Any time you see words like “quirky” or “dramedy” in the plot synopsis of an independent festival film, you’re likely in for a disaster. This usually means there will be (at least) one character who does or says outrageous things for us to laugh at for no reason other than that the plot demands it. Because We’re Family certainly has characters that could be defined as quirky, and it is in fact labeled a dramedy, but there’s a lightness to the film that makes it mostly forgivable. It’s a holiday film that’s less about the holidays themselves and more about the feelings of obligation we have associated them with. Siblings Kourtney (co-director Christine Nyhart Kaplan), Belinda (fellow co-director Angela Stern), and Dallas (Josh Drennan) have recently lost their mother and their estranged relationship comes to a head in the aftermath. Despite a bizarre amount of animosity hinges on the trio of adults not comprehending the idea of cremation, or as funeral planners as a profession, the drama unfolds naturally and belies some deep-seeded that have permeated the family.
Star power can be tricky with a festival film. More often than not, a well-known celebrity that’s front and center in an independent film will be the best aspect of a forgettable experience. Such is the case, unfortunately, with Dear Zoe. Its lead, Sadie Sink, is a dynamic performer whose young career is certainly worth watching – and who, coincidentally, will be in another major Heartland film, The Whale. Her performance in Dear Zoe does nothing to dissuade that notion, but the film that surrounds her doesn’t elevate itself to her level. Sink stars as Tess, whose younger sister tragically and unexpectedly dies at the onset of the film, which just so happens to be on September 11, 2001. The film is too concerned with creating shallow drama and narrative contrivances that it’s difficult to get properly invested in Zoe’s story. She begins dating her father’s neighbor (age unknown but definitely much older than her 16). There’s an understated bit that the film doesn’t touch on enough, which is how one person can handle their grief when it’s essentially overshadowed by a grief that the entire country shares – for something completely unrelated. Sink ably navigates whatever twists and turns the script throws at her, but it’s hard not to wish the rest of the film were as insightful as it could have been.
If you’re looking for a little historical fiction to round out your festival viewing, it doesn’t get much better than The Wind and the Reckoning. The film tells the true story of a family of native Hawaiians in 1893 who resist American efforts to relocate any natives that are suspected of having leprosy. The craftsmanship alone throughout the film is impressive, especially coming from an independent production with no A-list actors to lure audiences. The family, led by a fierce Lindsay Anuhea Watson, sets out to escape the American colonists led by the evil Marshall Hitchcock (Johnathan Schaech), and the bulk of the film results in a kind of cat-and-mouse game across Hawaii. It’s rare to see a period piece at a film festival without the backing of a major studio, let alone one that’s based on an under-reported true story. It’s even rarer for those period pieces to be executed so nicely.