Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Review: Nine Days

Written by Anna Harrison

85/100

Nine Days has a premise that could have very easily tipped towards the saccharine, spouting platitudes about the meaning of life with obnoxious heavy-handedness. Luckily, director Edson Oda and his creative team decided instead to make a quieter sort of film, one that showcases the strengths and uniqueness of the medium while rising on the backs of its talented ensemble cast to rise to its lofty ambitions, making this high-concept film feel personal and grounded.

Will (Winston Duke) has a bit of an odd job. Living in what seems like the middle of nowhere in a cozy, small home, Will spends his days watching old-fashioned TVs, but instead of playing the news or Netflix, these play out real human lives through a first-person POV camera. Will interacts with almost no one except his friend Kyo (Benedict Wong), instead investing his energy into watching the people-cameras on screen. When his favorite, violinist Amanda (Lisa Starrett), appears to commit suicide by car crash, Will is tasked with picking a new soul to experience life on earth and fill the vacancy. As he puts it, half-wistful, half-regretful, “You are being considered for the amazing opportunity that is life.”

However, Amanda’s death has sent Will into a tailspin. He feels betrayed that a soul he picked for life would throw it away so easily, and begins to obsessively search through his recorded tapes to prove that her death was an accident—some of this denial, we slowly learn, may have come from the fact that Will himself was once alive, and saw himself reflected in Amanda, perhaps even in their manners of death.

So Will searches for a new soul that is tough enough to withstand life so he won’t have to watch something like that happen again. Candidates include Kane (Bill Skarsgård), Alexander (Tony Hale), Maria (Arianna Ortiz), Mike (David Rysdahl), and lastly Emma (Zazie Beetz). Each ensemble member imbues their hopeful soul with life and vigor as Will has them answer questions and watch his TVs to discover what they might be in for. But after nine days, only one soul can be born. The others have to fade out of existence, though as Will whittles down his flock, he tries to recreate a specific moment before they go—a day on the beach, a ride on a bike—revealing a glimpse of the soft man underneath his pencil-pushing, brusque exterior. 

Will finds himself both fascinated by and frustrated with Emma, whose constant questioning and enthusiasm remind Will of his own humanity he has tried to bury under the surface. Beetz is magnetic, though some of her impertinent questions drift a little too far towards Hallmark territory and Emma dips her toe into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl waters. Still, both Duke and Beetz are so game that it becomes hard to take your eyes off of them. The supporting cast, too, delivers uniformly superb performances, most especially Tony Hale, whose laidback Alexander provides the most comedy in the film, though he is not afraid to let loose in the more dramatic scenes. But it’s really Winston Duke’s movie, and he owns it. (He also served as an executive producer.)

By taking a small-scale approach to this big-ideas film, Oda by and large keeps Nine Days from waxing too philosophical. Aside from a Walt Whitman poem towards the end, there are no big speeches on the Meaning of Life, which conversely makes the film much more effective at conveying its message (not to cast aspersion on the Whitman poem; it goes big, but hits all the right beats), though it leaves things open-ended enough to where the audience can graft on their own philosophical ideas. The film looks lovely, too, despite being confined largely to Will’s small house, and the music from Antonio Pinto plucks on all the right heartstrings. 

Nine Days is proof of the magic that can happen when the right aspect coalesce on a movie screen: a book would deny us the powerful human performances, a play would relegate the gorgeous views to our head, but in film, all these aspects can come together as one, demonstrating the unequivocal power of cinema. 

Nine Days Trailer

Nine Days played at the 2021 Atlanta Film Festival. Theatrical Wide Release is scheduled for August 6th.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Interview: Director Charlene Fisk Talks “Rideshare”

Interview by Anna Harrison

Summary: After a fun night out with friends, Gina grabs a rideshare. An uncomplicated lift home shifts gears when the driver’s intentions become questionable.

Rideshare played at the 2021 Atlanta Film Festival.

You can read Anna’s review of Rideshare here and see more of her work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Review: Wet House

Written by Anna Harrison

75/100

75, really, is an arbitrary number, plucked from thin air to try and represent the thoughts swirling around my head, and in this case, it feels disingenuous. To give Wet House a numerical score is to strip it of all its compassion and makes me feel as if I am ranking the human lives that Wet House showcases, but there’s that little 75 in the corner anyway, though it’s practically meaningless.

