The ‘Young Americans’ section of the AFI FEST program is a place where emerging U.S. filmmakers showcase their recent works to the festival audience in the hopes that they will win the coveted audience award prize. There are eleven films in the section for the 2012 festival, three of which have made an incredible impression on me during my pre-festival coverage–I have not seen all of the eleven, and I look forward to watching the rest during AFI FEST 2012 (November 1-8). But for now, a preview of three sure contenders for the audience award, and they are undoubtedly going to please every festival goer who takes the time to see them–and I highly recommend you add them to your schedule–The International Sign For Choking, Somebody Up There Likes Me, and Starlet.
The International Sign For Choking (Dir. Zach Weintraub 2012)
Using color to emphasize emotions on screen is exasperated in Director Zach Weintraub’s The International Sign For Choking. Starring Weintraub in the lead, The International Sign For Choking is a spatial-narrative film, delving into the artistic lens of the main character Josh’s point-of-view while intertwining the story of a man lost, lonesome, and incapacitated in his attempts to move forward. The International Sign For Choking is choking upon itself; itself being Josh even when the lens is not entirely focused on him, unfolding layer by layer in a creatively cast bloom of color. The melancholic yellows to the soothing blues, the wallpaper on Josh’s wall surrounds him, his body framed up against it, until moving into the blue room with love-interest Anna–a mere distraction from the woman he yearned to see again in Argentina, without luck. A red dress appears from Anna’s beau, marking her immediately as the wonton, the sinner, the lust-filled woman. All traits that Anna is not, but for the jealously and desperation to belong in Josh she is seen as the enemy but also a necessity, all the while as she pulls away from him, relieving him of his control. The city provides the color wheel of the film even more opportunity to envelope emotions, doing away with dialogue at key parts of the story or cutting the frame for specificity’s purpose. The images perpetuate the connections between characters, and the uncomfortable build up that arises.
The International Sign For Choking awakens the eyes with the splashes of color and intrigues the core senses with Josh’s plight; a situation brought upon by himself to lead him to desperate measures to feel he belongs, to feel he has a place. The momentum the film builds is stifling, it does choke you, making you uncomfortable in your skin as you examine what is unfolding before you through Josh’s unease. It is, undoubtedly, an experience in alternative narrative filmmaking, with incredible emotional depth that goes nearly unnoticed until the final moments.
**Festival’s Film Page: Young Americans: The International Sign For Choking
Somebody Up There Likes Me (Dir. Bob Byington 2012)
Half of the fun in the comedy Somebody Up There Likes Me is trying to figure out who exactly this person may be, because everything that happens to everyone in the story isn’t sunshine and rainbows; its more like cheap vodka and stale donuts. This realization is not unbeknownst to the characters, led by Max (Keith Poulson), joined by the waiter Sal (Nick Offerman from “Parks and Recreation”), and Jess Weixler; everyone is miserable, even at their happiest. It all begins at the end, with a mysterious blue suitcase and a woman in a yellow dress. The suitcase being the MacGuffin–to have some more fun with absurdity–and it emits when opened a euphoric blue light and floating specks. Said contents of the briefcase are never shared, nor spoken of, a pastiche reference to Pulp Fiction, minus the gangsters. Max never relinquishes the briefcase, from failed marriage to failed affair with the nanny, to well, becoming a business magnet; the entire time he remains youthful, those around him age. Is it the fountain of youth or are we merely seeing Max through his own eyes, and our eyes the same. Aging is subjective, you see what you want to see in the mirror, and for Max he is the man he has always been. It is only when he accepts what has occurred in his life, the choices and debacles that suddenly age creeps up on him. Or is it that this life is not his own but a past generations, a standard he cannot understand.
Now, this is all much too deep and thick with analysis for Somebody Up There Likes Me. It is, after all, a comedy; a very dark comedy that speaks every line with an obtuse finality. Where a scene straight out of Jerry Springer can occur with little more than an “oh, okay” moment, and then swiftly move on as if it never happened. Or where finding the American Dream is as simple as discovering pizza and ice cream. Everything in Somebody Up There Likes Me is brilliant because it refuses to rejoice, to be neat and tidy, or messy and trivial. Life is a sequence of events, and then it moves forward. The constants remain the characters, those who start in one place, move to another, and end up right back where they were. Selfishness still in tact, and blunt honesty never having wavered. Everything is absurd in Somebody Up There Likes Me, and looking at life through this lens is seeing it with a great deal more humor.
**Festival’s Film Page: Young Americans: Somebody Up There Likes Me
Starlet (Dir. Sean Baker 2012)
There is a natural flow that can occur in a film; a progression of emotion, conflict, and successive layers that continually develop interest for a viewer. Director Sean Baker’s Starlet is such a movie. Titled after the lead character Jane’s (Dree Hemingway) chihuahua mixed-breed dog, Starlet focuses on bonding, and not simply between a girl and her dog, but between strangers, developing relationships out of loneliness, partial obligation, or insecure curiosity. Baker creates a fluid and unpretentious story that does not feed empathy, it develops as the relationship between budding porn star Jane and the irritable senior citizen Sadie (Besedka Johnson) does. A relationship born out of pushing and prying, near-stalker like antics, and all because of a thermos full of cash.
The testing of morals is present in Starlet, but the sublime kindness and need for both women to find a true and loving friendship between one another trumps the questionable actions characters take. Yet one must not forget the other side of the story in Starlet: the blaring eye into the business of pornography, all made to look quite organized, respectful, and familial in itself–until the dark side emerges, and the fun erupts into rage. The innocence of Sadie and Jane’s relationship is continually juxtaposed with Jane’s turmoil filled life as a porn star. The deep quietness of Jane’s garden only heightens the emotions felt when the fighting and desperation erupt in Jane’s home life. Starlet is full of surprises as to how it unleashes passionate responses to the events on screen. Baker crafts a sublime naturalness with the characters, their surroundings, and both Dree Hemingway and newcomer Besedka Johnson are phenomenal in their performances–as is the dog who plays Starlet, you will tear up every time she places her head on Jane’s shoulder for a snuggle, its adorable. Starlet creates wonderment in one of the simplest and most habitual acts in life, friendship.
**Festival’s Film Page: Young Americans: Starlet
For more information on AFI FEST 2012 visit the festival’s official website at www.afifest.com.