Over this last weekend, I attended the 16th annual Waterfront Film Festival in South Haven, MI. I’ve been going for years, and it’s usually my favorite weekend of the year. It’s the second year in South Haven (after fourteen years in Saugatuck), and every single problem (minor though they were) that came with the new location this year had been resolved. The Festival ran so smoothly this year, with maximum convenience for the attendees. It’s a volunteer-run festival, and every year I’ve had nothing but positive experiences with the people involved. And to top it off, this year’s lineup was the strongest in a long time. For the next few days, I’ll be reviewing the movies I saw – some of them may be coming to a festival near you, many of them will likely end up on VOD, and some could end up with national distribution. If something sounds good, you’ll be able to find it eventually. 

Empire of DirtIn the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I saw Empire of Dirt by accident after standing in the wrong line. But I went with it, because I thought it would be insulting to get up and leave. My stifling sense of politeness paid off, because I ended up really enjoying it.

It’s the story of three generations of First Nations women (“Native American” doesn’t apply, as the movie is set in Canada). Single mother (and recovering addict) Lena loses her housekeeping job shortly before her thirteen-year-old daughter huffs paint and ends up in the hospital. Lena doesn’t think that their home life will stand up to the scrutiny of Child Protective Services and so she takes Peeka back to her old hometown. Lena ends up dealing with the past she’d buried, while Peeka learns about her roots for the first time.

This may not sound immediately appealing, but the execution makes it something special. Cara Gee as Lena gives such a strong performance that I assumed she must be a huge star in Canada, but she’s actually a newcomer. Her layered portrayal lets Empire of Dirt skip most of the exposition to focus on the present. She’s in nearly every scene of the movie and makes Lena such an appealing character even in her darkest times. And it takes a lot to make me like a bratty teenager, but Shay Eyre gives Peeka vulnerability and makes her heartbreaking. And to complete the trio, Jennifer Podemski plays Minverva, Lena’s mother. While her initial introduction makes it seem like her character is going to be a stereotypical stoic, her humanity gradually comes out as she reconnects with her daughter and gets to know the granddaughter that she’d never met.

Empire of Dirt has a genuine warmth and humor that keeps it from turning into a grim character study. It’s also beautifully shot. The Ontario locations are gorgeous, both the landscapes and the little standalone buildings that comprise the town. It creates such a sense of place. You understand both why Lena left years ago and why it may actually be the perfect place for her now. It’s compelling and gorgeous, and so much better than it sounds like it’s going to be.

Wild CanariesThis was a movie that everybody at the festival seemed to be talking about, and with good reason. Wild Canaries is an immensely enjoyable murder mystery relationship comedy. (Or MurMysRelCom, which I believe is a category on Netflix.) When an elderly woman in a rent-controlled apartment dies suddenly, Barri (Sophia Takal) suspects foul play even though her boyfriend Noah (writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine) doesn’t think there’s anything odd about somebody dying at the age of eighty-four

Barri and her friend Jean (Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development) surveil the woman’s son, Anthony (played by Kevin Corrigan who we will always think of as Professor Professorson from Community) and quickly learn that there really is something going on, something involving disguises, property holdings, and their pothead landlord (Jason Ritter, doing a James Franco character better than James Franco does). That this means so much more to Barri than it does to Noah causes problems in their relationship and gives a seemingly silly obsession real stakes for the characters.

CanariesThe amazing thing, though, is that when it turns out that something really is going on and that Anthony and/or landlord Damien are up to something, Wild Canaries does the mystery as well as it did the relationship comedy. I loved the cartoonish scenes of Barri and Jean trying to track Anthony – Barri’s idea of a disguise is hilarious, and when she hides behind a tree to avoid detection, it’s a pure Bugs Bunny move. The mystery aspects really work as a story, but are just silly enough to keep it a comedy.

There are plenty of recognizable actors in Wild Canaries, and they’re as good as you expect them to be. Jason Ritter and Alia Shawkat? You know they’re going to be fun to watch. But the leads are exceptional. Levine is hilariously hangdog as Noah, and his collection of injuries make him feel like a noir hero even though they’re really just related to being forty years old rather than getting roughed up by a thug. And Sophia Takal was the hit of the whole festival. Her insanely high-energy performance is incredibly endearing. She’s so funny, and the faster she talks, the funnier she gets. I left Wild Canaries thinking that Takal should be in most movies from here on out.