Wet House follows the lives of several men in Milwaukee who live in wet houses, facilities where chronic alcoholics are given a room, a monthly stipend, and an observed place in which to drink. So you could call those who work in these wet houses professional enablers, but that would be an oversimplification: the wet houses exist to keep alcoholics off the streets and out of shelters, hospitals, etc., saving taxpayer money and attempting to provide the safest place possible for these men while not driving them away or overwhelming them by forcing sobriety. Some of the employees of these wet houses, such as a woman named Shearise, were alcoholics themselves or family members of alcoholics, and so understand the position these men are in.

Director Benjamin May employs a direct cinema style in Wet House: he lets the camera simply observe, never commenting himself but letting us decide. It creates a judgment-free film, one that refuses to condemn its subjects. And, indeed, it’s hard to condemn them: these men are tragic figures above all else, people with strong relationships, hopes, and dreams—Dan had an offer to play hockey at Harvard before an injury drove him to drink, Petie used to have his beading displayed at an art museum—but trapped by a disease they have lost control of. That’s another triumph of Wet House—it addresses alcoholism truly as a disease, not something that everyone can just buckle down and get rid of if they put in the work. May shows us men that we pity, but never lets us forget that they are men. 

Even disregarding its subjects, Wet House proves compelling on a technical level. May and directors of photography Daniel Levin and Giovanni Autran employ some absolutely gorgeous shots, often accompanied by a jazz score from Jeremy Ylvisaker and the band Fat Kid Wednesdays. Milwaukee becomes transformed into a winter wonderland, her citizens framed against a backdrop of snow.

It would be easy to cut a film that just shows these people at their lowest, taking cheap shots to generate a perverse kind of interest, but May avoids that (though he doesn’t shy away from showing the darker sides of his subjects’ lives), instead opting to show the everyday existence of these men, good and bad, thereby allowing his audience to connect with them more personally. Never once does he look down on any of the wet house residents, and so neither can his audience; we can’t “otherize” them in an attempt to disengage, and therein lies Wet House’s power: empathy.

Wet House played at the Atlanta Film Festival.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Interview: Timothy Hall, Dustin Gooch, and Delia Kropp Talk “Landlocked”

Interview by Anna Harrison

Summary: Nick, a chef on the brink of opening his first restaurant, struggles to put his life back together following the loss of his mother. At his wife’s urging, he reluctantly reaches out to Briana, his estranged, transgender father. Seeking closure with both parental relationships, he invites Briana to join him on St. Simons Island, Georgia to scatter his mother’s ashes. Their journey across the American Southeast brings their tumultuous family history into full view and Nick and Briana must come to terms with the rocky emotional terrain of their pasts while determining a new path forward.

Landlocked played at the 2021 Atlanta Film Festival.

You can check Anna’s review of Landlocked here and see more of her work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Review: Dream Horse

Written by Anna Harrison

65/100

Dream Horse is exactly what it advertises itself: an unabashed crowd pleaser that wears its heart on its sleeve, fully aware of its cheesiness and making no attempt to hide it. The result is a film that, while it may not win any awards, leaves you with a smile on your face and perhaps a few tears in your eyes as well. 

Based on the true story chronicled in the 2015 documentary Dark Horse, Dream Horse follows Jan Vokes (Toni Collette, good as ever), a grocery bagger and barkeep living in a poor mining town in Wales. Jan and her husband, Brain (Owen Teale, turning in a wonderful performance), have been stuck in a slump, going through the same motions every day. Upon overhearing Howard (Damian Lewis) in the pub reliving his glory days as part of a racehorse syndicate, Jan, who used to raise livestock and racing pigeons, begins to formulate an idea. 

This idea involves buying a broodmare, impregnating her, and breeding a racehorse, then roping members of the town together to form a syndicate to help pay for the horse’s expenses. After initial balking, Jan is joined by several other colorful town members, including Howard, each offering charm and a bit of broad humor. From there, they embark on the quest to raise their foal, dubbed Dream Alliance. 

The rest of Dream Horse is utterly, completely predictable, but is buoyed by such a solid cast and made with such enthusiasm that it’s hard to get annoyed. To its credit, director Euros Lyn (director of some excellent Doctor Who and Daredevil episodes, as well as the eerie Torchwood: Children of Earth) avoids leaning too hard into the more obvious beats, so that the emotion lands without being overwrought. It helps that Lyn has such a fine cast at his disposal, who sell their joy and distress with such genuineness that you want to clap along with them.

