In its tenth year, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAMcinemaFest solidifies its position as re-launching pad for the best titles from the Sundance and SXSW festivals. This year’s program is packed with hyped indies that will hit theaters throughout the summer. Traditionally, a few films (like the ninth edition’s The Work and Princess Cyd) receive distribution in the fall and land on year-end critics lists. This year’s BAMcinemaFest runs from June 20 to July 1, with a slate of 25 narrative and nonfiction films and 10 shorts, all American indies. The centerpiece film, Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, has already been covered by the Notebook. We previewed several titles from the eclectic program to find the highlights.
The festival brings the world premiere of Feast of the Epiphany from directors Michael Koresky, Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman of the online film publication Reverse Shot. The film begins with the casting process. Epiphany (theophany in Greek) means “appearance of a god,” and Feast of the Epiphany participates in a higher power of personal enlightenment, reaped by service for one’s neighbor. But film’s journey toward enlightenment is as jarring as it is true to life.
Feast of the Epiphany brings together a fiction short (the script was 37 pages) and a farming documentary all under the same emotional arc. The short is set at a Brooklyn dinner party thrown for an alienated friend. There’s tension between the host and guest of honor that builds in anticipation for resolution but crescendos instead with isolation. At the moment understanding, the two recoil, moving further into their siloed New York City existences. The documentary begins in a totally different city with positive scenario, as if the last scene of the fictional short was a hair of the dog before the painful jolt into a proverbial A.A. The documentary follows a group of would-be farmers. Through meditation and participation in the work, the workers build bridges to each other. We don’t learn much about the workers, but their connection to each other is the connective tissue to the film’s first half. This speaks gently, but directly, giving reason for the loneliness experienced in the first short. The film requires an openness rarely asked of an audience, and it prescribes a solution to suffocating individualism.
Minding the Gap unfurls to become something larger than the sum of its parts. It’s primarily a skate documentary but becomes a character study of the filmmaker Bing Liu and his friends, Keire and Zack. The project follows these young men from being teenagers to, at times, irresponsible adults. Bing is the most curious of the trio. He uses their archived skate footage juxtaposed with current conversations with his friends to analyze their development in chaotic family environments. Each guy has emotional, spiritual and physical damage from sour relationships with their fathers. At one point, Bing, who is psychically detached from the moment by sitting behind a monitor, is told by his mother that he’s using the documentary as therapy. The conversation ends as Bing becomes reflective and can’t continue with filming. Where Bing and Keire can change their direction, informed by the self-knowledge acquired by the documentary process, Zack remains developmentally stagnant. We watch him change dramatically from thin skater to a physically and emotionally thickened roughneck. It’s beautiful to watch his friends flourish, but perhaps more relatable to see Zack accumulate baggage as he goes from mistake to mistake. Minding the Gap is an emotional story that leaves you wanting the best for everyone involved. Only time will tell if childhood baggage and adult economic struggles can be surmounted.
Also set in an economically distressed community, Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls follows a day in the life of Lisa (Regina Hall), manager of Double Whammies, a Hooters-like sports bar. Lisa acts as manager/mother figure/moral compass, just as Bobby (Willem Dafoe) did for his motel tenants in The Florida Project. The film’s naturalistic lighting and hand-held camera work coincides with its working class characters, which isn’t my favorite trope in stories about everyday Americans. Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Sean Baker’s recent films show you can depict the working poor with an aesthetic that matches their abundant inner lives. Thankfully, the story overcomes this trope. The amount of work that goes into preparing the restaurant is nothing less than daunting. The emotional preparation and chattiness among the staff reminds you how grating food service jobs can be. Support the Girls hit its stride when Double Whammies’ owner shows up to access the damage from a hilariously bungled break-in. The humor and emotional wallops dovetail when we watch the girls negotiate their dignity with sexuality. The story understands the girls aren’t exactly upwardly mobile, and the chance of a better life only comes with a risky, ‘had it up to here’ gamble.
Two Plains & a Fancy, by Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn (L for Leisure), is shot on beautiful Super 16mm Kodak film—easily the best looking film at the festival. Set in 1893, three Whit Stillman-esque city folk wander Colorado for its best hot spring. Billed as a “spa western,” the film is littered with mannered performances interjected with stark, modern humor. Take the skinny dipping scene, in which the dandy colorist (Benjamin Crotty) and mystic woman (Marianna McClellan) consider themselves naked by wearing what look like Mormon temple garments, while the lady geologist from France (Laetitia Dosch) goes full monty. There’s always a visual or verbal quip, usually from Crotty to punctuate an otherwise nonchalant discussion with an exclamation point. The cinematography by Horn, spatially matched with the traveler’s emphasis on art, science and mysticism makes western’s visual tone similar to Robert Altman’s haunted McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
One of the best films at this year’s festival is Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. The story follows thirteen-year-old Kayla’s (Elsie Fisher) final week of middle school. Kayla fumbles her way through an pool party thrown for the cool kids who ignore her. At the party she crushes on Riley (Luke Prael) and dismisses the adorably awkward Gabe (Jake Ryan). Through a chance pairing with senior Olivia (Emily Robinson) at a high school visit, Kayla is told for the first time that she’s good enough. Olivia teases out self-confidence in Kayla through her love and acceptance. Kayla’s new confidence is immediately tested when she stands up for herself in a sexually vulnerable moment. Burnham’s debut film is hilarious, heartwarming and poignant.