Wrapup Reviews From Slamdance 2024

by on February 5, 2024

Radha Mehta’s dramatic short “DOSH” offers a story of love and disability.  Karishma fears that the bipolar behavior her husband Ram displays will endanger their son Rishi. But for the sake of Ram’s mother and their hosting of a wedding, she reluctantly delays pressing the issue.  But circumstances soon require Karishma to take a stand.

 

Ram’s mother won’t support her daughter-in-law.  To her, Ram’s odd behavior is work-related stress, and not a manifestation of a disease that she feels affects only Westerners.  The older woman also engages in a little emotional blackmail by hinting Karishma’s deafness would have been a deal breaker for other potential husbands.

 

However, Karishma’s deafness doesn’t define her character.  A touching silent sequence at the film’s beginning suggests hearing loss ended Karishma’s career as a professional dancer.  If anything, her deafness increases the tension between husband and wife.  She’s forced to constantly wear her earpieces so she knows when to intervene if Ram’s behavior endangers Rishi.

 

Love may wind up precipitating the short’s climactic crisis.  Fortunately, Karishma’s, Ram’s, and Rishi’s love for one another offers hope that this family will ultimately endure.

 

***

Remi R.M. Moses’ short film “Saving Art” is a wrenching tale of love, lies, and the resilience of children.  The viewer will wonder whether they would show more wisdom than Brian, the tortured father at the center of this tale.

 

Brian has told his five-year-old son Arthur aka Art that the chemotherapy medicines he’s taking will give him superpowers.  But that lie covers several fears Brian keeps hidden from his son.  His wife (and Art’s mother) was lost to leukemia, and he can’t bear losing another loved one the same way.  Nor does the father know if the lie helps his son deal with his illness.

 

As the sole parental figure in his son’s life, Brian can’t pretend nothing is wrong.  Yet it’s clear he lacks the ideas or concepts that would make it possible for him to help his son through this stressful period.  All lying does is erode trust between parent and child.

 

Ironically, Art gives his father a clue to the appropriate action to take through his own reaction to the passing of fellow patient Penny.  She believed an apple tree was growing inside her cancer-ridden body.  The boy’s way of paying homage to Penny’s passing shows his father the depths of his son’s emotional resilience.

 

Brian’s acceptance of this truth helps him turn his earlier lie about Art gaining superpowers into a touching and symbolic moment.  The father accepts his son’s condition and is now willing to see him and whatever may come next.

 

***

 

Alexander Yellen’s dramedy “Daruma” unapologetically centers on the Life-Changing Road Trip trope.  What freshens up the trope’s use in this film is that the men enjoying the symbolic freedom of the open road are both disabled.  One character is a wheelchair user while the other is a double amputee.  Yet their physical condition is less important than their search for redemption from the consequences of their short-sighted acts.

 

Wheelchair-bound Iraq War veteran Patrick Marshall (Tobias Forrest) attempts suicide after weathering the crappiest day of his life.  Getting saddled with Camilla, the 4-year-old product of a one-night stand he’d forgotten about, seems to add to his woes.  While he tries his best, it becomes clear Patrick’s not ready to handle the responsibilities of parenting.  However, transporting Camilla to her grandparents isn’t something he can accomplish alone.  Patrick reluctantly engages neighbor Robert (John P. Lawson) to make the cross-country drive.   The problem isn’t that Robert’s a double amputee.  It’s that there has been a history of bad blood between these two neighbors, and Robert’s not doing this because he likes Patrick.

 

Kelli McNeil-Yellen’s script upends the typical “disability = sainthood” trope by making its two disabled protagonists flawed human beings.  Patrick is the more flawed of the duo with his short temper and his drinking problem, among other faults.  Yet McNeil-Yellen’s script often shows that Patrick has good reason for some of his noxious behavior.  Causing a scene at a strip club is bad, but that’s where the vet found the stripper who robbed him at the beginning of the movie.

 

Despite his initial mercenary motivation, Patrick’s attempt to shoulder the responsibilities of Camilla’s care starts revealing his more vulnerable side.  The “how much trouble can a 4-year-old girl cause” joke may be a variation on the one in the Dustin Hoffman classic “Tootsie.”  That sequence and Patrick’s leaning on children’s furniture store clerk Anna (Abigail Hawk) for childrearing help hints that the vet’s aggressiveness is an emotional defense mechanism.  But dealing with the pain hidden behind Patrick’s aggressiveness isn’t possible for Anna thanks to his ironically triggering her emotional defenses.

 

Lawson’s Robert serves many roles over the course of the road trip.  He’s a voice of conscience pushing Patrick to open his heart to Camilla.  He’s a cool uncle who can do everything from singing “Wheels On The Bus” to explaining in a non-traumatic way to Camilla how he lost his hands.  And he’s a child-friendly instant critic of Patrick’s missteps who hilariously refers to his errant neighbor as a “poo-poo head.”

