Home­town he­roes

The fes­ti­val em­braces and ex­plores the city with a new spark

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - BY MARK OLSEN

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.”

Photographs from, clock­wise from top left, L.A. Film Fes­ti­val; Am­a­teur De­tec­tive Films; Ali­son Co­hen Rosa Fo­cus Fea­tures

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.

Bet­tina Strauss Life­time

KYRA SEDG­WICK’S “Story of a Girl,” with Sosie and Kevin Ba­con, is screen­ing.

L.A. Film Fes­ti­val

MADE­LYN DEUTCH wrote and stars in the film “The Year of Spec­tac­u­lar Men.”

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