Virginia Film Festival: Report #1

filmfest VFF-1It may be tough to be a black man in Paris, but it’s even tougher to be a black teenage woman who doesn’t fit the mold.




filmfest VFF-girlhood

The Virginia Film Festival (VFF) is new to me (I moved to Ruckersville, a town north of Charlottesville, Va., this summer), but it’s been going strong for more than 25 years. Presented by the University of Virginia, the VFF includes a wide variety of programs, including big-name films (Wild, The Theory of Everything), films with a local connection (Big Stone Gap, From Grain to Growler), and guest appearances by entertainment and media luminaries (Hal Holbrook, Frank Langella, Katie Couric).

One thing that sets the VFF apart is the number of classic films included in the festival (Shaft, The Wizard of Oz, The Natural, Dead Poets Society). Yes, you may be able to see some of things on DVD or VOD, but seeing them in the theater is a different experience entirely, particularly when the film is placed in cultural context by guest speakers and presentations. And in a time when an increasing proportion of films are viewed at home, I’m all for anything that keeps alive the collective experience of watching a film in a theater in the company of other people.

The first film I saw at the VFF, Girlhood, provides an excellent demonstration of why we need film festivals. It’s a great film that provides a window into aspects of experience probably unfamiliar to most of the audience, and for that reason unlikely to play the multiplex. Strand Releasing has the U.S. rights, so an eventual DVD/VOD release is more or less assured, but even then it could easily get lost in the hundred of films released each year. And that’s a shame, because Girlhood, directed by Céline Sciamma, is a memorable film that offers sharply-presented insights into the lives of young black women in France.

Sciamma, who also directed Tomboy, has a particular interest in how young women experience the world. She goes outside her own experience in Girlhood, focusing on African immigrants to Paris, with the central character of Marieme (Karidja Toure) stuck in what seems to be the land of no opportunities. Her hopes to attend an academic high school are blocked; she lives in a housing project where boys rule and girls try not to be victims; her older brother rules the roost at home (slapping her if she doesn’t yield a video game fast enough); and her mother wants to her to begin working as a maid.

The big, shiny downtown hotel where Mom works symbolizes to Marieme all the good things of the world that she can’t get, and she’s not yet ready to succumb to the fate apparently dictated by her race and gender. A way out presents itself in the form of a girl gang, and Marieme soon learns the rules of this new way of living, which include shoplifting, shaking down less bold peers, and fighting members of rival gangs. Sciamma captures the exhilaration of gang life, but doesn’t sugarcoat the path to which it leads. Perhaps more notably, she avoids the usual girl-gang clichés and highlights the prejudices operative within the local crime culture: It may be tough to be a black man in Paris, but it’s even tougher to be a black teenage woman who doesn’t fit the mold.

If Girlhood was a great and unexpected pleasure, the much-heralded Mommy proved to be disappointing. Xavier Dolan’s Mommy won the Jury Prize at Cannes (tied with Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language) and is currently generating about as much buzz as any non-English-language film out there. Charlottesville audiences were also eager to see it. I got the very last ticket to the screening, an experience that usually bodes well. In this case, however, I came away feeling that, while Mommy is definitely worth seeing, it’s hardly as revelatory as the press releases and adulatory reviews would have you believe.

The best thing about Mommy are strong performances by Antoine-Oliver Pilon as a teenage sociopath (or maybe he just has really bad ADHD; straightening out such specifics is not the point of this film), Anne Dorval as his long-suffering and codependent mother, and Suzanne Clément as the somewhat damaged neighbor who becomes involved with them in ways she never anticipated (and which her mild-mannered and absolutely ordinary husband would never approve).

Mommy certainly does not lack for energy, particularly when Pilon is throwing one of his fits, and it has the courage to put real pain up there on the screen. The problem is that it seems to revel in that pain, and it goes on much too long before ending with a derivative whimper. Maybe Dolan has already achieved Spike Lee status at age 25 and no one can tell him that his film needs a good edit (or more generally, that more is not always better). If so, that’s a shame, because he has so much obvious talent, and I’d hate to see it wasted on films that are only semi-successful because he can’t get out of his own way. | Sarah Boslaugh

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