At least two of the films in this year’s SBIFF running take advantage of the film medium’s unique ability to take us on a trip to small town Americana. Hollywood has little real interest in the vast constellation of small towns in America, and documentaries are often concerned with grander subjects. But really, the subject is teeming with possibilities for insight into the American ethos, the human condition and stories beyond what we think we know about America. With the excellent documentary Darwin and the impressive, compassionate slice-of-life feature Benavides Born, another vision of America comes through, opening eyes and hearts.
Think small, and then think smaller and more off the beaten path and you arrive at the blip of a California town called Darwin, pop. 35. Situated at the end of a road in Death Valley and close to China Lake and the old Charles Manson hangout, it’s a blink of a town on the outskirts of society, an old silver- and lead-mining town which captivated Swiss filmmaker Nick Brandestini, in his fourth documentary, and a dry doozy at that. A cast of true characters, proud outsiders — including a salty-wise postmistress, a hippie by any other name, an anarchist, and a self-described boogie woogie man — traipse through this evenly-paced, often funny and calmly compelling documentary. As we learn about the desert dwelling citizens’ sad and troubled pasts, the plots thicken, along with our empathy.
In a way, the film represents the situation of Europeans intrigued by American stories, with a fresh and cooler-headed perspective, as witnessed in German director Eckhart Schmidt’s surprisingly contemplative doc on James Ellroy, screened at SBIFF in 2001. While other docs in the festival line-up take on subjects of larger global impact and report on efforts of social change, Darwin belongs to that special category of small jewel, dealing with a tiny slice of land and humanity, but pumped up with microcosmic power.
Heading to another American outpost, in Texas, an organic regional cinema quality, in the best sense, becomes director Amy Wendel’s loose-fit but engaging Benavides Born. The film paints a compelling yet understated portrait of a Latina teenager in the Texas town where poverty, poignant immigration issues, and the magnetic pull of military service as an exit strategy after high school are ever-pressing. Our protagonist Luz (Corina Calderon, with an appealing naturalism in her performance) is banking her post-high school future on weightlifting (a nice variation on the narrative theme) and a hoped-for scholarship. Steroids, festering rage, and other distractions get in the way of well-laid plans.
Meanwhile, we only see her familia-tending and advice-doling brother, a soldier stationed in Afghanistan, only in the far-removed context of big screen skyping with the family packed together for virtual family gatherings. It’s the modern way. With actors of varying experience but plenty of heart, director Wendel works well from a heartfelt and unpretentious script written with the film’s co-producer Don Meisel (they’re also married, and recently moved to Santa Barbara, where Meisel grew up).
In one way, Benavides Born is highly specific in its focus on a particular pocket of America, with particular issues and realities, but in a grander way, this singular slice of American life is also a piece of the grander puzzle of what makes the nation what it is. We need more of this kind of film in the world.
Under normal circumstances the worlds of classical music and the movies operate in separate orbits, apart from rare anomalies like the festive Amadeus or, significantly, last year’s enjoyably dark and psycho-melodramatic jewel Black Swan, one of the greatest films of 2011. Tchaikovsky’s music works its way through the mis en scene with a snaky grace.
Suddenly, at this year’s SBIFF, we have both a closing night film, Carmen in 3D, with opera on its mind and in its bones, and another, in its way operatic music-driven film, Swedish director Lisa Langseth’s fairly fabulous Pure (Till Det Som Är Vackert). This beautifully told and slightly obsessive tale of a young woman rising above her pop cultural and socio-economically rough station to the world of classical music draws us into an emotionally clenched interior world. The all-important soundtrack for that world oscillates between her own newfound Mozart Requiem obsession, and the Beethoven symphonic slow movement of the Gothenburg Konserthusett where she works (and has a dangerous liaison with the manipulative conductor), and a string quartet arrangement snippet of Bach’s famed “Aria,” from Goldberg Variations. It’s almost alarming to hear this great “serious” music in a cinema context. Would that it could happen more often.
Alicia Likander, looking and sometimes behaving vaguely like Black Swan’s Natalie Portman, coincidentally, puts in one of the festival’s strongest performances, as a young woman finding herself, through the agonies and ecstasies of the sanctuary of a concert hall. The film opens and closes with close-ups of her young faces, but much transpires between the start and finish of this tale, and we sense interior change, as well, in the subtle inflections in the actress’ pliable face.