SANTA BARBARA FILM FESTIVAL: 6 great films to check out

Last Updated: February 23, 2023By Tags: ,

Festival season is in full swing, with some astonishing films that are sure to either be seen in a theaters or on a streaming platform soon. Here are six films from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2023 that you’ll want to keep on your radar this spring:

“26.2 TO LIFE”
Director: Christine Yoo

Amid the ongoing conversation about prison reform, documentarian Christine Yoo has gone inside San Quentin to learn more about members of the 1000 Mile Club, a long-distance running club wherein participants run the 26.2 miles of a marathon—all within the exercise yard. This is not a running film, but rather one that forces us to learn more about the incarcerated as people with hopes, dreams and regrets for horrific misdeeds that have landed them behind bars—some for the rest of their lives. The documentary is inspiring considering that one of the men subsequently released from San Quentin, Markelle, eventually runs the Boston Marathon, partly thanks to the support network that worked with him during his incarceration.

We also learn that none of those members of the 1000 Mile Club released from prison have yet reoffended, which makes yet another argument for rehabilitation versus warehousing. “26.2 to Life” justly won SBIFF’s Audience Choice Award last week.

Director: Paul Freedman

Paul Freedman has spent his professional career traveling to so-called “shithole countries” to document human rights abuses and poverty, but for “The Dirty Divide” he trains his camera in his own backyard. Los Angeles’s Skid Row has become infamous for its unhoused population and “tent cities,” which various administrations in City Hall have tried to change. There is no easy answer to any of this, even if politicians and law enforcement try to “get tough” and move tents and people by force. Sometimes this results in terrible violence, as Freedman documents.

It’s easy to point fingers and label L.A.’s unhoused population lazy or there “by choice,” but Freedman is out to show that in addition to systemic inequities that give rise to such urban blight in one of the wealthiest cities on earth, the people who live in Skid Row are not merely drug addicts but those who fell on hard times and often suffer from mental illness—but who possess incredible talent, such as the blues guitarist he meets. One of the most inspiring moments is watching a recording session for a gospel choir of the unhoused that activists help put together and connect with music industry personnel.

It’s a difficult issue, and the problem only gets worse as the chasm between the very rich and the very poor in the shadow of Hollywood continues to expand—much like the fault lines that run beneath the city of dreams.

Directors: Miriam McSpadden and Brian Beckman

Andrea Lytle Peet was looking forward to starting a family, but in her early thirties she was diagnosed with ALS, which threatened not only her desire for motherhood but her lifelong love of exercising and marathons. However, this extraordinary woman refused to hear the word no, and became determined to become the first person afflicted with ALS to complete a marathon in all 50 states. Miriam McSpadden and Brian Beckman spent years with Peet, who not only breaks the “typical” lifespan of two years post-diagnosis but inspires others with her “Team Drea” as it raises funds for research. Even covid-19 couldn’t slow their subject down, as she continued training even during the pandemic to complete her 50 marathons. Her husband David and her supporters are always there to cheer her on, but never pushing her in her reclining bike; Peet will complete each race under her own power.

Peet is an inspiration, and she continues her work and her advocacy through her foundation.

To donate, go to

Director: Christopher Burke

Brian Wallach was still relatively young when he, too learned he had ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. “No Ordinary Campaign” sees Wallach, a lawyer who worked in the Obama administration, using his voice and his network to lobby Congress to pass new funding to battle the disease—with his supportive wife Sandra Abrevaya ever by his side. Wallach’s former boss Barack Obama shows up in the doc, as do Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, whose Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is working to raise money and awareness of this dreadful disease.

Writer-director: Vuk Lungulov-Klotz

Lio Mehiel stars as Feña, a transgender man whose family and friends struggle with his identity. Early on, Feña runs across an old boyfriend from the time when he was still a girl. This relationship is tender, with the former beaux still attracted to the soul within the body that is now far more masculine. Mehiel is stunning in their performance as Feña, and the film walks a very tight line between drama, dark comedy and an entreaty to empathy (featured image).

Writers-Directors: Francisco Lopez, Mitchka Saberi

In this rather touching short drama, Vilma Vega and Alex Borbon star as a mother and son on opposite sides of the Mexican border traveling to meet one another. We see the son commence his journey in his truck in the United States while his mother boards a bus in Mexico. The story will end in a touchingly unexpected way, with directors Lopez and Saberi using a drone shot to remind us that national borders are arbitrary—and often cut through families caught in the middle of such boundaries.

(Featured image: “Mutt”)