The film focuses more on the human aspect than the horse, probably a smart move seeing as horses can only emote so much. Jan and Brian feel the old spark again, but Howard and his wife, Angela (Joanna Page), have a falling out: last time Howard joined a racing syndicate, it went under and they almost lost the house. However, by the end of the film, this has all been swept under the rug and everyone gets a tidy, happy ending.

Despite horses’ general lack of facial expressions, the scenes with Dream still play well. (Though it was highly amusing to see the tricks they used to get Dream to act unruly. Oh, no, he’s not facing the right way to start the race! Well, maybe if the jockey let go of his mouth… But to a non-equestrian viewer, these would be nonissues.) Toni Collette even sells the emotional monologues to the horse as he nibbles at her (probably peppermint-lined) sweater pocket. (Most of my verbal interactions with my horses, on the other hand, consist of, “Stop that,” “Don’t bite me,” and, “Stop spooking, there’s nothing there.”) Editor Jamie Pearson skillfully ratchets up the tension during the races even as you know the ending, cutting between spectators and horses in just the right places to keep you from getting too bored. 

It’s nothing groundbreaking, but that doesn’t mean Dream Horse is bad. Sometimes a predictable feel-good movie can be just what you need, and by the time the film ends with the cast singing together along with their real-life counterparts, if you don’t feel tempted to join them, you might want to reconsider your life choices.

Dream Horse Trailer

Dream Horse played at the 2021 Atlanta Film FestivalComing to theaters May 21st.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Interview: Director Asad Farooqui Talks ‘Congratulations’

Interview by Anna Harrison

Summary: Amir (Asad Farooqui) is a struggling actor, meddling with lowly, wordless terrorist roles. More importantly, he struggles with his parents not taking his career choice seriously. Amidst the party chaos highlighted by politics, cricket, and community gossip, a revelation brings Amir a new challenge—just making it through the day.

Congratulations played at the 2021 Atlanta Film Festival.

You can check Anna’s review of Congratulations here and see more of her work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Review: Landlocked

Written by Anna Harrison

70/100

So often, stories about transgender individuals in media are riddled with gloom and doom, ending in tragedy; so often, too, these individuals are played by cisgender actors gunning for that Oscar glory. Landlocked eschews these conventions, opting out of overwrought drama and into something gentler and far more affecting. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean there is no drama at all—quite the opposite. Landlocked opens with Nick (Dustin Gooch) attending his mother’s funeral, and it’s clear he’s fraying as he grapples with the death of his mother and the numerous roadblocks hindering his restaurant opening. His personal life spins into even more disarray after he—with his wife Abby’s (Ashlee Heath) encouragement—phones his father, whom Nick has not seen or spoken to since age 13, to tell of his mother’s passing. 

His father, we learn, is a transgender woman named Briana, played by trans actor Delia Kropp, who also serves as executive producer. Director, writer, and producer Timothy Hall performs a tricky balancing act here: Briana’s transition clearly affected her relationship with Nick’s mother, and changes her relationship to Nick, but while the story does not shy away from Briana’s gender identity, it is not about her trans-ness. It’s a story of a parent coming to terms with the effect their absence had on their child, and of the child coming to terms with his abandonment, each having the scales fall from their eyes over the course of the film. Nick wants to hate Briana, and Briana wants to be involved in Nick’s life with no baggage; slowly, they make their way to a middle ground.

Gooch and Heath give excellent, natural performances. There are no Oscar-bait speeches here, but this turns out to be a good thing, making Nick and Briana’s relationship almost tangibly real. They discuss the beach, bridges, cooking, the church—interestingly, Briana has a very strong faith, a refreshing change of pace from many stories where the church and the LGBTQ community are portrayed as being at odds. There are no scenes of passersby hurling slurs, or pastors preaching about going to hell. Briana’s life is not the tragedy that some would play it as; she has a stable life with strong community ties, and has come to terms with her identity long ago. This makes her a much more compelling character: instead of a walking tragedy, she is a living, breathing person. (Unfortunately, the car ride where Nick and Briana talk about their faith is marred somewhat by poor sound design, the sound of the car alternatingly muffled or overly loud and the actors’ voices too quiet, though to be fair that could have been a computer issue.) 

Landlocked is a pleasant film, deftly avoiding the standard tropes and traps that populate this kind of storyline. It’s not perfect, most noticeably with regards to the audio, and Hall also sidelines Abby, using her primarily as a mouthpiece to get Nick to answer questions we audience members might be wondering. But, Landlocked remains fully worth the watch, offering a needed sense of optimism and demonstrating the importance of LGBTQ stories that don’t focus on the tragedy, only the humanity.

Landlocked is currently playing at the 2021 Atlanta Film Festival until May 2. You can buy a ticket to a virtual screening here.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Review: Rideshare

Written by Anna Harrison

70/100

Rideshare, written and directed by Charlene Fisk, takes an everyday situation—getting into a rideshare after a night out—and injects an unsettling layer of claustrophobia. Gina (Brittany Wilkerson) is tired, and not really in the mood to talk to driver Mark (Josh Daugherty), but she makes small talk anyway. Already Gina is stuck in a hellish scenario, forced to chitchat with just one other person while wanting nothing more than to leave. We’ve all been there.

But we have not all been in an experience as gendered as this one. The minute Gina climbs into the car with a male driver, the balance of power shifts, and we become more and more aware of this as the film continues. Mark asks Gina questions, which she responds to; he fails to pick up on the fact that Gina would like to be quiet and continues to talk, his questions getting more and more personal. Fisk takes care through most of the film to never let Mark drift into caricature, instead giving him enough plausible deniability to where he could reasonably say he meant Gina no ill will and was just making conversation, a defense that seems to come up very often in these types of scenarios and one that immediately deflects blame on the woman for being too sensitive or, dare I say, hysterical.

It feels a bit odd to give Rideshare a numerical score, in large part because some of my quibbles came from me thinking, Well, I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable if someone said this to me (at least towards the beginning) therefore the script has flaws, but I fully recognize that many other people—women—might have a different opinion. Are they being overly sensitive? Am I being overly apathetic? But, to its credit, Rideshare doesn’t try to discuss if Gina’s fears are unfounded. It only says: here is a woman feeling threatened in a one-on-one situation with a man, her experience is very much shaped by her gender, and it doesn’t really matter that much if you think she’s overreacting because her fear is very real—and, of course, as the film goes on, doubts about Gina overreacting get smaller and smaller. 

Fisk does an excellent job at keeping the feeling of claustrophobia throughout the film, helped by the fact that most of it is confined to a single car. For much of the film, we only see Mark from the back and the side, looking at him through Gina’s eyes, a clever and effective choice that keeps him unknowable and menacing. It never becomes too outlandish, except possibly at the end, but I am a sucker for ambiguous endings and easily squashed any incredulity I might have felt. Fisk never beats you over the head with the film’s messages, but they ring loud and clear nonetheless, bolstered by the subtler moments, and I would certainly share a ride with Rideshare. (I’m sorry I couldn’t think of a better pun.)

Rideshare is currently playing at the 2021 Atlanta Film Festival until May 2. Click here to buy a ticket to its virtual screening.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Review: Limbo

Written by Anna Harrison

85/100

Limbo is the first film I have seen in theaters in over a year, and the euphoric rush I felt as I walked in and inhaled the smell of popcorn would carry over as I watched the film—though perhaps “euphoric” isn’t quite the word. Limbo follows Syrian refugee Omar (Amir El-Masry), stuck on an isolated Scottish island while his asylum request is processed, familial contact relegated to limited calls in a frigid phone booth (remember those?). It doesn’t quite sound uplifting, and indeed the film gets very dark, but with its deadpan humor and superb performances, Limbo remains full of charm and heart.

The film takes its time to get going, cinematographer Nick Cooke letting us sit in still wide shots that showcase the harsh landscape, the island’s population mere specks against the wild backdrop. At times, Limbo goes a little too slowly through its purgatory, but looks so desolately gorgeous that you don’t mind all that much. The lingering shots, only occasionally interrupted by a pan or tilt, add a hefty dose of charm or humor when needed, or force us to remain is discomfort or despair in the film’s darker moments. 

While the island on which he has been stranded is isolated, Omar himself lives with three roommates: the upbeat Farhad (Vikash Bhai), stealer of chickens and lover of Freddie Mercury, and apparent brothers Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah), the former with dreams of becoming a soccer star for Chelsea and the latter with a more realistic take on life. The title of the film proves apt as we watch Omar trudge around this inhospitable island. He goes to cultural awareness classes taught by Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Boris (Kenneth Collard), who display a lack of awareness themselves, teaching the refugees the past tense by saying phrases like, “I used to ride my elephant to work” or “I used to have a home before coalition forces blew it up.” (As an example of their own, one of the other refugees offers up, “I used to be happy until I came here.”)

