SF Indiefest: Showing the Movies That Make America Gasp

"It's our quinceañera!" So says the program for the 15th annual SF Indiefest (or the San Francisco Independent Film Festival, if you're not into the whole brevity thing), and it can be such an awkward age. Indiefest can't yet vote or drink, but it can reproduce — and has, spawning both Docfest and Another Hole in the Head. Indiefest calls this year's opening night party (Feb. 7th at 8 p.m.) at the Brava Theater a quinceañera, and the festival kicks off that evening with the U.S. premiere of The We and the I, Michel Gondry's 2012 coming-of-age story of Bronx teenagers on a long, occasionally surreal bus trip on the last day of school.

Founded by Jeff Ross in 1998 to provide an outlet for the independent movies that weren't getting shown in San Francisco — starting with his pal Rand Alexander's film Caged — the modern Indiefest takes as much pride in the parties it throws as the films it shows. Indiefest's signature shindig is the Big Lebowski Party, now entering its 10th big year, and newer traditions such as the Roller Disco Party and the '80s Power Ballad Sing-A-Long are going strong.

The film side of things consists of 36 feature films and seven shorts programs over two busy weeks. While the majority of the shows are at the Roxie, other Bay Area venues are pitching in: the New Parkway in Oakland, the Vortex Room, and the aforementioned Brava Theater are each showing a single film, and Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley is showing 16 movies that are also playing at the Roxie, thus guaranteeing that one can get a full Indiefest experience without the indignity of crossing the Bay Bridge.

Indiefest selection Inside Lara Roxx will get tongues wagging on both sides of the porn debate.
Indiefest selection Inside Lara Roxx will get tongues wagging on both sides of the porn debate.

Indiefest prides itself on "showcasing the best in independent, alternative, and subversive cinema" from all over the world, a charter that gives it a fair amount of leeway. Not all the films are new or even independent — The Big Lebowski, naturally screening the night of the Lebowski party (Feb. 9th at 8 p.m.), was released by a major studio in 1997 — but they're usually never less than interesting, and in keeping with the festival's philosophy, unlikely to be shown theatrically elsewhere. Filmmakers are able to submit their work for festival consideration online, and Indiefest surely gets far more submissions than can possibly be selected, allowing the organizers to cherry-pick the best and weirdest stuff.

A prime example of a seemingly odd selection that fits in perfectly with this year's coming-of-age motif is the Vortex Room's presentation of the made-for-TV movie Born Innocent, starring Linda Blair in that awkward period between The Exorcist and Exorcist II: The Heretic. Originally broadcast at 8 p.m. (7 Central!) Sept. 10, 1974, it has all the hallmarks of socially earnest, low-budget mid-'70s filmmaking: long takes of people walking while tender acoustic music plays, a righteous liberal crusader with excellent hair, and Blair's 14-year-old character getting raped with a plunger handle by a girl gang in reform school. The entire nation came of age the night it aired. Later broadcasts removed that particular scene, but the Vortex Room will be showing an uncut 16mm print.

Playing at both the Shattuck and the Roxie is a different kind of coming-of-age story, Inside Lara Roxx (2011). A sometimes uncomfortably intimate documentary by Mia Donovan, it follows a sleepy-eyed 21-year-old Québécoise who came to Los Angeles in 2004 to find her fame and fortune in porn, only to contract HIV within her first dozen films. Making use of archival footage — including explicit clips of the few porn movies she actually made — and fly-on-the-wall views of Lara's later descent into drugs and despair, Inside Lara Roxx is both an indictment of the porn industry and a study of a woman who, by her own admission, never had the self-esteem or agency necessary to keep from making some very bad choices. Both the pro-and anti-porn camps will find plenty to support their cases.

For a portrait of a truly empowered (if fictional) young woman, your best bet is Lindsay Denniberg's 2012 phantasmagoria, Video Diary of a Lost Girl, appropriately playing at the Roxie at a quarter to midnight on Friday. Denniberg pulls out every trick in the VHS-era book, placing her main character — a horror-obsessed video store employee with a few secrets — into a colorful, saturated world in which reality is video and video is reality, and the tracking knob isn't always properly adjusted. Not to be missed, Video Diary of a Lost Girl is a love letter to VHS horror, delivered by the kind of people who stayed up late on weekends to watch USA's Night Flight, or who now wish they could have.

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