Entering its third year, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) continues its intention of bringing many of the strongest sleeper hits of the American film festival circuit to appreciative crowds in Brooklyn. The opening night selection Thursday, June 16th is an interesting example: British director Andrew Haigh’s gay romance “Weekend” came out of nowhere to become the breakout hit of South by Southwest in March, but its positioning at BAM makes it one of the stars of the show. There are also plenty of mid-size productions that developed buzz out of Sundance, such as “Terri” and “Another Earth,” both of which will hit theaters later this year. However, the festival’s real strength comes from its selection of less widely acclaimed work that has slipped through the cracks or otherwise avoided the media spotlight. Here are a few memorable discoveries in that vein.
“The Color Wheel”
Alex Ross Perry’s black-and-white road trip comedy follows bickering brother and sister duo Colin (Perry) and JR (Carlen Altman, who has a co-writing credit) as they travel across the country when JR decides to move. Perry’s previous credit was the trippy, quasi-“Gravity’s Rainbow” adaptation “IMPOLEX,” which meandered along the festival circuit in search of cult appeal. “The Color Wheel” has plenty of that offbeat style but much more accessibility, being a sheer delight of sarcasm and uneasy wit. As Colin and JR continually trade barbs about each other and disgust everyone they encounter, Perry creates a blend of physical discomfort and awkward comedy unseen since Ronald Bronstein’s “Frownland.” (Perhaps not coincidentally, the two movies share a cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, whose grainy photography in “The Color Wheel” enhances the uncomfortable mood.) Perry has the irascible screen presence of a subversive Michael Cera, but his sub-literary persona suggests Woody Allen trapped in a nightmarish midnight movie. JR’s former flame, a journalism professor played by filmmaker Bob Byington, accurately concludes that Colin is “a pathetic wreck of postgraduate stereotyping.” Like everything else in “The Color Wheel” (especially its unnerving conclusion), the pronouncement teeters on the edge between comic put-down and tragic reality.
“Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer”
The only world premiere at the festival this year, this chatty portrait examines Brooklyn photographer Shabazz, who captured African American street culture in New York better than anyone else. Talking heads range from neighborhood locals who faced Shabazz’s lens decades ago and experts on his impact like KRS-1. Directed by Charlie Ahearn, whose “Wild Style” explored the same edgy underworld that Shabazz relentlessly captured, “Street Photographer” tracks Shabazz’s journey from amateur to established professional, following instinct and finding himself the subject of a gallery exhibit in Paris. Despite his art world cred, however, Shabazz still exists firmly within the world that he helped establish in the history books (and his own book, “Back in the Days,” recently re-released for its 10th anniversary). His uncanny ability to capture residents who would later die gang violence extends his photography from pure image-making and gives it the qualities of a shrine. Ahearn’s collage of voices is a bit rough around the edges, but then the same thing could be said about the counter-culture portrayed in Shabazz’s finest work.
“On the Ice”
Although it played under the radar at Sundance in January, Inuit filmmaker Andrew Okpeaha MacLean’s tense thriller about a couple of rebellious teens in desolate Barrow, Alaska announces a new filmmaker with a firm grasp on the genre. When a drunken night results in an accidental murder, two young men must harbor a dark secret while the authorities traverse the barren terrain in search of the missing body. The scenario isn’t exactly original, but MacLean’s script benefits from making its edgy characters into figures of sympathy: Qalli (Josiah Patkotak) dreams of attending college while his friend Aivaaq (Frank Qutuq Irelan) hopes to settle down with his girlfriend. Their dreams give the movie’s film noir ingredients a real sense of peril, the marriage of high stakes and teen angst put a Hitchcockian twist on the typical John Hughes scenario, and the icy climate introduces an existential creepiness no less unsettling than the empty vistas in John Carpenter’s “The Thing.”
The winner of the South by Southwest Film Festival’s documentary competition was produced by Christine Vachon’s Killer Films, but still came out of nowhere at the festival (though it was featured in an In Production article on iW the previous year), where it didn’t even have a sales agent. This vibrant, punk-inflected look at California skateboarder Josh Sandoval, also known as “Screech,” also won best cinematography at the festival. That’s an accurate combination of awards, because “Dragonslayer” is a fantastic visual experience but also tells a compelling story about its danger-loving character with breezy narrative efficiency.
“Letters from the Big Man”
Another under-appreciated Sundance selection, Christopher Munch’s contemplative tale about a wildlife researcher (Lily Rabe) studying forest fire damage in Southern Oregon takes on a surreal twist when the character forms a mystical bond with a furry Sasquatch tracking her every move. More metaphor than man, the creature symbolizes the love affair that all creatures share with the nature surrounding them. With the creature’s livelihood threatened by invasive government agents, Munch heightens the fragility of that relationship. An unwillingness to take the movie seriously, as impatient viewers might, only strengthens its keen ecological message.
BAM runs June 16 – 26 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn, New York.