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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: American Indian Fest's 'Beans' captures pivotal First...

Screen Grabs: American Indian Fest’s ‘Beans’ captures pivotal First Nations struggle

Plus: Kristen Stewart as Diana, 'Gaza Mon Amour,' human trafficking in Brazil, Millennial non-monogamy, more new movies

For its 46th annum, the SF-based American Indian Film Festival is sticking to a pandemic-conscious virtual format, offering streaming movies and online events Fri/5 through Sat/13. The 126 titles, including 41 world premieres, will be available on-demand throughout the fest’s span. That program also includes the American Indian Motion Picture Awards Show, whose nominees encompass such 2021 AIFF highlights as coming-of-age tale Portraits From a Fire, 18th-century adventure Sooyii aka Creature, inspirational semi-fantasy Run Woman Run, Manitoba-set drama The Corruption of Divine Providence, reservation comedy Indian Road Trip, and tough-minded character study Brother, I Cry. 

Beyond those Best Feature candidates, the festival offers a wide range of documentaries, shorts, LGBTQIA-themed works, animation, portraits of activism in action, history lessons, and genre exercises including a generous helping of horror. Content can be viewed on most home devices (computer, Roku, AppleTV) via Eventive. For full festival catalogue as well as other info, go here.

Among the AIFF movies this year is Beans, which it is also presenting at an in-person screening at the Roxie this Sun/7 (more info here); in addition, the movie is available On Demand as of Fri/5. Canadian writer-director Tracey Deer’s debut feature is another coming-of-age tale, albeit one significantly backgrounded by a key event in her Mohawk people’s recent history. Known variably as the Kanesatake Resistance and the Oka Crisis, it was a 77-day standoff in 1990 between French-Canadian residents and tribal ones over planned expansion of a golf course further onto disputed lands, including Native burial grounds. Long-simmering tensions boiled over, resulting in a Mohawk blockade of the area that drew bitter opposition from white citizens.

Violence escalated, with two fatalities resulting, though finally a resolution was reached, and in the long run the whole widely-reported conflict was a significant win in terms of raising awareness and respect for First Nations rights in Canada. 

Beans deploys actual news footage from three decades ago, but is primarily centered on Tekehentakhwa aka Beans (Kiawentiio). a girl on the brink of adolescence who is studious, dutiful, and has lived a fairly sheltered life with her younger sister (Violah Beauvais), under the care of two quarrelsome but upstanding parents (Rainbow Dickerson, Joel Montgrand). Yet as their lives are turned upside down by the protest which Dad, in particular, takes part in, as well as the open hostility shown Mohawks by townies as a result, Beans begins to act out. Sick of being the “good girl,” wanting to be cool, she begins hanging out with some “bad” teens, notably Paulina Alexis as hard case April. Under their dubious influence, she grows up way too fast before realizing these cool kids are, in fact, broken and unhappy. 

Deer was a child witness to the factual events depicted, so it’s a little odd that this clearly semi-autobiographical story should so often come off as a rather generic coming-of-age tale, a sort of audiovisual YA novel. Technically well-crafted, and well-cast, it’s heavy-handed and maudlin at times. Still, even the cliches it purveys are offered from a cultural perspective seldom given voice in narrative cinema, with the recent Canadian history lesson a major bonus. 

Plenty of other interesting movies arriving this weekend:

Spencer
This conspicuously Oscar-baiting new drama is, of course, about the late Princess Diana, played by Kristin Stewart—who is much better than you may expect, having largely expunged her familiar mannerisms (and voice) for this role. The film is set over Christmas in 1991, when the Royal Family has gathered as usual at their ginormous Sandringham Estate. But while press is banned from the grounds, this is not exactly an occasion on which to let one’s hair down. There are plenty of traditional protocols to observe, and in what by then has become her well-known dissatisfaction as a wife and public figure, Diana manages to break with nearly all of them, heightening general “concern” that she is a “problem.” 

Nearly an hour goes by before we even see her interact with Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) or the Queen (Stella Gonet)—but then, they are people she is especially keen to avoid, insofar as she can. Instead, she prefers to recklessly confide in “the help,” notably figures played by Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, and Sean Harris. Even they caution her that “Some things are best not said aloud.” But like a high-strung thoroughbred ready to bolt the corral at so much as a pin-drop, she can hardly help kicking up dust—or itching to flee.

Chilean director Pablo Larrain has had a fascinating, unpredictable career to date. But I can’t say I loved his 2016 Jackie, with Natalie Portman as the future Mrs. Onassis immediately after JFK’s assassination, and Spencer is ultimately too similar: Two hours of celebrity voyeurism, watching a famous person’s imagined private distress at a notorious personal low point. Despite the intriguing ephemera of servant-security armies and cold material splendor, not to mention Stewart’s admirable performance, this is also a film that assumes we’ll be riveted by the (dramatized) presence of a real-life luminary primarily made interesting by the intrusive media glare they resented.

We feel sorry for this Diana, like any bird in a gilded cage. Arguably not enough, however, to lend enough weight to a movie that sometimes feels like one long montage of crying scenes and elaborate wardrobe changes. But then, I never quite understood the cult of Diana. If you do, Spencer (which opens in theaters-only Fri/5) may feel like an indelible tour de force.