Wild Canaries is immensely appealing and funny, with one of the most likable casts you’re going to see

Fight ChurchI’ve been going to the Waterfront Film Festival for twelve years now, and I’ve never seen a bad documentary there. And, let’s be honest, it’s hard to think of a better title than Fight Church. So this one was a no-brainer for me. It looks at churches around the country that incorporate mixed martial arts into their ministry. Which sounds ridiculous, and I was anticipating a light-hearted doc about ministers who can also kick people in the face, but Fight Church is smarter and more complicated than that

Yes, it leads with pastors who cage fight and then lead services the next morning with black eyes and open cuts. (As a guy who grew up in a really conservative religious tradition, I was more shocked to see ministers wearing graphic tees in church. That would not fly, my friend!) And my initial reaction was that it was weird but fine. Religion and punching are an awkward mix, but we’re a confusing people. But Fight Church also includes commentary from Father John Duffell, a priest fighting to keep professional MMA fighting illegal in New York. He makes the simple but compelling argument that trying to hurt another person is incompatible with religious faith. Fight Church doesn’t really come down on either side of the issue – presenting both opinions evenhandedly.

The movie gets more complex as it goes on. While some of the MMA pastors seem like lovely people with a weird hobby, we meet one man who Fighttakes his very small children to the gun range and talks about how Christians have to fire the first shot, a phrase which he seems to intend literally. (There’s a hilarious and frightening interview where, even when reminded of the ‘turn the other cheek’ verse, asserts that he is not going to let anybody disrespect him and Jesus wouldn’t either.) And again, Fight Church is very good about not taking sides, but I found these scenes terrifying (and the shots of the man’s kids recoiling in fear every time they hear a gunshot are heartbreaking). The movie touches on gun culture just enough – that could obviously be an entire separate film, but it doesn’t dominate here. And to its credit, it doesn’t draw a straight line between mixed martial arts and vague threats to shoot people with different religions, but presents people who do draw that line.

It’s thought-provoking, and nothing about it is easy. I was basically OK with the central tenet at the beginning, but by the end, I couldn’t look at the fight scenes. Co-Director Bryan Storkel (who previously directed Holy Rollers, which I saw at a previous festival and really enjoyed) said in the Q&A that he can’t stand to watch fighting but isn’t against it as a thing. That wasn’t the impression I came away with, but that’s what makes it interesting. I’ve been thinking a lot about Fight Church and what it has to say about violence and faith and where they intersect, and the difference between types of violence. It’s tough to watch, but well worth it.

Who Took Johnny? – Another documentary, this one told the story of the abduction of Johnny Gosch, the first missing child to appear on a milk carton. Going into it, I vaguely knew that he had never been found, but I didn’t have any other details. What Who Took Johnny? reveals is that this crime was both legally significant and deeply weird.

The Gosch case led to changes in the laws regarding missing children – before this event, disappearances were assumed to be voluntary until proven otherwise. They treated a missing child as a runaway in the absence of evidence to the contrary, and there was no real set of protocols in place to coordinate law enforcement. But there’s more to Who Took Johnny? that a history lesson about changes to juvenile law.

It also looks into the later claims of a convicted pedophile who claimed to be involved with the abduction. He alleged the existence of a vast underground network of human trafffickers, which sounds insane but is only made more plausible by law enforcement’s repeated refusal to give any credence to his claims. It’s a conspiracy theory with a built-in explanation for anybody who discounts the conspiracy. It’s fascinating, and I’m not at all sure what to make of it.

There’s also an aspect that I’m really not comfortable talking about, so I won’t go into it too much. The fact is that Noreen, Johnny’s mother, comes off as a little unstable. She has a truly bizarre claim about a post-abduction meeting with her son, and the film just presents it to us without any attempts to either verify or debunk. But, and this is a terrible thing to say, you sort of get the feel for why she’s had such a difficult time with getting the police as involved in the case as she wants them to be. If you’re constantly accusing the cops of not following up on leads, it makes it tough for them to distinguish a valid lead from the thirty others. I genuinely can’t tell if that’s a point the movie is trying to convey, but it occurred to me and I feel gross for even thinking it.  Of course, as a woman who’s survived unimaginable tragedy, it’s impossible not to sympathize with her even when you don’t agree.

Who Took Johnny? is immensely interesting and thought-provoking – I highly recommend it

Tomorrow, we’ll have reviews of the documentary Love Child and an Eddie Jemison twofer, King of Herrings and Coffee, Kill Boss.

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