Wrapup Reviews From S.F. IndieFest 2024

by on February 20, 2024

Once a viewer gets a sufficient feel for the pace of life in the unnamed rural Pennsylvania town that provides the setting for Mariya Somova’s film “I Want to Live On Mars,” the desire behind the titular sentiment becomes understandable.  We are talking about a place where it seems the number of abandoned or empty houses with paint peeling off the walls outnumber the actually occupied homes.  Here, the environment seems to naturally include a line of abandoned school buses and adults who drink continually and mindlessly watch television.

The rural teen known as Pickles calls this backwater town home.  She may not be an utter gleaner.  But the detritus left behind by the abandoned homes’ former inhabitants are objects of curiosity.  They range from a small line of 45 singles whose titles are obscured by dust to piles of clothes left in unorganized heaps.

The arrival of a mother and daughter pair of newcomers brings what might be called change to the town.  Nancy is unemployed and quickly falls into the drinking and mindless TV watching life.  Breezy, Nancy’s rebellious teen daughter, is still enough of an urban girl to hate living in this place within a day or arrival.  The teen girl’s encounters with Pickles go from hostile wariness to grudging friendship.  But the urban girl’s dream of going someplace more interesting (aka Mars) is a journey that she wants the rural girl to accompany her on.

Breezy’s hatred of the status quo in this unnamed rural town is understandable.  Sure, it’s relatively affordable given her mother’s reduced financial circumstances.  But there are no stores, coffee shops, or even cell phone towers close by.  The girl hangs onto her smart phone even if lack of phone service essentially renders it a sophisticated piece of junk.  The nearest restaurant, a pizza place, is 50 miles away.

Breezy’s relationship with Pickles begins, the viewer suspects, because the town native is closest in age to the newcomer.  It also helps that both girls have vivid imaginations they express in complementary ways.  Breezy vocally expresses it in speculations about the roots of human behavior or in talking about her dreams of being in Hell.  The more taciturn Pickles lets her imagination fly based on the objects she gleans, whether it’s a tea party with a baby doll or decorating an abandoned Christmas tree.

Somova paints the nature of Breezy’s antagonistic relationship with Nancy in broad strokes.  Nancy’s mistake led to Breezy being forced to move to the middle of nowhere.  A cooking skill limited to variations on pie-making long wore out its welcome with Nancy’s daughter.  Hardship has wrung so much life out of Nancy, there’s little affection left for Breezy.  Finally, Breezy’s mature look thanks to ably applied eye shadow and make up doesn’t even merit a compliment from her mother.

Then again, Breezy can’t be called truly blameless.  Deliberately filling her mother’s drinking glass with pee goes beyond the joke stage.  The girl’s response to Pickles’ pointing out she needs to get a job is to do everything other than look for work.  Is the big trip to Mars pursuit of a big dream or a momentary whim?

Compared to the relationships between Pickles and Breezy or between Breezy and Nancy, the relationships between the girls and the main male characters feel like afterthoughts.  Pickles likes Robbie the cook, but he seems to relate to people only by talking about food.  Mike goes from being a filthy bearded weirdo to somebody encouraged by both girls to take up music again.  Ironically, “This Little Light Of Mine,” the song Mike sings in the film, offers advice that he ultimately ignores when his fears get the better of him.

It’s odd yet somehow appropriate that the unnamed town is the sort of place where individuality and even time get swallowed up by the environment.  It takes a long while to learn the characters’ names, and even then it’s mentioned by others in passing.  Life seems like an endless Today with only a vague sense of time passing thanks to meals.

Somova does let these two friends get to Mars, but not in the way originally thought.  How they do so is not a cop-out but a recognition of the motivation behind that big “aimless” plan.  For the Mars they envision is some mythical place that’s a lot better than the no-place they’re trying to leave behind.

That point becomes clear when the two girls encounter an abandoned house on their travels.  That “abandoned house” happens to be a well-kept mansion which has wine, a working shower, and even a bag of magic mushrooms.   The last of these objects leads to an entertaining drug trip that allows Breezy to finally get real about the relationships that matter in her life.

***

Call Kevin Webb’s animated short “The Odyssey of Cleve And Mike” an amiable musical goof in the mode of The Beatles’ animated film “Yellow Submarine.”  Its plot is that of nasty outsiders (a pair of space aliens in Webb’s film) threatening all that is proverbially green and good in the land (San Francisco in this case).  Our musical heroes (local bassists Cleveland “Cleve” Eaton and Mike Watt) set things right with the coolness of their music.  Add into the mix the partial or utter trashing of such familiar San Francisco sites as the Mabuhay Gardens and the Transamerica Pyramid, and the viewer is ready for some light-hearted surreal fun.

The hijinks the aliens put Cleve and Mike through range from the pettiness of stealing their guitars to turning a denizen of San Francisco Bay into a kaiju.  Fortunately, neither musician hero lets the aliens’ jerkwad-level behavior throw them off their playing even when their heads are literally messed with.

The animation style of Web’s short may not be detailed realism.  But it is fortunately cartoonish enough to be entertaining in its visual playfulness.

***

The search for Truth and knowledge of the self has been a centuries-long preoccupation of Western philosophers.  Swen Werner’s mostly computer animated short “My Digital Truth” attempts to bring that search into the 21st century by using AI (in the form of Chat GPT) and Blockchain as homunculi tasked as intellectual servants.  The results do yield a couple of mildly amusing quips such as describing crypto as money designed for computers.  The film also mentions such classical philosophical ideas as choosing a short and glorious life or a long and ordinary one.

