After the SBIFF started off with a whimper on Thursday’s opening night hooha, with the cute lost dog of a Larry Kasdan movie, Darliing Companion, the real cultural bidding began first thing on Friday morning. Thanks to the fairly recent policy (i.e., a few years running) of starting with crack-of-8 a.m. screenings — and often some of the finer flicks of the fest — it’s possible for many of us to get to watching early, and this festgoer caught a strong and, true to the beauty of the festival experience, wildly contrasting two-pack on the first morning of the festival. Eight a.m.: the poignant, if sometimes sentimental-ish South African film Lucky; and at 10 a.m.: the impressive, if determinedly slow and stylized French film Heat Wave, the best of the fest so far! (okay, out of only four films espied thus far).

Lucky, nicely and mostly naturalistically directed by Avie Luthra, tells a moving tale about a young South African boy, suddenly orphaned and inspired to leave his village to go to school in the city, but who runs into an obstacle course of injustices and nasty twists of fate. The compassionate intervention of an older Indian woman (Jayashree Basavaraj) and others leaven the harsher aspects “Lucky” encounters, and when the remarkable young actor Sihle Dlamini finally unleashes his beaming smile, 90 minutes into the film, we’re even more hooked than before.

French director Jean-Jacques Jauffret’s quite wowing Heat Wave is really quite a sensational piece of work, an unabashedly filmic film in which the artistic machinations of its structure and approach is as important, or more so, than the empathy we may or may not feel with its characters. (The woman sitting next to me seemed to gasp at my gentle laughter when someone was killed, a laugh of admiration for the filmic skill, not the passage of a human life).

What can be said is the film is deceptively slow and casual, appearing through its first third or more to be a quotidian outlay of trivial events, involving an obese mother, a possibly pregnant teenage daughter, a volatile old loner of a man, and a limping Italian boy who presumed rascal-ish nature is less than half the real story. But the film’s clever and self-revealing structural trickery gets underway at around midpoint, and the entire cinematic game changes, shifting into post-Rashomon-like interweaving of chronology and different perspective on the same events through different characters’ experience. Quite brilliantly, but with sneaky subtlety, director Jauffret keeps his cool while folding into surprisingly eloquent cultural references and ideas about how to structure a movie and tell a story. He gets away with a reference to Michelangelo’s Pieta and a spin on the timeless mother-and-child theme, and he also knows how to use a musical leitmotif — in this case, the profound slow movement of Mozart’s 23rd piano concerto — to stunning effect.

Add some Jeanne Deilman-style vulnerability and slow-brewing sense of doom, and bingo, it’s a brainy winner of a film which goes down easy and lingers in the memory.

(Incidental note: Heat Wave arrived, weirdly, with the stern, all-cap warning “CONTAINS GRAPHIC SEX AND NUDITY,” and the film was introduced that way at the Metro, to the lusty cheers of us in the audience. In truth, there is no graphic sex at all, unless open-mouth kissing now qualifies under those guidelines, and the most “shocking” nudity is the unclad vision of a quite overweight woman, several degrees beyond Ruben-esque. Is that the new obscenity, the new taboo?)

J’aime Regarder les Filles, directed by youngster Frederic Louf, is a less impressive entry from the generous French connection in the program this year but a spicy and entertaining enough time in the dark. Young love, and sex, the dawning of the Mitterand era in 1981, class warfare, and the de rigeur iconoclastic teen hero (played by Pierre Niney) combine to keep us tuned in, but it feels like one of those smarmy smug French films in need of some humanity-based dressing down.

At this early stage of the SBIFF 2012 game, word on the street — and in the lobby and on the Internet — has it that these films are worth waiting in line for: feelgooder Starbuck, Free Men, Found Memories, The Rumble of the Stones, Generation P, Whores’ Glory, Vinyl … and the list will assuredly go on.


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