Credit: Don Brubaker

The night had me at the Klieg lights. After the ups and downs, COVID-related compromises, and general unease about the state of things, the kitschy showbiz splendor of swirling Klieg lights outside the Arlington signaled something special with last night’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival opening night. The lights evoked beams from heaven, rather than manmade beams reaching up longingly to the heavens.

Okay, the imagery is cheesy and hyperbolic, and it wouldn’t pass muster in a screenwriting class. But you get the point: Let us say “Hallelujah” for the dawning of SBIFF 2023.

After the red carpet ritual, the evening — featuring the world premiere of the interesting legal/human drama Miranda’s Victim — opened with radically different welcome mats. In his introduction to the evening, Mayor Randy Rowse kindly welcomed the locals and visiting throngs, suggesting that visitors enjoy restaurants and all that the tourist destination of Santa Barbara has to offer, and “maybe take in one or two films.” By contrast, longstanding festival Executive Director Roger Durling unveiled a passionate dedication to the obsessive nature of the cinephile “tribe” who could avail themselves of, say, six films a day, starting with the “breakfast club” screenings at 8 a.m. “We eat films for breakfast,” Durling exuded, exaggerating only slightly. (I personally like the doable four-or-five-films-a-day model).

Durling also pointed out that this particular “tribe” likes to read, and with films from more than 43 countries over the next 10 days, some of the best of the fest will be equipped with subtitles. The “international” component of this festival has always been its strongest suit, going back to festival number one. I am a reliable witness to this theory, having been to every fest.

But opening night at SBIFF is rarely a “cine-tribal” affair, as such, but rather a crowd-pleasing night on the town, for townies. A broader audience is invited into the vintage movie palace of the Arlington, with Klieg lights, red-carpeted movie folks, and other Hollywood-ized accoutrements in tow.

Miranda’s Victim fulfilled the role of a requisite crowd pleaser. It’s a skillfully-produced slice of historical life, revealing the background of the Miranda Rights case, and the human toll behind the ruling. Screenwriter George Kolber introduced the film flanked by much of the cast, including Andy Garcia, Abigail Breslin (as the story’s real-life “victim,” Trish Weir), and Mirelle Enos, director Michelle Danner and a large compliment of the crew in the house, on the occasion of its world premiere christening. As he explained, this was a “story hidden in plain sight,” worked up under COVID lockdown, easily gaining momentum in the casting and production phases (the cast also includes Luke Wilson, Ryan Phillippe, Kyle McLachlan as Justice Earl Warren and Donald Sutherland as a sagely judge).

Essentially, the film is a historically fascinating and engaging enough, multi-layered story. Woven throughout are elements of “game on” courtroom drama. Contextually, the end result sometimes felt more that we were watching a well-made TV movie or multiplex feature rather than challenging film festival fare.

No matter. There’s plenty of that to come in the next 10 days, and with a lot of reading required.

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