind-hearted small-town Massachusetts 20something (wonderful Hannah Lee Thompson) who starts rethinking things after her visiting big-city brother challenges her gig-hustle lifestyle. A timely and very indie dramedy that feels like a genuine peek into a genuine life, and asks (even if it doesn’t always answer) genuine questions about the nature of success.

The Innocents
{in-person only; screenings concluded}
Norwegian writer/director Eskil Vogt is having a great year: This film (which he wrote and directed) and The Worst Person in the World (his excellent collaboration with Joachim Trier) were both in competition at last year’s Cannes and are releasing stateside in close succession in 2022. They’re very different projects, though: The Innocents is a chilling and wonderfully-rendered supernatural thriller about a group of children who secretly discover they share dark and mysterious telekinetic abilities. It’s all fun and games until feelings – and bodies – start getting hurt. Vogt is a great world-builder, and I may never understand how he got such incredibly naturalistic performances from the kid actors. Maybe I shouldn’t ask too many questions; it’s all part of the film’s unsettling mojo, and it’s quite striking to behold.

A Love Song
{in-person 4/23 Pacific Place; streaming}
A woman named Faye (amazing Dale Dickey) sets up her camping trailer at a southwest Colorado site in the shadow of the Rockies, birdwatching and interacting with colorful locals and listening to yearning country songs on a (perhaps enchanted) transistor radio, as she waits for a childhood sweetheart to arrive. I’ll leave the plot summary at that, because this is the kind of spare, compassionate, lovingly crafted American indie you don’t see much anymore, and it’s worth seeking out for Miz Dickey alone; a showcase for her talent is long overdue. 81 gentle minutes of unassuming delight.

Petite Maman
{in-person only; screenings concluded}
Many reviews of this film disclose too much; this one won’t. Just know that it’s an unspeakably lovely work by the brilliant and justly celebrated writer/director writer/director Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), and that it follows an eight-year-old girl called Nelly as she explores and discovers while her parents are settling affairs at her late grandma’s countryside home. Nelly eventually makes a friend her own age, but don’t be concerned with the revelations to come for Nelly or for the audience; the scenes of the girls’ adventures, set to the sublime reverberations of French musician Para One, might just fill your heart to bursting.

Riotsville, USA
{in-person only; screenings concluded}
Amid social upheaval in the ’60s, the U.S. government spent millions building model towns where newly militarized police forces could practice street protest responses. This dizzying, fascinating documentary, built from actual archival military footage of the Riotsvilles, multiple broadcast clips, and an array of protest footage, places the facilities in a late-’60s context and explores it all free-association style. Director Sierra Pettengill (The Reagan Show) artfully weaves together a treasure trove of video sources, including chunks from a pre-PBS show called Public Broadcast Laboratory – a prime candidate for its own documentary – whose too-early demise ties closely to the pivotal milieu examined here.

{in-person only; screenings concluded}
This gem from Argentina follows a shy teen musician named Manu as he finds himself pining for his lifelong best (male) friend and bandmate. The particulars seem at first to be a coming-of-age kitchen sink: homelife in crisis, sexual awakening, kids with heads up their own asses. But the usual checklist items each get a little tweak, and what really sets this story apart is the music (an indiepop group and a sort of jazzy stoner jam band are featured prominently)… which is genuinely catchy and good! I rarely wish for longer runtimes, but I often found myself wanting rehearsal scenes to continue on and make the film more of a proper musical; Manu expressing himself through songwriting is quite touching indeed. This debut feature by Mariano Biasin is kind and clear-eyed and antagonist-free… and yes, it frequently lives up to its title.

{in-person 4/24 Pacific Place; streaming}
Struggling to survive in an increasingly parched and unlivable Bolivian Altiplano, an elderly Quechua llama-farmer couple must evaluate their fate when their grandson visits from La Paz and pressures them to move with him into the city. Stubborn and combative Abuelo won’t hear of it, despite Abuela’s growing dissatisfaction with the ponderous state of affairs. This film won Sundance’s Grand Jury prize, and deservedly so – everything about it is gorgeously realized, from the llamas’ hot-pink accoutrements to the stunningly evocative landscape photography to the tradition-vs.-currency paradigms explored through lovingly-drawn characters. Writer/director Alejandro Loayza Grisi has made a truly beautiful feature debut, hauntingly specific and heartily universal.


