Leonard Klady of the Movie City News (“Hollywood's One Stop News Shop”) recently complained that American independent cinema is at low tide. That may be true based on what Sundance is offering, but not at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival. This year's IndieFest — screening 13 days of quality work — belies that pessimism. American independent cinema is alive, well, and living at local movie palaces.
Back in 1976, small-time actor Sylvester Stallone insisted on starring in the film of his inspirational script about a down-and-out boxer, which became the sleeper hit Rocky. Writer/star JP Davis follows a similar route with Fighting Tommy Riley, playing a troubled has-been pugilist making a comeback with the aid of a crusty old coach (Eddie Jones). Like Million Dollar Baby, Fighting Tommy Riley spends its first couple of reels rope-a-doping viewers with familiar moves, and then, like the Eastwood film, veers off in an unexpected direction — in this case making Jones' agonized trainer the central figure. With a gut that breaks the buttons on his pants and a self-destructive heart, Jones inhabits the character in an outstanding, unheralded performance that, along with Michael Fimognari's superb cinematography, makes director Eddie O'Flaherty's debut superior to Eastwood's weepie (Oscar nomination or no).
Series like IndieFest tend to feature films like Fighting Tommy Riley, movies that are hardly “feel good” flicks. For example, you know the teenage protagonist (Vincent Kartheiser) of Dandelion is in trouble when Arliss Howard is cast as his dad, a loser with political ambitions who looks like a shrunken Kevin Spacey. Mark Milgard's picture crossbreeds the recent indie hits Donnie Darko and George Washington, with the saintly kid sacrificing himself for his family against a lushly photographed Idaho prairie (shot by George Washington's cinematographer, Tim Orr). With luck Milgard can develop past this promising if solipsistic debut (the hero has the director's initials!).
Self-destructive egotism is spoofed in a pair of Canadian mockumentaries. The Recommendations centers around Montreal's anointed literary couple and the magazine that shelters them. (Oddly enough, they resemble the golden couple behind The Believer. Maybe every city has one.) Trent Carlson's The Delicate Art of Parking, meanwhile, investigates the secret world of Vancouver's parking enforcers. Carlson and his cast have an eye for character-revealing behavior that reinforces the film's humor; ultimately, even the rule-obsessed nerds are likable.
Other IndieFest standouts include the highly praised documentaries The Devil and Daniel Johnston (which, like Tarnation, incorporates its singer/songwriter hero's childhood home movies), Made in Secret (homemade porn from Vancouver), and I, Curmudgeon (interviews with famous grumps like Cintra Wilson and Harvey Pekar). Finally, going unpreviewed but a real must-see is the legendary shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark, begun by 12-year-olds in Mississippi in 1982 and completed in 1989. That's dedication.