Yet these small virtues are outweighed by the shallowness of its ultimate conclusions.  The Socratic idea of determining one’s identity from the reflection in others’ eyes overlooks the possibility of these figurative others having prejudiced or biased eyes.  A sexist troll such as Ben Shapiro is the decidedly wrong person to comment on the identity of successful singer Taylor Swift.  The mention of the passing of the unnamed banker’s mother seems trotted out to demonstrate the friendship and kindness the film’s protagonist cites as part of his so-called digital truth.  Finally, if a Chat AI’s goal is “to assist users and enhance lives,” fulfilling that goal seems suspect if a Chat AI lacks the judgment to discern information that will enhance a user’s life yet is information the user might be unwilling to hear.

Werner ultimately fails to create something whose insights might barely qualify as a nice try.

***

Is it perverse to find points of agreement with both sides of the same argument?  Not when the participants in question make their respective cases with clean hands and composure rather than in the selfish pursuit of one-upmanship.  That aspect makes the arguments in Shaun Dozier’s film “The Problem Of The Hero” enthralling rather than the sad mix of cheap platitudes and sports-team cheerleading intended nowadays to pass for political debate.

The source material for Dozier’s film adaptation comes from two plays.  The main one is a drama called “Native” by Ian Finley.  The other is the dialogue that gives the film its title and is written by the legendary Black American writer Richard Wright.

What ties these two disparate sources together is an incident that occurs on the eve of the premiere of Orson Welles’ theatrical adaptation of Wright’s acclaimed novel Native Son.  Wright’s partnership with liberal Pulitzer Prize-winning Southern playwright Paul Green had yielded both the script for the adaptation and a solid friendship.  Shortly thereafter, Wright accepts Welles’ and John Houseman’s suggestions to restore the play’s original ending, which makes protagonist Bigger Thomas an unrepentant killer to the moment of his execution.  Green objects to Wright’s changing Thomas away from a hero, and the subsequent arguments between the two writers threaten to destroy their friendship.

Dozier’s film fascinates because he quickly shows that Wright’s and Green’s disagreement over the play’s ending is symptomatic of bigger issues.  Some of these issues are connected to the play’s themes, some to the divergent personal beliefs of the two writers.  But the articulation of and passion behind these different viewpoints work thanks to incredible performances from J. Mardrice Henderson as Wright and David Zum Brunnen as Green.

One still timely issue in the film is claiming the right to tell the story of someone with a far different cultural background to one’s own.  On one hand, there’s the issue of artistic freedom.  An artist cannot grow without a willingness to try stepping outside their artistic comfort zone.  On the other hand, there’s the question of artistic empathy.  How closely can a person who’s never faced the terror of being subjected to white violence merely for saying an “impertinent” word know what it’s like to be Black in America?

Another theme concerns the nature of a citizen’s obligations to help protect American democracy.   As a World War One veteran, Green saw firsthand the often terrible price paid to fight for that democracy.  Wright, as a frequent recipient of socially acceptable racial prejudice, sees little reason to be obligated to a country which regularly treats people such as him as second-class citizens.  Then again, if Wright wants to fulfill his dream of leaving America and living in Paris, it can be argued it’s in his ultimate self-interest to support American forces trying to liberate France in the looming conflict later known as World War Two.

Several notable supporting performances add richness and depth to Dozier’s drama.  Josephine Hall as actress Nell Harrison helps the viewer learn why Wright wanted to work with Green in the first place and crucially opens up Wright’s recollection of a formative incident from his youth.  Brandon Haynes as ex-boxer turned actor Canada Lee brings out why heroic behavior matters to Green and also provides a cautionary warning on having a blind belief in the ability to follow one’s dream.  Charlie Cannon brings out Orson Welles’ mix of brilliance and obnoxiousness, epitomized in a scene where he nearly smothers an actress to make a point about a performance.

Dozier also deserves praise for making the film feel visually fluid.  A transition from the theater where Native Son is in rehearsals to a flashback to Green’s Chapel Hill office on a hot summer night feels smooth rather than an abrupt shift in the action.  The conversation between Wright and Harrison feels like a moment in an unstated long friendship.  An argument between Wright and Green ends with the two men standing at opposite edges of the screen.

Seeing and hearing the verbal clashes between Wright and Green feels like witnessing two men trying and failing to communicate individual life experiences that are on some level alien to the other.  For example, a hotel clerk’s casual racism is to Green something that can be corrected by confronting the clerk.  But to Wright, seeing that clerk pointedly clean the mouthpiece of the telephone Wright just used is symptomatic of a bigger problem in American society.

If neither man truly succeeds in making their friend see and understand their viewpoint, at least the arguments never descend to name-calling.  Insult is given a couple of times, but never accompanied by a lack of respect.

“The Problem Of The Hero” will admittedly not appeal to audiences who prefer their central dramas neatly resolved rather than left at an understandable stalemate.  A lack of name actors doesn’t help either.  But for viewers who are comfortable engaging with dramas willing to question their accepted truths, this is the sort of worthwhile film much deserving of liberation from the festival circuit and granting of access to the widest possible audience.

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment