Tag Archives: independent film

The Hills Are Alive

The Devil to Pay

by Hope Madden

I’ve long felt that pre-film text-on-screen quotes are a cinematic crutch, often pretentious musings that rarely capture the essence of the film about to unspool.

Then, over a colorful vista of misty Appalachian mountaintops and plaintive banjo strings I read about the hardy folk populating those peaks, the descendants of criminals and oppressed alike who sought refuge in this inhospitable place.

As shadow creeps across the landscape, the quote:

“They want nothing from you and God help you if you try to interfere.” – 2010 census worker

Welcome to The Devil to Pay, Lane and Ruckus Skye’s lyrical backwoods epic, grounded in a lived-in world most of us never knew existed.

The tale is anchored with a quietly ferocious turn by Danielle Deadwyler (who also produces) as Lemon, a hardscrabble farmer trying to keep things up and wondering where her husband has been these past days.

Deadwyler’s clear-eyed efficiency is matched with the hillbilly condescension of one Tommy Runion (Catherine Dyer, flawless), whose homespun advice and cheer mask a dead-eyed, sadistic sense of right, wrong and entitlement.

One of the most tightly written thrillers in recent memory, The Devil to Pay peoples those hills with true characters, not a forgettable villain or cliched rube among them. The sense of danger is palpable and Deadwyler’s commitment to communicating Lemon’s low-key tenacity is a thing of beauty.

Hell, the whole film is beautiful, Sherman Johnson’s camera catching not just the forbidding nature of Appalachia, but also its lush glory.

Yes, the cult that lives just outside the county line does feel a tad convenient, but again, the Skyes and their outstanding cast carve out memorable, realistic and terrifying characters.

The Devil to Pay remains true to these fascinating souls, reveling in the well-worn but idiosyncratic nature of their individual relationships—a tone matched by sly performances across the board. And just when you think you’ve settled into a scene or a relationship, The Devil to Pay shocks you with a turn of events that is equal parts surprising and inevitable.

It’s a stunning film and a rare gem that treats Appalachians, not as clichés, but certainly not as people to be messed with.

Post Traumatic

Take Back the Night

by Hope Madden

It’s a story we all know too well, some of us better than others.

With their monster movie/social justice thriller Take Back the Night, co-writer/director Gia Elliot and co-writer/star Emma Fitzpatrick spin a pointed tale about a specific character. But the universality of this monstrous situation is never in question. There is only one character with a name, and that name is Jane Doe.

This could be anybody.

Jane has a lot to drink because she is celebrating. This is a big day. But something horrific is about to squeeze out any memory of the joy of this day as she finds herself alone in an alley with a malignant force.

What sets Take Back the Night apart from other similar films is that the attack itself is not the point. Neither is the attacker. Rather, Elliot and Fitzpatrick smack you with the trauma of surviving what comes next.

Jane submits to tests and procedures, swabs and scrapes, photos and questions — all of it tough to witness — with the resigned belief that this humiliation and pain will be followed by justice. Or at least a little sympathy.

Instead, of course, she finds judgment, harassment, disbelief and the threat of prosecution.

Interesting as well that men are mainly a non-presence in the film. There’s a brief interlude in the first act, although we barely glimpse the man’s face. Jane is later interviewed by a male police officer, although he’s never seen at all, only heard in voice-over. And then there is the attacker.

What we do see are the women involved: Jane’s sister, the detective on the case, the news reporter. There are friends and fans, a woman at the party. Not one of these women does the right thing.

That’s the focus of Take Back the Night. The actions of men are irrelevant in this world of overcoming the trauma of an attack, the filmmakers seem to say. What will kill you is being abandoned by the people who should know better, who should be able to empathize.

Fitzpatrick’s fiery performance gives the metaphor its heartbeat. Flawed and hostile, her Jane challenges status-quo thinking about how victims should behave, or what makes a woman a victim in the first place. Fitzpatrick delivers something raw and believable, anchoring the fable with realism.

Not every performance is as strong and the film’s microbudget rears its head on more than one occasion. But Take Back the Night and its filmmakers deliver thrills and realizations in equal measure in a memorable feature debut.

Altered Images

Aftersun

by Hope Madden

When you were 11, what did you think you would be doing now?

For a lot of parents encountering this query from their own 11-year-old, a joke might ward off any painful introspection. For Aftersun’s Calum (a riveting and tender Paul Mescal), the long silence seems to echo with more than just unreached potential.

Calum and his preteen daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio, remarkable) spend a holiday together in Turkey sometime in the mid-1990s, judging from the tech, which includes Sophie’s digital8 camcorder.

