The FIN Atlantic International Film Festival is back, and this year it’s a hybrid presentation: Features, documentaries, and shorts programs will be available for in-person screenings from September 16 through 23rd at Cineplex Park Lane while the Atlantic Canadian program is online at FIN Stream for the duration. Go to finfestival.ca for the full schedule and tickets.
Below are reviews of a number of the the films I was fortunate to see in advance. Check back here through the week as I’ll be posting reviews of other films I’m seeing during the festival.
Wildhood | Written and Directed by Bretten Hannam | 100 min | Thursday Sept 16, 7pm, 7:30pm, 8pm (Mi’kmaq language edition, Saturday at 2pm)
Hannam’s first feature, which showed at the Atlantic Film Festival (as it was known then in 2015) was called North Mountain, a wintry thriller that was also a 2-Spirit drama. This one looks like it was a lot less harrowing to shoot — a summer road picture about half brothers, Link and Travis (Phillip Lewitsky and Avery Winters-Anthony), escaping from their abusive father (Joel Thomas Hynes, cornering the local market on cinematic dirtbags lately, he’s also in the FIN feature A Small Fortune from PEI) and trying to locate Link’s long-lost mother (Savonna Spracklin), and maybe even his indigenous heritage and his burgeoning sexual identity in the process. The brothers get a lift from Pasmay (Joshua Odjick), who agrees to take them where they want to go — an address on a long hidden envelope, a clue that leads to others across the province. An ease in the direction and the authenticity in the performances goes a long way to inject hope and wonder. Once Wildhood gets going it’s the ebullient dynamic between the central three characters that hooks us. Further to that, Hannam sticks the landing with a gorgeously heartfelt conclusion and terrific use of Jeremy Dutcher on the soundtrack. A stellar choice for opening film.
Dawn, Her Dad & the Tractor | Written and Directed by Shelley Thompson | 90 min | Friday Sept 17, 7pm, 7:30pm
Dawn (Maya V Henry) is trans, home to the Nova Scotia farm where she grew up, a community where some folks are happy to deadname her to her face. Her mom just died, leaving her gruff father, John (Robb Wells, a long way from Sunnyvale), her sister, Tammy (Amy Groening), and Tammy’s fiancé, Byron (Reid Price), to manage the grief and rebuild trust together. The initial, superficial similarity to Lee-Anne Poole and Thom Fitzgerald’s Splinters, which starred actor-turned-director Thompson, is quickly dispelled with a deeply felt drama leaning heavily on music by Rose Cousins and Breagh Isabel. First time feature filmmaker Thompson balances a thoughtful and forgiving approach on familial relations in the face of change with tension in a conservative community threatened by the same.
The picture has plenty of stacked talent in support, including the Breton Lalama, Richie Wilcox, and Taylor Olson, the toast of #FIN2020 with his film Bone Cage. I appreciated the tone of Dawn, Her Dad & the Tractor overall, the balance of sentiment and realism, though was a little surprised by a scene of violence in the last act where the perpetrator doesn’t get much of a comeuppance. That’s probably true to life, but I found it unsettling.
8:37 Rebirth | Directed by Juanita Peters | Written by Peters, Hank White, and Joe Leclair | 99 min | Friday Sept 17, 9:30pm
Playwright, actor, documentary filmmaker, and now feature filmmaker Juanita Peters delivers a slow-burn drama about the long tail of violence, guilt, and recrimination. Sergei (Pasha Ebrahimi) is a mathematician and professor. He’s got a wife (Amy Trefry, also in Tin Can) and son and seems — as his friend, John the cop (Mark A Owen), tells him — to have everything a man could want. Meanwhile, Jared (Glen Gould, impressively insular), is released from prison after 25 years. Sergei fears and hates Jared for a shared moment in their past, something that takes a long while to be revealed, but in the meantime is being driven to sleeplessness by his obsessions, with both Jared and complex equations. Much of the tension in the film is born out of Sergei’s deteriorating mental health, and whether it’ll drive him to take revenge on Jared, who’s finding peace as a painter — Alan Syliboy’s work featuring prominently.
The heart of the picture lies in small character moments along the way — between Sergei and his math buddy, Neil (David Christoffel), between Jared and his landlord, Houseman (Daniel Lillford), and between John and his soon-to-be ex-wife (Joanne Miller). The talented cast make these scenes sing in the face of the inevitable, a confrontation that sadly won’t be denied.
Peace By Chocolate | Directed by Jonathan Keijser, Written by Keijser and Abdul Malik | 92 min | Saturday Sept 18, 6:30pm, 6:50pm
When this film comes up in conversation, the repeated remark I’ve heard is: “Oh, I thought it was a documentary.” Three different people have said this to me, and it crossed my mind, too. It is, in fact, a feature film by Haligonian first-time feature filmmaker Keijser, who previously made a short about members of the famed Hadhad family, the Canadian newcomers who arrived from Syria in 2015 and settled in Antigonish. They’ve since created a hugely successful chocolate business. What Keijser and his collaborators get especially right are the Hadhad family dynamics — the stresses of culture shock and expectations within the family unit are vividly drawn.
