This is no April Fool’s gag: I went to the drive-in at noon yesterday. At high noon, on a hot spring day nudging up around 90 degrees. And I (mostly) liked it.
Many Santa Barbarans by now know what I’m referring to, being the current COVID-retooled version of the great SBIFF, which has bravely moved forward with both a robust online component and a daily roster of films screened in the real time/real space venue of two actual drive-in screens (free to all comers, with reservations, or just via showing up!). They have taken up shop in the Santa Barbara City College parking lots, with the beach beckoning from just across Cabrillo Boulevard, implicitly posing the Mother Natural question: why aren’t you over here, on the sand and sea, vs. tuning into car FM frequencies and going cinematic in this scenic space?
This is not the first festival experience on this beach. In the late ‘80s, a too-briefly staged Santa Barbara Jazz Festival set up shop on Leadbetter Beach, with such notable artists as Airto Moreira and Flora Purim, Les McCann, and Poncho Sanchez, livening up the beach.
Yes, but film by the beach? How does that work? Truthfully, the experience can be both invigorating and disorienting. The later in the day, the better the sensory equation. After Wednesday night’s impressive opening night premiere of the powerful, socially-conscious doc Invisible Valley (about radical disparities of lives in the Coachella Valley), Thursday’s first full schedule of films including the noon special I caught, the fine French film By Your Side (À la folie), written and directed by Audrey Estrougo, in its US premiere. (General word to the wise: many of the “US Premieres” amount to the most important fare of the SBIFF program, year after year).
In this film, a woman’s visit to her mother’s home, where her sister—afflicted with schizophrenia and given to occasional violent outbursts—inflames the family fabric. Charged up by powerful performances by the siblings (Virginie van Robby and Lucie Debay), the film deals with the emotionally volatility of life with mental illness, and a particular bittersweetness borne of the emotional pendulum swings, of both sisters, ending with what may be the most touching long two-shot of this festival.
As for this viewer’s watching experience, the oppressive heat at that time of day may have nipped the ultimate power of the film, along with the drive-in setting’s sun-baked diminishment of some dark scenes (including what I assume, from sonic evidence, were sex scenes) got in the way of optimum enjoyment, but still, the strength of the film prevailed.
LATIN AMERICAN CINEMATIC EQUAL TIMING: One of the many long-standing virtues of SBIFF has been its determined programming of films from Latin America which would otherwise never reach our eyes, via arthouses or even the usual suspects in the streaming world.
Brazilian director Déo Cardoso deliciously idiosyncratic Bruddah’s Mind is a fascinating curiosity of a film, with topical resonance, in a year partly marked by fervent expressions of Black Live Matter issues and protests driven by righteous racial indignation. Here, a young black Brazilian protagonist, Saulo, inspired by Black Panther paradigms, engages in an occupying protest in his high school, with video feeds gone viral. Ripples of socio-political ramifications with authorities, up into the political realm, go wild, as does the film’s reach. What begins in an intimate way incurs wrath and anarchic police state tactics, ultimately. The film follows its path from the humble to the chaotic in unexpected ways.
From the more unexpectedly contemplative end of the cinematic spectrum, Guatemalan director Sebastián Lojo’s fascinating and visually sentient film The Ghosts (Las Fantasmas) somehow maintains its mystique and emotional empathy while trafficking in edgy realms of wrestling, prostitution, robbery schemes, pool hall hangs, and reprisals swirling around the troubled life of our family man protagonist. It’ a juggler’s trick, cinematically speaking.
NO SUBTITLES: Yes, there are many strong films at SBIFF — this year, as always — not requiring the reading of subtitles. Take, for a recommendable example, the Australian film My First Summer. Writer-director Katie Found, dealing with tender lives on society’s fringes. finds a fresh and probing approach to the coming-of-age-meets-sexual-awakening filmic tradition, with the help of engaging young actors Markella Kavenagh and Maiah Stewardson.
FRIDAY SBIFF TIPS: Along with other filmic tips… the guerilla sage Bill Murray. 6 p.m. on your in-home dial. Need we say more?