Big crowds turn out for the closing night film, Spoons, at the 34th Santa Barbara International Film Festival
Julia Keane

I can now safely report that Jakob Dylan has performed in the Lobero Theater. There he was, backed by a six-piece band of players and singers, dishing out a four-song set on Friday night. The occasion? A third, added screening of the film he was… ahem…instrumental in creating, Echo in the Canyon, an innovative spin on the otherwise fairly tired subject of the late ’60s Laurel Canyon music scene.

The film, directed by music producer Andrew Slater and clearly an audience choice favorite of this festival, basks in Classic Rocking Baby Boomer nostalgia and is fortified by strong interviews with veterans of the scene. But it is also a next generation tribute to that legacy, with Dylan the Younger leading a band in versions of old “Canyon-era” songs, for an album and a filmed concert.

As Dylan said in the Q&A segment between Friday’s screening and live mini-set onstage, “People in my generation [the fortysomething set] are jealous of that time when you could just make music with all the shenanigans we have to deal with now.”

At the Lobero, Dylan and Company — including the impressive female singer Jade — performed archival classics such as “Go Where You Wanna’ Go” and “Dedicated to the One I Love” by the Mamas and Papas; the Associations’ “Never My Love”; and Arthur Lee and Love’s “No Matter What You Do.” Experientially, Dylan’s micro-set, despite and maybe also because of the roughness of its “dress rehearsal” performance and sound check-less sound, managed to be a refreshing blast of raw live culture toward the end of a festival celebrating the film medium’s canned culture.

My only beef with the film was a lack of respect paid to the Jacques Demy-directed underground 1969 classic Model Shop, reportedly the inspiration for this project, and clips from which provide retro decoration for both the film and concert. Some context should have been established, associating Demy to his earlier masterpiece Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which, in collaboration with the late, great Michelle Legrand, is one of Cinema’s greatest music-meets-film creations.

But maybe that’s just the film geek in me talking, still pumped up on the cinematic steroids that a good film festival, such as SBIFF, can inject.

Jakob Dylan at the Lobero Theater
Josef Woodard

On a Serio-Comic High: Peel is the best American film of this year’s SBIFF for reasons that I — and many others, including the filmmakers themselves — are still trying to figure out. It’s an utterly unique serio-comic movie but one that takes a while to find its groove. In the first 20 minutes, I (and apparently others, who unfortunately fled the theater before the film’s bigger payoffs) might have felt that it was headed into a mode of quirkiness for quirkiness’ sake. Initially, it can seem to be exploiting the sad story of a simple character (remarkably realized by Emile Hirsch, all eyes, literalism, and soul) who might be on the autism spectrum or otherwise afflicted with some condition that keeps him out of the normative societal loop. As viewers, we initially squirm and even feel a bit abused by the film for portraying this innocent character being taken advantage of by seemingly despicable opportunists in the wake of his protective mother’s passing.

But something miraculous happens as the film progresses and finds the true heart of this character, whose mission to reunite with his long-lost brothers ushers in unexpected depth and poignancy. The scene with Peel’s encounter with his addict brother alone is worth the price of admission. Overall, it’s a film in which the full measure of its humor and heart evolve as it proceeds, moving far beyond and deeper than the eccentric farce implications of its first act.

After Friday afternoon’s second screening of the film, which was its world premiere, director Rafael Monserrate addressed question about the unusually delicate balance of tones and character studies in the film. He spoke of the tricky process of creating “well-rounded, three-dimensional characters” and of “finding the humanity, the authenticity in the story.” At its core, the tale relates to the instinct of people “needing to find their family, their tribe.”

Screenwriter Lee Karaim wrote the original draft 10 years ago, and its reportedly more comedy-driven script was tweaked and “honed” over five more years, with the help of Monserrate and actor/writer Troy Hall. With funding finally secured, they shot it in Mobile, Alabama, over a three-week period. Hirsch’s Zen-like, detached yet anchoring performance is critical to making the film work its magic, and the actor was reportedly drawn to the character because he wasn’t easily defined. Monserrate noted that Hirsch “found his physicality in his five-year-old niece. He found this purity, and the film is partly about the way purity has a power to heal.”

Peel, one of the clear high points of this year’s roster, is a refreshingly original and at times deeply touching film of at least two tones, and many shades in between.

<em>Put Grandma in the Freezer</em>
Courtesy Photo

Films to See: On the final day of the festival, there are still plenty of reasons to escape the soggy weather and sink into a theater. Among the recommended fare: the above mentioned Peel; the comedy prize of the fest Put Grandma in the Freezer; the feelgood doc of the fest, Zulu Summer; the gritty Russian film The Factory; and the irreverently fizzy Austrian comedy What Have We Done to Deserve This? Also, watch for the unflinching variation on the popular “asshole chef” theme, Nose to Tail, the inspiring/disturbing on-the-ground doc about elephant poaching, Silent Forests, as well as the 10-10-10 Students Competition screening, and the world premiere parade. Finally, there is a finale bringing it all back home, when the Arlington hosts the official closing film, the surfing culture doc Spoons: A Santa Barbara Story.

Sliding into edition number 35 next year, SBIFF is a well-established cultural pinnacle in town and one still blessed with the capacity for surprise. In a larger perspective it remains one of the world’s biggest little film festivals. Luckily for us in Santa Barbara, it ain’t so little anymore.

Barring any revelations on the final day of the festival, here is a subjective Top 10 list of the 2019 SBIFF: Peel, Amazing Grace Ether, The Third Wife, Put Grandma in the Freezer, Crystal Swan, The Biggest Little Farm, Van Goghs, Winter Flies.


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