We reviewed just about every feature playing at this year's Indy Film Fest, which runs July 19-29, picking out our favorite from each slate to review at length and devoting about a hundred words to every other film. Head to indyfilmfest.org for complete schedule info, including shorts packages, workshops and other miscellany.
The Woman in the Septic Tank (dir. Marlon Rivera, Philippines, 88 min)
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ Call this a blanket spoiler alert: Don't read past this sentence if you want to be surprised by The Woman in the Septic Tank (and, trust me, the surprise is worth it).
I say as much because I can't talk about what I thought the most innovative film on the foreign slate without saying what it is: a comedy, specifically a satire of independent filmmaking that takes on plenty of sacred cows, notably slumming actors who deign to do indies for reasons that couldn't be more self-interested; slumming Western audiences that crave raw stories of poverty and exploitation; and feckless filmmakers willing to give those audiences what they want, even if they've spent about as much time in the slums as, say, the Filipino equivalent of Richie Rich.
Most viewers will know Septic Tank is a comedy going in, and hence will be less clueless than I was when I saw a screener; nonetheless, here's the loop I'm talking about. The film opens with what you might expect to see on the festival circuit — a tale of wrenching poverty in a slum adjoining a garbage dump, where a mother of a ton of kids goes through the motions of making soup and bathing her children. The action picks up when she hands her daughter off to an elderly white man in a hotel room, presumably for reasons that aren't at all above board. A voice-over describes each dialogue-less scene in overwrought language; by comparison, the acting, is underwrought, with scenes played languidly, the camera static, the settings raw.
And here's the thing: I bought it all, figuring that the IFF jury must've screwed up in picking this utterly dull movie (slow like Weerasethakul and Hsiao-Hsien, but not in a good way). Still, I kept an open mind because, you know, poverty is a drag, so you have to respect an earnest if humorless approach, and that voiceover could have been symptomatic of a strange structuralist approach.
Boy, was I wrong. That voiceover was, instead, a director reading his script, which is revealed when the action shifts abruptly to a car where three filmmakers — a moody director, an annoyingly energetic producer, a female production assistant who stays mute through the film — are making big plans for their upcoming feature, dreaming up various ways that might push it over big on the festival circuit.
The film follows the filmmakers on a big day in the life of their movie as they try out different changes: Why not have mom sell off a boy instead of a girl? (Edgier, says the producer.) Why not try having different actresses play mom? (How could a 20-something girl have given birth to so many kids, asks the director. Just cut a few kids, the producer rejoins.) And why not make the film in a documentary style, starring amateur actors drawn from the slums — or as a musical?
Thus, The Woman in the Septic Tank becomes a series of films within films as the filmmakers puzzle out their imagined movie, envisioning each change via movie magic. The musical is perhaps the most labor-intensive of the nesting dolls; boasting a full score including several songs, it sends up movies like Annie, Oliver! and Slumdog Millionaire in all the right ways. —Scott Shoger
Madonna's Pig (dir. Frank van Passel, Belgium, 115 min)
★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2 Bewilderingly charming. What starts off in a Bunuel/Monty Python vein — with a scene of schoolchildren unearthing a human skeleton at the behest of their teacher giving way to a promotional film for a life-size plastic pig robot designed to impregnate a barn full of sows — heads in rather a different direction when the pig's salesman, a priggish yuppie type, flips over his giant pink van after “colliding” with the ghost of a WWI soldier. The yuppie ends up stuck in a rural time out of town; fish out of water business ensues, some of it predictable, but not the storyline involving the soldier, visible only to a few as he gregariously recounts the horrors of trench warfare on a PTSD loop until his body is properly buried. There's plenty more in a film that finds a rare, rewarding mix between absurdity and sentimentality, including the neon halo-topped Madonna statue where townspeople deposit all their secrets, written on Post-It Note-sized squares. - Scott Shoger
Teddy Bear (dir. Mads Matthiesen, Denmark, 92 min)
★ ★ ★ ★ Dennis (Kim Kold) is a 38-year-old bodybuilder. The massive Dane lives with his tiny mother, Ingrid (Elsebeth Steentoft), who dominates the gentle giant's life, until he attends a family function and learns that his uncle went to Thailand and found a bride. Tired of being alone, he decides to head for Thailand himself, hiding his plan from his mother. Dennis is a soft-spoken, low-key fellow and the film works because it mirrors his tone. Successfully (if narrowly) avoiding sap, the story is sad, sweet and straightforward. Kold makes a fascinating presence as a rebellious boy living in a man's body. —Ed Johnson-Ott
