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LA FILM FEST ’06: “Ira,” “Abby,” and “Mario” Win in Audience Prizes; Fest Salutes “Sunshine” and “Qu

LA FILM FEST '06: "Ira," "Abby," and "Mario" Win in Audience Prizes; Fest Salutes "Sunshine" and "Qu

Boasting an attendance of more than 80,000 this year, Film Independent‘s Los Angeles Film Festival came to a close Sunday night at the Wadsworth Theater in West Los Angeles. On its final night, celeb presenter Christina Applegate announced two feature audience awards — the fest-goers chose “Ira & Abby,” written by (and co-starring) Jennifer Westfeldt and directed by Robert Cary, as the winner of the narrative audience award. The film, a true crowd-pleaser here in L.A. this year, marks Westfeldt’s return to the festival following the successful launch of her first feature “Kissing Jessica Stein” here five years ago. The feature about modern relationships is still without distribution. “Mario’s Story,” by Jeff Werner and Susan Koch, won the audience award for best documentary at the festival and another documentary, “Paper Dolls” by Tomer Heymann from Israel, won the best international audience prize.

And the award for outstanding performance went to the ensemble cast of Mike Akel‘s “Chalk,” a film about school teachers that has already won fest prizes at Cinequest in San Jose, the Independent Film Festival of Boston, and the Florida Film Festival.

Two of the biggest narrative features from this year’s Sundance Film Festival were in the spotlight on the closing weekend of Film Independent’s Los Angeles Film Festival. The event closed Sunday with the L.A. premiere of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris‘ “Little Miss Sunshine” and earlier in the weekend the festival’s centerpiece premiere featured the local debut of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland‘s “Quinceanera.” Both were big hits with festival audiences here in L.A.

“Little Miss” Big Time

“Funny,” “dark,” and even “strange” were among the words used Sunday to describe Dayton and Faris’ “Little Miss Sunshine.” Introducing the filmmakers at an LA Film Fest Q & A session in Westwood on Friday afternoon, Film Independent executive director Dawn Hudson called their movie, “the near perfect film,” citing its “great performances” and “wonderful direction.” The first feature from the duo best known for Smashing Pumpkins videos and various TV commercials, sparked a major bidding war at its Sundance premiere back in January, fetching the makers perhaps the biggest acquisition deal in the history of the fest — a $10 million plus pact.

Written by Michael Arndt, a former assistant to actor Matthew Broderick, the movie faced a tough road to the big screen since 2001. After a few years in development at Focus Features, producer Mark Turtletaub‘s Big Beach took the project back from Focus and fully financed the picture at about $8 million. While Focus returned to the filmmakers at Sundance as an aggressive bidder on the movie, Big Beach struck their mega-deal deal with Fox Searchlight. The film opens on July 26th.

Starring Alan Arkin, Abigail Breslin, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, and Greg Kinnear, “Little Miss Sunshine” is the dark and funny story of a six-member family traveling from Albuquerque to the “Little Miss Sunshine” pageant in California.

“It was a tricky script because it was clear from reading (it) what the tone of the movie should be,” Faris explained during the LA Film Fest Q & A session. “Aspects of it were almost slapstick and madcap, but also serious and heart wrenching.” But she added that they struggled considerably while at Focus, trying to preserve the integrity of the project as the Indiewood company brought in another writer.

“We thought we would never make this film, but we loved it so much, we never gave it up,” Faris said.

Toasting “Quinceanera”

While “Little Miss Sunshine” was the big acquisition deal of Sundance ’06, L.A.-based directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s “Quinceanera” was the most acclaimed narrative feature, winning both the jury and audience awards at the fest. The film had a jubilant homecoming with its Los Angeles Film Festival centerpiece screening on Friday night, attracting a full house to the Mann Festival theater in Westwood.

“Quinceanera” co-stars Emily Rios and Jesse Garcia at Friday’s LA Film Fest party celebrating their film. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

Glatzer and Westmoreland, who arrived from France where the film had its theatrical opening, welcomed the film’s cast and crew as well as 16 year-old Leslie, a girl who lives in the directing team’s neighborhood of Echo Park in Los Angeles where the film takes place. Leslie’s family had hired Glatzer and Westmoreland, who had recently moved to the culturally diverse community, to photograph her quinceanera — a primarily Latino tradition, that celebrates a young woman’s 15 year-old birthday — which inspired the story for their film.

“We wanted to make a movie about people [who are made to feel] outside their own traditional family and end up forming their own [new] family,” commented Glatzer during a post-screening Q & A session. Set in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, the film is a story that begins and ends with the traditional 15th birthday celebration (a quinceanera) for a young Latina (Emily Rios) who is forced out of her home by her father. She eventually decides to live with her cousin (Jesse Garcia) who was also forced out of his home. Set in a rapidly gentrifying area of the city, the story is set against the backdrop of the neighborhood’s changes, a fact not lost among Glatzer and Westmoreland’s own relocation to the area located near downtown L.A.

“We lived off Melrose [Avenue] previously and did some work on our previous movie, “The Fluffer” [in Echo Park] and we decided we wanted to move there. The neighborhood felt warm and [we got] to know the neighbors. It’s both rural and urban at the same time.”

“Quinceanera”, which Sony Pictures Classics will begin opening theatrically in August, was shot in 18 days within a short distance of their newly adopted neighborhood and, Westmoreland and Glatzer revealed, cost just over $400,000.

…And the (Short Film) Winners Are:

Meanwhile, back at the Wadsworth Theater Sunday night in West Los Angeles, Gustavo Taretto‘s “Side Walls” won the jury prize for best narrative short, while the prize for best documentary short went to Cedar Sherbert‘s “Gesture Down (I Don’t Sing)” and Adam Parrish King‘s “The Wraith of Cobble Hill” won the prize for best animated/experimental short. The audience prize for best short went to Diego Quemada-Diez‘s “I Want To Be A Pilot.”

When his film was announced as the winner in the animated/experimental category, King, seated in the balcony of the Wadsworth Theater, was stranded up there, unable to make his way to the stage due to an over-protective security guard who prevented him from walking to the orchestra level. Finally, after a delay and with the audience cheering him on, he made his way to the stage to accept his prize from festival programming head Rachel Rosen.

“I wouldn’t have sat up there if I expected this,” joked King. Explaining that he spent six years across town in Silver Lake working on the film, he added, “This is quite an honor to win this in my hometown.” Concluding, he added in a tribute to the festival, “To everyone who put together this excellent festival, thank you so much.

[For more from the 2006 Los Angeles Film Festival. please visit indieWIRE’s special section.]

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