[Editor’s Note: This article is cross-posted at Parallax View.]
Opening night—rarely a strong point of SIFF—arrived with one of the least memorable films of recent memory—even more frustrating since it had already opened theatrically in New York to tepid reviews. The First Grader, the dramatized odyssey of an 84-year-old man who takes up the Kenyan’s government’s promise of universal education to learn to read, otherwise hits all the right notes for a Seattle event, and does so with thudding predictability. It’s an uplifting story of triumph over adversity in a third world setting, a true story with resonance in recent history and current events, and a feature built on waves of swelling music and seas of the adorable faces of children to trigger the audience’s nervous systems like a Pavlovian response. What could have been a resonant exploration of the tensions left over decades after the Mau-Mau rebellion and the lingering feelings of betrayal from both sides of the Kenyan people simply checks off the issues before setting up stock conflicts and easy-to-identify villains on the way to triumph. I understand the SIFF was seriously pursuing a far more substantial feature that, by fault of their own, fell through at the eleventh hour and I applaud their efforts on that count. But that doesn’t make The First Grader any less unimpressive.
Mike Mills’ Beginners would have been a stronger Opening Night film on all counts, but I can’t begrudge star Ewan McGregor wanting to be represented by this film in the festival’s “A Tribute to Ewan McGregor.” It’s a touching story of a man and his father (Christopher Plummer) connecting late in life, when the newly widowed 75-year-old Hal comes out of the closet to his son Oliver—and the world—and decides to embrace the identity he had hidden all his life. Loving himself and living out his true nature allows Hal to open himself up to Oliver in ways he had shrouded in the past, as Oliver’s memories attest: Dad is absent from his past but for the back of a head always leaving with a perfunctory show of guarded affection. Mother (Mary Page Keller as a woman who embraces impulse and eccentricity to break out of her frustrated marriage) was his uninhibited role model and yet Oliver seems to have inherited his father’s guarded nature. Mills, inspired by his own experience with his father, gives the film a celebratory passion in the quiet closeness of father and son and the playful first-person storytelling, where gentle eccentricities and anxious memories and fears of commitment and loss swirl together with Oliver’s efforts to find his identity and be true to his feelings. Mélanie Laurent co-stars as an adorable actress who brings out Oliver’s dormant impulsive streak, but almost everyone is upstaged by his dog, whose inability to speak doesn’t stop the subtitles from communicating his spot-on observations and generous wit.
Miranda July opened SIFF 2005 with Me and You and Everyone We Know (and ducked out of her scheduled interviews at the last minute with some lame excuse about winning something at Cannes). The Future, her first film since, is the New American Cinema Gala (the “gala” means a party follows the film) and is similarly built around the precariousness of relationships and the difficulty of communication between people, but this portrait of creative frustration and personal inertia is more precious than probing. Narrated by a shelter cat recovering from wounds (puppet paws, one of them bandaged, acts out this section) in a squeaky baby voice, it tries to remind us of the wonders around us if we could only see them, the possibilities and the hope that gets lost in the distractions and anxieties of living day to day, but beyond July’s perfect evocation of awkward conversations and uncertainty embodied in every gesture, The Future is as small as the little details that keep distracting our drifting couple (July and Hamish Linklater) from figuring out what—and who—they really want.
One last note on Galas and Tributes: You may have noticed that the Al Pacino event, announced with such ballyhoo in the press launch, was nowhere to be seen in the catalogs and schedules. He cancelled because of timing issues: the event, it turns out, was scheduled for the night before the Tony Awards and Pacino is a nominee this year. So… no Evening with Al Pacino.
Click here for the Parallax View SIFF 2011 Guide.
Sean Axmaker is a DVD columnist for MSN Entertainment, a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online and the managing editor of Parallax View. He was a film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for nine years, his work has appeared in The Seattle Weekly, The Stranger, The Seattle Post-Globe, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, Psychotronic Video and “The Scarecrow Video Guide” and he collaborated with Sherman Alexie on the commentary track to the DVD release of The Exiles. You can find links to all of this and more on his shamelessly self-promoting blog.