Happy Face | Alexandre Franchi | Photos courtesy of Big Time PR

Happy Face
Slamdance Film Festival

Director: Alexandre Franchi

In a disorienting evolution, the film Happy Face is a piece that explores abandonment, fear and the interplay between society and self-worth. Beginning in a therapy support group, we are introduced to all of the characters, each having some type of physical deformity. The main character first introduces himself as Augustin, however, at the conclusion of the support meeting, he storms to the bathroom and peels back tape and bandages, revealing his flawless skin and a different identity—Stan (Robin L’Houmeau), a 19-year-old finance student and Dungeons & Dragons fanatic, whose grief becomes the orchestrator of his denial. 

The film races between memories and the present moment, and in an opening scene, as the camera pans between isolated body parts—delicate cheek to nail, arm to forehead—we soon discover that his mother is a victim of breast cancer and has lost a breast. There is an unassuming tension between the mother and her son as she prods him not to leave her for his absent father. Later, we learn that her cancer has come back, and four tumors are growing in her jaw and brain.

As we are introduced to the members of the support group, we are also given insight into their stories and their goals. Lead by Vanessa (Debbie Lynch-White), a woman whose ability to empathize has grown from her own insecurity about weight and appearance, ends up needing the group as much as they need her. There is an overwhelming sense of fear and isolation present in the meeting, and each individual has a desire that is challenged by an undesirable sense of not belonging or loss. Because of this, Stan’s attendance exemplifies a great irony—in an attempt to deal with his mother’s inevitable disfigurement, he attends these meetings and helps to resolve the hurt of the people present, but in doing so, he leaves his mother in a hospital by herself as she undergoes treatment for a terminal cancer. He won’t return her calls and spends an increasing amount of time with the group, located in the same hospital she is staying at.

Stan’s identity is soon discovered by the rest of the group, but his eagerness to help prompts their forgiveness. Throughout the film, he evolves as the antagonist, the protagonist and, at times, it is greatly unclear what is taking place in his development. His anger drives many of the characters to break, which ends up helping them. He moves forward with the motto: “Break them so they get over the fear of being broken.” So they go through the action of breaking themselves, whether it be talking to a stranger or an ex-partner in order to make a breakthrough.

As the confidence and power of the group dynamics grow, each character takes on the persona and power of a different Dungeons and Dragons character, and by takings steps toward accepting themselves together, they earn their figurine. However, the storm of emotions experienced by Stan are also mixed with the morals, sexual desires and rage of those in the meetings, causing turbulence within the group.

Director Alexandre Franchi successfully shows the experiences of these marginalized individuals, with the subplot of Stan’s inability to confront the loss of his mother. The film moves fast, and by the end, it seems as if many moments were unresolved, however, the relevance was undoubtable as so many people are bullied and harassed because of their appearance. At times the story grew in unexpected ways with no resolution, causing a handful of scenes to feel out of place—but for those seeking a fast-paced challenge to their standards of beauty, Happy Face will prevail and inspire. –Makenna Sutter-Robinson


Showtimes:

Jan. 30 // 8:00 PM // Gallery

Spiral Farm | Alec Tibaldi | Photos courtesy of Big Time PR

Spiral Farm
Slamdance Film Festival

Director: Alec Tibaldi

The film Spiral Farm explores betrayal, passion and sensuality as it occurs in and around the life of 17-year-old Anahita, living on Spiral Farm Commune with her family. The film begins with a meditation involving the commune members, which appears to be no more than 10 people. Though they discuss their intentional, generous way of being, they also make an ambiguous statement about outsiders being unhappy with their way of life. It is clear that Anahita is not as invested in the practice as those around her, and this uninterested, reserved demeanor remains constant through the entire film.

Later in the day, she finds her unstable mother with a man she used to date and his teenage son, Theo, who steps into the frame with obvious charm, drawing the attention of Anahita. Frustrated that her mother has invited them to a ceremony that night, Anahita goes on with her daily responsibilities, which include taking care of her sister’s child, Ocean. Later, when the family questions Anahita’s virginity and joke with her about the attractive stranger, the sexual nature by which the film is driven surfaces. After drinking a seductive herbal elixir, the introspective, self-betterment ceremony becomes something like a sexual revelry, and her best friend sleeps with Theo. The conflict of desire and denial within Anahita becomes apparent.

