The festival embraces and explores the city with a new spark
It’s right there in the name. As the organizers of the L.A. Film Festival look to more strongly define their position amid a cluttered landscape of other festivals and summer events, they have focused on their place in the city and the very idea of why to have a film festival in the first place.
“Festivals in general, and definitely the L.A. Film Festival, have become more important in terms of building and fostering a specific type of community that I think people have a real need and desire for now,” said Josh Welsh, president of Film Independent, the organization that produces the L.A. Film Festival.
“The studios have turned their backs on everything except tentpoles, which makes independent f ilm hugely exciting in a new way,” said Welsh. “But there are also challenges with that. You need a venue where you can go and be part of an artistic experience, a filmmaking experience with like-minded people who come together. I just feel like there is an urgency to the work of festivals, where you’re really creating a space where this work can thrive and connect.”
Although the festival has experimented with various identities over the years, it has lately settled into a full embrace of the city, emphasizing the decentered sprawl of Los Angeles often seen as a challenge for building sustained audiences. While keeping its main hub for the second year at the ArcLight Culver City, the festival is looking to better solidify tendrils to venues in Santa Monica, downtown and Hollywood.
“I really do look at it as though we
are in dialogue with our city,” said Jennifer Cochis, a producer and programmer marking her first year as festival director. “So not only do I want [the festival] to be something unique and specific for filmmakers to come to, but I want it to be something where we’re engaged with the place where we live.”
This year’s program runs from Wednesday through June 22 and finds the festival continuing its longtime commitment to diversity in front of and behind the camera. Across five competition sections, 42% of the films are directed by women and 40% by people of color.
“There’s so much remarkable talent out there from all different backgrounds,” said Welsh. “The people who complain that there’s no diverse talent out there or that you’re going to have to compromise on quality, they are just not trying hard enough.”
The festival opens Wednesday night with the world premiere of “The Book of Henry,” directed by Colin Trevorrow and starring Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay and Maddie Ziegler. Written by Gregg Hurwitz, the film ambitiously veers from an offbeat family tale to dark, grief-stricken thriller and back again.
After his breakthrough with “Safety Not Guaranteed” Trevorrow directed the blockbuster “Jurassic World” and is now part of the team working on the sequel to that film while he is also preparing to make “Star Wars: Episode IX.”
Which makes “The Book of Henry” even more unusual, because besides what Trevorrow describes as the film’s “coming of parenthood story,” it is also a film of a decidedly different scope from Trevorrow’s other current work. For Trevorrow it is important to continue to try his hand at storytelling of differing scale.
“As a filmmaker who has been given extraordinary opportunities and been allowed to leap forward into these larger franchise films, I have a responsibility to make original movies and tell original stories. And in this case an aggressively original story,” he said.
“I didn’t get into filmmaking to solely tell new versions of the stories we all love,” he added. “I wanted to have an impact as a voice that is willing to take risks and potentially move the art of storytelling forward. Hopefully that doesn’t sound arrogant, but we can’t just keep doing the same thing over and over again.”
Among the most original films in the festival, playing as part of the U.S. Fiction competition, is one with a name that cannot be fully printed in a family newspaper. “Izzy Gets the … Across Town” is made by Christian Papierniak, a longtime screenwriter making his feature directing debut.
In the film, a young woman named Izzy (Mackenzie Davis) wakes up in a stranger’s bed in Santa Monica to a message on her phone that her ex is newly engaged. Hoping to make her way to his engagement party for some kind of confrontation, without a car or much money she struggles to cross the city to Los Feliz. Along the way she encounters an unusual cast of characters played by Alia Shawkat, Lakeith Stanfield, Haley Joel Osment, Carrie Coon, Annie Potts and others.
The movie includes a spellbinding performance by Davis and Coon of the riot grrrl anthem “Axemen.” (Coon can also be seen in Karen Moncrieff’s “The Keeping Hours,” premiering at the festival.) As Izzy continues on her way, the film attempts to capture the distinct feelings of each neighborhood.
“You can go from this block to that block and everything feels different and not homogenized,” Papierniak said. “L.A. can be such a random place, of people and collisions. I think that was sort of the idea, that each place she goes is such a different type of person.”
The story’s origins are in something that actually happened to Papierniak, when he tried to win back an ex-girlfriend by struggling across the city to show up at a party. As to why he flipped genders for the movie, he said, “I was just trying to tell the best story possible, and this movie is way more boring if this is a guy. I feel like we’ve seen that, we’ve seen the guy version.”
