One of the coolest categories at the annual Independent Feature Project‘s (IFP) annual Gotham Awards, taking place on November 27th in Brooklyn, is “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You,” offering a prize recognizing films that have had solid play on the fest circuit but have not yet had major theatrical runs. The five indies nominated in the category this year are Ronald Bronstein‘s “Frownland,” Lanre Olabisi‘s “August the First,” John Fiege‘s “Mississippi Chicken,” Jeremy and Randy Stalberg‘s “Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa,” and Chris Fuller‘s “Loren Cass.” These are all solid films that have gotten some decent fest buzz, yet even folks who hit the fest circuit may not have seen (or even heard of) them. So, here’s a round-up of the five nominees, which were nominated by judges from The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), IFP and Filmmaker Magazine. The films are screening at MoMA in New York City today through Monday, and the winner, selected by the editors of Filmmaker, will be awarded at the Gotham Awards. Here’s a roundup of the Gotham Awards’ five best fest-circuit films you probably haven’t seen yet.
And the nominees are…
THE FILM: “Frownland, written and directed by Ronald Bronstein
CLOSER LOOK: Unsettling, yet intriguing film following a few days in the life of a psychologically unstable young man as he veers towards a breakdown. Keith Sontag (Dore Mann), pathologically unable to communicate with others, shares his tiny apartment with a completely obnoxious roommate, and works at one of the most pathetic and hopeless jobs ever – selling coupon books door-to-door for a bullying boss. Mann’s performance is really solid – he’s one to watch, as is director Bronstein, who shows originality and promise. The other people we meet in the film each have their own issues: Keith’s suicidal friend Laura (Mary Wall) spends the first ten minutes of the film crying incoherently and trying to make herself have an allergic reaction to a pillow; later we see her drawing cartoons of various ways she might take her life. Keith’s musician roommate is incapable of communicating with others without resorting to rudeness and sarcasm – one can well imagine him as one of those know-everything smartasses who revel in leaving scathing remarks about grammar and syntax errors on people’s personal blogs. It’s excrutiatingly painful watching Keith try desperately to communicate, and yet you can’t help but be drawn to him. In spite of some rough edges, the filmmaker’s potential shows through, especially with some great dialogue. The film drags a bit at times and the camera puts you so up close and personal with Keith that it makes you feel uncomfortable; you want to turn away out of politeness due to Keith’s suffering, and yet his struggles draw you inexorably into his story.
FEST LOVE: SWSW (special jury award).
THE FILM: “August The First,” directed by Lanre Olabis
CLOSER LOOK: Tunde (Ian Alsup, in a solid debut turn) has graduated from college, and to celebrate he’s invited a special guest – prodigal father Dipo, who abandoned Tunde, his mother, his brother and sister to move back to Nigeria over ten years earlier. Welcomed only by Tunde, Dipo must face the family he abandoned in an uncomfortable homecoming, while each of the family members, faced with the father and husband who left them behind, must confront complicated feelings about Dipo as they are forced to interact with him or ruin Tunde’s party. Like any good dysfunctional family, Tunde’s family is full of interpersonal conflicts and drama: Tunde’s older brother, Ade, bears hidden resentment over having been made the man of the family at too early an age; his sister, Simisola is hiding a secret from her older husband; his mother Rhonda drowns her anxiety about the reunion with her estranged husband in alcohol; and Dipo himself may have motives other than his son’s graduation for making the trip from Nigeria. All these conflicts are brought into play as a tense afternoon wanes into a climactic evening, culminating in a revelation that will challenge everything Tunde thought he knew about his father.
FEST LOVE: Urbanworld Film Festival (audience award); San Francisco Black Film Festival (best feature film). Official selection: SXSW Film Festival, Karlovy Vary International Film Festival; Philadelphia Film Festival.