Omar, almost always clad in a bright blue jacket, holds on desperately to the one piece of his old life he has left: his grandfather’s oud, a guitar-like instrument he carries around in a case everywhere he goes. Yet he finds himself unable to play, despite his father’s constant refrain—“A musician who does not play his instrument is dead”—ringing in his ears. Omar himself seems drained of life, dragging his untouched oud, mournfully staring at the ignorant locals who ask him not to “blow up shite or rape anyone” before offering him a ride to town. 

Writer and director Ben Sharrock carefully balances melancholy with charm here, playing off Omar’s stoicism against roommate Farhad’s relentless cheer as well as the absurdity and ignorance of the locals. El-Masry delivers a performance that is by equal measures funny and heartbreaking even as Omar’s face remains passive for much of the film; the moment when Omar finally begins to react is all the more effective when contrasted with his earlier stoicism. Bhai’s Farhad provides a joyful foil, and while Wasef and Abedi share less screentime than their other roommates, Orebiyi and Ansah more than make up for it with a pair of wrenching performances.

Limbo seems like an impossible film, especially when many refugee stories today are treated by Hollywood with a somberness and self-seriousness better befitting a funeral than something involving living, breathing people. Yet Sharrock easily breathes a new life to this story, bolstered by El-Masry and his co-stars (yes, I have repeatedly mentioned how good El-Masry is; yes, he is that good), finding a deeper empathy in Limbo by focusing on the small scale and the irrefutably human, refusing to give us the standard shlock and making a film all the better for it.

Limbo trailer

Limbo played at the Atlanta Film Festival and releases theatrically on April 30.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Review: Congratulations

Written by Anna Harrison

80/100

Asad Farooqui’s smart and deftly funny short Congratulations (originally called Mabrook, an Arabic word meaning largely the same thing) opens with Amir, played by Farooqui himself, filming a self-tape for a movie, hoping to land the lauded role of… Terrorist Number Two. Amir is a struggling actor, trying to make it in a world where Muslim performers are delegated to suicide bombers and hijackers; on top of this, Amir still lives at home with his badgering but well-meaning parents (Rajiv Vora and Rabinder Campbell) who like to keep interrupting his audition tapes.

The family is getting ready for Eid, the celebratory breaking of the Ramadan fast, and are joined by Amir’s uncle Abbas (Navin Gurnaney) and his family, including nephew Dr. Jameel (Manahar Kumar), who respectfully looks down upon Amir’s soon-to-be MFA, and Jameel’s fiancée (and cousin), Maaria (Nasim). 

Farooqui milks the awkward family dynamics for all their worth, creating an instantly familiar feeling for anyone who has ever had any sort of family gathering. Here, the lines in the sand are drawn not between generations, as often happens, but between geographic locations: Abbas and Jameel, who have both lived in Pakistan, versus Amir, who has not. Abbas and Jameel both praise former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif and insult Hindus, and Amir’s criticisms fall on deaf ears, his comments weightless because he has not lived in Pakistan himself. (Farooqui milks humor out of these conflicts, too, not only through the script but through the shot setups and staging, so we squirm along with Amir and his father as Jameel and Abbas judge us from above.)

Farooqui is careful never to let any of his characters drift into caricature, unlike whoever wrote Terrorist Number Two: Jameel and Abbas are not the hyperconservative, misogynistic monsters that many Western movies would have us believe. Their flaws come out in smaller ways—a comment here, a snide glance there. They are the family members whom you encounter every Thanksgiving with outdated and problematic beliefs, not cartoonish cronies. Nor is Amir hyper-Westernized; he prays with his family in traditional clothing, embracing his faith while simultaneously advocating more liberal ideas. 

Therein lies Congratulations’ biggest success: it juxtaposes the players in Amir’s real life—educated, civil (by and large)—and Amir himself with those he has been delegated to play in the movies—unnamed, fanatical. And, as Congratulations shows, the former proves far more interesting and watchable than the latter. We watch Amir interact with his family, watch conflicts and personalities that mirror everyone else’s, and then see the MFA hopeful trudge back upstairs to resignedly refilm his audition for Terrorist Number Two, a role that strips him of all the humanity we have just witnessed.

It’s funny, but it’s a punch to the gut, too.

Congratulations is currently playing at the 2021 Atlanta Film Festival until May 2. Click here to buy a ticket to its virtual screening.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.