Other notable premieres in the U.S. Fiction section include “And Then I Go,” directed by Vince Grashaw, “Don’t Come Back From the Moon,” directed by Bruce Thierry Cheung and “Never Here,” directed by Camille Thoman.
Among the documentaries premiering at the festival are “Built to Fail: A Streetwear Story,” directed by Bobby Kim, Alexis Spraic and Scott Weintrob, “Monkey Business: The Adventure of Curious George’s Creators,” directed by Ema Ryan Yamazaki, “The Classic,” directed by Billy McMillin, and “Opuntia,” directed by David Fenster.
As with so many festivals now, this year’s L.A. Film Fest will also spotlight television work. The festival will feature the world premiere of the first episode from the second season of “Queen Sugar” with a Q&A with series creator Ava DuVernay and members of the show’s female directing team. Other TV events will spotlight “Portlandia,” “Documentary Now!” “Baroness von Sketch Show” and “The Sinner.”
Among films that have premiered at other festivals are “The Beguiled,” “Patti Cake$,” “Maudie,” “The Big Sick,” “Lady Macbeth,” “Brigsby Bear” and the LAFF closing night film “Ingrid Goes West.”
Playing as part of the LA Muse competition section is “The Year of Spectacular Men,” the feature directing debut from actress Lea Thompson. The film is written by her daughter Madelyn Deutch, who stars in the film as a young woman struggling to find her way just after college. Deutch’s sister Zoey Deutch plays her sister, and Thompson plays their mother.
Madelyn Deutch wrote the script — coincidentally with a lead character named Izzy — in part out of her own dissatisfaction with the scripts she was being sent as a young actress.
“It’s really easy to feel misunderstood as an actor. As a girl you are sent nerd, punk, cheerleader, bitchy ex-girlfriend, and I really felt this was my opportunity to not be any of those things. My hope with the movie is that girls and women feel more seen.”
“But I have zero illusions about the fact that Izzy is a really specific character, she has very specific privilege, very specific neuroses, very specific mistakes and choices, and so I know that not all women and girls and people in general will relate to those specificities,” Deutch added. “We tried to represent some of those more jagged, uneven edges of what it means to be a woman.”
“Spectacular Men” is one of four films premiering in the festival that mark the directorial debut of a wellknown actress, alongside Jennifer Morrison’s “Sun Dogs,” Kyra Sedgwick’s “Story of a Girl” and Whitney Cummings’ “The Female Brain.”
“Sun Dogs” stars Michael Angarano and Melissa Benoist as a pair of young misfits who come to believe they have stumbled upon a terror plot, with Allison Janney as Angarano’s character’s mother and Ed O’Neill as his stepfather.
Though Morrison, until recently a regular on TV’s “Once Upon a Time,” could have perhaps more easily transitioned to television directing, it was important to her to make her intentions clear as someone who wants to direct feature films.
“We’re in a time where people are fired up, where women feel really motivated to take the extra step to have our voices heard,” said Morrison. “I hope it’s just the beginning of the rest of filmmaking and not just a momentary trend.
“Women really are feeling compelled to step forward and tell stories from their perspective. Some of it is gender driven, and some of it is just coming from where you get to a place where you want to tell the big story and you want to make the big decisions and see what you can create.”
Whitney Cummings, likewise a familiar face from TV, had grown frustrated by how slow the studio development process was going on another movie project, so she enlisted friend Neal Brennan to co-write an adaptation of Louann Brizendine’s book “The Female Brain.”
Crafting a story from the neuroscience of Brizendine’s book became what Cummings described as a “weird Rubik’s Cube” of four different story lines about four different couples. Besides Cummings, the movie also stars Sofia Vergara, James Marsden, Deon Cole, Toby Kebbell, Cecily Strong and Deon Cole.
At a moment when there are so many options how to tell a story, there is still a pull toward the relatively compact form of a feature film.
“We unapologetically wanted to make a cerebral neurology comedy, and that didn’t feel like a TV series,” said Cummings. “It didn’t feel like it was sustainable for eight years. And we didn’t know how to tell that story. We wanted to tell the story of these characters in 90 minutes. On a gut level, it just felt like a movie.”
THE FILM FESTIVAL opens Wednesday with the world premiere of “The Book of Henry,” above, directed by Colin Trevorrow. The documentary “Built to Fail: A Streetwear Story,” top left, and L.A.-set “Izzy Gets the ... Across Town,” top right, will also screen.
KYRA SEDGWICK’S “Story of a Girl,” with Sosie and Kevin Bacon, is screening.
MADELYN DEUTCH wrote and stars in the film “The Year of Spectacular Men.”