 

Yet one thing Robert will not do is usurp Patrick’s place in Camilla’s heart.  He continually urges his semi-disagreeable neighbor to cherish the little girl’s presence.  Though McNeil-Yellen’s script doesn’t go into full detail on Robert’s own shortcomings, Lawson’s performance makes the viewer feel Robert’s own valuing the importance of family had to be learned the hard way.

 

McNeil-Yellen’s script does eventually reveal the hidden trauma that warped Patrick’s life.  To its credit, it then avoids giving its wheelchair-bound protagonist sentimental happy endings.  Instead, any good thing that happens to him is the product of work and a few good rolls of fate’s dice.

 

The best way for viewers to honor what the Yellens have done in “Daruma” is to push for and support more films starring disabled actors.  The world needs more and bigger unsentimental stories about the disabled.  “Daruma” suggests one story idea in the challenges of disabled adults to raise a thriving family.  Surely there are others.

 

***

How much do personal shortcomings account for a person’s failure to escape poverty?  How much of this failure can be blamed on unassailable larger socioeconomic forces?  Matt Moyer & Amy Toensing’s award-winning documentary “Inheritance” avoids giving comfort food to simplistic political cant.

 

The film’s set in Appalachian Ohio.  Its subjects are three extended families connected by marital and family ties and their involvement in the area’s illegal drug ecosystem.  “Inheritance” follows the fortunes and misfortunes of these three families over the course of 11 years.

 

Providing an emotional focus for the film is Curtis, whom the viewers follow through his adolescence.  This bright boy dreams of graduating high school and eventually becoming either a lawyer or a YouTuber.  Yet the environment he lives in, a combination of hoarder’s nightmare and casual illicit drug use, threatens to poison or kill his dreams.

 

The film’s title alludes to the possibilities Curtis will take from his current existence: the ability to better his life or his succumbing to addiction.  Grandma Bean, the first subject seen onscreen, wants Curtis to succeed.  She has bitter memories of working two jobs to make life better for her three children, yet sees them succumb to addiction or other troubles.

 

Yet the area of Ohio the subject families live in seems unlikely to present many alternatives to the world of illicit drugs.  A visual tour of the nearest town reveals lots of boarded-up storefronts.  The economic situation is so bad that even the local Goodwill has gone out of business.

 

Curtis himself may not openly condemn the drug use he sees going on around him.  His diffidence seems a form of protective withdrawal to keep the peace between him and his parents George and Euva when they openly talk about using drugs in front of the boy.  Both adults love Curtis, and Euva’s face lights up around her son.

 

Cousin J.P., who as a child displayed Curtis’ brightness, seems the closest thing to a success story.   After serving prison time for accidentally killing a pregnant girlfriend in a vehicular homicide, he seems to have turned his life around.  Bible study helps him focus on staying sober.  He volunteers with the Feeding America organization and wants to put his prison past behind him.  He’s even working with Grandpa Bean on a fixer-upper.

 

Yet J.P.’s recovery reflects a fear of backsliding rather than something nurtured from an inner strength.  He feels his grandparents don’t really love him.  J.P’s courage in trying to talk to Grandma Bean about being sexually molested by a relative feels fruitless when Grandma Bean refuses to believe him.

 

By contrast, J.P.’s brother Donald acts as if prison time serves as a vacation from the drug trade or drug use.  In a particularly raw sequence, both the recent parolee and his addict girlfriend privately shoot up in their car.  Yet Donald sees nothing wrong in immediately taking another shot as the first injection isn’t working fast enough for his taste.

 

Lack of onscreen commentary on several disturbing images in “Inheritance” makes those images more disconcerting.  A foster home bedroom that Curtis and his younger siblings are forced to stay in features a painted Confederate battle flag covering one wall of the room.  Overdose calls to 911 feel like incidents from Bedlam.

 

The compassionate viewer will wonder by film’s end if Curtis’ dream of graduating high school (or even Grandma Bean’s hope for the next generation)  is a version of the pipe dreams held by Harry Hope’s saloon regulars in “The Iceman Cometh.”

 

***

Dustie Carter’s short film “Dumpster Archeology” may share with Agnes Varda’s classic documentary “The Gleaners And I” a fascination with someone able to find value in what the majority of society regards as garbage.  Yet the discoveries by Carter’s subject, punk artist Lew Blink, feel more like glorified show and tell rather than keys to some larger social insight.  A 1939 sex manual, for example, feels only like a curio.

 

What drives Blink to dumpster diving is reconstructing the stories of the people who put these objects in the dumpster.  His actions can’t be called invasion of privacy, as the act of throwing something away is an implicit statement of the object’s lack of value.  If anything, Blink’s dumpster explorations can be likened to the work of Davy Rothbart and “Found Magazine.”  But in Blink’s case, the personal material he unearths from the likes of self-styled psychic Carrie Seib or fringe information collector Randy Titus are more libraries than thrown away notes.