While the blurry, fragmented, buzzing presence of camcorder images is a long-tired filmmaking crutch, writer/director Charlotte Wells gives it deeper purpose. The fractured, off-center but intimate footage mirrors Sophie’s fuzzy memory. The gaps in reality, and the distance between what something looks like and what’s really going express adult Sophie’s (Celia Rowlson-Hall) struggle as she looks back on the fraught relationship between her younger self and her distant father.

The film moves at a languid pace, but Wells repays your patience with a rich and melancholy experience. Like Sophia Coppola with her similar Somewhere, Wells and cinematographer Gregory Oke capture palpable longing, nostalgia and heartbreak.

Neither film structures a tidy narrative, instead trusting viewers to pay attention and piece together fragments to form a whole image. Wells also benefits from two bruised but buoyant central performances that help you see what’s not being told and feel what characters are trying to keep hidden.

Mescal’s charming, innocent, awkward father is as much the memory of a lost daughter as he is a flesh and blood man. His performance aches with authenticity, and Mescal’s chemistry with young Corio only furthers that poignant realism.

Though the loose narrative may frustrate some, as a work of remembrance, Wells’ first feature film delivers something powerful and powerfully impressive.

Heart and Soul

Ragged Heart

by Hope Madden

An aching poem to a culture that once was, Evan McNary’s indie Ragged Heart takes root in Athens, Georgia and blossoms with nostalgia, longing, grief and regret.

One-time musician Wyatt Galloway (Eddie Craddock) now rambles the county with Better Day Salvage, taking the old and disused and finding ways to turn them to art. It’s an apt metaphor – though not overwrought, thanks to McNary’s light touch.

Wyatt’s daughter Miranda (Willow Avalon) is the real talent. After a European tour, she’s back in Athens for her birthday and Wyatt’s hoping to reconnect. She leaves him a song, then leaves this earth.

Avalon’s voice and presence echo the melancholy nature of her character, helping the film straddle the space between natural and supernatural. Craddock offers a rugged, world-weary and deeply human presence, although he’s not always charismatic enough to carry the film.

A supporting cast populated by professionals and nonprofessionals, many of them musicians, contribute to the film’s authentic vibe. Joshua Mikel (The Walking Dead) is particularly strong, embodying the conflict between music and money – the battle for a soul.

Ragged Heart has the organic feel of an unscripted, evolving feature, and on the whole that works. It’s not without its rough patches, but the loose narrative structure suits a tale that values art over commerce, messy as that can be.

It loses momentum more than once, mainly because of its fragmented structure, but it also consistently surprises and never loses its way. McNary’s script, co-written with sister Debrah McNary, offers no easy answers for the grief and regret Wyatt faces. Neither do they pretend that remaining true to your art will bring your joy or peace.

But they definitely develop an atmosphere rich with symbolism, heady with art and music, and haunted with regret.

Unchained Melody, Unpaid Rent

Phantom Project

by Daniel Baldwin

Pablo (Juan Cano) is a struggling actor who makes his money working as a training actor for a medical program where personnel get to practice their bedside manner in a classroom setting. He had been making ends meet, but now that his roommate has bounced – still owing him a couple of months’ rent – Pablo needs to find a replacement roommate fast. In addition to this, he’s still dealing with his feelings for his ex-boyfriend, contending with a ghost(!) in his apartment, and worrying about his downstairs neighbor’s abusive relationship with her partner.

If you haven’t guessed it already, Phantom Project is a quirky slice-of-life dramedy about a 20-something living in the city who is just trying to get by while chasing his dreams of becoming a movie star. Ghost aside (we’ll get to that in a moment), this is very much your typical “walk in a young person’s troubled shoes” indie comedic drama. Even with it being a Chilean spin on the subgenre, this is pretty standard stuff. Thankfully the core performances are all charming enough to help smooth over the samey-ness of the plot.

Samey except for the ghost, that is.

There are two big bright spots in this film: Susan and the ghost. Who is Susan? She’s Pablo’s adorable dog, who knows what’s up with the haunting and seems perpetually annoyed not only by said spirit, but also by how long it takes Pablo to catch on to what is happening. The ghost itself is delivered in an intriguing way. Instead of modern FX work, we have what is an ever-morphing (even in terms of gender) hand-drawn apparition that is often up to hijinks, but occasionally wants to get frisky as well. Alas, said spirit is but one of many subplots. It would have made a better focal point, instead of an intriguing, but also jarring side story.

Phantom Project is a well-crafted slice of indie dramedy cinema that has a good cast, a great animal performer (you deserve better, Susan!), and a really cool-looking ghost in it, after all! What ultimately holds it back is an over-reliance on slice-of-life tropes and too broad a focus, along with an uneven tone. There’s an imaginative spark at its core, however. One that points toward writer/director Roberto Doveris as someone to keep your eye on going forward.

