The Dances With Films (DWF) indie film festival, June 1-11, kicked off its twentieth season with films from two “DWF alumni.” American Folk, by writer/director David Heinz, brings us along on a cross-country road trip. The world premiere of Missing in Europe, directed by Tamar Halpern, involves us in a desperate rescue mission, in the vein of the Taken films.
Dances With Films, which promotes itself as “defiantly independent,” sets itself apart from other festivals by relying less on celebrity to create buzz and focusing more on creativity, innovation, and sweat equity. This must work as they normally attract 20,000 attendees. DWF alumni have gone on to create blockbusters and win a few Oscars along the way.
Besides narrative features, documentaries and shorts, the festival includes a favorite of mine: music videos. Last year they introduced Dances With Pilots, bringing in television and the web. This year they have expanded the festival to include Dances With Kidz, films made for and by kids.
What I find most appealing about the festival is the accessibility to filmmakers. After screenings, filmmakers are usually available to answer questions and discuss their work. The lobby of the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood where the festival takes place doesn’t have a lobby look or feel, but is more like a coffee house or neighborhood bar. Watching films at DWF is like movie night with your friends.
Earlier on the afternoon of June 1, when I showed up to photograph the red carpet ceremony (DWF actually has green carpets – green means “go”), one of the festival founders recognized me and gave me a hug. That would never happen at Sundance. Defiantly independent, yes, but definitely friendly.
American Folk, is billed as a musical, but not like My Fair Lady. The music is integral to the story. Two folk musicians, who don’t know each other, are seated in the same aisle on an airplane leaving Los Angeles, bound for New York. It is September 11, 2001. Shortly after takeoff, their plane is diverted back to LA as word of the terrorist attacks spreads.
The two musicians, played by real life folk singers Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth, are desperate to get to New York for different reasons. With flights cancelled, they reluctantly decide to team up on a cross country drive using a creaky old van donated by a musician friend. Along the way, they sing to and with each other and for the people they meet. Their American folk singing and the real American folk they encounter intertwine to remind us of the power of music and the generosity of working class people.
The acting performances by Purdy and Rubarth, a first for both, impressed me. Rubarth especially could hang up her guitar (although I wouldn’t want her to) and act full time. She’d get plenty of roles.
The story by writer/director David Heinz is beautifully constructed. Every time I sensed a cliché or trope coming, I was delighted that the story went a different way.
During the question and answer session after the film, Heinz shared that in making the film they actually did drive 3500 miles across the United States. The creaky old van was not just a special effect. At least one break down became part of the story and after one scene he mentioned, the van caught fire (not part of the story.) He also explained that some of the characters in the film were not professional actors but real American folks.
American Folk is rated PG.
Missing in Europe
You’re in the Balkans, your daughter is missing and the police won’t help. What do you do? For Sara, played by Miranda Raison (24: Live Another Day, Murder on the Orient Express (2017)), her answer is to use her “particular set of skills,” which unlike Liam Neeson in Taken, are computer security related.
Raison plays Sara with passion and credibility. Between hacking into computers and breaking and entering wherever she needed to, she discovers that her daughter has been kidnapped by a gang of sex traffickers and the chase ensues. Along the way she picks up an ally, ex-cop turned private eye played by Emmett Scanlan (Hollyoaks, The Fall ).
Sophie Robertson plays Sara’s daughter. This was her first acting role and she is absolutely amazing. She is charming in the mother/daughter relationship scenes and convincing as she fights for her life against the kidnappers. Visually, I kept thinking, this must be Summer Glau’s younger sister, but, no, born in England, not Texas.
I have only two problems with this film, which is a new genre for director Tamar Halpern whose previous work focused on family and comedy films.
Before starting to write about film, I was a computer programmer for 25 years, so films about hackers usually leave me exclaiming, “You’ve got to be kidding!” during the hacking scenes. This was no exception. The only people who have gotten this right are the creators of Mr. Robot. If you’re not a computer programmer, this might not bother you.
During the question and answer session after the screening, director Tamar Halpern and festival co-director Leslee Scallon expressed their pride in the fact that this was an action/thriller produced by, written by, directed by and starring women. Given this, it made me sad that towards the end of the film, Raison’s character makes an incredibly dumb mistake and must be saved by her male private-eye ally.
Aside from my nitpicking, Missing in Europe is exciting and you care about the characters. I hope Halpern gets another chance to create her own Die Hard.
Photos by author unless otherwise noted.