The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic
This Venice Film Fest winner from Finland follows a character named Jakko, who is blind and has multiple sclerosis, as he sets out across town on a very specific mission… and, in time, as things don’t go as he has diligently planned. We observe Jakko mostly in shallow-focus closeups, and his is one of only two characters’ faces we see clearly – very effectively conveying everyday challenges and extraordinary dread. The level of tension achieved here is rather astonishing; it might actually be too much for some viewers to handle.

The Duke
{in-person only; screenings concluded}
The remarkabke 1961 theft of Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from London’s National Gallery (still the only loss in its history) stumped Scotland Yard, who speculated it was the work of an organized international gang. But the actual hostage-holder was a busybody 60-year-old, out-of-work taxi driver named Kempton Bunton (jauntily played here by the great Jim Broadbent), whose idea was to “borrow” the painting until certain government policy demands were met, all the while hiding the situation from his understandably impatient wife (legendary Helen Mirren). This adaptation of actual events, the final film by Roger Michell (Notting Hill), inexcusably cheats in portraying certain particulars, but the late director certainly knew how to charm an audience, work cine-magic, and whisk up a happy ending.

Framing Agnes
{in-person 4/23 Pacific Place and 4/24 Uptown; streaming}
Agnes, an early recipient of gender-reassignment surgery, is remembered differently on opposing sides of the trans-rights debate: either as an example of deceptiveness and untrustworthiness, or as a folk hero who successfully navigated a system designed to exclude her. Agnes’s extraordinary story is the starting point for this very meta narrative-documentary hybrid on the transgender participants in Harold Garfinkel’s groundbreaking UCLA gender-health research. It blends interviews, reenactments, news and behind-the-scenes footage in an attempt to widen the scope of trans history. Very engaging expert interviewees make up for some of the stilted awkwardness in reenactment scenes, and the end result is quite enlightening indeed.

Super-stylish neo-noir murder movie set in grubby post-WWI Vienna, in which a police inspector (turned soldier, just back from a prisoner of war camp) and a forensic scientist team up to nab a serial killer. Hinterland (translation: “homeland”) was filmed almost entirely on blue-screen, oppressively utilizes dark expressionist CGI, and isn’t meant to look realistic: It’s more akin to watching a graphic novel or live gaming than seeing your run-of-the-mill cinematic period piece. And maybe that’s your thing! I found it to be a little long but frequently engaging; a decent choice for streaming.

Hit the Road
The feature debut of Panah Panahi, son and collaborator of master filmmaker Jafar Panahi, follows a family on a mysterious and rather anxiety-inducing road trip through northwestern Iran in a borrowed SUV. The director effectively tells a visual story within the liminal spaces of transportation, but the light moments – mainly supplied by a younger-brother character whose antics made me very glad I don’t have kids – don’t mesh well with the tension and dread we’re apparently meant to feel as the destination reaches its endpoint. A long ride, even at only 93 minutes.

{in-person only: 4/23 3p Uptown}
This anime by Masaaki Yuasa fictionalizes the historical collaboration between a 14th-century masked performer and a blind biwa player, two outcast artists that gain notoriety and pop-star status from their revolutionary performances for the common folk, and are eventually seen as a threat to the political order of the shoguns. Gorgeous images, striking scenes and nuanced queer metaphors occasionally coalesce into something trippy and transcendent, assuming you make it through the patience-test of a second act.

Juju Stories
This three-part anthology from New Wave film collective Surreal 16 dramatizes magical folklore of Nigeria: “Love Potion” is self-explanatory (do those ever end up working out well?); “Yam” is about a young ne’er-do-well who, um, transmorphs into a tuber; and my favorite, “Suffer the Witch”, concerns a college student and her clingy friend, who may or may not be a wicked enchantress. There’s a compelling playfulness to the tales, which don’t so much conclude as linger uneasily, and the whole shebang is only 84 minutes long.

The Justice of Bunny King
Essie Davis (The Babadook) and Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) are very good in this gritty but compassionate drama from New Zealand about a mother fighting to win her kids back from foster care, all while working to protect her niece from a potential menace. Moments of humor lighten things a bit, but if you’re looking for a happy movie, this ain’t it. Sometimes a cinematic truth-bomb does us good; lives of women and families contending with desperation and powerlessness are rarely depicted like this.

Affecting, troubling drama following a pregnant woman and her husband as their self-sufficient life in Ukraine’s Donetsk district (on the Russian border) is threatened by encroaching civil war. Director Maryna Er Gorback effectively establishes characters and a very specific sense of place and time, specifically the international air-crash catastrophe of July 2014, to create a unique and unapologetically raw look at the region’s conflicts, but a feel-good film this definitely is not.

