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Reeling Film Festival 2021 Preview: Boulevard! A Hollywood Story, North by Current and Three More Highlights | Festivals & Awards

Jump, Darling” screens at 4:30pm on Sunday, September 26th, at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St., and is available to stream from Wednesday, September 29th, through Tuesday, October 5th.

The endearing British indie “Sweetheart” announces the emergence of a major talent both in front of and behind the camera. For her debut feature, writer/director Marley Morrison has crafted a splendid showcase for her leading lady, Nell Barlow, who is a revelation in her first major screen role. She plays a brooding 17-year-old who insists on being called “A.J.”, an abbreviated version of the cutesy name bestowed upon her by her mother Tina (Jo Hartley), and is revolted by her family’s preferred destination for summer vacation: the beachside trailer park she once loved in her youth. Tasked with looking after her little sister, who is essentially the “Little Miss Sunshine”-era Abigail Breslin to Barlow’s Paul Dano, A.J. shields herself with oversized sunglasses and caustic yet legitimate pessimism…that is, until a gorgeous lifeguard, Isla (a sublime Ella-Rae Smith), catches her gaze. A.J. is a rich symphony of a role—blossoming from cold and detached to lovelorn, excited, heartbroken, enraged, euphoric and finally at peace in her newfound wisdom—and Barlow hits every note impeccably. The first kiss she shares with Smith is disarmingly authentic in its awkward thrusts and misinterpreted signals, causing A.J. to flee in embarrassment, as are the bruising quarrels between mother and daughter, both of whom learn to embrace the freedom in escaping from their routine sense of self while away from home. When Barlow and Smith have their last embrace, you can palpably sense through the actresses’ eyes and the delicate nuance of their body language how their characters will be leaving this summer forever changed. 

Sweetheart” screens at 7pm on Saturday, September 25th, at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St., and is available to stream from Tuesday, September 28th, through Monday, October 4th. 

Early on in “North by Current,” this year’s Documentary Centerpiece at Reeling, filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax gathers his family at a restaurant, one of their old haunts, where they sit in uneasy silence as J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers’ familiar cover of “Last Kiss” plays in the background. The moment is at once a humorous deconstruction of the documentary process—showing just how difficult it is for subjects to appear unguarded on camera—as well as a reflection of their inner grief, chillingly articulated by the song’s lyrics and triggered by the sudden passing of Minax’s niece. What seems to be, at the outset, a true crime thriller investigating whether abusive or negligent parenting resulted in the child’s death gradually unfolds into a much deeper meditation on the unspoken wounds that fester in a family to the point where they could prove fatal if kept indefinitely in the darkness. Some of the words shared between family members are scaldingly frank, such as when Minax’s mother likens his coming out as a trans man with the death of their grandchild, since in both cases, she and her husband found themselves grieving the loss of a girl. Minax’s use of narration is a masterstroke in how it allows him to have an inner dialogue with his younger self, voiced by Sigrid Harmon, whose words poetically set the tone for a film in which “time has no meaning.”

Even when streamed at home, Minax’s film is an utterly mesmerizing sensory experience, fusing foreboding photography with evocative home movie footage, original atonal flourishes with a sterling soundtrack and fragmented montages with shots that linger until they penetrate into your soul. The director repeatedly draws attention to the artifice of the film itself, such as with a staged image of his sister who is meant to look like she is holding her deceased daughter, and whose own mind is prone to cloaking wounds with illusions fed by denial. There is an amazing spontaneous monologue delivered by one of his young nieces, who observes with bracing clarity that her parents dislike one another, illustrating how very little escapes a child’s gaze. Minax makes no attempt to come across as faultless himself—his sister chides him for being abusive to her during their childhood—and he confesses that he has an empathy problem, though his film suggests otherwise. To him, sex and death are similar in how they are cosmic links to other worlds, and the same could be said of cinema. The images we see projected on a screen are moments from the past, gleaming like the light that emanates from stars long gone, yet the miracle of motion pictures brings them newfound life, providing us with a portal into the humanity of others. Few films in 2021 have affirmed this truth as extraordinarily as “North by Current.” It is one of the year’s best.

North by Current” screens at 5pm on Saturday, September 25th, at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St. (where Minax will be joining me for an audience Q&A), and is available to stream from Tuesday, September 28th, through Monday, October 4th.

To purchase tickets and for the full festival schedule, visit the official site of the Reeling Film Festival.

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