By William Wolf

NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS 2008  Send This Review to a Friend

With a New Directors/New Films showcase scheduled every year, the pressure is always on to find worthy new work. Inevitably the result is an odd mixture, as was the case in this year’s expedition (March 26-April 6) co-sponsored as usual by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art.

Of the sampling I was able to make, the most accomplished film that I saw was “Frozen River,” already picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics. This unusual drama, written and directed by Courtney Hunt, details the economic struggle of an upstate New York mother to raise her two sons after her gambling-addicted husband takes off with money intended to buy a new home and move from their trailer. But the power of the film lies in picturing a parallel struggle of a Native American woman and the involvement of both women in smuggling illegal immigrants across the border from Canada into the United States as a means of getting cash.

The story is one of desperation, risk and suspense, and in the process light is shed on a corner of the world not generally brought to the attention of the public or dramatized on film. The acting is superb, including by the extraordinary Melissa Leo as Ray Eddy, the trailer mom, and Misty Upham as Lila Littlewolf, who lives on a Mohawk reservation and has her own goal—retrieving her baby son from a mother-in-law determined to raise him as her own. These are broken lives that need fixing, and in the course of the tense, riveting drama the two women bond under their unusual circumstances. The audience is urged to feel for both of them as they work desperately to solve their respective problems and their fates are tossed together.

Hunt packs her film with visual detail and maintains the tension as events escalate and the complications mount. “Frozen River” bids to find a popular niche among audiences who like films that are special as opposed to Hollywood juggernauts.

My other favorite is a surprisingly involving documentary called “Moving Midway: A Southern Plantation in Transit.” A special pleasure lies in finding that it was made by a critic colleague, Godfrey Cheshire, who does the narration in good voice and most congenially, and also appears on camera. Ostensibly the film is a chronicle of moving a family home, Midway Plantation, which has a long history, from its original North Carolina location to a more secluded spot removed from the built-up area that has increasingly surrounded the house and grounds. The move was arranged by Cheshire’s cousin, Charles Hinton Silver, who owns the property, and Cheshire has many fond memories of having played there with his cousins and recollection of various relatives.

The engineering feat of the move would be a valid story in itself. But the most interesting part of the tale turns out to be Cheshire’s discovery that he has African-American relatives who are part of the Hinton family tree. Circumstances detailed in the film result in Cheshire making contact with Dr. Robert Hinton, a New York University historian with a specialty of African studies, whose grandfather was a slave on the Midway plantation. The two explore the history, and the results become fascinating.

The film could be trimmed some, but no matter. It is a major piece of Americana with interesting revelations and insights into history of the South. What’s more, Cheshire demonstrates that he can also do and not just critique. Few critics can make that claim.

“Ballast” is a first feature that is pretty much of a downer as writer/producer/director/editor Lance Hammer presents a documentary-style account of a family struggle in a Mississippi Delta town against poverty and hopelessness and the ever-present potential of violence. The story focuses on Marlee, a single mom having trouble making ends meet and looking after her son, James, who at 12 has to learn to fend for himself.

The opportunity for trouble is never far away, and James succumbs to doing an occasional drug drop. The situation becomes increasingly perilous, and as we follow developments one is drawn into the relentlessly bleak world. Tarra Riggs is effective as Marlee, Jimmyron Ross is convincing as James, and Michael J. Smith, Sr. is good in his important role as Lawrence.

“Jellyfish,” a new film from Israel by Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen, has already stirred international interest, including winning the Camera d’Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. It is an odd tale that ultimately raises questions about how much is real and how much is in the mind. The story involves Batya (Sarah Adler), a catering waitress who finds a child (Nikol Leidman), who seems to have been abandoned on a Tel Aviv beach, and begins look after her. There are issues in Batya’s life that give her a special reason for focusing on the child.

Among the characters we meet are Keren (Noa Knoller), a bride who breaks her leg in a bizarre accident at her wedding, and her husband—a couple who become increasingly ridiculous and boring as events play out. The film has a pretentious air to it, including symbolism of the sea, and perhaps thinking of people as jellyfish. The whole episode with the child takes on what might be seen as a metaphysical edge. Some may consider the film deep, but it tried my patience.

The most boring film that I saw was “We Went to Wonderland,” a documentary from China by writer/director/cinematographer Xiaolu Guo, who records her parents as they venture from their home in China to explore some of Europe. You’ve heard of the “ugly American” tourists who fail to appreciate anything they see in a foreign country and just long for home. This film proves that Americans aren’t the only such travelers.

The same can be said for this Chinese couple, especially the wife. They should have stayed home in the first place. Following them around becomes somewhat comical but basically annoying.

  

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