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Astonishing Debuts At Woodstock FF

  CHILDREN OF INVENTION    With a festival which prides itself as being “fiercely independent”, the Woodstock Film Festival, which concludes today, is committed to the discovery of new talents, both behind and in front of the screen. With budgets that are tight in the extreme, more often that not, the actors used are new to the screen and unknown to the public (I included myself in this). However, when a performance of great depth or realism is given by someone you do not know, my tendency is to pay very close attention to the end credits and learn the names of the actors who have so impressed me.  

That has happened more than a few times here in Woodstock. I was duly impressed by the performance of young Michael Chen as the older brother who, with his younger sister, must fend for themselves when their family is evicted from their home. Their odyssey, led by the instincts for survival portrayed by Chen, gives the semi-autobiographical CHILDREN OF INVENTION a great force. Directed by Tze Chun, recently names as one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film”, the film offers choice roles for a number of its child performers, but it is Michael Chen’s wise-beyond-his-years intensity that is the standout. 

 

The same can be said for the young actors who portray the high school lovers in director Cruz Angeles’ celebrated DON’T LET ME DROWN. EJ Bonilla plays a young Mexican boy living in Brooklyn, New York with his struggling immigrant family. Gleendylis Inoa portrays his girlfriend, a feisty young woman who lost a sister in the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11 and whose family is a cauldron of anger and despair. The two teens meet at a birthday party and though they start off on the wrong foot, eventually their budding friendship becomes a true romance. The performances by the two non-professional actors is breathtakingly authentic and quite moving. 

 

Another notable performance coming from the same milieu is given by  Paola Mendoza in the film ENTRE NOS. She portrays a trusting wife whose husband abandons her to the mean streets of Queens, New York, where she desperately looks for work to provide food and shelter for her young son and daughter. Mendoza gives a powerful performance as a woman who must keep her own personal desperation at bay in order not to frighten her young children, and who discovers her own ability to rise above her circumstances and offer her children an opportunity to better themselves. The fact that Mendoza not only is in practically every frame of the film, but also co-wrote and co-directed it, is an amazing achievement indeed. The final revelation that this is, in fact, the story of Mendoza’s mother, and that she was the innocent young daughter in the piece, gives the film an added resonance and power. 

 

It is certainly a challenge to portray the inner longings of characters who are dressed from head to toe in black suits, white shirts and wide-brimmed hats (not to mention long, flowing beards and sidelocks curls) but that only speaks to the accomplished acting by Zohar Strauss and Ron Danker as Hasidic Jews in EYES WIDE OPEN, a major “find” that had its US Premiere at the Festival. Set in the religious communities of Jerusalem, Strauss plays a married butcher who has inherited the business from his dead father, but is unhappy with his lot in life. He keeps his inner longings to himself, until he  brings in as an apprentice a mysterious younger man who ignites his physical and spiritual passions. Ran Danker, a teen idol in his native Israel, has a brooding charm and intoxicating physicality, and he makes the most of his role as a seductive charmer with a secret. Strauss, a veteran actor in Israeli television, seizes this lead role and gives it a lived-in quality that makes the conflict of the religious man’s conflicting duties and his desires have the authenticity of reality. The suggestion of a homosexual undercurrent in this religious Hasidic community is indeed controversial but debut director Haim Tabakman does not overplay the film’s sensationalism (although the physical scenes between the two nude men is not skimped on either) but offers an understated and powerful perspective that nobly meditates on the characters’ central conflicts. 

 

Ben Foster is an actor whose resume is growing (3:10 TO YUMA, 30 DAYS OF NIGHT) but his role in the drama THE MESSENGER is certain to get him noticed. He plays a war hero who is assigned to a “casualty notification team along with his gruff partner played with gusto by Woody Harrelson. Their job is to personally deliver the devastation news of a loved one’s death to their next of kin. Although he has distinguished himself on the field of combat, the Foster character is not quite sure that the ultimate sacrifice given by his fellow soldiers has been quite worth it. His own personal demons and anger only intensify as his internal and external scars are revealed. By questioning his role in the process and, in a greater sense, the goals of the military and government in general, he takes his first tentative steps towards his own healing. It is a powerful performance that again pits the two sides of a person….the duty they feel they must perform and the reality that their sacrifices may not have been worth the pain. 

 

The inner anguish is not quite as dramatic for the two brothers in the dramedy EASIER WITH PRACTICE, but the characters’ unrealized dreams are equally poignant. Newcomers Brian Geraghty and Kel O’Neill have a lived-in, been-there-done-that quality as the older writer and his younger, looser sibling. In an attempt to promote his unpublished novel, the older bro sets up a road trip and invites his younger bro to come along. The road trip genre is well established to be about what the characters believe it to be (book promotion) but ultimately about what the characters discover (mainly themselves). The relationship between the two unravels as the odometer ratchets up the mileage, with the idealism turning sour very quickly and leaving both in a lonely and unfulfilling place. When the older brother gets a random call in a motel room from a mysterious woman, a relationship that starts with casual phone sex soon evolves, creating even more of a wedge of bitterness between the two siblings. The film, which won the Best International Film prize at the Edinburgh Film Festival, mines the rich cache of sibling rivalry, bitterness and the ultimate bond that unites the two, with a sharp script by debut writer/director Kyle Patrick Alvarez, making his feature film directorial debut. The Los Angeles-based filmmaker began his career as an assistant to legendary director and actor Warren Beatty….and if there is not a film there, I will eat my fedora. 

 

These performers and filmmakers are ones we will certainly hear more about. For more information on these and other films at the festival, visit: www.woodstockfilmfestival.com

 

Sandy Mandelberger, Film New York Editor 

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