While you can find a varied assortment of movies at your local multiplex on any given week, film festivals are known for offering a particularly eclectic showcase that includes everything from the progressive to the niche to the downright weird. Movie buffs like to flock to them when they get wind of a critical darling that’s slated to catch the world’s attention that year. And for everyone else there’s just a gnawing desire to see something truly out of the ordinary.
Above all else, film festivals provide an opportunity for lesser known (if not completely anonymous) filmmakers to get an audience – any audience. For them it’s simply about getting a room full of people to watch a labor of love, if only once. At this year’s Maryland Film Festival held in downtown Baltimore, every screening’s atmosphere was one of eagerness and encouragement, though not in any form that would suggest the soft bigotry of low expectations. Standards were never compromised, and thankfully they never needed to be.
For those who were interested in attending the festival but for whatever reason didn’t or couldn’t, here are some takeaways from three films offered at the statewide celebration of celluloid.
THE MASTER CLEANSE – starring Johnny Galecki, Anna Friel, Oliver Platt, and Anjelica Huston
Directed by Bobby Miller
“The Big Bang Theory”’s Johnny Galecki headlines this strange maturation tale about a milquetoast who signs up for a woodland retreat that promises to purge him of all his depression and misery. Once there, he takes part in a cleanse that has him ingest a collection of customized juices that force him to vomit practically everything but his organs. What rancid liquids come out of him quickly coalesce into a slimy grey blob that shockingly shows signs of life. Galecki’s character treats the strange creature like a baby, assured by the retreat’s founders (played by Huston and Pratt) that its emergence is part of the process. Eventually, however, as the creature grows and becomes more dangerous, it becomes clear that it must be put down. Furthermore, the only person who can do it is the one who birthed it, or the cleanse will not be complete.
The premise of this film is strange, to be sure. But that’s where a lot of its charm lies. The rest is provided by a wholly sympathetic performance by Galecki, and the simplistic but effective creature design and puppetry. Though involving themes like depression and dejection, the tone set by first-time feature director Bobby Miller doesn’t even come within arm’s length of being altogether dark. Regular moments of levity keep things light without dulling the staid flashes of drama when they appear. And truly, being able to tackle serious subjects through comedy without sacrificing their weight is impressive. The film is a well-rounded and encouraging first effort, overall. A wide release is not likely given certain flaws, such as how the third act seems rushed. But it’s a good bet we haven’t seen the last of writer/director Bobby Miller.
FRAUD – starring…it’s complicated
Directed by Dean Fleischer-Camp
This has to be one of the more creative experiments in film in some time. Taking the “found footage” concept to the next logical step, director Dean Fleischer-Camp took hundreds of hours of one family’s home footage that was uploaded to YouTube and edited it to form a narrative of his own creation. What resulted was a story about that North Carolina family committing home insurance fraud as a way to escape their crushing debt, and using the excess money to go on an unforgettable road trip to Canada to evade the law.
Fleischer-Camp emphasizes how none of the crimes depicted in the film actually happened, which is understandable from our perspective because the editing is powerfully suggestive. That being said, there are a number of clues to tip us off, most of which involve the chronological misplacing of events such as Hurricane Sandy and the Occupy Wall Street movement, the actual dates and contexts of which require only a five-second Google search. The family itself appears as real as they are, replete with idiosyncrasies that ought to survive any scrutiny from skeptics. It’s a mixed bag of cinéma vérité and editing trickery, not unlike what reality TV shows have become famous for. But here the creativity comes from manipulating genuinely raw footage that was never meant to be anything other than that. And while we know the resulting product is pure fabrication, it still begs for considerable explanation.
THE FITS – starring Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett, Makyla Burnam, and Antonio A.B. Grant Jr.
Directed by Anna Rose Holmer
In another feature film debut, “The Fits” is about an eleven year old girl named Toni (Hightower) whose athletic interests transition from boxing to the local rec center’s drill team. Beginning like a typical fish out of water tale, Toni’s story evolves into a tale of maturation unlike any you’re likely to have seen before. Precocious in her actions rather than her words, she negotiates her passion for boxing and the blunt discipline it teaches with her newfound interest in dance and the unique opportunities it provides for personal expression. All is not well, however, as each of the members of the drill team begin experiencing strange episodes that include convulsions, delirium, labored breathing, and any number of other scary symptoms. No one knows why they happen, or how it spreads from person to person, but it’s not long before Toni feels left out for not having succumbed to them.
Shot with a precision and adaptability rarely found at all, let alone in a first feature effort, this was perhaps the most impressive film of the five that I saw. The framing, blocking, cinematography, and editing are superb, and fit the story and its youthful subjects to a “T.” While not a conventionally “eventful” movie, it keeps your attention because of how attentive it is to the details that we all associate with childhood growth outside of typical issues like first relationships, family problems, or drama between friends. In this way it models itself after the works of Richard Linklater. You’re equally absorbed into Toni’s age and environment as you are her actual story. For those who enjoy this kind of immersion “The Fits” is truly a treat to watch. For others, there is still the fun of deciphering the crafty layering of its themes. You are encouraged to actively participate as a viewer with a film like this, as doing so will make it immeasurably more rewarding. However, this is not a requirement for enjoying it on a sentimental level, which you’ll surely do involuntarily.