Tender Idiosyncrasies: BAMcinemaFEST 2017

An exceptional assortment of films from across the United States are premiering at this intimate Brooklyn festival.
Elissa Suh

Princess Cyd

Princess Cyd

Now in its ninth season, BAMcinemaFest has become New York’s premiere festival for gems of American indie cinema, expertly culled from the best of the fests thus far this year.  While hosting works from numerous local Brooklynites like Alex Ross Perry, whose Golden Exits will close the event, the intimate festival also boasts an exceptional assortment of films from across the country, this year no short on mysteries, overt and clandestine. The selection’s varying styles are all a testament to the diversity of independent filmmaking that is alive and well in America today.

Director Aaron Katz returns with Gemini, a lo-fi L.A.-set noir circling around a movie starlet Heather (Zoe Kravitz) and her devoted assistant Jill (Lola Kirke). Always the expert examiner of relationships in miniature, Katz plumbs beyond the quandary of the employer-employee transactional one here to capture the fragile peculiarities and tender idiosyncrasies of a female friendship. Where his previous works of a certain microtrend genre used nonprofessional actors, Gemini's utilization of professional (and in this case, underrated) actresses works to his advantage; the talented pair achieve an affinity sweet and enigmatic, cresting with the arch of an eyebrow or a longing gaze. But their relationship ruptures when a gruesome violence turns up a dead body.  Gemini leans into the sleepy terror of SoCal noir, slipping Jill into the prime suspect slot of this wrong-(wo)man film with John Cho as the detective in pursuit.

While effectively suspenseful, Gemini addresses its genre elements with what is best described as a knowing, bleary-eyed wink. The bigshot movie producers are affably gruff and Heather’s spurned boyfriend emits the lived-in squalor of a Chateau Marmont resident. None of them are grounded in reality, but surrounded by a set of expiring quotation marks, pencilings that Katz willfully and ingeniously smears into a mood of warm detachment. Even the Los Angeles of the film has been blunted of the hard quick sell of tinseltown and muted of its glamour. Winding hills, gated homes, seedy bars—elegant all, but fascinating most in their near unremarkability, like the broadly pretty appeal of an Instagram filter. An elegant and very 21st century-appropriate detective who-dunit, Gemini and its non-judgmental insouciance etches Kirke and Kravitz’s characters and their relationship into sharper relief and proves highly quaffable, even when the film's conclusion tumbles clumsily into place.

Something different entirely, James N. Kienitz Wilkins' kaleidoscopic documentary Common Carrier is comprised entirely of superimpositions that roughly sketch the struggle of a handful of modern artists in this technology-riddled world.  Faces recede and identities blur, all images forever dissolving and transitioning, as if two (or more) films were projected simultaneously. The specter of a caged parrot looms over a man’s face or the mask from Scream inexplicably appears in the woods. More than once a scene of someone disinterestedly perusing the Internet is layered over a close-up of their browser search, producing an nth image: the spindly lines of LED on LED, its own kind of thumbprint of reflection/refraction. With these superimpositions, Wilkins eradicates the space and time between artist and object, whether it be an artist’s own works for instance or a technological burden. Indeed, most of the film’s images concern small technological failures and prosaic distractions; missing packages and spotty Wi-Fi, broken security cameras and a multitude of screens (monitors, mobile phones, and televisions) intrude and cramp daily routines. A chuckle might be had from all those bulky, sometimes outdated objects, wires everywhere, coupled with the Rihanna on the soundtrack courtesy of HOT97 which, alternating with WNYC newsbits and Spike Lee-voiced ads, implicitly ground Common Carrier as New York movie.

Initially jarring, the relentless stream-of-consciousness of the collage-like textures becomes a lyrical entropy, bathed in gold summer light.  Bewilderingly cosmic, the film gives unexpected rise to a sticky miasma of apprehension and political disquietude, punctuated by the occasional radio clips referencing the then-upcoming 2016 election

Also set in New York, Most Beautiful Island, lensed in a dreamy Super16 that reeks thoroughly and not unpleasantly of the 70s, secreting a dread and grit noticeably absent in today's anodyne New York and New York-set films. Director Ana Asensio pulls double duty as protagonist Luciana, an undocumented worker deadened to and bristling at her daily chores of survival: hawking restaurant fliers, wardrobe changes in public spaces, stiffing a cab. Short on rent, she gratefully accepts an offer from her friend to work a party an easy couple of grand. The promise of simplicity inevitably turns out to be anything but when she finds herself in a skimpy black dress standing in a chalk-numbered circle in a concrete Chelsea basement with ten other non-American beauties. What awaits them is impossible to guess. Asensio sequesters us to loitering long-takes in this slowburn thriller that becomes a riveting fable of immigrant struggles.

Less successful thrillers I Am Another You and The Strange Ones rely too heavily on their late act reveals gleaned early and easily. Their predictable schemes meet not so much imperfect ends as they do present frustrating journeys. In the case of Nanfu Wang’s documentary I Am Another You, the filmmaker, eager to experience the joys of the road and material freedom in America, inserts herself into the day-to-day of a homeless-by choice drifter named Dylan. Over-narrating and explicating his charisma in lieu of showing it, Wang’s undertaking of roughing it in Florida proves unpalatable, difficult, and a bit problematic—though the film’s third act will soon reveal why. The same can be said of The Strange Ones, whose more sinister themes are instinctively foreseeable as a young man and young boy (Alex Pettyfer and James Freedson-Jackson), possibly related, certainly fugitives, flee into the woods. An unadorned flute score accentuates a sense of low-key fright, blazing fires, close-ups on the eyes, and the recurring presence of a stray black cat dip into a metaphysical horror that never quite comes to a head.

Finally, a calming antidote, to the swathes of unease painted by the previous pictures finds itself in Princess Cyd, set to the tune of an idyllic Chicago summer.  There’s a dinner party midway through the film that best presents the picture at large. Miranda Ruth (Rebecca Spence) hosts her monthly soirée: her church friends, writer friends, and neighbors gathered for food and drink and music, but most vitally for the stories—read aloud from books or fabricated on the spot, but more implicitly those of the guests themselves, the ones they bring by way of being there.  It’s also a party where no one bats an eye at a beaming teenage girl donning a splendid tux for the first time. This is 16-year-old Cyd, exploring her sexuality after meeting the androgynous Katie (Malic White) at a nearby coffee shop. In a breakout role, Jessie Pinnick plays the athletic and outgoing Cyd, with a sincere sense of self and curiosity, rendering a teen dismissive of books into something more than a disparaging catch-all of today’s youth.  Cyd provides a challenge to her novelist aunt Miranda, comfortable in her stoicism and essay-a-day pleasure, but the dramatic disruption spurred by the unexpected visitor under Stephen Cone’s direction lilts gently, though never indolently, rather than rise and fall calamitously. Intellectualism, spirituality, and sexuality, none of which are mutually exclusive, coincide in this most moving film. The undervalued director confers a frank grace, letting each of these ideas collide and tangle, and rest among themselves—an exemplary feat of cinema, and one that ought to extend to the world.

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BAMcinemaFESTBAMcinemaFEST 2017Festival CoverageAaron KatzJames N. Kienitz WilkinsAna AsensioNanfu WangStephen Cone
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