It always takes me a day or two to adjust to a film festival schedule: wake up early to sit in a theater; cram meals in during short breaks; stay late at Q&A sessions; then go to bed even later writing about what you saw. Unfortunately, I’m usually only adjusted during the third and fourth days of True/False, so half of the fest is spent fighting fatigue.
Adjustments aside, a prevailing theme has started emerging from the gathered voices in Columbia, Missouri: the 2017 lineup is one of the strongest in the 14-year history of the festival. Before Saturday, I would have been skeptical. Aside from Safari, I hadn’t seen a film yet that truly took my breath away. Yes, the floor of the festival was high – I hadn’t seen a below B- grade film yet. But the ceiling wasn’t that much higher. Fortunately, the same day that perception changed was the same day I finally got acclimated to the frenzied schedule.
I started of the day with a much-needed crowd pleaser, the Sundance hit Dina (Grade: B+). Exploring the times and trials of a couple leading up to their wedding, Dina sometimes struggles with letting a cutesy touch interfere with a most endearing story. However, that’s a small consideration in the face of the film’s beautiful statements on love and how we view “normalcy” in life. It really picks up steam throughout, before transcending its medium in a haunting third act.
Following similar themes of love and humanity, The Grown Ups (Grade: B) explores a Chilean school for adults with Down Syndrome. It’s a fairly traditional doc that falls victim to many traditional doc problems. While building up its most interesting characters, it also chooses to linger far too long on moments that aren’t nearly as captivating as others. And yet, The Grown Ups has something profound to say. It’s informative and genuinely hilarious, but is never exploitive of its subjects. That’s perhaps the greatest compliment I can give it.
Step (Grade: B) will be one of the more accessible titles out of the early festivals. A sports doc following an all-female step team from Baltimore, Step is backed by Fox Searchlight. It definitely has the trademark qualities of a mainline documentary: it’s endearing and uplifting, while being just challenging enough to get by. Not every victory feels earned, but the important ones do, and that’s what matters. You’ll most likely get a chance to see Step in the coming year. I’d recommend spending some money on it.
Saturday night is where this year’s festival – in my humble opinion – made the jump from good to great. And luckily it started with what will probably be a film you’ll have easy access to in no time: Netflix Original Documentary Casting JonBenet (Grade: A). I will say Casting JonBenet won’t be for everyone. Like many True/False films of the past, it seeks to provoke as much as it does illuminate. But illuminate it does, exploring every grim fascination and every perverse corner of humanity’s satisfaction with death, mystery and celebrity. It does so all through the lens of the JonBenet Ramsey murder case and an unnamed project focusing on the mystery. For those who saw Kate Plays Christine at some point last year, this film will have a similar bent. But instead of having the wool pulled out from under you, Casting JonBenet’s climax serves as a stark reminder: behind every theory and every tall tale, there’s a real person who suffered.
And to be quite frank, the suffering of the unheard is an apt description of the night’s closing film, Whose Streets? (Grade A). As a white man who grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis, Michael Brown Jr.’s death in August 2014 hits a little close to home. I remember where I was when I heard about the shooting; I remember where I was when I heard about the non-indictment. It’s a story that’s followed me throughout my young adult life, and one I suspect will continue on with me for the rest of my life.
Whose Streets? is the definitive Ferguson 2014 documentary. This is not a film that will run down the facts of the case or seek to present “both sides” equally. The directors made that much clear in their Q&A session after the film. Instead, it is a startling look at the pulse of Ferguson directly following the shooting and in the years after. It is vital in every sense of the word, and it hums along with the ferocity and power of a tank. There isn’t much else I can – or maybe even should say – for a film that speaks so succinctly for itself.
There’s only one day left in True/False 2017, and I’m already dreading saying goodbye. But there are still films to see, so I’ll put off my sadness for now. Thanks for reading.