THE FILM: “Mississippi Chicken,” Directed by John Fiege
CLOSER LOOK: A scathing documentary about the plight of immigrant laborers recruited to the South to work in poultry factories, this film is what Linklater’s “Fast Food Nation” could have been, had it stuck more to the format of the book on which it was based. “Mississippi Chicken” follows the interaction and relationship between Anita, an idealistic young woman working to improve the plight of the exploited immigrants, and Guillermina, a resident of a dilapidated immigrant trailer park who scrapes out a living running an off-the-record restaurant out of her roach-infested trailer with her teenage daughter as she struggles to raise the money to bring her other daughters up from Mexico. A powerful indictment of the plight of migrant workers, “Mississippi Chicken” is a wrenching look at what it’s like at the bottom of the labor food chain. Shot on 8mm, the film has a gorgeous, saturated, old home-movie look that brings the heat of the southern summer to life on the screen.
FEST LOVE: Official selection: New York International Latino Festival; Austin Film Festival, Miami International Film Festival, Universal Forums of Cultures, African Diaspora Film Festival, and Providence Latin American Film Festival.
THE FILM: “Off The Grid: Life on the Mesa” directed by Jeremy and Randy Stalberg
CLOSER LOOK: On a road trip following the death of their father, brothers Jeremy and Randy Stalberg stumbled across a group of outsiders in the New Mexico desert living in a makeshift community called the Mesa. The filmmakers, who first had to get to know their subjects – and find acceptance in a place where “you don’t call 9-1-1 if there’s a problem, you call 3-5-7,” bring us into the lives of several of the Mesa’s residents as they explore why these people choose to live in the desert with no electricity, running water, or, in many cases, a source of income. And yet, these self-exiled group of malcontents, veterans, single mamas and teenage runaways have formed their own relatively peaceful community that goes by its own rules, rebelling against a world of conformity even as they passionately outline the reasons for their patriotism, and declare America the best place on earth to live. More than just an exploration of an alternative lifestyle, Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa gives us compelling look into the minds and lives of people who have chosen freedom and physical hardship over the typical American lifestyle.
FEST LOVE: Ann Arbor Film Festival (jury award); Calgary Underground Film Festival (best documentary); Real to Reel Film Festival (jury award). Official selection: Slamdance, Miami International Film Festival, Florida Film Festival, Silverdocs, Nickel Independent Film Festival, Best Documentary, Lakedance Film Festival, Best Film, Montana Film Festival, Jury Award for Documentary Film, Ojai Film Festival; official selection of Starz Denver Film Festival and Santa Fe Film Festival.
THE FILM: “Loren Cass”, directed by Chris Fuller
CLOSER LOOK: Written and directed by Chris Fuller (who also stars in the film under a pseudonym) at the age of 21, and produced over eight years, “Loren Cass” is about disaffected youth in the aftermath of the 1996 St. Petersburg race riots. The film focuses on three aimless young people: Jason (Travis Maynard) and Cale (Fuller, under the pseudonym Lewis Brogan) vandalize a black driver’s car, and a series of racial reprisals ensue. Nicole, a teenage waitress at a diner, makes out with various guys, seemingly without rhyme or reason.
The film plays almost as a series of completely disjointed vignettes of random acts of brutal violence and teenage acting-out and spontaneous combustion, interspersed with a blacked-out screen over which a spoken-word artist adds to the discord. A trumpet score by Jimmy Morey punctuates the film. “Loren Cass” is more like an extended collage of anger and frustration; the dialog is minimal and the plot pretty much non-existant; visuals and the spoken word segments do the talking. This isn’t an easy film to watch, you have to work to process what you’re seeing and hearing. But art, like life – or the race riots that sparked the filmmaker’s imagination – isn’t always easy.
FEST LOVE: Starz Denver International Film Festival, Ljubljana International Film Festival, Vienna International Film Festival, Helsinki International Film Festival, Hudson Valley Film and Video Festival, Locarno Film Festival, Cinevegas Film Festival, Bradford International Film Festival, Atlanta Underground Film Festival.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Kim Voynar is a journalist based in Oklahoma. She recently profiled Diablo Cody for indieWIRE.