A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the 31st annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival, which was held in person from November 3-13 in venues across the St. Louis area as well as online. Among the films I got to watch in person were Nikyatu Jusu’s stunning debut feature “Nanny” (automatically one of my favorites of the year; it’s coming to Prime Video next month), Elegance Bratton’s buzzy autobiographical drama “The Inspection” (which was accompanied by a riveting Q&A with Bratton after the screening), and “Living,” a sumptuous remake of Akira Kurosawa’s drama “Ikiru” that moves the action to Britain. But I also watched three films from female filmmakers (all first features) on the festival’s virtual platform that I found fascinating for differing reasons and wanted to spotlight. You can find my mini-reviews of “Balloon Animal,” “The Moon and Back,” and “You Resemble Me” below.
“BALLOON ANIMAL” dir. Em Johnson
A traveling circus provides a uniquely colorful backdrop to this pleasant coming-of-age story written and directed by Em Johnson in her feature debut. Poppy Valentine (Katherine Waddell) makes balloon animals at her father Dark’s (Ilia Volok) circus, but her duties venture beyond that role, to magician’s assistant to helping manage the other acts. Dark wants to make his daughter an assistant manager, but as their current season is winding down to a close, Poppy—in her mid-20s, circus life supposedly the only life she’s really known— isn’t sure. A meet-cute with an awkward local boy named Drew (Michael David Wilson) at a gas station prompts Poppy to reevaluate what she wants to do with her life, but Johnson sidesteps the expected romance angle in favor of showing the ways that their budding relationship reveals to Poppy the kind of life she could have instead, a sedentary one in the small town the circus is currently parked in. Naturally, this leads to conflict both with her father and with her two friends her age in the circus (Erin Rae Li and Danielle Baez), who can’t comprehend why Poppy wants to leave or, more importantly, why she never discussed these feelings with them. Waddell is a charming lead who aptly blends Poppy’s street smarts with her uncertainty of where she’s at in life, and it’s refreshing to see a coming of age story centered around a protagonist who is older than a teenager, along with the recognition that a person can “come of age” at any age. Johnson doesn’t play with the circus backdrop quite as much as she could have (we don’t get many glimpses of it outside of a couple of scenes, including one in which the community must clean up after the circus is vandalized overnight), but she does recognize that life is messy, and appropriately closes this chapter of Poppy’s life on notes that are equal parts unsure and hopeful.
“THE MOON AND BACK” dir. Leah Bleich
Filmmaking can serve as a conduit to processing what is happening in the world around you and to you, something writer and director Leah Bleich expresses a clear-eyed view of with her debut feature, “The Moon and Back.” Created as part of the Six Feet Apart Project, which grants budding filmmakers mentorship, $50,000, and nine days to produce their feature scripts, Bleich’s film—set in the early 2000s— possesses a charming low-tech aesthetic that serves its premise well. The film opens with a montage of home videos filmed on a clunky VHS camera and depicting the life of the Gilbert family: the marriage of Diane (Missi Pyle) and Peter (Nat Faxon), the birth of their daughter Lydia (Isabel May), their happy home life punctuated by movie screenings and dance parties, and Peter’s eventual cancer diagnosis. After Peter’s passing, mother and daughter are estranged in their grief, and Lydia’s good-natured high school counselor Mr. Martin (P.J. Byrne) fails to reach her both about her feelings and about her college applications. Urged by her mother to find something productive to work on (“you’ve spent the last year on pause,” she tells her), Lydia decides to make a movie out of a half-finished sci-if script of her father’s that she finds, armed only with his old camera and zero filmmaking knowledge (she wraps filming only to realize that she has no clue how to edit). But she is assisted by a rekindled friendship with her geeky neighbor Simon (Miles Gutierrez-Riley), an assembly of amateur actors, her mom’s new friend George (Roman Michael), Mr. Martin, and a drive to do something that would make her father proud. In only 74 minutes, “The Moon and Back” nails that feeling of aimlessness that accompanies grief. Perhaps a longer runtime would have allowed for a more nuanced portrait of some of the relationships, especially the integral mother and daughter one, but the movie rarely feels slight. The film is alternately funny, charming, and sad, and Bleich’s script and May’s earnest performance also understand that sometimes, teenagers are just flat out selfish and mean. The cleverness of a movie that otherwise could have just tread over familiar terrain is perhaps best summed up in a scene in which Simon decides that Lydia needs to watch some great movies to learn how to make a great movie, but not by showing her scenes, but rather by acting them out with her. It’s a lovely scene that wonderfully encapsulates the film’s winning qualities: portraying how a community can come together to make something, and process what they are feeling through it.
“YOU RESEMBLE ME” dir. Dina Amer
It’s admirable that reporter-turned-filmmaker Dina Amer refuses to compromise her vision for her debut feature, even at the risk of losing bigger financiers, although the final product—which merges a fictionalized narrative with documentary—fast becomes too muddled to assemble as clear a picture of its subject as intended. Amer was an on the ground reporter during the 2015 Saint-Denis raid, during which French police engaged in a shootout in the Paris suburb with suspected members of ISIL that culminated in the death of three people: Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind of a series of coordinated attacks across Paris that took place a few days earlier; Chakib Akrouh, a purported participant in the attacks; and Abaaoud’s cousin Hasna Aït Boulahcen. Hasna was initially incorrectly reported to be a suicide bomber only to later be proved a causality of another bomber’s attack, and Amer spent hours upon hours interviewing Hasna’s family to gain as much insight into her as possible for this film. As brutal as it can be at times to watch, “You Resemble Me” starts out much stronger than it finishes, as it peers into Hasna’s fraught childhood. Never noticed by her abusive mother, Hasna sees herself reflected the most in the image of her younger sister Mariam (the pair are played by real-life sisters Lorenza and Ilonna Grimaudo), but they are torn apart when authorities catch them and place them in separate foster families. The scene in which the sisters are wrenched apart is arresting, but Mariam’s involvement is minimal after the story fast-forwards to find Hasna as an adult (played by Mouna Soualem, a strong lead who is really put through the ringer) still drifting and alone and unsure of her identity or purpose, working as a drug dealer and a prostitute until a news report prompts her to reconnect with her extremist cousin. But the film races through her radicalization (this is reflected in the film’s editing, which makes it seem as if the film is fast-forwarding through large chunks of time to get to the ending without really sitting with Hasna and her feelings), and the news reports that comprise the movie’s jarring documentary-like finale emphasize the media’s rush to label her, but fail to provide a suitable resolution to or understanding of not only the conflict, but Hasna as a person. The media defines her by her gender, her upbringing, and her penchant for wearing a cowboy hat, but often so does “You Resemble Me.” If Amer’s goal was to assemble a portrait of who Hasna was beyond the media reports while providing a cautionary tale of rapid radicalization, “You Resemble Me” is only limply successful at either.
“You Resemble Me” is now playing in select theaters. Runtime: 91 minutes.