LAFF 2011: Narrative Feature Competition Wrap

Festivals Editor; Los Angeles, California (@RylandAldrich)
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LAFF 2011: Narrative Feature Competition Wrap

LA Film Fest is just about wrapped up and awards have been announced for the Narrative Competition films premiering at this year's festival. The $15,000 top Narrative Prize went to Stéphane Lafleur's Familiar Ground. While I have yet to catch Lafleur's French-Canadian deadpan comedy, I did see and like How to Cheat - which took home the Best Performance award for the ensemble cast of Amber Sealey, Kent Osborne, Amanda Street, and Gabriel Diamond. Here's a quick look at a few of the competition films premiering at this year's fest:

My pick of the competition lineup is Mike Akel's An Ordinary Family. This very well scripted verite piece, co-written and produced by Matthew Patterson, takes us inside a family vacation that becomes a bit less relaxed when patriarchal preacher Thomas (Troy Schremmer) is faced with his brother Seth's (Greg Wise) homosexuality upon the surprise arrival of Seth's partner. With strong performances across the board, the film does an excellent job of giving the audience something to connect with in each character, regardless of what opinions we bring with us into the theater. Similar to his first feature, the teacher mockumentary Chalk, Akel presents his subject in a style balanced very well between honesty and entertainment.

A film that works less well is Nicholas Ozeki's feature debut Mamitas. This familiar story of a troubled teen and the girl who helps him get his act together is easily pigeon-holed as the LA version of Peter Sollett's Raising Victor Vargas. Unfortunately Ozeki falls victim to some nasty clichés that keep his film from achieving the authenticity that Sollett's has. When will filmmakers realize that putting glasses and frumpy clothes on a pretty girl is not enough character to earn to obligatory third act romance that always blossoms when the cool guy realizes the prettiest girl of all was always right there under his nose? Although the kids are quite likable, they aren't enough to save the film from the clichés, some sloppy plot problems and a final act that goes on just too long.

When Kent Osborne's Mark strips off his clothes and spends the first two minutes of Amber Sealey's How to Cheat dancing around his Silverlake lawn like a naked mad man, we know we are at least in for something different. This sometimes uncomfortably graphic (see opening scene) warts-and-all sophomore feature from Sealey is the story of people who just want to be happy. With his marriage to Beth (Sealey) on the rocks, Mark decides to look for love outside his marital confines and embarks on an online dating adventure - telling the women upfront that he is married and just looking for a good time. The strength of Sealey's film lies in the entertainingly honest performances of her characters. Shot without a script, some of the actors who play the women Mark dates weren't even told in advance that he was married. What follows is often unpredictable and the plot that develops is as genuine as it is a fun ride.

One ride that stalls before leaving the driveway is Matthew Gordon's coming-of-age tale of Middle Americana, The Dynamiter. Gordon's feature debut is the story of young Robbie (William Ruffin), a troubled boy of barely 14 who is forced into the family's patriarchal role. With his mom gone to find a better life, it is up to Robbie to provide for his slightly retarded (?) younger brother, slightly senile (?) grandmother, and mostly absent deadbeat older brother. This heavy handed story feels trapped in another time period - a world where people still got work pumping other people's gas. The top 40 college radio soundtrack featuring Mumford and Sons only serves to pull the audience right out of this world. With a bit more work this could have been set in the 1980 time period it probably should have been. But even that wouldn't have been enough to rescue the film from it sloppy script and rather poor performances.

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