Coming of Age

A Love Song

by Hope Madden

Filmmaker Max Walker-Silverman’s feature debut A Love song blesses us with 81 minutes of Dale Dickey, a gorgeous western landscape, and not much else. It is enough.

Dickey is Faye, a solitary figure with a face full of longing at Campsite 7. She sets her crawdad traps, makes her coffee, studies birds and their calls by day, stars and their positions by night, and waits.  

Dickey’s performance is a master class in authenticity, as always. She’s been the grizzled Appalachian or the kindly townsfolk in countless films and shows. Rather than hide the years that stretch across her face, she looks out from behind them, eyes bright and observing. She wears a lifetime of experience, and that, along with her instinctive natural performances, creates depth and richness.

All that and more is called for in Walker-Silverman’s film because for about 80% of its running time, we’re alone with Faye and witness to Dickey’s achingly real performance.

Faye’s solitude is broken up here and there. A friendly couple a few campsites over invite her for dinner. An odd group of siblings arrives with a peculiar request. A kindly and encouraging mailman stops by.

Eventually, Faye’s patience pays off in the form of her childhood friend, Lito (Wes Studi). Decades of absence and years of meaning stand between Lito’s charming smile and Faye’s searching eyes.

There’s magic and nostalgia for old-fashioned love stories in Walker-Silverman’s script, but these veteran actors don’t bend to sentiment. Both know how to blend innocence with renewal, reimagining coming-of-age as they do.

Walker-Silverman’s camera lights on visual metaphors: hearty wildflowers bursting through dried earth, a transistor radio that always seems to know what to play. His film brims with the kind of beauty and type of characters reminiscent of Chloé Zhao’s work, but A Love Song is more meditative. It’s beautiful, touching and real.

Queen for Today

The Justice of Bunny King

by Hope Madden

“It’s our job to keep them safe.”

It is with deepest cynicism that writer Sophie Henderson puts those words into the mouths of social workers and police officers in director Gaysorn Thavat’s effecting The Justice of Bunny King. But it never feels forced. Nothing in the film does.

The Justice of Bunny King rides intimacy and Essie Davis’s fierce and tender performance to articulate a scathing indictment on the way the system, blinded by classism and misogyny, fails.

Davis plays a woman with a smile and a good word for everyone. That doesn’t change the fact that Bunny remains sometimes barely a step ahead of the rage that has upended her life. That rage is likely what’s kept her alive as well.

At the moment, Bunny’s cleaning windshields in traffic, cleaning house and babysitting at her sister’s place, and trying desperately to find a place of her own so she can have her kids back. She’s almost there, too. She can just about touch it. But she risks all of it to keep another woman from falling victim to the systems in society that make it so hard for poor people ­– poor women, in particular – to be safe.

Thavat’s film – like Nia DaCosta’s 2018 gem Little Woods and Courtney Hunt’s 2008 indie Frozen River – takes a clear-eyed look at modern poverty. Each film also benefits from powerful, human performances by two women working in tandem to tell the story of women who are more powerful when they work together.

Davis is a force of nature, delivering authenticity flavored with spirit and spite. Her fire finds balance in a quieter, more brooding turn from the wonderful (as always) Thomasin McKenzie.

Like Breaking, featuring an underappreciated powerhouse performance by John Boyega, Bunny King recognizes the wearying web of bureaucracy and antipathy that enforces a class system. But Thavat’s film finds comfort in community, allowing that there is help and hope. It may not come from those who can afford it, but those who best understand your plight.

“I’m not the police,” a woman tells Bunny at one point. “I’m here to help you out.”

Thavat allows an impeccable cast to take advantage of lines like that one. Her even hand behind the camera never forces drama, never wallows in suffering. Together with her team and through this story, she fights the power.

No Bromance

To the Moon

by Rachel Willis

Written, directed by, and starring Scott Friend, To the Moon attempts to capture a tense weekend when a husband and wife are forced to spend time in the company of the husband’s estranged brother.

Dennis (Friend) and Mia (Madeleine Morgenweck) have retreated to the family cabin to help Dennis kick his numerous addictions. From what we gather, this isn’t the first time the couple has done this. An accident in Mia’s past, and a hinted miscarriage, compound the couple’s troubles.

To complicate matters, the two wake up one morning to find Dennis’s brother, Roger (Will Brill), performing a strange, yoga-like ritual in the yard. The dog seems just as confused by this newcomer as Dennis and Mia.

