Waterfront Film Festival

10th Annual Waterfront Film Festival: Day One (Jun 17)

Nine movies in two days. That’s right. Frankly, I’m a little addled right now.

2008 marked the 10th Annual Saugatuck Film Festival in Saugatuck, Michigan. A recent feature in SAGIndie Magazine listed it as the number three film festival in America. It’s big time. It’s where American Splendor, Napoleon Dynamite, and March of the Penguins had their first showings in the Midwest. I’ve gone six times now, and I’m always amazed at how well-run the whole festival is. In six years, I’m never once been mildly inconvenienced, and I can not recommend it highly enough. And keep in mind, I’m saying this as somebody whose application for a Press Pass was ignored. That’s right, they didn’t even take the time to reject me. But I’m not bitter or anything. It’s just, you know, they could at least respond rather than pretending it did happen. (sniff) It’s like Prom all over again…

Now, this year, I didn’t see any famous people walking around, which is just as well. In past years, I have said the following things to famous people:

1. To Eddie, winner of Big Brother Season One: “Hey, you’re Eddie from Big Brother!”

2. To Mary Lynn Rajskub: “Hey, we both like orange juice!”

3. To Donald Sutherland: “Ummmm….”

I probably should not be surprised about those Press credentials.

I spent Friday and Saturday at the Festival, seeing nine movies in that stretch. (That also left me with enough time to buy a Donald Trump Bobblehead. Priorities, people.) I think at least a couple have the potential for national releases, so when one of these turns out to be the next March of the Penguins, I will brag incessantly about being ahead of the curve. You won’t want to miss that. Let’s take a look at the Friday viewing schedule.

Summerhood – A charming coming-of-age comedy about summer camp. Written and directed by former Dreamworks animator Jacob Medjuck, this movie was basically likeable. Focusing on a group of misfit campers, all of whom are known only by nicknames, it would probably resonate more with somebody who’d been to camp.

Actually, that’s the biggest problem. The story is clearly very important to Medjuck (who also plays a counselor), but we don’t quite have enough backstory to care about the characters the way he obviously does. It feels like it must be at least partly autobiographical, because he’s clearly passionate, but it’s hard to share in his passion lacking information as we do. In a way, that’s what he’s trying to express – the bonds between campers exist only during the summer and are based only on the camp experience itself. For nine months out of the year, they drop out of each other’s lives entirely. That’s well and good, but we need more than those shallow relationships to really be emotionally invested.

For example, Medjuck’s character is supposed to be going through a crisis with his best friend and girlfriend, but we see only glimpses of their story. When it suddenly forms to emotional spine of the movie, it comes as a confusing surprise, because we don’t actually know what’s going on. Still, even if the emotional connection is lacking, it’s fast-moving and largely entertaining.

I didn’t love it, but I had fun watching it. This could have been great if Medjuck had only realized that the audience doesn’t automatically find the same things important that he does. If he had taken the time to makes a case for why these things are important, Summerhood could have been great.

The Cake Eaters – Actress Mary Stuart Masterson makes her directorial debut in this small-town drama. Now, I actually liked this a lot, but it’s important to point out the elephant in the room. No matter how you dress up a description of the plot, what it’s really about is a handicapped girl who wants to get laid. The fact that the actual movie isn’t at least mildly offensive is a testament to Masterson’s directorial skill.

Kristen Stewart turns in an amazing performance as Georgia, a high school student with a terminal neuromuscular disease. It’s heartbreaking to watch her twitch and slur, and the first question at the post-film Q&A was “Is that actress really sick?” Georgia fully understands her condition, and she knows her time is limited. When she meets shy, awkward Beagle at a flea market, they bond.

Of course, Beagle is several years older, and a cafeteria worker at Georgia’s high school. See, there is definitely a skeevy aspect to the whole thing that doesn’t settle in until afterwards, when you’ve had some time to reflect. As the movie unfolds, you’re mostly caught up in sympathy for the two outcasts, and it actually comes off as sweet.

As I said, I liked it quite a bit, and I give it extra points for including Bruce Dern, who looks exactly like John McCain these days. Masterson’s directing sells it, leading us to completely overlook the fact that what we’re really looking at is a story about a dopey guy who is almost too noble to sleep with the emotionally vulnerable, beautiful girl who just happens to suffer from a debilitating disease that lets her stay pretty but renders her just enough of an outcast that she’s willing to settle.

Boy, I liked this movie much better before I started talking about it.

Doubletime – OK, this is a documentary about competitive jump-roping, and it is fantastic. I didn’t even know that there was such a thing until I saw this movie. Specifically, it’s about Double-Dutch jump-roping, and I guess I never knew how that was different from regular jump-roping. (It’s the kind where two people stand on either side of the jumper, and they swing two ropes. This is the kind of thing than men go their entire lives not knowing.)

