Here are sneak peeks at everything we were able to see in advance:
Always in Season
Directed by Jacqueline Olive
3:30 p.m. Saturday, April 13, Enzian Theater; 7 p.m. Thursday, April 18, Regal Winter Park Village
How do you get people to care about the epidemic of black Americans dying under suspicious circumstances? You frame it as a good old-fashioned murder mystery, because white folks just love that stuff. With all the narrative savvy of a 48 Hours episode, Always in Season probes the death of Lennon Lacy, a teenager who was found hanged in a North Carolina community that has a pernicious history of racial enmity. The incident was swiftly and perfunctorily ruled a suicide, but Lacy's family fought seemingly blasé law enforcement and local media to show the world it might have been something more sinister.
Lacy's story, though, is essentially a framing device for an exploration of the history of lynching in America, with profoundly disturbing archival images documenting one of our least-talked-about national pastimes. There's also a fascinating portrayal of the modern-day phenomenon of lynching reenactments (yeah, that's a new one to me, too), in which concerned historians both black and white dramatize notorious murders of the past. Predictably, some members of the affected communities argue that such painful memories should remain unexhumed. How many of them would conversely preach the educational value of Civil War reenactments is up to you to surmise. – SS
Chained for Life
Directed by Aaron Schimberg
1 p.m. Saturday, April 13, Enzian Theater; 9:15 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, Regal Winter Park Village
Festivals are the ideal forum for movies about the quirks and absurdities of indie filmmaking. If you chuckled at Living in Oblivion, State and Main and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, you're the target audience for Chained for Life, in which a film crew goes on location in a hospital to shoot a horror picture about eugenics. The supporting cast of the movie they're lensing are people with serious deformities and disfigurements, which only underlines the crew's vanities, both physical and intellectual. (In one hilarious bit, their Germanic martinet of a director launches into a glowing and protracted analysis of a key scene from The Muppet Movie.)
Chained for Life certainly has its moments, but it gradually succumbs to the very pretension it's been attempting to lampoon. And it's consistently undermined by a fairly impenetrable lead performance by Jess Weixler as Mabel, an actor who attempts to straddle the worlds of her supposedly grotesque co-stars and her genuinely grotesque industry pals. The script depicts her character as alternately clueless and empathetic, but it's hard to tell if this is meant to represent a dichotomy or an evolution, because the work done by Weixler – who has a rather extensive pedigree as both a performer and a filmmaker in her own right – is frankly sub-professional in some key scenes. She has a wonderfully expressive face, but you spend a good amount of time wondering what exactly it's trying to express. Which is just about the worst way for this film to advance its thesis that surfaces can't be trusted. – SS
Directed by Akash Sherman
5 p.m. Saturday, April 20, Regal Winter Park Village; 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Regal Winter Park Village
Almost the definition of a film "not made for the critics," Clara is a pretty decent movie – as long as you've never seen any other movies. It takes a pretty decent concept – an astronomer searching for signs of extraterrestrial life while coping with family tragedy – and turns it into hackneyed romantic schlock. Patrick J. Adams (Suits) stars as the cantankerous scientist, Dr. Isaac Bruno, and Troian Bellisario (Pretty Little Liars) stars as Clara, the manic pixie dream girl who teaches him how to love again. Stop us if you think that you've heard this one before. The film is marginally impressive in how many different tropes it manages to pack into its 105-minute runtime, and by the time the film reaches its final act, you may end up laughing out loud – but not in a good way. This is why aliens don't contact us. – TM
Directed by Stuart Swezey
9 p.m. Friday, April 19, Regal Winter Park Village; 4:30 p.m. Saturday, April 20, Regal Winter Park Village
Tired of being constantly harassed by the police and having shows shut down by the authorities, a group of visionary Los Angeles punks and artists formed a collective – Desolation Center - in the '80s to hold shows far, faaaaaaaarrrr outside of the reach of the LAPD. How far out, you ask? For their first event, they bused a couple hundred punks to the middle of the goddamn Mojave Desert to watch Savage Republic and Minutemen. And it worked! The stakes were raised exponentially with the second event, featuring Mark Pauline's Survival Research Labs, whose unbelievable "set" consisted of trying to blow up a large section of canyon wall. The events put on by this short-lived group would, ironically, go on to inspire big-money fest enterprises like Burning Man, Coachella and Lollapalooza. Does that count as a happy ending, or nah? – MM
Dons of Disco
Directed by Jonathan Sutak
10:30 a.m. Saturday, April 14, Enzian Theater; 9:30 p.m. Thursday, April 18, Regal Winter Park Village
