Indy Film Fest 2014 reviews: American Spectrum

 

Indy Film Fest's big goal for its 11th annual summer festival, coming up July 17-26? "Bring more filmmakers to Indy," says president and CEO Craig Mince. And the non-profit raised more than $8,000 through a Kickstarter this spring to make that happen. One other big change: The awards ceremony will be held on the festival's opening weekend, to give attendees more chances to see the winners. The venues remain the same, with most screenings at the IMA's Toby and DeBoest theaters. We looked at all the features the fest provided us in advance and reviewed our favorites.

American Spectrum features (also available: Matter of Fact and World Cinema reviews)

These Hopeless Savages

★★★★ (out of five)

facebook.com/thesehopelesssavages

Greg (Matt Dellapina) is a Brooklyn-based musician who mostly sings and plays songs at children's birthday parties. He doesn't exactly bowl over his audiences. On the same day his girlfriend turns down his marriage proposal, Greg receives an unexpected visit from his long-time friend Shawn (Sean Christopher Lewis), who is headed west to take care of some big business. The two haven't seen each other in a while and the evening is awkward. But in the wee hours of the morning, Greg wakes up Shawn. He needs a break and informs his old buddy he's ready to hit the road with him, right now.

These Hopeless Savages is a winning celebration of friendship as well as an unassuming study of the human condition. Ramshackle travel movies can go wrong easily, but the chemistry between the lead actors allows the film to easily cruise over any bumps in the road trip.

Underscoring the trek is a lot of appealing original music, including a catchy tune called "Little Bibles." Only one song, a wordy number played during a traffic jam scene, got on my nerves. I wonder if it was supposed to?

The low-budget production is directed by Kaitlyn Busbee and Sean Christopher Lewis from a screenplay written by Lewis and Matt Dellapina. The men wrote the script after talking about how friendships can become strange post-college. "You start drifting away," said Lewis, "and you have these friends on websites who suddenly have kids and lives and experiences, but who you no longer know anymore."

They crafted a story where "constant bachelor Shawn is inspired by some news to set off on a road trip to meet with every person who has shunned him." Lewis told Iowa City's Little Village Magazine that Shawn was based on a college friend. They imagined "what would happen if he showed up at Matt's house one day demanding a loyalty they hadn't experienced in years." Filming took place over the course of a week-long trip from Brooklyn to Iowa City. Iowa City actor Maria Vorhis took the role of Shawn's younger sister, with other cast members coming from Working Group Theatre, where Lewis is Artistic Director.

These Hopeless Savages works because it has charm, substance and the ring of truth. At each stop on their trip the guys encounter distinct characters and some unusual situations. Ultimately the particulars don't matter – the key stop of Shawn's quest involves a circumstance reminiscent of the film Nebraska. That's all well and good, but the situation could just as easily have been a convention of Zulu choral music fans. What matters is Shawn and Greg, our representatives, and how they interact.

Matt Dellapina and Sean Christopher Lewis both offer fine performances. As Greg, Dellapina is suitably frustrated with his life and his traveling partner, but he never becomes annoyingly fussy. As Shawn, Lewis offers a man on a mission dealing with something too big to manage without tasks to occupy his mind. Spending time with these guys is a pleasure. I'd happily watch a film about them going out to grab some coney dogs and play miniature golf.

It's important that I don't oversell These Hopeless Savages. This is a little movie without pretension. But it made me smile and it touched my heart. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Bluebird

★★★★

bluebird-movie.com

Amy Morton, John Slattery, Louisa Krause, Emily Meade, Margo Martindale and Adam Driver star in writer-director Lance Edmands' drama, which is reminiscent of Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter. bus driver Leslie (Morton) is distracted one day by a bluebird in the bus and fails to notice a child sleeping in there. The boy falls into a hyperthermic coma and Leslie gets suspended. Meanwhile her logger husband (Slattery) fears losing his job due to the paper mill closing. There's more misery, but you get the idea. The whole thing is depressing, but presented and acted so well it feels more like wrapping yourself in a sad blanket than paying for a bummer.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

★★★★

kumikothetreasurehunter.com

Remember the opening of Fargo, which claimed to be a true story? Kumiko, a lonely Japanese woman, believes that and comes up with a plan to locate the money hidden in the film. With a treasure map in hand and not nearly enough preparation, she leaves Tokyo for rural Minnesota, where she pursues her dream, relying on the kindness of strangers as she goes. Kumiko is played by Rinko Kikuchi, who made her mark as the disaffected teen in Babel. Director David Zellner's film isn't exactly warm, but it is consistently interesting.

Fort Tilden

★★★1/2

forttildenthemovie.com

Allie (Clare McNulty) and Harper (Bridey Elliot) are teen pals who spend most of their time in Brooklyn being hip and oblivious. Their secure world is shaken when they decide to ride their bikes to meet some friends at the beach. On the way they encounter, like, real life. How annoying. At times the film, the debut feature of directors Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers, plays like a more nihilistic version of Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion. At other points the annoyance factor threatens to get out of hand. McNulty and Elliot are very good regardless.

I Believe in Unicorns

★★★1/2

unicornsthemovie.com

Leah Meyerhoff's directorial debut follows Davina (Natalia Dyer), a teen prone to fantasy who mistakes bad boy Sterling (David Vack) for her Prince Charming. Caring for her handicapped mom (Toni Mayerhoff) is challenging, so Davina seeks refuge in a fairy-tale world (nicely presented with a stop motion animation look). Sterling takes Davina's virginity, then treats her like nothing the next day. He soon does another turnabout, inviting her to go on a road trip "anywhere but here." The film doesn't blaze new trails, but Dyer's charm makes up for much of the over-familiarity. Try not to trip in the plot holes.

The Heart Machine

★★★1/2

facebook.com/heartmachinemovie

Cody (John Gallagher Jr.) talks to his girlfriend Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil) every night on Skype. She's in Berlin studying, or is she? Turns out they've never physically met, and Cody can't shake the nagging suspicion that Virgina is also in the city. We also see Virginia in Greenwich Village looking for hookups online, but are the scenes current? The paranoia builds, even though the stakes seem low (what's the worst that could happen – a break up with a virtual stranger?) Still, writer-director Zackary Wigon has cooked up an interesting concept.

Homemakers

★★★

homemakersmovie.com

Well acted story of Irene (Rachel McKeon), a punk singer in an Austin band. She receives word that she's inherited a house in Pittsburgh from her grandfather, who she didn't know had died. When she sees the sad shape of the house, she teams with her cousin Cam (Jack Culbertson) to fix up the place and sell it. They are not good at their tasks. Along the way, Irene begins to discover domestic feelings new to her. There are charming scenes, like when Irene and her girlfriend watch grandpa's old home movies, but the story never digs very deep into the character.

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Ed Johnson-Ott has been NUVO's lead film critic for more than 20 years.

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