The Day I Saw Your Heart (dir. Jennifer Devoldère, France, 98 min)
★ ★ ★ 1/2 Adorable. The lead, Justine (Melanie Laurent, the Paris cinema owner in Inglourious Basterds) is quirky as any indie film heroine, a playful obsessive who takes X-rays of friends and objects while off the clock at her job as a lab tech. (Someone could probably write a study about collecting as a way of defining character in the contemporary indie film.) But it's not all peaches and cream: The prime mover of the film is Justine's father, Eli (an inspired Michel Blanc), who plays a Larry David type transplanted from Curb Your Enthusiasm to the real world, where his insensitivity and impulse control issues take a substantial toll on loved ones. Bright and playful, without too much of the froth slathered upon French comedies of a certain budget. —Scott Shoger
Found Memories (dir. Julia Murat, Argentina/Brazil/France, 98 min)
★ ★ ★ 1/2 You'll have to adjust yourself to the glacial pacing of this quietly eloquent story about ennui, balance, community and the passage of time, set in the village of Jotuomba. Every morning, Madalena (Sonia Guedes) makes bread for sale at the shop ran by Antonio (Luiz Serra). They exchange the same words, do the same things. They're old, entrenched and grim. Then young photographer Rita (Lisa Favero) arrives in town, disrupting — for good and bad — the symmetry of everything. Was it necessary to show Madalena's morning routine so many times? I'd argue no; but hang in there, your patience will be rewarded. —Ed Johnson-Ott
Tilt (dir. Viktor Chouchkov, Bulgaria/Germany, 94 min)
★ ★ ★ 1/2 Great fun, if played a little broadly. What was there to do for Bulgarian kids in the late '80s? Skateboard, listen to slightly aged punk on Walkmen, chase after girls (sometimes, literally, on skateboard), beat up other kids — and for the group of friends that Tilt focuses on, play pinball. But porn wasn't exactly legal back then, and the kids are caught by the cops. This run-in has serious consequences for Stash, who has fallen in love with the police chief's daughter. Their love is forbidden, but Stash remains faithful, even when he's essentially forced into immigrating to West Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Tilt should be a crowd-pleaser; it's the kind of thing that would import well if there was more of a taste for foreign genre films (martial arts excluded) in American theaters. —Scott Shoger
Dollhouse (dir. Kirsten Sheridan, Ireland, 95 min)
★ ★ ★ You've got to admire the range of Kirsten Sheridan, who co-wrote In America with her dad, Jim, and whose last film was a sentimental melodrama (August Rush). But maybe she's swung too far the other way with this one, an intense but overlong chronicle of a night spent by a group of friends dismantling a luxury apartment. The party scenes get a bit boring after a while, though several unresolved questions — including whether or not everyone will survive the night, given one character's smoldering, hair-trigger hostility and another's massive capacity for self-abnegation — keep things tense until the end. —Scott Shoger
Patang (dir. Prashant Bhargava, India/US, 93 min)
★ ★ ★ There's nothing seriously wrong with Patang, which tells of the return of a prodigal son and his daughter to his hometown for its kite festival. The Satyajit Ray-esque soundtrack fits the tone; footage of the kite festival is colorful and necessarily unstaged; symbols of play nicely figure into the action, as when the daughter incidentally plays with a windup car before embarking on a playful fling-let with a young college dropout. But characters are conventional enough as to be instantly forgettable, and one wonders if a real opportunity was missed by not slowing down and spending more time in a particular moment, instead of trying for a kinetic, hyper pace that isn't successfully maintained. —Scott Shoger
Lotus Eaters (dir. Alexandra McGuiness, UK/Ireland, 78 min)
★ ★ 1/2 La Dolce Vita as re-written under protest by Whit Stillman. Any movie that includes a heartfelt, almost full-song performance of “Papa Was a Rodeo” by The Magnetic Fields (on resonator guitar! by an actor who can actually sing and play!) is worth watching in my book, but Lotus Eaters is too uneven and sloppy to afford many other pleasures. Ex-model Alice (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) keeps it low-key as a detached observer of the comings and going of vapid Eurotrash, whose bland bacchanalias are filmed through a misanthropic lens. Acting styles vary widely, making this B&W effort seem like a mediocre student short film writ large. —Scott Shoger
Bisperas (Trespassers) (dir. Jeffrey Jeturian, Philippines, 90 min)
★ ★ I wouldn't advise watching this after The Woman in the Septic Tank, the fest's other Filipino film, because that film's satire of independent cinema would score a few hits on this shakily-cammed, poorly-lit, over-acted tale of a robbery/home invasion on Christmas Eve that leaves a family agitated and paranoid. Still, Bisperas picks up speed as it goes along — it's never a slog — and there's documentary value (at least for this viewer) in seeing what life is like in a typical upper-class home in the Philippines. —Scott Shoger