As we laid out in our first dispatch from the Fantasia Film Festival’s virtual 2020 edition, conducting coverage of this particular month-long event from home isn’t all that different from usual. All you have to do is take out the international travel (undoubtedly a bad idea, even if it were possible), the in-person camaraderie (again, ill-advised), and the electrifying buzz of excitement that passes through a crowd when the lights go down in a packed movie theater (technically possible in some places, but a mixed proposition at best). Covering a film festival is never anything to complain about, of course, even when it doesn’t double as an excuse to leave the house. But what can we say? We’re feeling a little wistful after all these months.
But while the prevailing narrative throughout the COVID-19 crisis has been about what we can’t do, there have been some small but positive developments floating in the dirty-dishwater torrent of bad movie news. Namely, the lack of blockbuster tentpoles opening in theaters has freed up a lot of bandwidth for both critics and viewers to pay attention to smaller films. And because of the entrenched sexism of the industry, women filmmakers are more likely to work in the realm of documentary and indie films—the same “smaller films” that are having a moment right now. Would She Dies Tomorrow, Sea Fever, or Miss Juneteenth have gotten as much attention as they did if there had been major-studio releases opening those same weekends? Almost certainly not.
And with major studios shuttered for the foreseeable future, there’s an opening for more modest productions to step forward and command the attention of a viewing public in need of a good distraction. Several of the films covered in this week’s Fantasia dispatch have already been picked up and scheduled for distribution in North America, and while movie theaters are beginning the process of opening their doors in the U.S., like we said, your mileage may vary on whether you think it’s worth it to go out to the movies any time soon. And the fact that all five of this week’s selections were directed by women? That just shows the possibilities of this unprecedented new world.
You may know Noémie Merlant as the painter of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, and the French actress embarks on another forbidden affair—albeit, one of a more bizarre sort—in her latest movie, Jumbo (Grade: B). The subject of Belgian writer-director Zoé Whittock’s debut feature is object sexuality, a rare sexual orientation where a person becomes romantically attached to an inanimate object—here, a Tilt-A-Whirl ride at a provincial French amusement park. That may sound like the stuff of exploitative TLC documentaries, but Whittock treats it as a character study rather than a sideshow, an approach that pairs with Merlant’s heartsick performance to empathetic effect.
Merlant stars as Jeanne, the park’s misfit night janitor whose previously dormant sexuality is awakened by the arrival of her neon-and-steel beau. Where Jumbo enters the realm of magical realism is that the ride seems to like Jeanne, too, coming to life when no one else is around to scoop her up for romantic spins through the crisp midnight air. There’s even a surrealist sex scene, pouring gallons of viscous oil all over cinematographer Thomas Buelens’ radiant color palette. Jumbo stands stronger as a concept and an aesthetic than it does as a narrative, but if nothing else, it’s certainly distinctive.
Jumbo screened on Friday, August 28 as part of the Fantasia Film Festival, with an encore screening planned for August 31. It will open in the U.S. in fall 2020.
On the reverse side, the script’s the thing in Lucky (Grade: B), an unsubtle but effective deconstruction of the double bind of being a “strong woman” in a society that doesn’t listen to what women have to say. Brea Grant, who also wrote the film, stars as May, a self-help writer whose latest book is called Going It Alone. That title turns out to be prophetic after May is randomly beset by an anonymous masked man who comes to her house every night and tries to kill her. The problem isn’t that May’s not capable of defending herself—she does, over and over, in bloody and sometimes ingenious ways—but that while cops, social workers, friends, and family all tell May how brave she is for fighting back, they also tell her that she needs to “calm down” because this is “just the way it is.”
Director Natasha Kermani plays up the surrealism of May’s waking nightmare through the actors, who deliver their pat clichés about strength and independence with glassy eyes and frozen smiles while Grant frays down to a jumpy live wire of personality. The self-help angle of the story isn’t as developed as it could be, given the potential richness of that material. But a bravura finale set in a purgatory of misogynist violence captures the fear of a woman walking alone—or driving alone, or sitting in her house alone, or doing anything alone—with a visceral bluntness that’s hard to deny. If you know someone who doesn’t quite grasp the emotional terrorism behind concepts like gaslighting and victim-blaming, sit them down with Lucky.