It’s sort of the Hoop Dreams of Double-Dutch, with the focus split over various kids from different schools, and their journeys. It’s fascinating to see these kids and their affinity for jump-roping. Beyond the fact that it’s always interesting to see people who are that passionate about something, there’s some intriguing material about race in there, too. Apparently, jump rope is dominated by the African-American community, and some of the white kids have a harder time being accepted. Again, I didn’t know anything about that at all, and I found it really interesting.

The last third of the film is dominated by the actual Double-Dutch championships, which is one of the more stunning sequences I’ve seen in some time. We get to see the performances, both from the people we’ve followed and those we haven’t. Some of these routines are absolutely amazing, with people busting out the breakdancing moves in between the ropes. Again, having no familiarity with the sport, I didn’t realize how elaborate these routines could get. The twirlers and the jumpers are switching places in mid-air. People in the theater were applauding the onscreen performances just like they were in the arena. And the reactions of the people we’ve been watching to those performances are really interesting. Sort of a mixture of “Wow, that was fantastic” and “Crap. We’re screwed.” This is especially apparent when some previously unseen teams from Tokyo show up and absolutely tear the place up. Their routines look like they were enhanced with CG, because people should not be able to do that with their bodies.

It’s a wonderful, triumphant documentary about something you have never thought about once in your life. Highly recommended. (By the way: According to IMDB, if you like this movie you will probably like Bring it On and Spider-Man 2. Check and check.)

Kabluey – My favorite narrative film of the Festival. It’s dark, quirky comedy written and directed by (and starring) Scott Prendergast. (And if I may cite IMDB again, he has in the past played both “Albino” and “Creeby Albino Guy”.) He plays Salman, a guy who’s down on his luck, which is largely his own fault.

His sister-in-law, Leslie (a nice, non-wacky Lisa Kudrow), is a war bride. Her husband has been in Iraq for a year-and-a-half, leaving her with two young children. She’s going to lose her health insurance if she doesn’t get a job, but she can’t afford the child care – that’s where Salman comes in.

Leslie is entirely contemptuous of Salman, which is hilarious. Her kids are little monsters, one of whom actually states his desire to murder Salman. Your mileage may vary, but I find homicidal children to be inherently funny. Still, the meat of the story comes when Leslie gets Salman a part-time job with her company. The failing dot-com company (“BluNexIon – Increasing BluNectivity” Ha!) needs to rent out office space in their complex to make ends meet. Salman’s job is to wear a giant, featureless mascot costume (think a blue stick person with a huge head and no face), stand out on a largely deserted stretch of road and pass out fliers to automobile traffic. The scenes of Salman standing in a field, maneuvering himself in his costume to accomplish simple tasks are bleakly hysterical.

Kabluey has both a heart and hilarious physical comedy where a hand comes out of a mascot’s butt. Right there, that’s a winning combination. I really loved this movie, and I would like to see it get a wide release. Great comedic performances bump up next to real desperation, which is a difficult trick. Seek this one out – you’re going to like it.

Goliath This one’s a little tricky. My final film of Friday was promoted as a quirky comedy about a missing cat, but that won’t really get you in the right frame of mind. This is really sort a dark look at a regular guy having a breakdown. I’ll say that I liked it, but I appreciate the value of tedium as a storytelling tool. The audience did not exactly embrace this one, and a surprising number of people walked out.

The main character (who is unnamed) is going through a divorce at the same time he’s drastically demoted in his job. And then he loses his cat, Goliath, which pushes him over the edge. He accepts those other losses, but he focuses his energy on finding Goliath. He’s a deeply sad man, and his defeated demeanor is uncomfortably authentic. That may have been what got some people out of their seats.

The storytelling is a little bit off-putting, with a number of real-time scenes that drag on. Personally, I really laughed at the lead character and his wife signing their divorce papers in a long, static scene. To me, it was like Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes, to others, it was just tedious.

In the end, it’s really quite disturbing, especially when the main character becomes focused on a sex offender in his neighborhood. The climax is surprisingly violent. Let’s just say, people expecting the lighthearted comedy that the Festival program described may be more than a little horrified at the scene where the lead sprays mace into a tracheotomy patient’s neck-hole.

I liked Goliath, but it’s probably too off-putting to attract a wide audience. I probably would have liked it better if I hadn’t seen it at the tail end of a long day, but that’s Festival life for you.

So Day One turned out pretty well. Even the things I didn’t love were still enjoyable. We’re very lucky to have this kind of Festival in Michigan, even if they don’t always acknowledge certain well-meaning Web writers who would love one of those cool laminated passes and the sense of entitlement that comes with it.

Tomorrow: Day Two – four movies and a bad case of sunburn.

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