The Vancouver International Film Festival in review

A couple films to remember as this year’s festival comes to an end

Jon Bernthal stars in this small-town Alaska Neo-Noir. (Photo courtesy of VIFF)

By: Tessa Perkins and Winona Young

Sweet Virginia – directed by Jamie M. Dagg

Three men play Texas Hold ‘em in a bar after hours. A stone-faced man sits at a booth and demands the early bird special after being told that the bar is closed. He returns moments later and guns down all three men. The problem is, he was only supposed to kill one of those men. Filmed in Hope, BC, (standing in for a small-town in Alaska) this crime drama is a tension-filled film that opens with a bang and slowly burns toward a predictable end.  

     With plenty of infidelity, secrets, and betrayal, director Jamie M. Dagg’s film mostly focuses on Sam, a former rodeo star (the wonderful, brooding Jon Bernthal of The Walking Dead). At first, the switches in perspective are confusing as it seems the protagonist will be the killer-for-hire, Elwood (Christopher Abbott), although he does still figure prominently as he is staying at Sam’s motel, the Sweet Virginia. Lila (Imogen Poots) who hired Elwood is a classic femme fatale, and Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt) is Sam’s vulnerable love interest.

An enjoyable neo-noir, Sweet Virginia is a wonderful blend of suspense and action. – TP   

The Florida Project – directed by Sean Baker

The Florida Project is a poignant, sympathetic, and introspective film surrounding the lives of a family and people living on the outskirts of a Disneyland in modern Orlando.

     The film is a slow soak in the lives of the residents at a motel in Florida. It centres around a young, rambunctious child, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), along with her short-tempered, free-spirited mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). The two take an extended stay in a motel (known as the Magic Castle) run by Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the manager. Moonee, along with the rest of the residents and children of the motel, create a wonderful juxtaposition between a childhood fantasy world and the struggles that many children face today. In addition to the moving story, the cinematography is colourful and arresting. Shots often go moment-to-moment through different characters’ lives, with each seamlessly blending into one another.

     The drama and comedy balance each other out with the shenanigans of Moonee and her ragtag team, the ever-reluctant Bobby, and the zany motel residents. The bond between Moonee and Halley is especially touching and leads to intimate moments as they weather problem after problem together.

     By far what is most notable about Baker’s film is that it paints a picture of hardship without turning it into what some people call ‘poverty porn.’ Baker, along with the help of a stellar cast, creates an honest story of the impoverished, emphasizing not only their status, but the lives they lead as people. – WY

Lady Bird – directed by Greta Gerwig

With razor-sharp mother-daughter dialogue and a stunning performance from Saorise Ronan as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, this is a sharp-witted coming-of-age story set in 2002 Sacramento. Christine is in her final year at a Catholic high school and dreaming of college on the East Coast. She yearns to escape the “Midwest of California” and her daily battles with her mother, but she eventually realizes that home is something you appreciate much more once you leave.  

     Part ode to her hometown and part loving portrait of growing up in a small town in the early 2000s, writer-director Greta Gerwig crafts a nuanced tale of teenage angst. Quirky Christine and her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), spend their days binging on communion crackers, signing up for the school musical, and developing crushes on students and teachers. Lady Bird’s overworked mom (Laurie Metcalf) doesn’t think she has what it takes to get into an East Coast school and is concerned about the cost, but Christine is determined to go her own way.

     There are plenty of unexpected, dark, and funny scenes. Life seems pretty stale in Christine’s sleepy town, but she is an inspiring character who chases her dreams and does things her own way in spite of everyone else. – TP

Loving Vincent – directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman

This film touts itself as “the world’s first fully painted feature” film. A biopic about the life and death of Vincent van Gogh, Loving Vincent is a visually breathtaking film that’s weakened by lacklustre writing.

     The film takes place a year after the death of Vincent (Robert Gulaczyk). A young Armand Roulin (played by a charming and surly Douglas Booth) is given the task of travelling to France to deliver Vincent’s last letter to his brother, Theo. Armand embarks on a journey, interviewing people Vincent has painted in an effort to complete his task and understand the events that led to his demise.

     Right off the bat, the film is nothing short of a masterpiece in motion, showcasing the beauty of van Gogh’s iconic Impressionistic style. However, due to the large cast size, characters had little time to experience a full character arc, resulting in (literally) two-dimensional performances. A few exceptional performances include Game of Thrones’ Jerome Flynn, who gave a stirring performance as the remorseful Dr. Gachet, and the hilarious Bill Thomas as the manic Dr. Mazery.

     By far the weakest aspect of the film’s writing is its foray into a mysterious, whodunnit story as Armand interviews character after character about Vincent. It felt less like a film, and more like a detective role-playing game with each interview resulting in a flashback, similar to a cut scene out of a video game.

     Overall, what unfolds is a collaborative portrait of Vincent van Gogh, painted in his style. While beautiful, and at times quite stirring, it ultimately falls flat as a story. – WY