Local Productions

SIFF 2021: All the Northwest Connections Films, Reviewed

From bonkers ski jumps to competitive office filing—here the international is right at home.

By Stefan Milne April 16, 2021

Eli Vargas and Greena Park engage in some office games in All Sorts

Below are reviews of all the Northwest Connections movies streaming through Seattle International Film Festival April 8–18. Regular tickets are $15 for each. 

All Sorts

This absurdist comedy from Washington-born director J. Rick Castañeda is precisely the sort of lo-fi oddball indie you expect to find at a film fest. Diego (Eli Vargas), a young guy sleeping in his car, takes a job at Data Mart, a cartoonishly bland office. People type; people file; people sneak naps in their endless rows of cubicles in the wan light. Then Diego and his friend June (Greena Park) discover that behind the office Coke machine, a door opens after hours and people filter into watch underground folder filing competitions. June, it turns out, is a virtuoso folder filer. The movie, shot in Yakima, belongs to the weirdo work comedy lineage. You’ll find traces of Being John Malkovich and Office Space, but it’s less angsty than either. This is a slight, discursive movie. The plot, including a budding attraction between Diego and June, is less of a draw than discreet moments of office drone humor: a worker putting white-out on his computer screen to fix a typo, a montage of a woman typing in increasingly gymnastic positions.

James Faulkner plays a fish-out-of-water game show host in All Those Small Things

All Those Small Things

When his longtime friend dies, an aging British game show host Jonathan (James Faulkner) spirals into existential crisis. Is his plush life—baths, nice wine, easy money—all meaningless? He sorts through his mail and finds a letter from someone in rural Eastern Washington claiming to be his biggest fan. So he jets off to our backwoods. In the town he finds an array of yokels who jibe poorly with his Shakespeare-loving, pinot noir-sipping brand of posh. He rents a room in a house by a touring musician named Tiny Hammer, who seems like he wandered out of a bad SNL sketch. He meets a surly bartender. All Those Small Things was shot, rather gracefully, mostly in Spokane, but is set nowhere so specific, which feels at the heart of the movie’s problems: It doesn’t know quite where it is, or what it is. Its depiction of small-town Washington trades in the broadest of caricatures, which then veer dully into tropes of rural authenticity (everyone turns out to be kindhearted and generous). The comedy doesn’t land, and the drama—even in Faulkner’s able hands—skews tired and maudlin.  

East of the Mountains

Based on a novel by David Guterson, this drama follows Ben Givens (Washington staple Tom Skerritt), an aging Seattle heart surgeon, as he heads out on a hunting trip to Eastern Washington with his dog. Ben lost his wife a year before and expects to lose his own life to cancer within the year. Now he plans to kill himself. But when another dog attacks his own, he ends up in a small Washington town near where he grew up—his mind strobing with angelically lit, slow-mo flashbacks of meeting his wife. Local director SJ Chiro witnesses all the present drama with graceful understatement. A stillness, a quietude, suffuses the movie. The Eastern Washington’s rare splendor is gorgeously shot. But the story is anchored by Skerritt’s taciturn performance—something that in a lessor actor’s hands might read as blank, but here is textured and aching.

The first part of Potato Dreams of America takes place in a surreal version of the USSR. 

Potato Dreams of America

In local director Wes Hurley’s autobiographical feature debut, a gay boy nicknamed Potato (played by Hersh Powers and Tyler Bocock) lives with his mother and grandmother in the days of the waning USSR. When the iron curtain comes down, Potato’s mom (Sera Barbieri, Marya Sea Kaminski) becomes a mail-order bride and the pair move to Seattle, into the home of a conservative religious Microsoft executive (Dan Lauria). There is a lot going on here: The scenes in Russia blend state oppression with the stagey camp of the American movies he watches (think Sister Act). Jesus (Jonathan Bennett) becomes Potato’s best friend/hallucination, and gets a soiled rag thrown in his face after Potato gets turned on watching a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. Things take a more realistic turn in Seattle, with a gender-bending evil-stepfather plot. The movie tries to cram far too much into its final act (ideas, plot, sunny epiphanies), but as a whole Potato is an ambitious queer fairytale, and its pleasures easily outweigh its flaws.  

Super Frenchie

Toward the beginning of this sports documentary, a lot of labels get placed on its subject Matthias Giraud, a French-born, Oregon-living pro skier and BASE jumper: genius, madman, philosopher. In the film’s opening scene, Spokane director Chase Ogden shows Giraud skiing down an alpine slope, zooming off a cliff, and opening a parachute as an avalanche gushes behind him. It’s a stunner of a stunt. Super Frenchie contains many more like it, captured via jittering GoPros and sailing aerials. So madman is no stretch. And Giraud does reach for the philosopher’s role, saying things like, “A strong man accepts his mortality. A weak man is consumed by his fear of the inevitable.” He figures his death-defying is life’s meaning, a supposition the movie interrogates earnestly. It’s put fully to the test when Giraud, with his wife three weeks from giving birth to their first child, takes a very risky jump in the Alps, slams into a cliff, and spends days in a coma, brain bleeding, femur broken. After he recovers, he keeps jumping. By then, the existential pondering looked to me like little more than the rationalizations of an adrenaline addict proffering platitudes about conquering fear. If you want to see some batshit ski stunts, have at it. If you seek an alpine Camus, perhaps pass.  

Jeffery Robinson on stage in Who We Are

Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America

We have heard, time and again, from President Joe Biden that this is not “who we are”—that Americans are somehow better than their actions. Donald Trump was not us, neither were the Capitol insurrectionists. That phrase also grounds this documentary from Jeffery Robinson, the former deputy legal director for the national ACLU and a Seattleite. But his conception of “who we are” is larger: “Countries aren’t just one thing.” He allows that America can contain both greatness and staggering racism. As evidence, Robinson takes us through the whole of American history and into the present. Most of this he covers in a lecture he gave on Juneteenth in 2018. The rest of the movie witnesses his travels around the U.S., speaking with a man waving a Confederate Flag and claiming the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, talking with the mother of Eric Garner, visiting the location of the Tulsa Race Massacre. These parts, cut together by directors Emily and Sarah Kunstler, can sometimes feel narratively scattered—no surprise when a movie takes on 400 years of U.S. racism in under two hours. But—especially in Robinson’s witty, erudite, angry lecture—Who We Are offers a steady indictment of the ways America dilutes our horrific history and our present.

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