The family dynamics are complicated, revolving around Anahita’s sister as she travels between the commune and the city, and Anahita’s mother, who is uncomfortably sexual and uniquely detached from reality. A conflict between her mother and sister grows as her sister’s desire to get off Spiral Farm and move her son to the city actualizes—however, Anahita ends up following in her footsteps with dreams of moving to the city to pursue dancing. Neither her sister nor her mother believe that she is capable of leaving, and the internal debate that arises when she overhears this in a conversation, mixed with the navigation of her feelings for Theo, drives the rest of the film.

What begins as a perceived romance in the intentionally compassionate community becomes convoluted with her mother’s instability and the deterioration of her sister’s commitment to Spiral Farm. When Theo finds out that Anahita dances, he takes her into the city for an audition. They decide to spend the night in a motel, but what initially begins as a pursuit is returned with a cold, unassuming distance. This sort of climax without any real resolution repeats, taking varying forms, throughout the film.

Director Alec Tibaldi parallels the intimacy of the story with the way it is captured. Focusing each shot with undeniable intention and stretching time with a great deal of silence, the film is experienced as both a work of art and a candid view of Anahita’s life as she grows and hurts. Working with specially curated music, Tibaldi builds a soundscape perfectly matched with the eerie moments and the dreamy.

At times, the evolution of relationships felt unnatural, however, this was also fitting to the vibe of the film in its resting place of a commune. Tibaldi captures an odd simplicity in bad faith, and works to uncover the paradoxical elements of an attempted utopia. Spiral Farm has the ability to haunt you with its relevance and leave you in amazement with its nuanced imagery and simple, unexpected beauty. –Makenna Sutter-Robinson


Showtimes:

Jan. 29 // 7:45 PM // Ballroom
Preceded by narrative short East of the River, directed by Hannah Peterson.

 

Memphis '69 | Joe Mattina | Photos courtesy of Big Time PR

Memphis ’69
Slamdance Film Festival

Director: Joe LaMattina

In the summer of 1969, blues artists came together to celebrate the sound and soul of blues music, despite the political climate in Memphis, Tennessee, and across the United States. Memphis ’69 comprises found festival footage and audio, and the performances drive the screen from start to end—the only explicit commentary from 2019 exists only as text flashing on the screen at the beginning: “1969 Memphis Country Blues Society put on a festival. At the same civic band shell, the Ku Klux Klan held white-power rallies. But music prevailed, gathering all.” The shaky camera with grain-filled color then follows The Bar-Kays and Rufus Thomas in the first performance we enter in to see.

The energy of the festival is captivating given the breadth of artists and the stories they bring to the stage. Ranging from Furry Lewis as he slides down the neck of his guitar with his elbow to  Lum Guffin playing with his pocket knife, there is no scarcity of character or soul. Whether it be Jefferson St. Junk Band smoking pipes in between breaths to the harmonica and metal fingers to the washboard, or John Fahey sitting beneath an umbrella playing wholeheartedly to the heat, all the artists work in unique ways to preserve the blues.

Although it wasn’t the main driving force, there were political undertones in the story of Memphis ’69. During a break after the Son Thomas performance, a man announces onstage that one of the women performing was arrested outside of the venue. Holding a cup by the exit to collect the $50 needed to get her out, attendees are asked for their spare change as they leave. In another instance, as John D. Loudermilk strums his guitar, the camera flashes to a rural setting, to the sun, to the trees and eventually to men working in cotton fields. The concert returns to the screen and not long after, the tone alters as Bukka White plays the guitar behind his head, laughing and singing.

There are few scenes of commentary included, but after a performance by Insect Trust vocalist Nancy Jeffries preaches that only 800 of the 3,000 people attending had paid, exclaiming that it’s their city and their music, and the blues artists performing are not getting paid. Rather than focusing on her as she’s speaking, each shot is of a different crowd member. This builds the dynamics of an unsure relationship between the audience and the performers present throughout the film.

Given that Memphis ’69 is made up of live sets occurring over the three-day festival, director Joe LaMattina had the task of compiling scenes of the musicians, of the audience and surrounding places in a way that told a story. This is the great success of Memphis ’69 and the reason it is so enjoyable to watch, even for those with less interest in the blues artists playing. The carefully crafted transitions and moments with audience members as the camera captures their feet or faces, lends the film space to breath when we aren’t simply witnessing the magic of a performance. The film ends with the gospel music from The Salem Harmonizers, as the spiritual journey into the soul of so many blues artists concludes. –Makenna Sutter-Robinson


Showtimes:
Jan. 31st, 11:00 AM // Gallery
Preceded by documentary short Las Del Diente, directed by Ana Perez Lopez.