The central relationship between Tareq (Ayham Abou Ammar) and his father, Issam (the late Hatem Ali, terrific in this part) drives the drama — a tale of fathers and sons, of generational duty and expectation. We get a surprising amount of humour and solid performances all around. Some of the supporting cast don’t entirely escape friendly Canuck caricature, and this is also one of those Nova Scotia stories — like Maudie and Goon — clearly shot elsewhere, a place where some of the actors don’t know how to pronounce Antigonish.
The Colour of Spring | Written and Directed by Paul Andrew Kimball | 94 min | Sunday Sept 19, 2pm
A number of local films at this year’s FIN are being screened (and streamed) despite having already been made available previously — films like Stephanie Joline’s Stream Me, available on Amazon Prime, and Michael Melski’s Rare Bird Alert, which I reviewed when it first appeared on CBC Gem — it will screen at FIN in a director’s cut, including an extra 10 minutes of footage. It makes sense to give local audiences another chance to see these titles on the big screen and streaming, and The Colour of Spring qualifies — it was shown on Eastlink TV earlier this year.
Sarah (Alexa Morden) has found acclaim playing Lady Macbeth, but her worker drone boyfriend, Sam (Jamie Muscato), feels neglected in the shine of her burgeoning stardom on the stage. One night she comes home early to find Sam in bed with another woman. We flash back to their early courtship in the wake of this betrayal, while we hear a lot of Shakespeare — Sarah goes to the Bard not only on stage but with thesp pals and teddy bears. The Colour of Spring is an intimate, unfussy romantic drama for its first two acts, elevated by gorgeous black and white cinematography by Dillon Garland — Halifax and Windsor have never looked so artfully sophisticated. The picture takes a corkscrew twist into genre in the final act with a sliver of thriller and a soupçon of the metaphysical. It lost me a little there, but no denying it’s a ballsy choice from Kimball.
Elizabeth Bishop and the Art of Losing | Directed by John D Scott | 84 min | Monday Sept 20, 9:30pm
This is an entirely informative, engaging, and sometimes even moving doc on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Nova Scotia-born poet. Scott includes the many voices of Bishop biographers and researchers to offer context and details of her frequently troubled life, swaddled in the film’s impressive sound design. Some reenactments are less successful, but the tactical use archival imagery and subtle, gorgeous animations — including work by the wonderful Emma FitzGerald — and do a lot of heavy lifting. Those voices, and occasionally Bishop’s own poems, help express her unique gift and remind us what an important figure she is to the literary fabric of the Maritimes.
All that is to the director’s credit in his decade-long effort to get this doc made, but Scott makes what I call The Michael Moore Mistake, and puts himself in his film unnecessarily. He makes clear his personal connection to the material, but ends up being a distraction in an otherwise fascinating picture.
Tin Can | Directed by Seth A Smith | Written by Smith and Darcy Spidle | 99 min | Tuesday, Sept 21, 6:30
A claustrophobic sci-fi thriller from Smith, whose South Shore-set ghost story, The Crescent, creeped us out at the 2017 edition of FIN. Fret (Anna Hopkins) is a parasitologist who believes she’s found a way to control, or maybe cure, a worldwide fungal pandemic that’s beset the human race, but just as she’s reaching her goal she’s abducted and wakes in a stasis tube, a human-sized petrie dish. Unsure how long she’s been there and unable to get free, she is able to hear and communicate with other prisoners in nearby tubes. Tin Can is part prison drama, part psychological horror, and part vision of uncomfortably relevant future dystopia — with shades of Tarkovsky and early Cronenberg. Canadian cinema scion Brandon Cronenberg, writer-director of the astonishing Possessor, helped with the script, and the production design is next level, while the moments of pure visual texture that made The Crescent so interesting manifest here throughout.
A very different second half is stuffed with themes of transformation and flashbacks that help flesh out the character relationships. Even wearing its influences on its sleeve the film is wildly original — Tin Can‘s ambition is off the charts. Also starring Michael Ironside, Simon Mutabazi, and Amy Trefry.
Witches of the Orient | Directed by Julien Faraut | 100 min | Thursday, Sept 23, 2pm
Faraut’s film is about a group of Japanese volleyball players who during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics became unlikely folk heroes. The French filmmaker tracks down the now senior Olympians in their current lives, coupling those scenes with archival footage of their rigorous training as young women — they were plucked from a textile factory — and eventual triumph, as well as a popular anime made in the wake of their celebrity.
It’s a stylish and intermittently involving alternative sports doc. It’s also weirdly meditative. It’s not going to be for everyone, but it’s also not like anything else I’ve seen.