Monday, April 23, 2012

2012 Florida Film Festival - Highlights, Day 7-10


Documentary as activism isn't new to the festival (representatives from Amnesty International were in attendance of the Give Up Tomorrow screening earlier in the week, for example). Films traveling a festival circuit is certainly a way to create awareness. This, perhaps serendipitously, is the case with Girl Model. The film fundamentally follows the stories of two people: Nadya, a 14-year-old, Siberian girl who is plucked from a gaggle of other young Russian girls that are on display on stage to be hired as Japanese ad models; and Ashley, herself a former model a decade or so ago, who now is well-employed as a scout choosing girls like Nadya.

Nadya, along with several other very young Russian teens, are signed to very tenuous contracts by a Japanese modeling agency called Switch. According to Japanese immigration law, these models must be promised two jobs, plus $8000. But when this is not what the girls actually receive. The contracts have provisions written into them stating that the agency can send these girls home if their waistline gains literally as little as one centimeter, which indeed happens to one of Nadya's friends. So instead of money earned, the vast majority of these girls are sent back to their (mostly poor) hometowns actually in debt. And there is very little these young models or their families can do about this.

Ashley herself has complaints about the industry from her own experience as a model. But the industry has given her a large home in Connecticut and the ability to travel around the world. By the end of the movie, she's seen giving an interview praising her agency, acclaiming Switch for their handling of the models.

A model, Rachel Blais, who was only incidentally in the movie but very vocal, was in attendance and is speaking on behalf of the movie to create awareness for the plight of these very vulnerable, underage models. Though there are a couple of organizations who are fighting for models' labor rights (one in the US and one in the UK), Blais is still one of a very few arguing to have age restrictions, not allowing underage models to work as adults.

On a lighter note was my nighttime screening of Lynn Shelton's follow-up to her terrific Humpday, Your Sister's Sister. Beginning on the one-year anniversary of his brother Tom's death, Jeff (Mark Duplass makes a fool out of himself by lashing out at a reunion of Tom's friends to mark the occasion. When Tom's ex-girlfriend--and Jeff's best friend--Iris (Emily Blunt) suggests he go to her father's secluded cabin, it's meant for him to recharge and get away from it all. Unbeknownst to both of them, Iris's sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) has intentions of using it as a bit of a retreat as well. The hilarity that ensues could happen in any sitcom, but Shelton and her actors find a real space to work within, giving these characters real dimension. There isn't a false note in the movie. Duplass plays a typical version of other characters he's played (as in Humpday), a sort of loveable Jason Sega-type goof. Blunt is, movie-by-movie, proving herself to be one of her generations true stars. And DeWitt is the most natural of actresses, giving a performance as good and as stripped of affectation as her highly acclaimed turn in Rachel Getting Married of a few years back.



We first meet Angela on the streets of Las Vegas after her car breaks down. She decides to get a drink at a strip club then take a man home for a one night stand. The next morning she asks the guy for $100. She's not a prostitute, just a struggling single mother doing whatever she can to keep her head above water. Such are the plights in Bryan Wizeman's punishing Think of Me, a rigorous look at the lower ends of working class America. This Las Vegas is not the bright and glitzy one you see in the Ocean's movies and, step after step, Angela (well-played by Lauren Ambrose) seems to be digging herself deeper into financial strife and further away from that glamorous dream.

Again I ended the day with more uplifting fare with the screening of I Wish, the story of two brothers, Koichi and younger Ryu, each living with one of their separated parents. When Koichi overhears friends speaking of a belief that wishes can be granted at the moment two trains pass in the newly-built high speed rail connecting their two cities, he hatches a plan for he and his brother to meet at that spot. Like his earlier Nobody Knows, director Hirokazu Koreeda, shows he has an amazing facility to work with kids and, here, fully captures the wonder of what it is to be a child. Though I Wish is much lighter than that film or his more recent Still Walking (both of which I believe are absolute masterpieces), this one is no less moving. It was the best movie I've seen at the festival and the best I've seen in a few months in general.



The weekend began with the two very crowded animated shorts screenings. First was the International Animated Shorts program, a mixed bag of some very good and some very bad shorts. Highlights for me were the beautiful Luminaris from Argentina and the moving The Maker from Australia.

The evening's Animated Shorts program had a lot of familiar faces and those didn't disappoint. Bill Plympton was in attendance for two shorts: an original, Summer Bummer, and a restoration of an old 1921 short from animation legend Winsor McCay. Lev Yilmaz had two more installments of his ever-popular "Tales of Mere Existence" series. And Don Hertzfeldt concluded his moving trilogy with It's Such a Beautiful Day. But there were also great new shorts from new faces at FFF, including (notes on) biology, Flowers for Jupiter, and a hilarious Dr. Breakfast.



The final day of the festival started off with the very entertaining First Position, a doc following several young ballet dancers preparing for the Youth American Grand Prix, an important competition that could potentially lead to a position with a ballet company or a scholarship to a prestigious school. It's a brutal art, more like sports, as a good portion of the film highlights the many injuries and physical agony these kids must endure. Like Spellbound, or Mad Hot Ballroom, or--a favorite from last year's FFF--Louder Than a Bomb, it profiles a select few youngsters, from their hours upon hours of often painful practice to those big moments on stage.

My final screening of this year's festival was a black comedy from Scotland called Up There. The debut feature from Zam Salim reimagines purgatory as a sort of office job. Here, dead people walk around with living people and hope to get a good assessment in order to get promoted "up there". They partake in death counseling and try to impress their bosses. Salim also brilliantly throws away the rules of departed. They are not ghosts who can walk through walls or appear anywhere they please. They have absolutely zero physical affect on the living world. They get trapped in cars and need the living to open doors in order to enter and leave buildings. But in death as in life, friendships and relationships crumble, and the ability to let go is a skill not easily acquired.


And so it is with the festival. It's hard to let go, but at least I'll always have the luxury of looking forward to next year. Hope to see you there!

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