by Ryan Wilson

Today is part two of my three part series profiling the 5th Annual Hell’s Half Mile Film and Music Festival. Latter this week, a number of innovative and independently produced movies will screen at the State Theater, the Masonic Temple, and the Delta College’s Planetarium in Bay City.

Here I‘ll focus on four of the early narrative feature films on the program, to be screened from Thursday September 30th to Friday October 1st. If there’s a common theme to these first few days of films, it has to do with the reckless decisions or the general indecision of youth. These first four features give us young characters searching for their own identity amid the complications of modern life.

I Am That Girl tells the story of Maxine, your typical party girl. She’s knee deep in credit card debt and deep into her next martini when she meets “Noodle” (yes his name is Noodle). He reluctantly invites her camping in the Sierra Mountains. A fish out of water, this material girl at first flails but soon confronts a deeper version of her self when she discovers Noodle’s sobering secret.

Equal parts slapstick and drama, the script, written by Grace Rowe (who plays Maxine), sneaks up on you. At first we’re annoyed with Maxine, yet fascinated by her indulgent behavior. But like an obnoxious classmate from school, Maxine grows on us and also grows as a person. Be patient. By its finale I Am That Girl delivers an uplifting message.

Much more grounded are the characters of Joel and Julie, played by real-life siblings, who must either confront or ignore each other when their father admits to them that he is gay. Infused with their own quirks and personalities, the brother and sister take the news differently as they each cope with other developments in their personal lives.

This neo-realism account of family is a refreshing take on those interpersonal dramas that often threaten to overwhelm us. The movie is especially good at capturing the small fissures that threaten most family communication. Joel, for example, with his sheepish smile chooses to float above conflict by ignoring it. Julie, meanwhile, looks for solace through organization, sometimes through work, sometimes through a hysterical New Age group. Joel and Julie feels authentic because the actors know better than to try too hard. They concentrate instead on subtle responses to stress.

The gang from the film X’s and O’s avoids subtlety. Here a close-knit group of college friends navigate the tricky waters of monogamy and relationships in this quirky romantic comedy. One graduate research scientist becomes obsessed with his dream girl who plays with him like a rat in a maze. Another hip-hop want-to-be acts superior to his girlfriend because he is afraid of her. Finally, a smooth lady’s man realizes that he wants more out of his relationships.

Everyone learns a lesson in the movie, but the lessons aren‘t nearly as striking as the selfishness displayed by these characters. The film’s main intention might be to display how difficult young relationships are, especially when one’s ego is on full display. Particularly interesting is X’s and O’s ending, which refuses to put a neat bow on this package of relationships. Instead, we’re made to feel somewhat angry about who ends up with whom.

But arguably no film at this year’s festival pushes the relationship envelop like Cherry, which is the opening night film on Thursday at 8:15 at the State Theater.

© Ryan Wilson, 2010