Musical imposterdom didn't begin with Milli Vanilli and C+C Music Factory. In the 1980s, there was the Italian dance-pop sensation known as Den Harrow: Journeyman musician Tom Hooker co-wrote and sang the hits, while beefcake club kid Stefano Zandri mimed them for an adoring, unknowing public. The subterfuge stood for three decades, until Hooker took to the internet seeking belated recognition. The game of mutual negation that ensued is framed in this doc initially as a classic hero-versus-villain tale, with the defensive Zandri coming across as unrepentant and delusional as to his own artistic worth. But the movie keeps subverting your assumptions, offering a more complicated picture of the choices each man has made and why. As it speeds towards its thrilling climax, Dons of Disco has you wishing simply that healing will come to both of them – while realizing you no longer have any clear idea of what that might mean. – SS
Directed by Matt Maude & Sarah Kerruish
Noon Sunday, April 14, Regal Winter Park Village; 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 16, Regal Winter Park Village
The topic of General Magic, a documentary about an early-'90s tech company that failed, sounds a little dull on paper, but in execution, it's captivating. In a prescient act of hubris – one of many – the team at General Magic hired a filmmaker to document their attempt to build the very first smartphone-like device. Years later, that footage is mixed in with present-day interviews with key players at the company, including former Apple CEO John Sculley, who many blame for the death of General Magic – an Apple subsidiary – after his public unveiling of the Newton, a handheld device that performed many of the functions General Magic was developing. It's a must-see for anyone interested in tech history, as well as an inspiring look at how failure doesn't necessarily mean the end of something. After the film shows what these failures went on to achieve later in their lives, you might be inspired to tank your start-up as well. – TM
Directed by Penny Lane
8:30 p.m. Sunday, April 14, Regal Winter Park Village; 7 p.m. Saturday, April 20, Enzian Theater
Documenting the behind-the-scenes story of the Satanic Temple, Hail Satan? is probably our favorite documentary that we saw at the festival. And not just because a screenshot of an Orlando Weekly article is shown briefly.
The Satanic Temple's mission – advocating for religious pluralism in a so-called "Christian nation" – blends satire and activism, shown by their frequent attempts to raise statues of Baphomet on public land that allows monuments to the Ten Commandments to be raised. The film spends lots of time with co-founder and spokesperson Lucien Greaves, as well as several average, everyday Satanists, to tell the story of how letting Satan into their hearts inspires them to stand up for the oppressed and marginalized. The history of Christian hegemony over public spaces is also explored – and it doesn't go back as far as you might think it does. Prepare to be converted: Hail Satan? is a religious experience. – TM
Knife + Heart
Directed by Yann Gonzalez
11:59 p.m. Saturday, April 20, Enzian Theater
What I learned from this midnight movie is that it was really hard to be a female filmmaker in 1979 Paris, especially if your specialty was gay male porn. And if you yourself were a lesbian in the throes of breaking up with your girlfriend, who just happened to be your film editor. Oh, and if your cast members were simultaneously being stalked through the city's fetish underground by a mysterious killer whose weapon of choice was a knife that emerged at crucial moments from its hiding place inside a big, black dildo. (If Paul Schrader and Lotte Lenya had a baby, this is what he would be like.) On the narrative and thematic levels, director Gonzalez' thriller is sometimes hackneyed and harebrained to a degree that exceeds the boundaries of genre homage. But its undeniable style makes it a hell of a watch in the literal sense, and the flashes of humor are more than welcome, particularly when the lead character repurposes her real-life travails into a gay murder mystery titled Homocidal. FUN FACT: Said lead character is portrayed by Vanessa Paradis, the Euroteen singing sensation turned recording artist, actor and model. Deborah Gibson, consider the gauntlet thrown. – SS
International Shorts No. 1:"Never Let Me Go"
6:30 p.m. Friday, April 19, Regal Winter Park Village; 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 21, Enzian Theater
The shorts programs offer you the best value for your dollar at the festival, and the program we were able to view in advance, International Shorts No. 1, is no exception. It begins with Ognjen Petkovic's Autumn Waltz, a high-tension drama about a couple who get stopped at a checkpoint during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. The French-Tunisian production Nefta Football Club, directed by Yves Piat, is a humorous look at what happens when two young soccer fans come across a literal drug mule in the desert. Australian director Charles Williams won the Palme d'Or for Best Short Film at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival with his fever dream look at mental illness, All These Creatures. Swiss director Corina Schwingruber Ilic will make you never want to go on a cruise again with the beautifully photographed All Inclusive. An Iranian husband and wife get surprised by the results of an acting audition in Farnoosh Samadi's The Role. And a motivational speaker, a speed dating session and an anger management class end up being interconnected in Polish director Maciej Buchwald's Happiness. But the absolute standout in this program is the hilarious short Indian documentary Tungrus, a look at a family terrorized by a pet rooster. – TM
