Atlanta Film Festival 2014 | Report #4

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A plot summary doesn’t really do it justice, but the experience of watching the film, with its blend of fantasy and realism, really cuts to the bone.

 

I’m on a roll—even before the Jury Award Winners were officially announced, I managed to see two of them in a row: Getting to the Nutcracker (Documentary Feature Film Winner) and I Believe in Unicorns (Narrative Feature Film Winner). Here’s something else worth noting: both are directed by women. Blockbuster filmmaking may continue to be dominated by male directors, but there are lots of women producing distinctive work as well, and it’s great to see them get recognition for their work.

If there’s one ballet that most Americans have seen, or at least heard of, it’s The Nutcracker, a Christmas perennial across the country. In Getting to the Nutcracker, director Serene Meshel-Dillman (a former dancer at the School of American Ballet and Alvin Ailey, among other places) follows a production of The Nutcracker from auditions through performance at the Marat Daukayev School of Ballet in Los Angeles.

Meshel-Dillman gained extraordinary access to the school, whose artistic director Marat Daukayev was a principal dancer with the Kirov Ballet, and the great strength of this documentary is its focus on all the behind-the-scenes work, from classes and rehearsals to costume fittings and catering, that goes into producing a ballet. She includes little features on the aspirations of a few dancers within the school, but the focus is on the production as a whole rather than the career trajectory of any particular student.

I Believe in Unicorns is an amazing film by first-time director Leah Meyerhoff. A plot summary doesn’t really do it justice, but the experience of watching the film, with its blend of fantasy and realism, really cuts to the bone. If you saw the IFC documentary series Film School, you may remember Meyerhoff and a student director who knew what she wanted, and this film pays off that early signal of promise.

Much of the success of I Believe in Unicorns can be credited to the performance of Natalia Dyer, who was 16 at the time of filming, the same age as her character Davina, a young woman whose thoughts and feelings are the film’s central focus. Davina is mature beyond her years (she cares for her disabled mother, played by Meyerhoff’s real mother) and a gifted artist, but she’s also young enough to wear a unicorn necklace and fall for an older guy (Peter Vack) that anyone could have told her was bad news. In fact, her best friend (Amy Seimetz) tells her just that, but Davina is determined to follow her own instincts and create her own life, rather than playing it safe.

Davina is the kind of character you don’t often see in films, and you seldom see this kind of story either—it’s neither an idealized teen fable nor a cautionary tale about the dangers lying in wait for innocent young girls, but is a deeply felt story about one young woman learning about the world, and about herself. In a talkback, Meyerhoff said she expected that adults would see her film at festivals, and young people would watch it on VOD, showing that she also has a good grasp of how the film marketplace works and how the different generations choose to consume media. | Sarah Boslaugh

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