Live from the Nantucket Film Festival: Wednesday, June 25

June 26, 2014




Two movies in and I can already tell that the Nantucket Film Festival, now in its 19th year, is going to be the opposite of work.

By work, I mean the chatter and blather of movie business: Who’s looking for distribution? Who’s going to outbid who for what? Will this festival launch a specific movie into Oscar orbit?

Instead, this island-centered festival is just one attraction at a tourist destination that already is attractive enough to balloon Nantucket’s population from roughly 10,000 in the off-season to 70-80,000 in the summer. It’s sort of to Boston what the Hamptons are to New York (along with its nearby mate, Martha’s Vineyard). Unlike, say, Sundance or even Telluride, that swell isn’t caused by the festival; instead, the festival lives because of the population spike – and its own formidable attractions.

This seems to be a film festival that’s actually about film – specifically, screenwriting. That focus means the festival’s programmers focus on movies that are literate, intelligent and writer-centric. The festival’s annual awards focus on filmmakers whose work exemplifies that strength (this year’s top honoree is Oscar-winner Aaron Sorkin).

Nantucket itself is eminently walkable, as long as you stick to the brick sidewalks and don’t try hoofing it on the historic cobblestone streets. (I wondered aloud about the frequency of sprained or broken ankles, particularly after a night at the bar.) Walking its well-preserved avenues feels a little like taking a step back into the 19th (or even 18th) century.

The fact that franchise chains have been assiduously kept out by local ordinance means a wealth of shops and restaurants to be discovered. There’s nary a Starbucks or CVS or Five Guys to be found, or anything else to link this timeless town to mall culture that has homogenized even the smallest towns in America and already has taken root in the rest of the world.

As for the films, this festival defines the term “cherry-picking” in the most positive way. The 100 or so movies on the schedule include films already teed up for release in July and beyond, movies that have proven themselves at other festivals and will reach theaters later this year. But the selection seems smart and intriguing; though I’ve already seen a couple dozen of the entries, several are titles I’d be happy to revisit (such as the opening night film that I saw yesterday afternoon again, Craig Johnson’s “The Skeleton Twins,” or Cherien Dabis’ witty, insightful “May in the Summer”).

But there are also a number of films I either missed at festivals or simply haven’t had the chance to see yet. There’s enough for me to keep myself busying watching movies through my Sunday departure – unless I decide to play hooky and go swimming in the ocean. (I ran into actor Fred Willard, here to be part of a public script reading, at the opening night party and he said he’d already taken that plunge.)

Beside “The Skeleton Twins,” which features a breakthrough performance for Bill Hader opposite an equally good Kristen Wiig, the other film I saw Wednesday was “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” from Texas filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner. Supposedly based on a true story, it follows an unhappy young Japanese woman (Rinko Kikuchi) in a dead-end job in Tokyo whose only interest is in solving the puzzle she believes lies at the center of the Coen brothers’ “Fargo.”

She views a tattered VHS copy of the film over and over, convinced of the veracity of its opening title card, which claimed it was based on a true story (another gag by the Coens). She watches and rewatches the scene toward the end, in which the wounded Steve Buscemi buries a briefcase full of money in a roadside snowdrift, trying to glean clues to its location. Positive that she has figured out where the money was buried, she heads for northern Minnesota to find the treasure herself.

Which means that, in short order, this quietly deliberate film becomes about one woman’s mental illness: her delusion and her self-destructive quest to prove it true. But she can barely talk to people she knows in Tokyo, let alone well-meaning Americans who don’t speak her language or understand much of her limited English – and try to help her anyway. Kikuchi’s blank affect – particularly during her encounters with garrulous, friendly Minnesotans – can work to comic effect, but those scenes are too brief and few.

The Zellners are more interested in her interior journey than her run-ins with yokels who are worried that this girl isn’t dressed warmly enough for the harsh winter of northern Minnesota. Either you can swing with that or you’ll find “Kumiko” a long, tough sit.

It looks like a cooler, overcast, potentially rainy day outside this morning. Which, to the average person on vacation on Nantucket, would be a drag. To me, it’s perfect movie-going weather. More tomorrow.

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