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Children of Invention, Beeswax, Prom Night in Mississippi and Of All the Things

Children of Invention

Children of Invention

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Children of Invention dir. Tze Chun
Children of Invention, the debut feature by Massachusetts native Tze Chun, is set in the early ‘90s, but it could just as well take place in the present. A ground level, child’s eye view of economic marginalization, its parallels with the current state of America are eerie in their prescience, so much so that you wonder if Chun had some sort of crystal ball next to his camera while shooting the film.

Semi-autobiographical, the film tells the story of a young Chinese mother trying to stay afloat fiscally while raising her two young children. Enamored by the lure of an easy buck, she keeps running afoul of cheap get rich quick schemes – selling dubious vitamins, cheap real estate, getting involved in Ponzi pyramids. The family is evicted from their suburban townhouse and left homeless and penniless.

Later in the film, the mother disappears, and the children are left to fend for themselves, falling back on their own resourcefulness and imagination. Tender and heartbreaking, the relationship between the brother and young sister evokes the pathos and desperation of Nobody Knows and even Grave of the Fireflies (though never reaching the traumatizing depths of those two masterful films). The conclusion is melancholy but hopeful, pointing to tough times to come, but also resolve in the face of those challenges.

Children of Invention is a small film, with relatively small ambitions, but it has its heart in the right place, and the young actors are very winning, adorable and capable. Overall, a promising debut, and a promising start to the festival (this was the first film I saw after missing the opening night film).

Children of Invention would go on to with the festival’s Grand Jury Prize for best narrative feature, marking the first time in the five years of attending this festival that I actually saw a film that won a jury or audience award (for whatever that’s worth).

Tilly Hatcher as Jeannie in Beeswax - Photo by Ethan Vogt

Tilly Hatcher as Jeannie in Beeswax - Photo by Ethan Vogt

Beeswax dir. Andrew Bujalski
I think I figured out what the cryptic title of Andrew Bujalski’s new film is all about. It’s like this:

Question: Mr. Bujalski, what does the title of your film mean?

Answer: None of your beeswax.

Question: Okay, fine. So, could you just tell us what it’s about?

Answer: None of your beeswax.

That’s as good an answer as any, right? Bujalski glibly describes his third film as a “legal thriller”, which I guess is as good a description as any you are likely to get. His films don’t conform to easy plot synopses, mostly because anything resembling plot simply does not exist. It’s not really accurate to call them character studies, either, though that’s closer – the people populating his films exist in tangent to what we see (if that makes sense), but we suspect that most of the vital stuff is happening off camera, or hiding in plain sight. It’s a trick he perfected in Mutual Appreciation, and continues here.

Thus, Beeswax is not exactly the breakthrough film, the quantum leap I expected, and hoped, it would be. But neither is it a regression. It’s a bit of a retrenchment, a bit of a consolidation, a bit of a maturation. Perhaps this is a function of the characters’ ages. Whereas in Mutual Appreciation and Funny Ha Ha the characters were wayward 20 something, adrift in urban hipsterdom, here they are in their 30s and moving out into the suburbs. Instead of art, their concerns are commerce – instead of hooking up, it’s about settling down, or at least getting on with the business of being an adult.

Again, Bujalski deploys a winning aesthetic of verite amateurism – the acting is organic, lived in, decidedly nonprofessional and all the more alive and real for it.  Beeswax’s appearance of improvisation spontaneity belies a rigor and strategy that is all the more impressive for how it is basically invisible, never gives itself away. How does Bujalski do this? How has he pulled this off for the third time in a row, what’s his secret? ... None of your beeswax.

Prom Night in Mississippi

Prom Night in Mississippi

Prom Night in Mississippi dir. Paul Saltzman

“Tradition is one thing – idiocy is another.”— Morgan Freeman addressing the school board of Charleston, Mississippi in 2008.

Is my shock a function naivete? I mean, I should be appalled – but I shouldn’t be surprised, right? That it’s not 2008 everywhere – that in some places it’s actually 1954 – or like 1954 didn’t even happen. That was the year of Brown vs. Board of Education, which forced the integration of American schools – except everywhere it didn’t happen. Like Charleston, Mississippi, which couldn’t be bothered to allow black students to go to school with white students until, oh, 1970. And as a concession to the irate white populace, the school board, with the urging of “concerned” parents, decided, for some reason, that it would still be okay to hold separate proms.

I mean, the mind reels, right? And this became a tradition not only accepted, but one that persisted down to the immediate present.

Enter Charleston native son Morgan Freeman, who issues a challenge to the 2008 senior class – force integration, force one prom, and he will pay for the whole thing, straight up. He had tried this before, and it failed, but maybe this time common sense and justice would prevail.

Prom Night in Mississippi follows several students in the wake of Freeman’s offer, as they organize and prepare for the big dance, pressuring the school board into holding one single prom, and rising to meet the challenges of entrenched racism.  And despite some setbacks, the prom eventually goes off without a hitch (I hope this isn’t a spoiler – it was all over the news).

It almost seems too good to be true, like the rousing climax of sundry teen movies – the triumph over adversity, the jubilant dancing, the celebration of young love. Except, here, it’s the real deal, it all means something beyond youthful indulgence.

And while in the end it’s certainly encouraging that the good fight was won, it’s still disheartening that, at this late date, over 50 years after integration was written into law, it was a fight that still had to be fought at all. We still have a long way to go.

Of All Things

Of All Things

Of All the Things dir. Jody Lambert
You may not have heard of Dennis Lambert, but you’ve definitely heard his voice on the radio, wafting over the speakers at the grocery store, on your TV. One of the most prolific and successful songwriters of the ‘70s and ‘80s he, along with his writing partner Brian Potter, wrote a string of ubiquitous and excellent hits across all genres of popular music, including “Baby Come Back”, “Rhinestone Cowboy”, and “Ain’t No Woman”. Now in his late 50s, he’s left the music business behind, and leads a quiet family life as a real estate agent in Florida.

But then, quite unexpectedly, he was given a second shot at fame and success. Unbeknownst to him – or almost anyone outside of South East Asia—his lone solo album, Bags and Things, released in the early 1970s, had become over the years an enormous hit in the Philippines. In fact, one ballad – from which the film takes its name – had become the unofficial love song of a whole generation of couples, played as first dance songs at weddings, and soundtracking Valentine’s Day. Of all the things, indeed.

So, when 35 years after the album’s release, Lambert is offered a chance to tour the Philippines, he shakes of the dust, cracks his knuckles, and gets back behind the keyboard. What follows is one of the more improbable tour films you’re likely to ever see, by turns touching, funny, and just plain odd. The whole thing – the fans’ sincere love and devotion to Lambert, the sundry travails of the tour, the sheer weirdness of it all – seems often to veer in to Spinal Tap territory, like this all has to be a put on, it’s just too good to be real.

And it’s all so rich and improbable that you wonder how it can not be a joke, but maybe that’s just the cynic in me. We’ve seen this “one last shot at a dream” trope played out so many times, it’s so tired by now, that maybe it’s hard to truly appreciate it even when it’s staring you in the face. But Lambert at least seems to treasure this remarkable second chance he’s been given, and treasures the realization that music he made over 30 years ago still touches so many people down to this day. We should all be so lucky.

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