By the way, if you are wondering why this dispatches does not include thoughts on “No Sudden Move,” the latest from Steven Soderbergh, or the untitled Dave Chappelle documentary that served as the Closing Night presentation, it’s because those films that were not made available for members of the press who were covering the hybrid festival online. They were only screened theatrically, a detail that was not exactly communicated to those press members until the last second.
In terms of festival prizes, the big winner this year in the U.S. Narrative section was “The Novice,” which received the Founders Award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature, the Best Actress award for lead Isabelle Fuhrman, and the Best Cinematography prize for Todd Martin. The debut feature from writer/director Lauren Hadaway focuses on an intense college freshman (Furman) who joins her university’s rowing team and goes to increasingly obsessive lengths to push herself to be the best of the group in a sport in which working as a team generally takes precedence over individual achievement. The basic premise may be somewhat suggestive of “Whiplash”—it is cited in the festival’s program listing and Hadaway herself worked on that film in the sound department—but if I had to pick between the two, I would go for this one because the drama is less contrived here, and because of the very impressive performance by Fuhrman, whose work is both touching and terrifying in equal measure. Other winners in the Narrative Feature section included Matthew Leone, who won the Best Actor prize for his performance in Tyler Riggs’ “God’s Waiting Room” and Hannah Marks, who received the Best Screenplay award for her film “Mark, Mary, and Some Other People,” an occasionally insightful but too often uneven comedy-drama about a recently married hipster couple who decide to flirt with the notion of an open marriage with predictably disastrous results.
The top prize-winner in the International Narrative Feature section was “Brighton 4th,” which received the awards for Best International Narrative Feature, Best Screenplay for writer/director Boris Frumin and Best Actor to former Olympic wrestler Levan Tediashvili. This film also has a fairly standard narrative at its center: a one-time Georgian wrestling champion (Tediashvili) journeys to Brooklyn to visit his medical student son, only to get involved in the lives of the fellow Georgians that he stays with at a local boarding house and his son, a compulsive gambler who now owes a lot of money to the wrong people. There’s little to it that you won’t be able to see coming from a mile away. I still enjoyed it, both for the moments of deadpan humor that come out of nowhere and for the magnificent presence of Tediashvili, who may not necessarily be a trained actor by any means but who embodies the role in a way that most actors could only dream of doing. The Best Actress prize was given jointly to Bassant Ahmed and Basmala Elghaiesh for their performances as sisters in Ayten Amin’s “Souad.”
Last year’s festival was, like so many other things in the world, sidelined by COVID-19 and so it was perhaps inevitable that a number of films in this year’s lineup would be set against that quarantine period. “As of Yet” earned co-writer/directors Chanel James & Taylor Garron the Nora Ephron Award for their comedic tale of a young woman (Garron) who is trying to deal with increasingly troublesome issues regarding her absent roommate (who is off partying in Florida) and considering whether to take the next step with an ongoing online flirtation while stuck at home during the early months of the pandemic. Told entirely through video calls and digital blog entries, the film is uneven and sometime a bit tedious, but it does contain a few big laughs here and there (especially during the finale) and the winning performance from Garron. “7 Days,” from director/co-writer Roshan Sethi, also starts out on a rough note with its tale of two Indian-Americans—the conservative Ravi (Karan Soni) and the more progressive Rita (Geraldine Viswanathan)—whose first date, arranged by their matrimony-minded parents, ends up going on much longer than anticipated when the shelter-in-place mandate goes into effect. However, at about the halfway point, the film smartly moves away from the mismatched-couple-coming-together arc to something more serious-minded and ultimately more rewarding. In addition, the film also serves as further proof—not that any is really needed at this point in time—as to the eternal awesomeness of Viswanathan, who is clearly one of the brightest rising stars of the moment.