By Brian Skutle
I have two documentaries that screened at the 2023 Atlanta Film Festival that I wasn’t able to watch at the festival, but hope to review later in the month, but before that happens, I wanted to highlight some of my favorites of the festival, feature films, short films, and performances from women and POC that I’ve found myself thinking about as I wrapped up my viewing for the festival. All told, I watched 68 features and short films from the festival, and it was a wide, rich variety.
Favorite Feature Films
–”Wilder Than Her”.- I wrote about Jessica Kozak’s psychological thriller for the League when I caught up with it virtually the last weekend of the festival. When three “friends” go on a camping trip to pay tribute to a friend who died, they find out how tentative the connections of friendships truly are as realities about the nature of their bonds come to the forefront. I’m still haunted by this film.
–”Silent Beauty”– Jasmin Mara Lopez’s haunting documentary looks at the silence about sexual abuse that can tear a family apart. When Jasmin sees a picture online of one of her nieces with their great grandfather, her memories of the pain of being sexually abused by the man leads her to speak up. As a result, some bonds grow more distant while others get closer as painful truths are revealed.
–”Our Father, the Devil”– My final film for my official coverage of the festival, Ellie Foumbi’s thriller finds Marie, the head chef of a retirement home in France, faced with her past when a charismatic priest comes to preach to the residents. Convinced he is a former Warlord from the African country she left behind, the film is a tense standoff between a woman who’s having some difficult memories to come up, and a man who’s using faith to shield himself from criticism.
–”Fenom”– Kayla Johnson’s documentary about a superstar in the making has elements of a story born of tragedy, since Flau’Jae Johnson’s biological father was killed before she was born, but Flau’Jae’s life is an inspiring one not because of how her and her family overcame that adversity, but in terms of how she is basically manifesting her life before our eyes, not only as a successful high school basketball player but as a rapper. Flau’Jae is absolutely charming, and she seems so grounded and understanding one of the most important things we can learn when we’re young- setbacks don’t have to define our futures. Her future is a bright one.
–”Showing Up”– The latest from Kelly Reichardt is the first time one of her films has really connected with me. Part of that might be because it’s one of the first films that I feel truly illuminates the isolated, internal process of creativity in a narrative format, but I resonated with how this depicts relationships- whether they’re with family or friends- that feel one-sided, and how deflating that can be. The dynamic between Michelle Williams’s Lizzy and Hong Chau’s Jo is the best example of that, and seeing how it resolves at the end is rewarding.
Favorite Short Films
–”Young Kings”– This documentary short, co-directed by Jonathan Banks and Dr. Arshley Emile, looks at bike culture in Atlanta. I love how this film explores the importance of a community with a shared interest in the lives of young people, as well as how it looks at the diverse culture of Atlanta.
–”The Blake”– Courtney Sposato, with the assistance of her co-director husband, Mark, recalls how learning about the Challenger disaster helped her deal with a painful loss in her own life. This is one of those films where the power of cinema to heal feels very much on display.
–”Shelf Life”– This animated short from Erin Zhang takes a look at the way women are put into boxes of how they matter as consumers at different age ranges. It’s a wicked indictment of the patriarchy and simply, beautifully crafted.
–”I Don’t Know if You Remember This”– Director Katelyn Rebelo gets a group of her former high school classmates together to recall the memory of unspoken sexual assaults they experienced. In doing so, they get to something important about the way communication heals wounds from the past.
–”Kid Free Weekend”– This short horror film, from director Rozalyn Mattocks, also played at the 2022 Renegade Film Festival- where I first saw it- and it’s a fun, darkly funny look at a wife and mother who finally has a weekend all to herself.
–Priya Kansara & Ritu Arya, “Polite Society”– Kansara is the true breakout of this action-comedy about a young woman who wants to be a stuntwoman, and also needs to save her sister (Arya) from a suspicious marriage, but both sisters are essential if the film’s emotional beats are going to land when things go really overboard.
–Sunita Mani, “Wilder Than Her”– As a school counselor struggling with not only her job, but the loss of a friend, Mani’s Emilia sets up the camping trip that sets this film in motion. The way her and writer-director Jessica Kozak build the character’s arc throughout the film is striking, and unforgettable.
–Anne Ratte-Polle, “Everybody Wants to Be Loved”– As Ina, a therapist and mother who seems to only think of others, and allows herself to be bullied in certain directions in life because of it, Ratte-Polle is a ticking timebomb that is set to go off when, finally, everyone just has to put their own wants aside so that she can truly pursue what matters in her life. Being the one who always has to be there for others is exhausting, especially when that leaves little time to be there for yourself.
–Babetida Sadjo, “Our Father, the Devil”– Watching Marie come undone by the unwelcome re-entry of her past into her life is a profound, devastating experience through Sadjo’s performance. Even when Father Patrick will not admit to being who she thinks he is, we believe it, because her conviction is palpable, and the anxiety it brings up in her is felt.
–Michelle Williams, “Showing Up”– Lizzy is a character I very much identify with in Kelly Reichardt’s drama. Her family is messy, her best friendship seems distant, and yet, she sometimes has to help others to the detriment of taking care of herself. As she prepares for an art show, I feel the sense of doubt Lizzy has, not because she isn’t talented, but because she wonders if anyone will appreciate what she’s done.
Read more of Brian’s coverage of the 2023 Atlanta Film Festival at Sonic Cinema.