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Directors: Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart
The Salt Lake Film Festival opened on Thursday, Sept. 26 with a screening of Medora, and admittedly, having done little research beforehand outside of watching the trailer, I was hesitant to attend because documentaries about small town basketball teams seem to be a dime a dozen. Had I known the film was directed and produced by Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart, two men behind FOUND Magazine and (in Rothbart's case) a contributor for This American Life, I would have anticipated the screening a little more. Needless to say, my initial expectations were exceeded, and I left the screening a better person, which is the mark of a great film.
At first glance, Medora follows the tragic lives of a few zitty teenagers on the losing high school basketball team in Medora, Indiana––population: less than 600. The team hasn't won a game all season, though its coaches are dedicated and the kids practice hard. With limited educational resources, and a team comprised of at-risk youth living in poverty and broken homes, it's tough to motivate a winning attitude. A store clerk is asked how she would describe the failing town, ravaged by factory closures and drug addiction, and she succinctly replies, "Closed." With their backwoods Midwest accents, hormonal thought processes and overall bleak living situations, it would be easy to dismiss these kids––and the community as a whole––as underachieving white trash. However, my favorite quote in the film comes from one of these teenage boys, a modernization of the Golden Rule: Don't treat people based on who they are now––treat them as who they could be. This documentary uses their stories and that of their tragic basketball team as a warning sign for the effects of the nation's diminishing middle class, turning a mirror on the comparatively privileged audience (anyone sitting in a film festival screening) to reassess our personal American Dream and realize that the opportunities outlined in our presidents' State of the Union addresses are pure fantasy for some of our nation's citizens.
This was a Kickstarter-funded film, which exceeded its initial goal of $18,000 by almost 50 grand––a heroic and heartwarming story in itself. Go to their website and sign up for the mailing list to keep up to date on the film and its stars, and don't miss a screening if you get the chance! –Esther Meroño
Director: Delphine Lanson
In this documentary, hopeful fathers and gay couple Jerome and Francois travel to Wisconsin from their home in France to build their family through a surrogate. Since surrogacy is illegal in France, the couple must go through an American agency, which connects them with Coleen, a simple mother of three, living on a farm in Dairyland, U.S.A. The story the film attempts to capture is beautiful, and Jerome and Francois are handsome and tirelessly positive people who imbue genuine admiration, trust and gratitude toward Coleen and her family. However, shoddy, amateur filmmaking, from some of the worst sound mixing and music editing and composition that I have ever heard in a "professional" film, indie or otherwise (I literally plugged my ears during a 10 minute scene where the interviewee was speaking over the din of a room full of people talking), to random, irrelevant shots and lack of creative directing, both in script and in cinematography, result in a lackluster viewing experience that kept me checking the time for the last hour, but leaving the theater feeling dissatisfied though it had dragged for so long. The intentions are good, and I'm definitely interested in the story behind these characters, but it was no better than watching someone's home videos. According to her bio, Lanson is a French actress "orchestrating multiple successful careers as a screenwriter, director, and actress." Based on Father's Birth, she might be juggling too many plates. –Esther Meroño
Director: Chris Eska
The Retrieval takes place entrenched in the Civil War battleground, filmed in Texas. Burrell (Bill Oberst Jr.), a malicious, head of a gang of bounty hunters, uses two secret weapons to extract escaped black slaves and others heading north and back into captivity: black freedmen, teenager Will (Ashton Sanders) and his uncle, Marcus (Keshton John). The opening scene demonstrates the group’s heartbreaking tactics, with Will taking refuge with some runaways then betraying them to Burrell. Though Burrell pays Will and Marcus handsomely for their work, his threatening demeanor culminates in his demand that the two hunt down Nate (Tishuan Scott) for a lucrative reward, or be killed. As the two lure Nate back South with a lie about his dying brother, Will begins to view Nate as a father figure in place of the dad who left north and never returned. Once Marcus is killed off in a flurry of wartime gunfire, Will must negotiate his fate with his fondness for Nate, which sends the film to a tear-jerking end. Though slow-moving and sometimes difficult to understand due to masculine, guttural dialogue, The Retrieval succeeds as a narrative of guilt and absolution, underpinned by Sanders’ brilliant performance. –Alexander Ortega
Director: Andrew Bowser
Filmed solely on a GoPro Hero 2, Worm plays out in one take in 93 minutes with the camera angled toward protagonist Jason “Worm” Truitt’s (Andrew Bowser) face—in black and white. Though questionable on paper, this approach plays out in the film’s favor to the extent that Bowser irrefutably nails his role as a stuttering nervous wreck, dealt a bad hand in life, contracted to do some dirty work by the mysterious Byron (Drew Pollock) in order to support his girlfriend, Megan (Katie Scarlett Lloyd), and daughter, Holly (Presley Mahaffay). As Byron’s nowhere to be found to pay Worm, two small-town cops descend on him to unduly arrest him for a double homicide, which impels the film to be a whodunit, rife with betrayal and Worm’s incredible escapes from capture. The standout scene is Worm’s first evasion of custody by jumping off of a bridge into the river and swimming ashore. The only flubs of the one-shot piece—solely—are a mismatched overdub and scant shoddy dialogue, which are negligible, given the technical conceit. This film flourishes as “Southern Neo-Noir” with an apt musical score, and the ultimate tension of Worm’s fight to save Holly is electrifying. –Alexander Ortega