The Slamdance Film Festival may take place in parallel to Sundance, but it’s not a cultural behemoth like the bigger Park City gathering. But the festival, founded in 1995, which has helped to spur the careers of Christopher Nolan and Lena Dunham, is replete with promising shoestring films and young performers on the cusp of critical recognition. Here are five highlights from this year’s recently-concluded lineup.
Director Dominic Rodrigeuz offers an intimate look at the secretive subculture of Fursonas (a portmanteau of “furry” and “persona”), or “Furries,” plushy anthropomorphic avatars donned by role-players. Fursona conventions date back to the early eighties, though members (understandably) try to keep the group out of the public eye. As with most of the films of the list, eccentricity of character plays heavily into the film’s appeal, though no other film of Slamdance 2016 can boast an androgynous, sexually-frustrated dog named Boomer (nee Gary Matthews) who engenders a war between factions of Furries because he gives the esoteric coterie a “bad image.” Irreverent yet earnest, “Fursonas” is a fascinating, if not nearly exhaustive jaunt into a culture few people know anything about.
When David (David Giuntoli) gets ditched at the proverbial wedding altar, his would-be best man Flula (Flula Borg) convinces David that the two of them should go on the backpacking honeymoon David had planned, cheering David up and improving their friendship. The pair encounter a host of eccentric characters, as one does when trekking though strange lands in a self-aware indie bromance. The male leads have contagious zest; when Flula whips out the toxic-colored t-shirts that bear the film’s title on them, you can see the gloom slowly dissipate from David’s eyes. The homoerotic subtext is more like parenthetical text, so obvious yet playfully silly is the BFF brouhaha. The Emmy-nominated director uses his experience shooting documentaries to give the film a naturalistic, easy-breezy feeling.
Like “The Tribe,” one of 2015’s best and ballsiest films, “Driftwood” is devoid of dialogue; unlike “The Tribe,” also one of 2015’s most relentlessly depressing endeavors. “Driftwood” has a female lead, deftly portrayed by Joslyn Jensen. The solipsistic tone and claustrophobic environment may draw comparisons to “Room,” but “Driftwood” is less tear-jerky. The monotonous pacing and preference for static shots gives the micro-budget film a feeling of quotidian unease and existential boredom. It feels longer than its 72-minute runtime, and isn’t as fun as “Honey Buddies” or “Fursonas,” but Paul Taylor’s film commits to its formal device and doesn’t pander to its audience. Keep an eye on singer-writer-actress Jensen — hers is an enthralling presence.
“Art of the Prank”
The hoax with the most. Joe Skaggs, prank artist par excellence and professional ball-buster, is the subject of this voyeuristic film. Skaggs, a 70-year-old “culture jammer,” has been an enigmatic presence for 50 years. His notable gags include tying a 50-foot bra to the front of the U.S. Treasury building on Wall Street, proclaiming himself to be a cockroach expert named Dr. Gregor (get it? the media didn’t), and sending imposters to stand in for him during interviews. He also helped ABC News win an Emmy for their coverage of a fake dog brothel Skagg advertised in The Village Voice in 1976. The film, named after Skaggs’ blog, wisely avoids trying to one-up its subject’s hijinks. The camera stays relatively still, gazing at Skaggs, taking in his absurdity like one of the passing onlookers who so often comprise his audience.
Derek Kimball channels the spirit of Terrence Malick for his spirit-of-nature film before veering into surreal ghost story territory. The $37,000 “Neptune,” which stars the prodigiously talented Jane Ackerman as a young girl being raised by a priest, is introspective and rife with the hushed whispers of Malick, as well as the sinuous, gliding shots of water and forest, but the film gradually comes into its own, finds an identity as it meditates on grief and how a young mind (and soul) processes death.
Kimball displays dexterous control behind the camera, and manages to take Maine, a state not known for its thriving film culture, into a lush, vibrant character. But the film belongs to young Ackerman, whose previous credits include local theater productions of “A Christmas Carol” in Portland. The film took three years to shoot, so Ackerman starts the film at 14 and finishes at 17, and her off-screen growing manifests in on-screen emotional maturity. She gives one of the festival’s best performances.