To know how often I have been to the Little Rock Film Fest I only have to count my Clintons. On a shelf in my closet I have six Bill Clinton dolls that say things like “God bless our wonderful United States of America” and “The era of big government is over.” Add the inaugural year I missed and that’s how long one of the top 25 film fests in the country (according to Movie Maker magazine) has been around. The dolls are an annual courtesy of the festival, located where the former Arkansas governor and U.S. president first made his mark. In fact, the festival holds a gala each year at the Clinton Library where current Governor Mike Beebe thanked filmmakers and sponsors for visiting his great state.
As they await construction of downtown’s Arcade Theater, festival founders Brent and Craig Renaud, along with the many volunteers, found themselves a bit more spread out. Even so, there was plenty of cozy camaraderie among filmmakers and other attendees. Much of that stems from having no less than a dozen social gatherings—brunches, BBQs, river cruises, film panels and several late night parties—over a period of just five days. The abundance of impressive films, however, is what brings people to this fast-growing event. (Well, that and the parties.) Here are some of this year’s finest films.
Ain’t In It for My Health
Director: Jacob Hatley
Stars: Levon Helm
Copyright negotiations prevented this beautiful film from being released years earlier. Now it becomes a posthumous tribute to one of America’s most inspirational performers. From his days as the drummer/vocalist for the influential musical group The Band to his more recent Grammy-award-winning albums, the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist made a lasting impact on American music. Bankruptcy, drug abuse and throat cancer are just some of the demons exposed in this enthralling documentary. Director Jacob Hatley follows Helm on the road, on the farm, in his home and to the doctor, where he eventually learns that his vocal cords are in dire straits. (Cancer would eventually take Helm’s life in 2012.) Hatley allows us to bear witness to the singer’s life while, at the same time, inserting just enough backstory to provide a foundation to that life. Others, like current and ex-wives, fill in the blanks where Helm is reluctant to speak.
This Is Where We Live
Directors: Josh Barrett, Marc Menchaca
Stars: Ron Hayden, CK McFarland, Marc Menchaca
My favorite narrative of the festival—this engrossing story of a growing friendship between August (Tobias Segal), a young man with cerebral palsy and Noah (Marc Menchaca), a handy man with a burdensome past—reminds me of the power that film has when its actors, its script and its filming all gel as one. August lives in a small house in the country with his mother, who is overwhelmed in taking care of him and his father who suffers with Alzheimer’s. August’s sister, who also lives there, tries to bury her existence in alcohol and indifference. The filmmakers give every character a life worth living and that, in turn, gives every actor a role worth playing. Menchaca, who plays the angry alcoholic war vet in the Showtime series Homeland, gives a different kind of painful performance here—a more subtle and sometimes simmering portrayal of a man in search of himself.
Director: Sean Gallagher
Cast: Adriene Mishler, Jonny Mars, Alex Karpovsky, Samantha Thomson
For a first feature, writer/director Sean Gallagher takes a really big bite with this ensemble story. But he shows an adept ability to chew all of what he’s bitten off. A talented cast and some clever writing help make up for the “lo-fi” look of this story of a group of close friends at a dinner party where the hosts have some very big news. The evening extends into overnight, giving way to alcohol and cannabis-induced confessions and discussions, many of which are heated. Although the actors often talk all at once at the dinner table, I was impressed in the “choreography” of the dialogue. I understood all of what I was meant to understand. I want to see what Gallagher does next.
(Winner “Golden Rock Documentary” and “Extraordinary Courage in Filmmaking”)
Director: Richard Rowley
Stars: Jeremy Scahill
With a story that’s every bit as riveting as an episode of Homeland, cameras follow war journalist Jeremy Scahill in his pursuit of the truth about an American special forces/anti-terrorist military group apparently performing raids that are illegal, not to mention immoral, in foreign countries. Even though he serves as narrator, Scahill is more than an observer as he deals with veiled threats to his safety while he continues to appear on broadcast news networks and in front of investigating panels. It’s an incredibly revealing, and terrifying, story of our military’s poisonous underbelly—a story that most of America knows nothing about.
(Winner “Made in Arkansas Best Feature” and “Best Actor: Liza Burns”)
Director: Juli Jackson
Stars: Liza Burns, Jason Thompson
Newcomer Liza Burns gives a charming performance as an artist on a quest to find her late father’s 45 rpm record in this satisfying little road trip. Her unexpected companion, a vintage record collector, is both a help and a hindrance. At times the storyline stumbles, but writer/director Juli Jackson includes some enjoyable moments of discovery and a worthwhile payoff at the end.
