The Seattle Film Festival presents a pleasant paradox. No other North American film survey comes close in terms of length and breadth: for its 38th edition, SIFF screened a whopping 273 features, from 75 countries, spanning a Guinness World Record–worthy 25 days (over twice the duration of Sundance and Toronto). Yet the feel on the ground is one of understatement, proud provinciality, ad-hoc pluck. The scope seems less about ambition than generosity, less about cinephilic peacocking than a wish to put as many new films in front of Northwest audiences as possible. Now, any town that identifies itself with a 600-foot phallus can’t be entirely modest, but it’s telling, and quite endearing, that its late-spring film showcase prefers grandiosity of the inclusive kind.
Such inclusivity inevitably makes the festival a very mixed, XXL-size bag for critic and ticket-buyer alike. Since more than 90% of the features debuted at previous festivals, a little homework could separate the played-out fest vets and imminent releases (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Take This Waltz, The Ambassador) and third-tier slot-fillers (Bel Ami, Liberal Arts) from the truly new (Recalled, Duck Beach to Eternity) and noteworthy (the exuberantly formalistic, ingeniously hilarious, 207-minute dose of Russian absurdism that is Sergey Loban’s Chapiteau-Show).
Though SIFF doesn’t put much emphasis on world premieres, a solid 24 films made their debut here this year, several of them during the last weekend of the fest (which is when I was in town). Of these, I was most impressed by Recalled, a genre-savvy, ethically entangled military thriller by first-timer Michael Connors. With the Army Reserves destined for Iraq during the overstretched days of 2004, well-connected Lieutenant Sefton (Seth Gabel) secures a last-second domestic transfer, to the open disdain of his imminently deployed troop. Invaluable medic Reyes (Shad “Bow Wow” Moss), whose son is gravely ill, is turned down. Motivated by some combination of empathy, guilt, righteousness, and goaded adrenalin, Sefton decides to help Reyes go AWOL, setting in motion a novel jailbreak scenario in which good guys are on the run from other good guys, anxieties about war are scarcely mentioned but always present, and no shots are ever fired. Connors builds tension through potent claustrophobia: action takes place in a grim, freedom-mocking walled compound, entirely among men trained in—but not completely indoctrinated by—self-sacrificial military morality, and with a morning deployment just hours away. The story's plausibility gets strained as stakes heighten in the final act, but by then the elegantly diagrammed, philosophically sound gamesmanship has earned the film a little license to indulge in climactic intercutting, skull-thwacking, and scenery-chewing (courtesy of an amped Aidan Quinn as Lt. Colonel Owens).
While Wes Anderson's latest film slipped into SIFF before its national release (winning a disorienting “First runner-up” in the Golden Space Needle audience awards), the wholesale cooptation of his style may have reached an apotheosis with Sin Bin. First-timer Billy Federighi's movie is so indebted to every detail of Andersonian affect that it almost circles back around to having an obsessive integrity—like a note-perfect rock tribute band. Anachronistic school uniforms? Check. A vintage mod soundtrack? Check. Symmetrical framing, dioramic tableaus, heroic slo-mo, precocious teen protagonists, and flawed father figures? All checked. Yet considering that he likely had fewer resources at his disposal than Anderson ever had—and that he actually gets some emotional mileage out of a bawdy teen dramedy that transposes Wilder’s The Apartment to a seedy fuck van—Federighi should have no problem using Sin Bin as an industry calling card. At the other end of the spectrum was The Most Fun I’ve Ever Had With My Pants On, a road movie about Andy (writer and co-director Drew Denny) and Liv (Sarah Hagan), who drive to scenic locations around the American Southwest to disperse Andy’s deceased father’s ashes. Though it has some nice lo-fi cinematography and an effectively rough, naturalistic feel, Denny’s autobiographical first feature functions better as a work of personal catharsis than as a freestanding film, fatally wedding together unexplained inside jokes and too-easily-telegraphed cinematic clichés.
