Live from the Nantucket Film Festival: Thursday, June 26

June 27, 2014




As a film festival-goer of longstanding, I judge festivals by a number of factors – and the Nantucket Film Festival is measuring up in all the important ways on my first visit.

First and foremost, of course, are the films themselves. Any festival that has more movies that you want to see than you have time to see is a good one. That’s certainly the case here.

But there’s more: Do the screenings start on time? Is the crowd control efficient and friendly? Can you get a good conversation going about movies while you’re waiting in line? Are the various venues close enough to each other that you can get from one showing to another without having to sprint long distances?

So far, Nantucket has been a delight, despite a Thursday that began and ended with rain. Best of all, I’ve seen a number of movies I’d heard about but hadn’t had the opportunity to catch up with – and found a couple I would absolutely program for the film series I curate.

At the top of that list would be Amir Bar-Lev’s “Happy Valley,” a movie about Joe Paterno and the Penn State pedophilia scandal. As much as you think you know about a story that the media sensationalized unconscionably, you will come away with a different perspective.

And that perspective is this: You’ll leave this movie understanding both sides of the equation – and be disturbed by the fact that those two views don’t reconcile. In other words, there are no easy answers.

Bar-Lev, who also made the powerful “The Tillman Story,” takes viewers from the eruption of the scandal through its fast-breaking developments to the conviction of former coach Jerry Sandusky for dozens of counts of abuse, molestation and rape. And then he goes beyond to ask a question the media never will: How much penance is enough on behalf of an institution that already has been severely penalized? Is any amount of punishment enough – or will the university be forced to live in Sandusky’s shadow forever?

And what of Joe Paterno’s legacy? Does his culpability in this incident forever overshadow what he accomplished in his storied career? Bar-Lev points out the ass-covering nature of the NCAA’s punishment of Penn State, which blamed the university’s obsession with football as one of the causes of the Sandusky cover-up. But it fails to mention that Paterno’s focus on academics for his players led his teams to have an 87 percent graduation rate, unprecedented among major colleges.

This film doesn’t equivocate or traffic in false equivalencies. Instead, it reminds us that life is never as simple as a TV soundbite, no matter how much we want it to be. There are issues that will trouble intelligent minds, even if both the boosters and the critics would rather paint this as black-and-white, open-and-shut. And that’s what makes it an important film.




I was extremely moved by “Rich Hill,” the documentary that won the competition at Sundance this year. Directed by cousins Andrew Palermo and Tracy Tragos, it follows three adolescents, mired in poverty in a small, rural Missouri town.

The filmmakers are flies on the wall, following these three young teens – Andrew, Harley and Appachey – as they cope (or don’t) with family lives that would seem to flatten any sense of hope or optimism out of the average person. Harley and Appachey are both troubled kids with behavioral problems – yet their sometimes boyish humor and wit reveal a humanity that is incredibly touching.

Andrew is the one with the most on the ball, a striver saddled with a mother with a drug problem and a father whose dreams of success have little foundation in reality. This sweet kid keeps trying to make something of himself, despite the fact that the family is constantly forced to move from one tiny backwater in this area to another, for lack of money. Your heart breaks looking at his potential and the ball-and-chain that his father represents in his life.

I also saw and enjoyed “Break Point,” a funny, touching tale of brothers trying to become friends after a long estrangement. Jeremy Sisto plays Jimmy Price, whose bad behavior has cost him a serious career as a tennis pro. He wants to make one last run at a Grand Slam title as a doubles player – and is forced to turn to his brother (David Walton, an actor who should be a major romantic-comedy star by now – why isn’t he?) to be his partner.

Sisto brings a wonderful blend of prickly bluster and macho insecurity to the role, in a script he cowrote with Gene Hong. His give-and-take with Walton and with the always-reliable J.K. Simmons as their father is never less than entertaining and often quite funny. It’s the kind of small comedy that could break out, if it gets the right kind of attention.

The sun is shining here in Nantucket this morning, so what better way to enjoy this gorgeous little island than going to the movies? More tomorrow.

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