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by Ryan Wilson

The 5th Annual Hell’s Half Mile Film and Music Festival is underway in Bay City today through Sunday, offering a number of innovative and independently produced movies. All shows will screen at the State Theater, the Masonic Temple, and the Delta College's Planetarium.

Last time I profiled the early films of the festival, which concerned the dilemmas of youth. But the best of the remaining films grow up a bit and deal with the realities of middle age.

Screening on Saturday at 6 pm at the Delta College Planetarium is Drawing with Chalk. It’s the story of two childhood friends who grew up playing music and dreaming of careers in rock-and-roll. Stuck in their dying mill town, the two aging band mates played by Christopher Springer and Todd Giglio, must confront their limitations as they approach 40. At this point in their lives, playing music is closer to a hobby than an ambition.

This is most frustrating for the lead musician who is married and has a family to support. He has decided to stay close to his friend in order to continue playing music, but this decision irks his wife, who wants him to begin a traditional career in a better location. His band mate, meanwhile, is one of those types who can barely keep the small town job his father has given him. He’s an affable procrastinator with a Peter Pan complex.

Drawing with Chalk works because of its identifiable characters, as well as the questions it raises, such as, what good is having talent if no one cares? And how long can one continue an adolescent fantasy with adult pressures mounting? This tale examines the price of making art and when to quit or to compromise.

Also, screening on Saturday at six o’clock, but at the State Theater, is Lebanon PA, which tells the story of Will, a Philadelphia advertising executive, who's brought to the small Pennsylvania town of Lebanon when his estranged father dies. Once there, Will, played by Josh Hopkins from TV's Cougar Town, begins to question his role in the world as he settles his father’s affairs.

He's convinced to remain in Lebanon after forming friendships with a local teacher (played by Samantha Mathis) and a pregnant 17-year-old relative (played by Rachel Kitson). Each character is well crafted and three dimensional, but writer/director Ben Hickernell is after a bit more thematically. What begins as subtle character studies turns into a study in partisan lifestyles. For example, Will loves the pace of the small town but soon finds himself at odds with its conservative values.

The standout character in the film belongs to Rachel Kitson, who navigates these cultural waters as she tries to decide whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. Her powerful subplot will remind some of the film Juno, minus the witty retorts. But as its title suggests, Lebabnon PA is less about its characters and more about the social power of a particular geography. But Hickernell is never didactic in his handling of the red state versus blue state values. The story is a sensitive account of the nation's cultural divide.

Director Ben Hickernell will be present after the screening for a question and answer session with the audience. And don’t miss Matt Pond PA headlining Music Night at 9 on Saturday at the Masonic Temple. The band scored some excellent music for the film.

Finally, don’t miss the festival’s closing night film, entitled The Happy Poet, at 7:30 on Sunday at the State Theater. This final film is an inspiring underdog story about keeping one's integrity amid unforeseen obstacles. 

Floundering after completing his creative writing degree, Bill (played by Paul Gordon, who also wrote and directed the film) takes out a small bank loan and opens his own organic food stand out of a hotdog cart. He’s met with various levels of adversity, yet he earnestly sticks to his principles with the help of two slacker companions.

At first we’re frustrated by Bill. He just seems so passive. And he's way too generous with his few customers. So we’re fooled into thinking that his business is a joke. But as the story progresses, both Bill’s character and our emotions toward him swell into a sort of symphony. I say symphony because rarely have I been struck by the minimal use of music throughout a film. What begins as just minimal chords on a piano, mirroring Bill’s seemingly lack of will, eventually grows into the full sound of a man finding his backbone and sticking to his principles.

Made for anyone who’s ever had a small dream in a seemingly oppressive world, The Happy Poet offers a glimmer of hope during hard times.

So if you’re looking for some quality stories that will also cut through the chatter and get you thinking about the choices we make as adults, go see one of these films. And if that's not enough, you can meet some of the filmmakers during a panel discussion at one o’clock on Saturday at Explorers Hall in the Delta College Planetarium. This event is free to the public.

For information on all show times and venues, go to hhmfest.com. Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio. Join me next week when I’ll be back in the Cineplex.