Lucky screened on Sunday, August 23, and Friday, August 28, as part of the Fantasia Film Festival. It’s set to premiere on Shudder in early 2021.
This year’s Fantasia Festival turned out to be a double feature for Brea Grant, who doesn’t star in, but did write and direct, another Fantasia feature, 12 Hour Shift (Grade: B). (She was supposed to premiere both films at spring festivals, as she told The A.V. Club in an interview earlier this year.) Unlike Lucky, 12 Hour Shift is not political, unless you want to count its grisly, madcap plot about a crew of night nurses and the organ-trafficking scam they’ve been running out of the back of an Arkansas hospital as a commentary on the American healthcare system. Mostly, it’s an ensemble comedy as black as a longtime smoker’s lungs, full of the kind of working-class gallows humor that gets you through a long night on your feet.
12 Hour Shift is Grant’s second feature outing as a writer-director, but she’s best known as an actor. And that shows here: Although it boasts a large cast that includes David Arquette and wrestler Mick Foley, 12 Hour Shift hinges on the performance of May’s Angela Bettis as Mandy, the opioid-addicted nurse at the center of her small town’s black-market organ trade. The material is edgy and at times outrageously gory and chaotic, but Bettis gives Mandy an exhausted, fed-up quality that keeps the movie on track, even (or maybe especially) when she’s pissed off about having to do everything herself.
12 Hour Shift screened on Saturday, August 22, and Thursday, August 27, as part of the Fantasia Film Festival. It opens in the U.S. on October 2.
On the documentary side, Fantasia has offered up a handful of intriguing titles, like a Tiny Tim doc narrated by “Weird” Al Yankovic that we’ll tell you more about next week. An early standout in this year’s slate is Morgana (Grade: B-), a passion project years in the making about an upper-middle-class Australian housewife whose lifelong struggle with suicidal depression eventually led her to a revelation: She’d really rather be making porn.
The film’s subject, who’s in her 50s and goes by the nom de porn Morgana Muses, doesn’t look like your typical porn star. She looks more like someone’s mom, because she is. But that matters little in the freewheeling sex-positive culture of Berlin, Muses’ “second home,” where she relocates midway through Josie Hess and Isabel Peppard’s nonfiction portrait. Hess, Peppard, and Muses are all friends in real life, which gives the filmmakers intimate access to their subject when her exciting new lifestyle turns out to be less sustainable than she thought. Morgana is a slight film, only 71 minutes long, and a scrappy one. But, in this case, the filmmakers’ closeness to their subject turns out to be an asset.
Buy tickets to watch Morgana with the short film “Modern Whore” on demand in Canada here. It has been picked up for distribution by Juno Films, with its release date still to be determined.
And while the fact that In Fabric already exists may have made us a little more accepting of the general premise, Slaxx (Grade: B-) is really everything you could want out of a movie about a killer pair of jeans. This is obviously a low-budget production, taking place almost entirely within the confines of an American Apparel-esque clothing store called CCC (Canadian Cotton Company) whose politically correct marketing belies its exploitative business practices. But the animation on the killer jeans is playful and accomplished, as are all the technical aspects of director Elza Kephart’s colorful horror-comedy.
In fact, the silliest part of the movie isn’t an army of possessed “Super Shapers” ripping hapless hourly employees to shreds before absorbing their blood into their fibers. It’s the movie blaming the whole thing on GMOs. But unless you’re the completely humorless sort of pro-business apologist (and they are out there), the moral message really doesn’t detract from the fun of the movie. And if a movie about bloodthirsty pants should be anything, it should be fun.
The 2020 edition of the Fantasia Film Festival is taking place online from August 20 to September 2.