By Daniel Barnes
The 38th annual Mill Valley Film Festival wrapped up last night with a gala screening of Suffragette, starring an on-the-scene Carey Mulligan, as well as Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep. Suffragette is a legit awards season “contender,” so I’ll have ample opportunity to see it before any ballots get filled out. Instead, just as I’ve done for the entire festival, I spent the final weekend ignoring the awards bait and focusing on some of the more low-profile offerings.
Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation is probably the most “high-profile” MVFF38 film that I screened, a Netflix production about child soldiers in an unnamed African country. It features a show-stopping, speech-heavy supporting turn from Idris Elba as a deranged but determined rebel leader who abducts children into his guerrilla army, but the breakout performance comes from Abraham Attah as the young abductee Agu. The film is sensitive and powerful and maybe just a little too slick, and Fukunaga brings the same talent for incorporating racial and regional angst into a propulsive narrative that he showed in Sin Nombre and the first season of True Detective. It’s a solid film with some gutsy performances, but by no means is it a definitive or original vision.
The theme of third-world people displaced by war also figures heavily into Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or winner Dheepan, which centers on a Sri Lankan soldier who forms a “family” with two strangers to gain entrance into France. It’s one of the most emotionally visceral films of the year, a curious mix of rigorous asceticism and soap opera broadness, with a climactic action scene unlike anything I’ve ever seen, but the resolution comes so clean and comfortable that you wonder what all the wallowing was for in the first place.
Of course, why travel halfway across the world for child violence when you can buy domestic? Like last year’s highly underrated Palo Alto, Gabrielle Demeestere’s Yosemite adapts a book of James Franco short stories about Bay Area suburban angst into a scruffy anthology drama, with Franco himself playing a supporting part. Unlike Palo Alto, however, there’s no sense of vision or danger, with navel-gazing substituted for narrative coherence, and sleepiness for satire. It’s a barely watchable doodle, generously padded to reach feature-length, and James Franco completists should know that he’s gone for good after the first ten minutes.
Yosemite takes us to places that we’ve seen all too often on screen, but part of the thrill of the festival experience is finding a film that takes you somewhere you’ve never seen. On the other hand, Big Father, Small Father and Other Stories, a Vietnamese ramble that follows disaffected youth as they drift between the neon lights of Saigon and a more peaceful but less permissive boat life on the riverbeds, doesn’t pull out any new tricks. However, the contrasting vision of club life and traditional country life in contemporary Vietnam made up for the smallness of these stories.
Another unique cultural locus comes in Romanian director Radu Jude’s coarse and effective Aferim!, a shambling, deliberately paced ciorbă western about 19th-century father-and-son bounty hunters chasing a runaway slave. The father clings to traditional notions of gypsy depravity and the rule of law, passing those values onto his son/apprentice, but they get slowly eroded by the injustices they encounter on their journey. It’s a bawdy and brutal depiction of a Romanian frontier dominated by inhumanity and violence, sort of like Peckinpah with a neo-realist streak, loosely stitched together but surprisingly powerful.
The stark black-and-white photography is a highlight of Aferim!, but black-and-white is used to even greater effect in Ciro Guerra’s entrancing Embrace of the Serpent. This is a two-headed, cross-generational story about white explorers searching the Amazon for a mysterious plant, as well as the native who encounters them both at different stages of his life. Embrace of the Serpent is the kind of film that festivals like Mill Valley exist to spotlight: dark, challenging and provocative, with a focus on an underrepresented culture. It’s the discovery of the festival.