We Always Lie to Strangers
Directors: A.J. Schnack, David Wilson
Rarely has a film indirectly paid better tribute to the genius of mockumentary director Christopher Guest (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, Waiting for Guffman) than this real documentary. From its opening cricket-chirping montage of maps with its slow zoom to Branson, Missouri, We Always Lie to Strangers moves delicately and purposefully in a tale of the rise and fall of one of America’s most unlikely entertainment meccas. But, unlike Guest’s characters, one finds themselves truly caring and sympathizing with the town’s “players” as the good old days run out. For perspective the filmmakers smartly contrast the glitz with some “real life” rural jam sessions.
These Birds Walk
(Winner “Heifer International Social Impact Film”)
Directors: Omar Mullick, Bassam Tariq
I didn’t cry, but I wouldn’t have been embarrassed if I did. When These Birds Walk ended and the floor was opened up for a Q&A with directors Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq, the first question came from a woman literally in tears. She told them how beautiful their film was, apologized for crying, composed herself and proceeded with her question. Everyone in the theater empathized. This artful documentary—which plays like a narrative feature, devoid of interviews with “experts” that take away focus from the story being told—is the result of three years Mullick and Tariq spent in Pakistan, immersed in the lives a group of 9-12 year old boys living in a house that provides food, shelter and care for runaway and abandoned children. The boys stay at the house until their parents decide to come pick them up or until they’re eventually taken home. Some are at the house for days, some for months, some for years. Throughout These Birds Walk, the featured boys grapple with the idea of what “home” really is, their relationships with God and their families and the meaning of their existence in halfway house limbo. Mullick and Tariq do an admirable job avoiding the tropes the West typically uses to portray Middle Eastern culture, centering their vision on the lives of the people they came to know and love throughout their time in Pakistan. These Birds Walk is scheduled to be in theaters this fall. See it if you have the chance, but you might want to bring a few tissues because it really is that moving.—Ryan Bort
Bayou Maharaja: The Troubled Genius of James Booker
(Winner Oxford American Best Southern Film)
Director: Lily Keber
The tragic tale and unique piano virtuosity of New Orleans’ native son James Booker are both wonderfully played out in director Lily Keber’s debut film. Aside from some diverse solo albums, Booker recorded and performed with the likes of Dr. John (who learned B3 organ from Booker), Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Jerry Garcia and Harry Connick Jr., who, as a disciple of Booker’s, tells some heartfelt stories of the pianist’s influence on him as a boy. Booker’s style is as effortless and fluid as breathing. But like many of America’s deserving but downfallen musicians, Booker is often his worst enemy as he struggles with addiction. Remarkably, however, his abilities never fade as he remains true to his own style of playing even when it hinders his success.
Director: Vincent Grashaw?
Stars: P. J. Boudousqué, James C. Burns, Nicholas Bateman
Fans of Bellflower, which was produced by Coldwater director Vincent Grashaw, would be well advised to check their expectations at the door. Coldwater isn’t the loud, in-your-face acid trip that film was. But it simmers with a similar intensity as it tells the horrifying story (a composite of true anecdotes) of a young man taken against his will to a paramilitary juvenile detention camp. It’s an engaging script, directed with confidence and panache by Grashaw, and the last half hour should have you right on the edge of your seat. Grashaw draws out fascinating, textured performances from his cast, notably James C. Burns as the retired marine in charge and Nicholas Bateman as a conflicted trustee. But the real revelation is the lead actor, newcomer P. J. Boudousqué, whose frustration simmers just beneath the surface, and whose eyes betray a mind always racing. Grashaw’s obviously got a bright future, and if this role is any indication, so does Boudousqué.—Michael Dunaway
Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
Directors: Mike Lerner, Maxim Pozdorovkin?
