The hybrid in-person and online version of the Bentonville Film Festival wrapped up this weekend, with drive-in films, virtual panel discussions and a host of films to choose from. Here are a few from the many offerings to keep in your sights.
Directed by Lynn Montgomery
Grace Fisher was a happy-go-lucky, musically-gifted teen who dreamt of being a professional musician. But on her 17th birthday, she developed severe pain in her back that sent her to the hospital. Before long, she was unable to walk or even breathe on her own, having been struck by acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), an extremely rare spinal condition that has no apparent cause—and no known cure.
It’s an awful hand to be dealt, with the young lady confined to a wheelchair and unable to use any of her limbs; playing instruments is in her past. But rather than sink into bitterness, Grace redirects her energies into composing, with the help of technology and computer programs—and no small amount of patience and love from her parents and sister—that allow her to orchestrate. No less an authority than Oscar-winning composer Justin Hurwitz (“La La Land”) visits her at home in Santa Barbara, and his praise of her work is neither forced nor given lightly.
This enchanting hour-long documentary culminates with Grace’s composition, “Waltz of the Waves,” being performed live in her honor.
Grace Fisher refused to take no for an answer, even when fate and the universe immobilized her. But her easy smile, gracious manner and unquestionable talents were not to be denied. May she find the audience she so deserves. (Interview forthcoming in Screen Comment.)
Directed by Mike Mosallam
How is it that Mohammed’s (Haaz Sleiman) parents are so accepting of him being gay when the reality for so many other Muslim-Americans is so harsh? That’s just one of the many interesting dynamics that writer-director Mike Mosallam explores in “Breaking Fast,” which begins on one Ramadan iftar and then jumps to another a year later. Mohammed—who often goes by Mo—is a successful doctor who is out of the closet to his family and friends, but that certainly doesn’t mean he’s accepting of all points of view. In fact, while Mo does his best to be a good Muslim, his best friend Sam (Amin El Gamal), who is also gay, views the religion as antiquated and hateful. Mo’s life is complicated further when he is introduced to Kal (Michael Cassidy), an intelligent diplomat’s son. Mo senses immediately there could be romance, but after a previous dramatic breakup, he is hesitant for reasons that will become clear later.
Mosallam’s screenplay is smart in having Mo be out of the closet at the start, and thus the tension of how his traditional family and friends might react is already astern, but an early scene of him conversing with a still-closeted friend shows what so many stand to lose.
And even out, Mo still faces a host of new issues, not the least of which is can he love someone who doesn’t view Islam the same way he does? And how much do secrets really say about someone you’re trying to get to know?
“Julia Scotti: Funny That Way”
Directed by Susan Sandler
Rick Scotti was a self-deprecating stand-up comedian who harbored a vague sense of unhappiness. But just as his career seemed to be catching fire, he walked away, got married and then announced he was in fact transgender and would become a woman.
Susan Sandler’s documentary follows Scotti, now known as Julia, as she reemerges into the standup world, sporting a new routine that soon catches the eyes of “America’s Got Talent.” It’s a fascinating journey into what it means to be yourself, and all that that bromide entails.
“Ahead of the Curve”
Directed by Jen Rainin
The lesbian magazine was called “Deneuve,” and, unsurprisingly, a certain actress with the same surname sued. Deneuve became “Curve,” but the story behind that publication is the history of the lesbian movement for equality of the last half-century. This documentary shows how the magazine sought to give greater visibility to lesbian culture, and one of the unshocking bits is how many celebrities were sympathetic to the cause but not yet out—that is, until Melissa Etheridge said yes to being on the cover. Then came Ellen.
“Ahead of the Curve” takes as its main character the magazine’s longtime publisher, Frances “Franco” Stevens, who is struck by a horrible accident that renders her immobile, but nonetheless she soldiers on and encourages others to do the same.
An interesting look at a rather unknown subchapter in our cultural story.
Directed by Sonia Lowman
“If dead or in jail is all we have, we have failed.”
That’s only one of the heartrending observations in Sonia Lowman’s documentary about the experience of America’s young black men. One after another, the interviewees relate stories of, at best, bias and discrimination and, at worst, assault by their fellow citizens and/or the police. A professor at UC Berkeley, who is elderly and walks with a cane, tells of having the police called on him one day for “appearing threatening.”
Of course, this is not new, and the sad, sad story of 2020 cannot be told without going all the way back to 1619, when the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia. Slavery gave way to Jim Crow, and even though such policies have since been outlawed, they nonetheless still inform our country’s public policies, law enforcement and culture.
You cannot get to George Floyd without acknowledging that 2020 in America wasn’t preceded by 2019 but rather by 401 years of inequality.
“Nobody cares when we die,” one teen says about his first experience of going to a funeral for one of his friends. To this it is our solemn duty to respond, “We haven’t, but we must!”
(featured image is a still from “Ahead of the curve”)