 

“Dumpster Archeology” has its intriguing moments, but its ultimate slightness leaches any worth from this film.

 

***

Actor Zack Weiner (pronounced Wee-ner not Whi-ner and totally not related to the disgraced politician who showed dick pics), the subject of Daniel Robbins’ documentary “Citizen Weiner,” comes off as an idealistic political holy fool who winds up pranking the New York City municipal politics ecosystem.

 

This unemployed actor loves the Upper West Side, where he lives with his mother Cherie Vogelstein in a very nice high-rise apartment.  His run for a City Council seat is born out of a desire to give back to the community he loves.

 

But Robbins shows the gap between preparing to run for office and actually winning office happens to be a spectacularly large one.  Getting at least 1000 legitimate endorsements for Weiner isn’t a problem.  Nor is having a colorful organization a difficulty.  Weiner’s campaign people include campaign manager and cat-loving friend Joe Gallagher, social media coordinator and veteran TikToker Sarah Coffey, and veteran election lawyer Dan Bright.  In a jaw-dropping moment, Bright is caught on camera angrily threatening to break some unfortunate woman’s head with a chair.

 

Yet front-runner Gale Brewer, in Robbins’ eyes, has earned her spot through political inertia.  She has connections to powerful local political figures such as U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler and politically runs the Upper West Side anyway.  Her interest in running for City Council comes across as what noted TV and speculative fiction writer Harlan Ellison once called “a sick need to get elected.”

 

If getting elected to public office is a matter of media name recognition, “Citizen Weiner” argues that for an underdog such as its subject, any unconventional yet legal method for ensuring public recognition is fair game.  His campaigning on ideas results in his getting fewer votes than “none of the above” from one political club.  A YouTube political debate to draw public attention to his views gets sidetracked by no-filter street activist DJ Elf 7 and the sometimes dubious actions of Weiner’s mother Vogelstein (who may be playing an exaggerated version of herself).

 

Weiner’s campaign achieves more media success riding on the coattails of young entrepreneur Obocho Peters’ opening of a clothing pop-up store.  Turning street kiosk ads supposedly advertising an upcoming Hulu streaming of “The Pledge,” a film featuring Weiner, into a streetlegal campaign poster earns the side-eye of a local reporter named Jeff Coltin.

 

It’s funny yet depressing that Weiner gets his long-sought media attention with a video showing in graphic detail his fondness for BDSM play.  Everyone from the Jerusalem Post to the English newspaper The Guardian to right-wing talk show hosts characterizing Weiner as a soy boy to Stephen Colbert making jokes about the video shows how the media is quite happy to pay attention to the video.  Ironically, as the film shows, this attention wouldn’t have happened without a little nudging from campaign manager Gallagher.

 

That revelation puts into question just how much of “Citizen Weiner” is factual.  How many of the film’s events actually occurred as depicted in the film?  How many details were the results of Robbins’ editorial fudging?

 

Whatever truths viewers reach regarding “Citizen Weiner,” it’s safe to say Weiner’s desire to give back to his community is genuine.  His free ice cream truck, staffed by members of his campaign team, exists to make Upper West Side patrons happy and not to promote Weiner’s name.

 

***

 

Pete Ohs’ dystopian comedy romance “Love And Work” unfortunately most resembles a badly thought out improv sketch unnecessarily bloated to feature-length.

 

Its central premise of a world where a couple tries to be employed (and be in love) in a time when all making of stuff has been banned gets undone by its simplistic and contradictory execution.  Ohs’ world is based on the binary assumption that nobody works or that everybody (even children) work.  The film’s central assumption will seem ridiculous to anyone with a passing knowledge of labor history in America.  Ohs also takes a simplistic interpretation of what constitutes “making stuff.”  The train whistle constantly heard in the background reminds viewers that trains don’t get around by driving themselves.  Who’s “making” the train trips? Or what about the film’s “cops” reminding people of the work ban?  When they bust somebody, what records do they keep of the person being busted (to keep count of the strikes against them if nothing else)?  Finally, if even publicly mentioning getting hired results in the speaker receiving the enforcers’ stink eye, why do central characters Diane and Fox’s drunken shoutouts in the town square about being newly employed not lead to immediate arrest?

 

This tediously unfunny film winds up feeling twice as long as its official running time.  It also ironically winds up being an example of why the fictional “making stuff” ban is not a bad idea in some cases.

 

(Slamdance’s Grand Jury Award for Documentary Feature went to “Inheritance.”

 

Slamdance Acting Award went to John Lawson for his performance in “Daruma.”

 

The George Starks Spirit Of Slamdance Award went to Radha Mehta, director of “DOSH.”)

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