The Last Film Show
{in-person only: 4/24 4:30p Uptown}
A semi-autobiographical movie-love tale (and Cinema Paradiso homage) from writer/director Pan Nalin about a nine-year-old boy from a remote village in India who discovers a love of (actual) film via an unusual friendship with the projectionist at a nearby single-screen cinema. The action takes place in the early 2010s, and considering what was becoming of celluloid projection it’s no spoiler to reveal heartbreak eventually ensues. This film lingers a bit on some of its many beautiful images, and within its loving but rather inert bittersweetness; 110 minutes feels long for what could have been an Oscar-caliber short.

Neptune Frost
This film is a lot, just by virtue of what it essentially is: a queer anti-capitalist Rwandan sci-fi musical. Slam poet/actor/composer Saul Williams and co-director Anisia Uzeyman bring us the story of an intersex runaway hacker and a coltan miner, and the progeny that begins a revolution. Striking images and sounds support narrative ideas around technological malfeasance, the maintenance of cultural identity, and the many forms of currency that exist in a real or imagined world.

Nothing Compares
Irish multiplatinum-selling musician Sinéad O’Connor compares the Ireland of her formative years to a mistreated child; the Church was the abusive parent. This fundamental stance drove her artistry and trailblazing career, and is linked to the stunning SNL appearance that prompted much of her audience to turn on her in the early ’90s. This documentary aims to challenge the cruel media narrative of the time, mixing in hazy, soft-focus re-enactments and b-roll with voiceover and archival interviews, home video, concert and broadcast footage, all to varying effect. The film is frequently revelatory – I never knew how closely her early career was tied to London’s drag scene, for example – but jumps abruptly from that post-SNL period to today, showing the effects of Sinéad’s ice-breaking two decades later. That’s all great, and maybe someday a documentary will look closely at her later career and her life today; this one unfortunately doesn’t.

One Second
{in-person only; screenings concluded}
The latest from acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, House of Flying Daggers) faced a long dispute with China’s censorship authorities after it was completed in 2020. It’s set during China’s Cultural Revolution, and follows an escaped convict as he arrives at a small Northern village where a traveling movie show is playing a particular propaganda film from 1964; he has received word that his missing daughter briefly appears in a pre-show newsreel. But a film canister is stolen by an orphan, leading to one of many, many foot chases around the Gobi Desert, all while the projectionist just wants to get the show on the road (and by the end I really couldn’t fault his impatience). There’s a lot of respectable celluloid love here, but it doesn’t impart the grand wonder of Zhang’s best work.

The Pez Outlaw
Add to the recent glut of fizzy bloodless-crime programming this wacky documentary about Steve Glew, a small-town Michigan man who made big bux smuggling Pez dispensers out of Eastern Europe until corporate entities got wind of his scheme. The film’s eccentric interviewees offer intriguing inside takes on collector culture, all interspersed with goofy and inefficient reenactments that seem to enable Steve’s dubious sense of self-importance. Like a faulty plastic dispenser of sugary candy, it isn’t essential and doesn’t always work, but perseverance brings a kind of sweet reward.

The Pursuit of Perfection
{in-person only, screenings concluded}
Four of Japan’s leading chefs, in four distinct sections, reveal their meticulous approaches to crafting dishes – ingredients, aesthetics, spiritual cultivation – in this documentary exploration of Japan’s sophisticated food culture. Short interviews from gastronomists and food writers highlight the trials of a competitive industry via the chefs’ unique culinary passions, to varying levels of effectiveness. Omnivore foodies will probably enjoy a lot of this, but there’s not a lot for the veg* among us. If you’re ok looking at pulverized turtle carcasses, then by all means bon appétit!

{in-person 4/23 Pacific Place and 4/24 Pacific Place; streaming}
A delicate, queer coming-of-age road movie about a Mi’kmaw teenager named Lincoln who, with his (annoying) younger half-brother Travis, flees his abusive father and treks across maritime Canada in search of his birth mother. Along the way they meet Pasmay, an openly two-spirit pow-wow dancer, who joins the duo across beautifully-shot rolling fields, open beaches, and sunsetty stretches of road. The narrative ticks a lot of familiar boxes, and the runtime is a bit long, but there are many gentle and lovely moments that might just exemplify what indigenous representation in film should look like.