What works for this taut little thriller is the obvious tension between Dennis and Roger, as well as between Dennis and Mia. There is a lot going on beneath the surface of their dinner table conversations, and from the moment Roger arrives, something is in the air between the brothers. Mia does her best to keep up cheery conversation, but Dennis makes it difficult. Roger also has a bad habit of offering his opinion in places where it isn’t wanted.

However, when Dennis describes this very Zen Roger as malevolent, it seems like a strange choice of words. There isn’t a lot of information forthcoming regarding Roger’s back story. He mentions a hospital, but the we’re left wondering about Roger’s past.

WIthheld information makes Dennis’s mistrust seems ill-conceived. Hallucinatory moments don’t exactly help us put faith in Dennis. Though Roger is nosy, a bit creepy with his mannerisms, and a little “out there,” he doesn’t put off a vicious vibe. Unlike Dennis. Everything from his resting bitch face to his tone of voice suggests a potential for violence.

It can be hard to convey paranoia on film, but Friend manages with a few key moments. However, his streamlined script leaves too much unsaid and unexplored. As we approach the climax, it isn’t enough to leave the audience wondering if Dennis’s paranoia is justified or simply a result of his withdrawal.  

Gig Economy

Emily the Criminal

by Hope Madden

The American Dream is a myth at best, a nightmare at worst in first-time filmmaker John Patton Ford’s lean indictment of capitalism, Emily the Criminal.

There’s a fearlessness born of anger in both Ford’s script and his lead’s performance. Aubrey Plaza flexes dramatic muscle as Emily, a savvy, hardworking young woman beset on all sides by forces crafted to keep the poor, poor—women in particular.

We meet Emily mid-interview, caught in a lie about her criminal record. Plaza’s roiling emotional reaction to the interview — a brilliant piece of acting — tells you all you need to know about the character’s character, backstory, and future.

Seventy grand in debt from art school, working catering gigs that barely put a dent in the loan interest, still holding out hope for a good, honorable, mainstream gig with an advertising agency, Emily’s on the ropes. Does she want to make a quick $200? The job’s illegal, but no one will get hurt.

Of course she does, and she’ll also take tomorrow’s $2000.

Ford’s tight script reveals only what’s necessary and rethinks nobility. Even as Emily begins to embrace and hone her criminality, she never loses sight of the true goal: comfy, secure, posh employment. But that’s as big a set up as college was.

It’s great to see Plaza not only playing a dramatic role but shouldering lead responsibilities. She’s in every scene —nearly every shot of every scene—and carrying that weight with grit. In her hands, Emily is defensive, cagey, and unafraid to be unlikeable. Plaza’s electric.

Theo Rossi provides a surprising, tender presence in a role where you wouldn’t expect it. He and Plaza sparkle together. You root for them, regardless of their occupation.

Emily the Criminal delivers the realistic inverse to a Tarantino or Scorsese. There’s no glamour to the criminal life. It’s a gig. And sometimes you gotta take the gig.

Non Binary

Neptune Frost

by Hope Madden

Drawn by common dreams, individuals from all around post-war Rwanda journey to a place, time and reality they can call their own in Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams’s Afrofuturistic musical, Neptune Frost.

The nightmare of war in the recent past, the oppressive religion, and the reality of the economy take shape on the screen. What is Rwanda today?

Williams and Uzeyman use something that feels like performance art to depict Africa’s place in technology’s journey to consumers. Tech’s raw materials—from the coltan (a raw material used in electronics) characters mine to computer refuse strewn and useless across the landscape—are woven into different character costumes.

Visually stunning, the aesthetic emphasizes the story’s earthy yet techno quality. Bursts of color and texture in costume design, in particular, along with surreal, day-glo dream sequences are gorgeous.

At the same time, the filmmakers braid together varying uses for the word binary. An obvious term in relation to the lo-fi tech landscape, the word takes a more complicated meaning with the fluid presence of Motherboard, played at first by Elvis Ngabo and later by Cheryl Isheja. The word is again reexamined as Motherboard is received by Innocent (Dorcy Rugamba), and then Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse).

Traveling from one age to another, one realm to another, one gender to another, Motherboard is an agent of transformation. They tell us they see through what blinds others, they see the past and present and future altogether.

In time, the very word binary becomes meaningless, a limitation. Frequent mention of binary crime theory, a concept deepened by the line “to imagine hell is privilege,” offers stark reminder that this is a Rwandan film.

For Neptune Frost, there is not one or the other, not past or future, not good or evil, not male or female, not miner or mine. This fluidity makes the film tough to properly summarize, and the ambiguous and ambitious plot structure becomes frustrating during the middle section. But Neptune Frost is never less than fascinating.

Rich with symbolism that brings past to present and reinterprets it for the future, the film speaks of resilience and power. And it does it like no film you’ve seen before.