Kristen Stewart durning her interview at the Arlington Theater. | Credit: Erick Madrid

For the first solo celebrity tribute of this year’s SBIFF, Kristen Stewart’s “this is your life” style evening at the Arlington last night seemed both an inspired choice and one with incidental local resonance. The actress most widely known as a vampire lover in Twilight put in a striking, Oscar-nominated performance as Diana, Princess of Wales, in Spencer. And now, one of Diana’s sons, Prince Harry, calls Montecito home with his family.

Credit: Erick Madrid

Variety‘s Anne Thompson guided the evening’s tour through the 20-year career of this 31-year-old actress. What emerged was a portrait of an artist of surprising versatility. The child of entertainment industry parents,  Stewart grew up in the San Fernando Valley and played opposite Jodie Foster in Panic Room as a 12-year-old. Since then, she has portrayed a variety of real-life characters, including Jean Seberg and Joan Jett.

After achieving star status through her work in the Twilight series, Stewart became choosier in her roles, including such arthouse fare as Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria, which screened at the 2015 SBIFF. “I love making movies,” she enthused at the Arlington. But she also admitted, “I take pride in being a little spastic, restless, and instinctive.”

Capping off the evening, Charlize Theron, her co-star in Snow White and the Huntsman, paid tribute to Stewart with a speech and awarded her with the American Riviera trophy. Early in the evening, Thompson complimented Stewart on her increasing poise in press situations. Stewart self-effacingly shrugged, “It’s hit or miss.” This event felt like a hit.

A RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE: The most intriguing and lingering film experiences at the Festival resist easy categorization. What to make, for instance, of the fascinating and peculiar Canadian indie film The Righteous? Actor Mark O’Brien’s debut as writer and director is an enigmatic mashup with a mission. O’Brien plays a mysterious stranger with creepy and nuanced brilliance in this black-and-white fever dream involving a tortured priest seeking redemption. There are echoes of Paul Schrader’s masterpiece First Reformed and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer. In the post-screening Q&A, O’Brien admitted that he is a film geek who has stuffed multiple references to past films into his project.

Elements of family drama, horror film tactics, possible dream states, crazed preacher cinema, and apocalyptic kitsch wind in and out of the film without damaging its cohesiveness. I think I was the only one in the early morning audience who had to laugh on occasion, only in admiration for the cinematic cross-referencing going on here.

Credit: Erick Madrid

In his articulate Q&A, O’Brien joked that here was a movie that could “put pep in your step on an early Friday morning.” As he was later chatting with admirers in the aisle, I mentioned that his character and the film’s atmosphere reminded me of Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes in John Houston’s Wise Blood. O’Brien commented that he hadn’t thought of that connection but had intentionally replicated Joan of Arc’s pained, beatific close-ups in Carl Dreyer’s silent film classic. In short, this whole experience put a nice pep in my step on a Friday morning.

NOT ANYTOWN USA: Ryan Maxey’s superb and quirky One Road to Quartzsite is a fresh and engaging documentary in the field of gonzo Americana. It chronicles a tiny Arizonan town on the I-10 interstate between Los Angeles and Phoenix. Maxey is less interested in Quartzsite’s settled population than in its peripheral characters, especially the seasonal “snowbirds” who swell the population of its outskirts. Maxey spent three years gaining trust and making friends with his subjects, and the resulting film is blissfully free of explanatory narration or text.

Maxey portrays eccentric characters in a celebratory way. There is a naked bookseller who’s also a honky-tonk pianist and an African-American preacher and quartz seller whose spirit lives in the church tent. We meet a man in a pink dress and a wig who holds lively conversations with his stuffed animals, and we witness Trump supporters toting guns while feeding the homeless.

Three young people flex their active imaginations by inventing a religion in their ample free time. Maxey mostly keeps an objective cool in the doc process but can’t resist creating some artful set pieces replete with emotion-coloring atmospheric music. The finale is a thing of strange beauty, as Jo Stafford and Gordon McRae sing “Now the Day Is Over” over shots of Quartzsite lyrically winding down into the desert night.

Credit: Erick Madrid

Quartzsite is not digitally driven and upwardly mobile but instead full of individualistic drifters that make a comparison to the film Nomadland tempting. It reminds me more of Darwin, one of the best films of SBIFF 2011, which told of a similar desert town by Death Valley. Both showcase tiny off-the-grid villages affectionately.

Cadejo Blanco, one of the impressive entries in this year’s amped-up Spanish/Latin Cinema sidebar, qualifies as a gangster film — but a different animal in the field. Writer-director Justin Lerner has created an often gripping tale from inside a brutal Guatemalan gang in a movie at once gritty and smartly tailored. We’re led into a demimonde of hits, drug running, shakedowns, and other generalized evil through Sarita, our young woman protagonist (powerfully played by Karen Martinez). In search of her missing sister, whose boyfriend is a gangbanger, Sarita joins the gang to gain inside access, which quickly turns into an axis of evil and varying forms of harm’s way. Her cunning and steely resiliency prevail in ways that strain credulity but win our affections.

Lerner flexes his skill in the gangster film genre by spinning this tale with a post-Narcos edge, including some creatively choreographed killing scenes. But subtlety is also in the mix, as seen in the single extended take of Sarita going home in a bus under the end credits. Her discretely shifting facial gestures during that long take telegraph a sweep of emotions, without words or any gangster flick references whatsoever.

See and follow our daily SBIFF coverage at Don’t forget to catch our cover package on the festival here.

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