Three Films Show The Flexibility of Genre and Tone at SFIFF

Expectations can be a dastardly thing. What you want, and what a movie is actually giving can create a gulf that hampers the experience no matter the quality on display. It’s both the wonder and the danger of the film festival as well. Fests are all about building up a movie’s profile, to get word on the street that a flick is worth checking out once it swings by you neck of the woods, so there are built in expectations at every level. Three of the films I saw recently at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival did a terrific job messing with these expectations. Constantly shuffling what one would expect or want from the images being projected on screen. Whether done through format, tone, or style, they all evoked something other than what one thinks when reading the blurb on the schedule.

First up is Flee, a documentary accounting the life of a gay Afghani refugee as he escapes the tumult of the civil war in his country, than bounces around post Soviet Russia and Europe trying to find a better life for himself. Pretty standard stuff for sure, but here’s the twist: Director Jonas Pohar Rasmussen has rendered this impressive journey in animation. Taking the traditional interview/stock footage format of a historical/personal documentary and abstracting it out with a layer of clean and precise drawings.

Theoretically animation should be antithetical to the process of documentary filmmaking, it is, after all, making up images whole cloth to express ideas and emotions, and this is an event that actually happened. But frequently documentaries can feel hemmed in by the format that is used so frequently. The talking heads, the stock footage, maybe some new B-Roll, it can get rather expected. What Flee does so well is allow that style to be loosened up, for the the imagistic qualities of the film to help carry the story when words aren’t enough. It helps amplify the narrative rather than smother it.

It also helps that the animation both blunts and accentuates elements of the story being told. This is harrowing stuff, and Rasmussen is judicious in when to fully articulate a scene or when to push into something more intentionally expressionistic. This remove allows the story not to go down as either misery porn, nor straight up happy turn for a man whose life has been extraordinarily difficult.

The Humans plays on what you expect in a completely different manner. From the log line, a family gets together to celebrate Thanksgiving in a run down New York apartment, to the origin of the film, director Stephen Karam adapting his own stage play to the screen, one might know what they’re in for. A chatty familial drama where the secrets and concerns of each member are revealed with both humor and sadness. That certainly is a part of The Humans, but Karam also presents his story with an interesting twist, telling his holiday yarn in the form that is straight out of horror. Now before I completely invert what you might think is going on here, let me state that there’s nothing supernatural going on in The Humans, all ghost are simply metaphorical, but that the form and style of the film is ripped directly out of something like Repulsion. 

It’s a noted difficulty when translating a play to the big screen that you can frequently feel the staginess. The single settings, the monologues, the limited cast of characters. Many directors work to “open up” a play, but Karam does a smart inversion here. The Humans is quite cinematic because of how closed down it is. This is an aggressively claustrophobic experience that makes one wonder how the ominous shots of faces in windows and dark hallways were done originally on stage. The dirty apartment of The Humans is an impressive feet of bot location scouting and/or stage design. The proportions are all wrong, some rooms are too big, others too small. The lights never properly illuminate the area, engulfing huge portions of the place in shadows. And even though you spend the whole runtime in the place you get just as turned around in the apartment as the characters.

Add to that a truly stunning work of sound design. The building just hums with clunks, clanks, slams, splats, and rumbles. Turning the anodyne elements of a big city apartment into a surprising source of skin crawls and jump scares. Every textural element of the film just puts the viewer on edge, which allows the calamitous Thanksgiving dinner that plays out in an even more unruly manner.

The Humans in the movie are Richard Jenkins as the beleaguered father of two daughters (Beanie Feldstein and Amy Schumer) son of a dementia stricken mother (June Squibb) and husband to an equally weary wife (Jayne Houdyshell), with Steven Yuen rounding out the ensemble as one of the daughter’s boyfriend, all together for dinner on a cold New York night in the creaky apartment. Despite the supposed cheer everyone know that Thanksgiving is a raw time for families, especially those that are harboring life altering secrets, as many of the group here do. The horror framing gives this uneasiness an extra oomph, but also does well to draw out the comedic elements in the story as well. This is a tonal tightrope, wavering between humor and fear, and Karam and his cast are more than up to the challenge at keeping things both unnerving and engaging.

The last film of the day, Petite Maman, has a different sort of expectations game going on. It is the most recent film from French director Celine Sciamma. Sciamma has carved out an excellent niche for herself over the past fifteen or so years, but went to another level with her previous outing Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Lady on Fire was such an extreme of emotions and romance that one can’t imagine Sciamma topping herself.

So instead Sciamma has made deliberately small film. Petite Maman’s scant 72 minute runtime and focus on children make it feel like Sciamma wanted to do something restrained and intentionally, well for a lack of better word, cute. This is a cute movie about children and the emotional life they lead, but that cuteness is also an entry point into a thematic world dealing with the complexities of parenthood and the fear of death. What makes Petite Maman so remarkable is that it can wade into those waters without losing any of the sweetness that it intentionally gins up.

The film follows Nelly (Josephine Sanz) a young girl who just lost her grandmother. She’s broken up about it, but not as broken up as her own mother (Nina Muerisse) as the family returns to the grandmother’s home to clean it out. One day Nelly happens upon another girl in the woods, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) the same time her mother disappears for a while. The two girls become fast friends as Nelly unknots their unique relationship. 

I won’t get into it any more, though a basic understanding of French should clear up the plot before you sit in the theater, but the way the film explores the unknowable question of how we relate to our parents is fascinating. The story dives into the fact that we can really only understand our parents as people after us, even if they had a full life before us, and trying to divine how their previous experiences impact their current life. It’s heady stuff, but Sciamma tackles it with charm, wit, and heart, never leaning too far into anything overly bleak.

In many ways Petite Maman feels like a live action Studio Ghibli movie. The childhood exploration, whispers of death, and dollop of magic all feel connected to films like My Neighbor Totoro. This is a story that is about children, and appropriate for children, that plays just as strongly for adults, as Sciamma so eloquently evokes the emotions of childhood. There is a magic world just beyond the forest, and it’s something that we can use for both friendship and understanding in the best possible way.