Film and TV

Reel Talk With Merritt: Highs and Lows Of Last Weekend's DIFF

The best part of having experienced your Big Film Fail in the first weekend of DIFF is knowing that you've gotten major disappointment out of the way and you can now just sit back, relax, and finish out on a high note.

Maybe the note won't be quite as high as that of First Position--it couldn't jump much higher--but high nonetheless. I saw First Position on Sunday evening, in the smaller of Angelika's theaters with competition-aged (between 9 and 19) ballet students peppered throughout the audience. It was an experience in cinematic camaraderie.

Watching the stories of six vastly different personalities (boys and girls, thanks) train and persevere despite horrific childhood experience, trying military family travels and overly ambitious moms, was inspiring and invigorating. My fellow audience members and I actually let out audible sighs of relief when one of our favorites would nail a jump, "Oh no!" when he or she might crash down on the floor in defeat, and clap and cheer when each finished their competitive performances for the Youth America Grand Prix semi-finals and finals.

Director Bess Kargman has created something brilliant here. First Position helps to defy the "fragile beauty" stereotype people associate with ballet dancers. It reinforces--or introduces--the fact that they're passionate, skilled athletes at heart, most of whom have discovered their life's dream before they turn 10 years old, and many of whom have few chances to turn that dream into a career.

Now, the others: "First Friday" scored with Michael Mohan's Save the Date, Bob Byington's Somebody Up There Likes Me, and Nicholas McCarthy's The Pact.

Save the Date puts Lizzy Caplan (Party Down) where she needs to be--proving that other actors are more authentically quirky than Zooey Deschanel. Yeah, I said it. And I'll say this: Deschanel is way overrated in comparison to a clutch player like Caplan. She heads up an ensemble cast, including Geoffrey Arend, Alison Brie, Martin Starr and Mark Webber, for a film that covers nearly ever uncomfortable emotional response you can have in a relationship, romantic or familial. Like, every one. And realistically.

Mohan stuck around for a Q&A after the screening and told us he'd included Caplan in casting where it concerned sex scenes, so she could have a more comfortable filming experience. And that the cat in the film (also in that trippy Friskies commercial) was the "worst actor [he'd] ever worked with."

Note: Save the Date doesn't yet have a distributor, so if you saw it and liked it (or want to see it in the future), like that shit on Facebook.

Fans of Ron Swanson piled into the Angelika for Byington's follow-up to Harmony and Me, Somebody Up There Likes Me. Byington respects the character actor, and it shows in his casting of talented but lesser heard of Keith Paulson, Nick Offerman, Jess Weixler, Chris Doubek and Kevin Corrigan.

The film chronicles the friendship of Max (Paulson) and Sal the waiter (Offerman) over the course of nearly four decades. And yeah, sure, it's all kinds of fucked up. But it's also poignant, perfectly metered and really weird-funny.

After last year's short, The Pact, showed at Sundance, director Nicholas McCarthy was approached by some men with cash dollars. Make it into a feature? In a year? Sure, no problem.

In less than one year, McCarthy turned his "Is there a ghost in this house?" story into feature length "No, seriously. WTF is in this house and destroying my life?!"

Casper Van Dien's presence in the film (a well-meaning police detective) is a clue that The Pact might never make it to a big box office. But that's OK. In theater the seat-jumping moments were legit, but watching The Pact at home might actually be scarier.

But with Sunday came the clunker: Bringing Up Bobby. If I had to bet, it will be picked up by Lifetime or Oxygen networks for a weekend "tearjerker" marathon about moms and their children, and custody battles that aren't really custody battles. Just be warned you won't get those two hours back no matter how hard you want them.

Now, I'm off to more DIFF, with my trusty hoodie and homemade schedule to guide me.

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Merritt Martin
Contact: Merritt Martin