Modern day feminism is alive and well, according to directors Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin. This group of pop-up protestors was nothing but a local news item until they took on Putin’s connection with the Russian Orthodox Church by disrupting an Easter service. The doc introduces the audience to their families, as interviews seem verboten by the government, in order to explain what the fuss is all about. Sharply told, highly engaging and emotional, it’s the fastest way to catch up on the Pussy Riot saga. But this shouldn’t be the last we hear from the girls, since the case is still on-going.—Monica Castillo
(Winner “Arkansas Times Audience Award”)
Director: Linda Bloodworth Thomason
Stars: Shane Crone
Better known as a successful television writer for shows such as Designing Women and Evening Shade, director Linda Bloodworth Thomason has created a tearjerker of a documentary about Shane Crone’s legal obstacles in having the same rights as other married couples after Shane’s partner Tom Bridegroom dies in an unfortunate accident. The story, which started out as a popular YouTube video that Shane made one year after Tom’s death, plays out as a love story and as a tragedy in Thomason’s film.
Short Term 12?
Director: Destin Cretton
Stars: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr.?
Destin Cretton expanded his 2008 short to a feature-length drama that manages to squeeze in deeply troubling topics and a dark sense of humor. Revolving around a group home for troubled teens, a counselor must reconcile her past with a new charge’s similar background. It’s hauntingly moving, but deflates any sentimentality with a quick joke. Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. hold their fragile world on the brink of breaking at almost every conflict. The realistic acting is almost unnerving, especially since a decent portion of the conflict comes from children. Fortunately, viewers are not meant to feel the heavy-handedness and are cleverly spared from any long-term emotional damage with careful dialog.—Monica Castillo
Director: Greg “Freddy” Camalier?
Stars: Etta James, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge, Gregg Allman, Alicia Keys, Bono, Aretha Franklin?
By now there’s a formula for the music-scene documentary, but Greg “Freddy” Camalier wasn’t content to follow. For starters, the cinematography is blockbuster-worthy, bringing to life not just the iconic studios but the landscape of this quiet Alabama town on the banks of the Tennessee River, which feels like a character in the film. Add to that impressive archival footage and memorable modern-day interviews with musicians who cut records there (Percy Sledge, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin), the studio players who created that Muscle Shoals sound and the musicians they influenced (Bono, Alicia Keys), and you have the best documentary of the year so far.—Josh Jackson
Directors: Martha Shane, Lana Wilson
After Tiller highlights a potentially contentious issue—profiling the four doctors still performing late-term abortions in America—but directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson refrain from pushing any agenda, instead providing a sympathetic-but-evenhanded glimpse into these physicians’ world.—Tim Grierson
Director: David Riker
Writer-director David Riker’s latest bilingual film, The Girl, takes on the hot-button issue of immigration from a perspective that’s decidedly different from his 1998 breakthrough film The City (La Ciudad), which focused on the Mexican and Central American immigrant population living in New York City. The Girl aspires to be a gritty portrayal of an immigration story—though there’s no comparison to Gregory Nava’s excellent and gutsy take on the same issue in El Norte (1983).—Christine N. Ziemba
Don Jon’s Addiction
Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt?
Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Rob Brown
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has come a very long way since Third Rock From the Sun (and a rich career as a child actor that preceded even that). He’s shown an amazing range in films like Hesher, Mysterious Skin and his recent run of blockbusters. And he stretches himself further in his first directorial effort, Jon Don’s Addiction, playing a New Jersey Don Juan whose routine involves his car, his gym, his club, his church, his women and his porn. It’s an interesting—and hilarious—look at both how men objectify women and how women objectify men. His seemingly irredeemable character finds redemption in surprising ways.—Josh Jackson
Director: Dawn Porter
It’s the kind of numbers that stagger your imagination. At any given time, public defenders, those stalwart heroes who are glorified in many a legal drama, are handling hundreds of cases at the same time, alone. Director Dawn Porter follows three such defenders in the South, rarely glorified and frequently berated, as they endure the low pay and long hours. It appears to be a hopeless occupation, but Porter does show us the rewarding side.
The Discontentment of Ed Telfair
(Winner “Made in Arkansas Best Short”)
Director: Daniel Campbell
Stars: Jeff Bailey
After winning “best short” three years in a row, folks are asking director Daniel Campbell the big question: When are you going to make a full-length feature? Once again, the young writer/director shows his flair for the comic side of everyday life. Here, a mild-mannered businessman suspects hanky-panky between his wife and an employee. In a twist, he might be jumping the gun. (Side note: Campbell is currently working on a full-length, feature film.)
Director: Zach Turner
Stars: Raeden Greer, Graham Gordy
In this well-performed, esoteric fairy tale a sad-sack teacher finds himself in the presence of an attractive and mysterious young woman. A wacked-out janitor and others offer clues. I found myself enjoying the story while never fully understanding it. Perhaps that was the point.