Of the documentaries, Duck Beach to Eternity doesn’t offer much in the way of aesthetic or formal pleasures—its combination of snooping verité and direct address recap interviews is total reality TV—but it nevertheless tackles a fascinating and election-year topical subject with curiosity and empathy. Every Memorial Day, Mormon singles descend upon Duck Beach, North Carolina in hopes of finding a similarly devout and spiritually elected partner amid the mild, alcohol-free partying. As if mating within such a proscribed community weren’t hard enough, the standards for beauty are impossibly high (and exceptionally blonde), making life difficult for a lovely eggheaded romantic like Bryan, a diminutive Brooklyn-based Latin teacher. The triumvirate of filmmakers—one Mormon, one lapsed Mormon, and one non-Mormon—serves to make the film as fair to all sides as possible, which usually means that the subjects are given a bit more time to talk than is necessary, yet it’s refreshing to see candid footage employed for something other than gotcha humiliation. Winter Nomads (which debuted earlier this year in Berlin) is bound be compared to 2009 festival favorite Sweetgrass, but here’s hoping there’s enough love in the cinephile’s heart for two expansively observed, largely silent sheepherder docs. Director Manuel von Stürler tracks May-September husband-and-wife duo Carole and Pascal—along with four dogs, three donkeys, and 800 woolly sheep—across Switzerland for four unyieldingly wintry months of migration. It’s a lovely portrait of old-school determination, unconventional romance, and a continent that’s still actively fretting over its land, legacy, and future.
One of the great pleasures afforded by a survey as liberally programmed as SIFF’s is happening upon international curios that will never be (or certainly ought not to be) projected on a stateside screen ever again. My favorite of these, thanks to a lightly scheduled Saturday afternoon, was Wickie and the Treasure of the Gods, a German kiddie adventure film that boasted spectacularly ineffectual 3-D and seriously slipshod English dubbing. A sequel to a film that no one in the audience (save for the odd creepy Kraut bootlegger fetishist) had ever seen, Wickie cacophonously celebrates the resourcefulness of an ambiguously gendered, red-bobbed boy Viking amidst Sid and Marty Krofft–style flourishes. It was a woeful watch, but also a certain kind of privilege.
For all of its size and internationalism, the festival gave the most love to two local products over its final weekend. (Though you could argue that twin tributes to Sissy Spacek and William Friedkin—both in town and in fine form—extended the love to Seventies Hollywood as well). Eden, which was written and directed by local filmmaker Megan Griffiths, and which swept the jury and audience awards, recounts the true story of an Asian-American teen who was abducted and held captive for several years as a sex slave. Despite employing an overfamiliar greyscale palette to underscore the protagonist’s dire predicament, Griffiths productively explores the moral vacuum that allows for such unthinkable cruelty, and gets first-rate performances from both Jamie Chung—who, as the teen, advances from naïve to no-nonsense with aplomb—and a genially evil Beau Bridges as the corrupt sheriff in charge of the operation.
But you can’t get more local than Stephen Gyllenhaal’s Grassroots, which served as the closing night film of the festival. A strenuously accessible entertainment set entirely in Seattle, it’s the true-life story of Phil Campbell (Jason Biggs), a recently terminated reporter for alt-weekly The Stranger who's persuaded to act as the campaign manager for Grant Cogswell (Joel David Moore), a former colleague running for city counsel. Cogswell's entire platform: advocating for the extension of the city's quaint, one-stop monorail, originally built for the 1962 World’s Fair. His eco-friendly zealotry proves infectious and attracts a small army of greenies and college kids to stump for the tiny campaign office. Similarly ingratiating is the film’s willingness to bore deep into provincial concerns, to let Cogswell plead his case whether or not the audience is predisposed to care—it’s the street-level conviction that matters. But this is also what leads to the film's major misstep: Gyllenhaal goes too far in justifying its locality by insisting on its universality. Of all the ploys to emotionally co-opt the events of 9-11 for narrative gravitas, yoking a campaign for improved public transportation to the trauma and resilience of besieged New Yorkers 3,000 miles away has to be one of the most misguided. At least Jason Biggs, freed of the expectations of American Pie–fueled (semi)stardom, gets a chance to do some nice, largely non-neurotic character work here, even if the script insists that Campbell’s banal domestic conflicts steal screen time from Cogswell’s far more charismatic candidacy.
Hometown treatments and local pride aside, it’s the city’s venues that best serve the festival’s unique hospitality—from the recently reclaimed screening rooms of SIFF Uptown, the festival’s year-round art-house shingle, to the once-classy, now charmingly gone-to-seed Egyptian Theater (with stand-ups for Sunshine Cleaning and The Limits of Control incongruously enduring in its shadowy wings). My favorite was the Harvard Exit Theatre, which is situated at the northwest corner of Capitol Hill. Built in 1925 as a clubhouse for The Woman's Century Club, which is apparently still in operation and still uses the space for meetings, the Harvard is a multi-story, wood-framed hotbox featuring two boutique theaters that are among the most welcoming that I’ve ever visited. There were plenty of good films to see at SIFF this year, as well as a few commendable premieres for the programmers to hang their hats on, but it’s the intimacy and idiosyncrasy of cinemagoing at the Harvard—away from the rain showers and among the hipsters and hippies and culture-hungry retirees—that best represents what only SIFF can offer.