Dispatches from the Philadelphia International Film Festival

By: Christian Harding –
For the 26th year in a row, the Philadelphia International Film Festival (or PIFF for short) has been going strong, and is showing no sign of slowing down. For this Northeastern Pennsylvania denizen, making a yearly trek all the way into the city for this event is always a worthwhile venture, and is a tradition I look forward to every year. Here’s just a small sampling of the many, many films which were selected to screen at the festival this past October, and some of the ones I was fortunate enough to see either during the festival’s run, or shortly thereafter:
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Beloved (Jonathan Demme)

Earlier this year, acclaimed director Jonathan Demme passed away at the age of 73. Demme is most well known for scoring Oscar gold with his modern horror classic The Silence of the Lambs, and also for directing the film which nabbed Tom Hanks his first Best Actor win with the aptly titled Philadelphia. The PIFF therefore selected a number of Demme’s features to screen over the course of the season’s festival run, among which is his criminally underrated 1998 drama Beloved. Based on the Toni Morrison novel of the same name, the story of Beloved takes place in post-Civil War America, where we follow Oprah Winfrey’s Sethe as she tries to navigate somewhat of a normal life at home with her daughter after living the majority of her life in slavery.
But that all changes when a mysterious young woman who calls herself “Beloved” shows up at her house, and after a series of unexplained paranormal phenomenon begins occurring in their home, is eventually is revealed to be the ghost of Sethe’s long dead daughter. And if that premise sounds a bit unusual and even potentially un-filmable to you, then it’s a true credit to Jonathan Demme’s talents as a director that he’s able to take this genre-bending premise and turn it into something not only worth watching, but also dramatically satisfying, in addition to being just plain unnerving. But unfortunately, Beloved didn’t fare quite as well with critics or audiences as some of Demme’s other past successes, and the film has since faded into obscurity, with only a small but vocal cult following dedicated to sharing its memory. The selection of this over some of Demme’s other, more recognizable works might seem odd at first, but to anyone who was willing to give it a chance, they’re probably thankful now for the opportunity to see it played once again in big screen form.
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The Florida Project (Sean Baker)
a.k.a. American Honey Jr. A smash hit at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and a follow up to his acclaimed 2015 feature Tangerine, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project takes place right on the outskirts of the self-proclaimed “happiest place on Earth” – the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Florida. Similar to Baker’s previous Tangerine, this film largely consists of non-professional actors in almost all the prominent roles (save for Willem Dafoe as the manager of the Magic Castle Motel, where the majority of the film is set). And despite Dafoe’s much Oscar-buzzed supporting turn, the real stars of this show are the mini-ensemble of child actors at the center of the film, featuring Brooklyn Prince as the true protagonist of this story, and whose perspective the majority of the film’s proceedings are seen from. Also noteworthy is the way in which this was filmed; unlike Tangerine, which was famously shot entirely using iPhone 5S smartphones, The Florida Project employs a more traditional style and is shot more formally than Baker’s previous works, and yet somehow feels entirely distinctive and vibrant from a purely visual standpoint, as well as being in complete harmony with everything else Baker has made thus far, both tonally and aesthetically. There’s really nothing like it out there right now, even in the ever-growing field of American coming of age dramedies.
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Thelma (Joaquim Trier)
Also a centerpiece at this year’s PIFF was Norway’s entry into the forthcoming Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film race, Thelma. Based on the trailers, one couldn’t be blamed for drawing comparisons between this project and Stephen King’s Carrie (in book form or any of the onscreen adaptations), with both properties containing the premise of a young woman’s coming of age being heavily symbolized by each stories’ central heroines either gaining or being made aware of their own supernatural abilities. Having seen the film myself, I can verify that, apart from a number of surface level plot similarities, the two properties are vastly different in terms of tone and narrative goals. While both stories operate with a seemingly identical central conceit, Carrie is famously more shocking and horrifying in nature, whereas Thelma takes a sweeter, more empathetic and romantic approach to the story – not necessarily in how the titular protagonist’s newfound abilities are depicted, but rather in regards to the surrounding circumstances which awaken and/or strengthen said abilities.
Chief among these are Thelma’s increasing sense of independence from her overbearing and deeply religious parents after moving away to college, as well as the exploration and questioning of her own sexuality, and also dealing with a blossoming romance with an older female classmate. And it’s this central, manifest emotional sincerity that not only separates it from the aforementioned King work, but also what makes Thelma such an original and deeply effective film in its own right. It’s one of the year’s most pleasant surprises and is well worth seeking out if and when it becomes available to the public. *ending spoilers follow* There’s also one more aspect in which Thelma is incredibly noteworthy – dare I say damn near revolutionary – in that it actually features a *happy ending* for it’s central queer pairing; yes, you read that correctly. Stop the presses, everyone: I think we may very well be experiencing film history in the making here!
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Visages, Villages / Faces, Places (Agnes Varda, JR)
In our ever darkening, seemingly hopeless modern world full of worsening climate conditions, record-breaking mass shootings, and the Trump administration, it’s important that we continue to embrace the little things that make us happy and hold onto whatever brings us joy in this world. Case in point, the new documentary Faces Places, a collaboration between French New Wave director and just all around delightful human being Agnes Varda and photographer/muralist JR. Another big winner from Cannes 2017, the film follows Varda and JR as they travel together around rural France, meeting with the communities and creating large portraits to plaster on the surroundings. Together, they work to create these portraits of the various types of people they come across along the way, be it in the form of murals, or the film itself. The film has also been generating considerable amounts of awards buzz leading up to the beginning of this forthcoming Oscar season, and while awards recognition is rarely an indicator of quality by itself, hopefully Faces, Places should be able to crack into the lineup within the increasingly competitive documentary categories. At the very least, it should manage to succeed in bringing joy to the audience members viewing it at any given time. And in this day and age, is that really something we can afford to pass on?

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