Mark, Mary + Some Other People
A very different take on marriage (and infidelity) is offered by actor Hannah Marks’ second feature as writer-director. Mark (Ben Rosenfield) and Mary (Hayley Law) are two creative LA twentysomethings working marginal jobs to pay the bills. They meet under inauspicious circumstances, but click nonetheless, and get married. Yet before long, Mary (whose prior relationships have been with both men and women) proposes they open their relationship to “ethical non-monogamy.” Needless to say, that gets… complicated.

This is the kind of enterprise that’s both eager to please and a little too pleased with itself, about which you’re afraid you can say nothing more than “It’s quirky!” These characters initially seem so childish it’s hard to give a shit about them, no matter how clever and adorable the actors playing them are. (And they really are.) Yet the film keeps getting better, from being fun in a bright, superficial, overly-puppyish way to actually having some depth, unexpected turns, and acquired wisdom—reflecting its protagonists’ own developmental arc. If at first it threatens to be a “These millennials are so annoying to everyone but themselves” experience, by the end I found myself thinking that the sky might be the limit for Marks’ future behind the camera. Mark, Mary… releases Fri/5 to limited theaters and On Demand platforms.

Gaza Mon Amour
By contrast, only an occupation, meddling relatives, and mile-high social proprieties keep apart the 60-ish main figures in Tarzan and Arab Nasser’s low-key seriocomedy. Fisherman/fishmonger Issa (Salim Daw) is in love with Siham (Hiam Abbass), a widowed seamstress who lives with her scandalously divorced daughter. That doesn’t mean he’s actually spoken to her, of course. Police raids, checkpoints, and some business with a very surprising catch-of-the-day (Issa accidentally snares ancient Greek statuary in his net) all conspire make this courtship one that may terminate before it’s even started. 

One might wonder, why bother to make such an apolitical, almost innocuous romance in such a politically fraught place? But the extent to which it avoids foregrounding obvious larger issues underlines the fragility of everyday lives lived in a de facto war zone, rendering small, banal matters of the heart all the more poignant. Palestine’s Oscar candidate this year, Gaza Mon Amour releases Fri/5 to limited theaters (none in the Bay Area) and On Demand platforms. 

7 Prisoners
There’s no such respite from injustice or abuse in this second feature from Brazilian Alexandre Moratto, who won justifiably high praise for his 2019 debut Socrates. That film’s lead Christian Malheiros is back, this time as Mateus, who along with several other country lads accepts what sounds like a good job offer in Sao Paolo. But upon being delivered to junkyard overseer Luca (Rodrigo Santoro), these naive, mostly illiterate young men soon realize they’ve been lured into slave labor, with their families threatened if they even try to escape. It’s a miserable situation Mateus tries to improve by becoming indispensable to their merciless boss. But that only creates a widening gulf between him and the other captive laborers, affording the kind of power which almost inevitably corrupts.

This is a bleak, brutal tale that touches on various forms of human trafficking and other, interlocking criminal enterprises like the concurrent Snakehead. More excitingly thriller-like than Socrates, it’s less touching, but certainly offers further proof that Moretto has a major career ahead of him. 7 Prisoners opens in limited theaters (including Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas) Fri/5, then premieres on Netflix next Thurs/11. 

The Beta Test
A similar suspense of no-exit entrapment, albeit waaaaay up the socioeconomic ladder, is played for queasy laughs in this latest feature from director-producer-writer-star Jim Cummings. Sharing the writing-directing duties this time with PJ McCabe (who also plays a best-friend character), he is in much the same terrain as prior vehicles Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow, essaying another protagonist on the precipice of a spectacular nervous breakdown. This time it’s Jordan, a Hollywood talent agent whose everyday anxiety on the job and additional ones about his impending marriage to live-in fiancee Caroline (Virginia Newcomb) find a pressure-relief valve when he gets a mystery invitation—to anonymous sex with a stranger in a hotel room. 

This interlude does prove freeing, briefly. But then Jordan worries it’s some kind of conspiracy to undermine him, via blackmail, or simply more of the humiliation his chosen career seems to be forever doling out. Like The Player and many another Hollywood satire, this one becomes a kind of paranoid nightmare: A dive down a rabbit’s hole of agency-speak, psychological torture, too much privilege (that’s still never enough), plus the kind of role-playing that annihilates the self. We can’t always tell if Jordan is experiencing something or imagining it, particularly in truth-telling moments like the one where Caroline—finally at the end of her empathetic rope—says “I get it: It must be absolutely exhausting pretending to be you.” 

These three Cummings movies to date, while toying with different genres, have been so essentially similar one fears his bag o’ tricks might empty out soon. Still, it hasn’t yet, and he’s really got something: A gift for pushing a Jim Carrey-Ryan Reynolds-esque manic cartoon of Nice Guyness to eccentric extremes, and building entire, accessibly oddball movies to support that. They’re all farces of painful catharsis bordering on psychosis. This is the most discomfiting among them yet, a feel-bad comedy that refuses to tell you: “Don’t worry, it’s just all in fun—he’ll be fine now.” Oh no he won’t. Cummings’ high-wire act continues to impress, but frankly I do hope it’s very much an act. When someone vibrates at this kind of frequency at length, you can’t help but worry a little about them. The Beta Test opens Fri/5 in limited theaters as well as on Digital and On Demand platforms. 

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