Directed by Andres Caballero & Sofian Khan
2:15 p.m. Sunday, April 14, Regal Winter Park Village; 4 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, Enzian Theater
At their best, documentaries broaden our views on the real world and inspire actions to fix real problems. In this sense, The Interpreters is one of the best documentaries at the Florida Film Festival this year. Shot in Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey and the United States, the film tells the story of translators who assisted coalition forces in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Though they do their best to keep their identities secret, these allies are potentially subject to severe retaliation from extremists. Unfortunately, the Special Immigrant Visa program set up to help them come to safety in the U.S. has become stymied in the wake of Islamophobic policies like the travel ban. The core of the film is about a friendship between an Iraqi interpreter and a U.S. soldier and their continuously frustrating attempts to get the interpreter and his family to safety during the rise of ISIS. Bring tissues, then call your representatives. – TM
Miniscule – Mandibles From Far Away
Directed by Hélène Giraud & Thomas Szabo
Noon Sunday, April 21, Enzian Theater
This French family film is a sequel to a 2013 feature, but you don't have to know anything about the plot of the first film to enjoy it. When a young ladybug gets separated from its family, one of its parents goes on an epic journey to the Caribbean to bring it home. The film is visually interesting due to its use of real-life backgrounds mixed with CGI characters and action, but the story does tend to drag. You might not be able to help thinking that the story would have been better if it had a bit of fat trimmed.
Don't let the fear of subtitles dissuade you from bringing any kids who might like it, though; all of the "dialogue" is comprised of universally understood sound effects. – TM
Roll Red Roll
Directed by Nancy Schwartzman
8:30 p.m. Saturday, April 13, Regal Winter Park Village; 4 p.m. Thursday, April 18, Regal Winter Park Village
On the night of Aug. 11, 2012, a high school girl was raped by members of the Steubenville High School football team in eastern Ohio. The story garnered national attention after it was covered in The New York Times due to the involvement of social media in its investigation. The perpetrators had taken photos, texted friends and made several tweets alluding to the crime.
Nancy Schwartzman's documentary about the Steubenville High School rape case is compiled of interviews with the lead detective on the case, legal experts, families and journalists, along with videotaped interviews with witnesses, but the heart of the story focuses on the efforts of an independent blogger, Alexandria Goddard, who used social media to compile a significant body of evidence using Twitter and Facebook. The result is a harrowing look at rape culture, especially victim blaming, as well as how social media can be used as a tool for investigative work. – TM
Slut in a Good Way
Directed by Sophie Lorain
11:15 p.m. Saturday, April 20, Regal Winter Park Village; 3:45 p.m. Sunday, April 21, Regal Winter Park Village
This charming teen sex comedy from Quebec follows Charlotte, a 17-year-old girl rebounding from a breakup who, with her friends, gets a part-time job at a toy store in order to meet new guys. She soon runs into problems due to the age-old double standard laid on the promiscuity of men and women. But Charlotte and her friends decide to do something about it, taking a heavy cue from Lysistrata.
The stakes may be low, and your tolerance of the adolescent mindset may determine your enjoyment of the film. But it's refreshing to see teens speak openly about sexuality and consequences without the film turning into a lascivious leer-fest or a preachy melodrama. We can only imagine what Hollywood would do with the premise, but it wouldn't be pretty. – TM
Spider Mites of Jesus: The Dirtwoman Documentary
Directed by Jerry Williams
6 p.m. Sunday, April 14, Regal Winter Park Village; 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, Enzian Theater
As Divine was to Baltimore, so was Dirtwoman (né Donnie Corker) to Richmond, Virginia. With a thick Dusty Rhodes-ish Southern drawl, and outrageous attire that was as much confrontational glam as it was bored housewife (a muumuu paired with a Dolly Parton wig and new-wave shades, for instance), Dirtwoman was an out-and-proud Richmond institution from the 1970s until his passing in 2017.
Corker spent a life gleefully challenging Southern social mores, whether performing drag for decades (often getting naked at the end of his act), doing sex work, tormenting police, collaborating with GWAR, protecting punks or even attempting a run for Richmond's mayorship. This film is a little rough around the edges, and there're some very emotionally raw and difficult scenes, but it has a metric ton of heart. – MM