Fantasia Fest Roundup Day 1: Little Sister, Slash & Love Witch
This week, ComingSoon.net has made the trek to Montreal, Quebec for the 20th anniversary edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival, the largest genre festival in North America. We’re at the tail end of the festivities, which will screen films until August 3, but we are going to run capsule reviews of some of the things we have seen and people we have talked to.
Today we roundup three films that focus on outsiders and subcultures, be it goths (Little Sister), slash fiction writers (Slash) or contemporary witches (The Love Witch). All three of these movies use disparate styles to tell their stories, but all of them are celebrations of the weird outcasts who shun the ways of the “norms.”
This surprisingly upbeat dramedy stars Addison Timlin (The Town That Dreaded Sundown) as a young nun named Colleen who ran off to a Brooklyn convent after her mother Joani (Ally Sheedy of The Breakfast Club fame) attempted suicide. Years later (2008), her brother Jacob (Keith Poulson from Queen of Earth) returns home from the Iraq War with his face horribly scarred — think Wade Wilson in Deadpool — and Colleen decides to make the trek to North Carolina in order to console her brother and possibly reconcile with her mom.
There are many remarkable things that writer/director/editor Zach Clark (White Reindeer) is doing with Little Sister, but chief among them is portraying Colleen’s commitment to her calling without judgment. Nor does he imbue her with some forced “crisis of faith” inner-conflict. As played by Timlin she is a slightly awkward shy girl who we learn was heavy into a metal/goth phase before deciding to live a life of piety, and rather than being tempted by her re-immersion in her old ways (dying her hair, dancing to Gwar, etc) she ultimately incorporates those aspects into her nun-ly pursuits, all without EVER forcing her religion down anybody’s throat. Since the last movie I saw about a nun — Steven Knight’s Redemption — involved Jason Statham having sex with one, it seems like the most subversive thing Clark could do in this day-and-age is to portray a nun as a nun.
As for the tone, Clark creates a naturalistic atmosphere as a perfect backdrop for moments of character humor, such as a scene where a gothed-out Colleen and her deformed brother are spotted in the woods by a kid who asks them if they’re monsters, to which Colleen replies with a vampiric hiss. There’s a best friend character (Molly Plunk from See You Next Tuesday) who dabbles in PETA terrorism, or a musical set piece involving Brooklyn’s Cocoon Central Dance Team (Sunita Mani, Eleanore Pienta, Tallie Medel) doing an interpretive 9/11 dance complete with airplane hats and Pienta dressed as Tower 1. If these sound like moments of left-field quirk they’re not, as pretty much everything down to the slightest set dressing has a reason and a resonance. This is the kind of comedy that can have a no-laugh moment of pathos — as when Jacob’s fiancée fails to initiate sex with her still-traumatized man — and it doesn’t feel out of place with the humor.
It’s a wonder to see that Sheedy (who has kept a low cinematic profile since her ’80s heyday) is still an amazing screen presence, bringing a sense of middle age malaise to her manic stoner mom character. Clark even develops her relationship with Timlin’s Colleen in a very specific way by never featuring them in a shot together (only in singles during their scenes) until the very end.
Another ’80s icon also pops up in Little Sister, i.e. noted scream queen Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator and the more recent indie hit We Are Still Here) playing a Mother Superior who might be the most chill, down-to-Earth nun in cinema history. Witness her saint-like patience as Colleen asks to keep her car for a few more days, which Crampton meets with a gentle reminder that it’s needed for a Six Flags trip soon.
“It’s an intimate movie, it’s a sweet movie and it doesn’t take itself too seriously which is very nice,” Crampton told us in an interview. “Zach knows exactly when to pull your heartstrings and then bring the hammer down so that you’re not gonna cry too much. The tone is perfect. It’s a fun movie, you can laugh!”
“I saw those Stuart Gordon movies when I was a teenager getting into film and cult film and horror and just immediately loved them,” Clark said of Crampton’s horror oeuvre. “Those have always been really important films to me. ‘From Beyond’ is an incredible film. The color palette in that film is incredible, what it does with its source material, I love that movie. I had very recently met Ted Geoghegan at a trivia night and then watched his film ‘We Are Still Here’ and really enjoyed it. I had written my script and was gearing up to make it and was really taken with Barbara’s performance and screen presence. I was like, ‘I have this little part but it’s outside of the kind of stuff she’s normally offered and I’d really love to work with her.’ I got in touch with Ted and he put me in touch with Barbara. She responded to the script and wanted to come out and do it.”
Keep an eye out for our full exclusive interviews with Barbara Crampton and Zach Clark!
Here we find another coming-of-age story of a repressed 15-year-old high schooler named Neil (Michael Johnston of TV’s “Teen Wolf”) with bisexual tendencies who sublimates his budding erotic longings into slash fan fiction based on his favorite sci-fi franchise called “Vanguard.” For those not in-the-know, “slash” is a form of fan fiction that focuses on same sex couplings of characters from pop culture, i.e. some tender Kirk-on-Spock action.
When Neil discovers that a free-spirited, slightly-older fellow classmate Julia (Hannah Marks of the upcoming “Dirk Gently” TV Series) is also a slash writer, they form a fast bond wherein she pushes him to finally publish his imaginative work, despite it being very uninformed by any real-life relationships. She also adds confusion to his world when he finds himself having feelings for her, on top of the ones he has for an effeminate male theater actor named Jack (Dalton Edward Phillips) who turns out to be straight.
The film’s third act revolves around a trip Neil and Julia take to a Texas comic book convention to attend a slash reading competition, where their relationship is tested by drugs, sex, betrayal and their secret competitiveness as writers. Some fun comedic character actors pop up throughout, including John Ennis (“Mr. Show”), Missi Pyle (Dodgeball), Sarah Ramos (“Parenthood”), Matt Peters (“Orange Is the New Black”) and Michael Ian Black (Wet Hot American Summer), the latter as an older/sadder/wiser slash writer who takes a shine to Neil.
Indie cinematographer (Gayby) turned director (Wuss) Clay Liford does an excellent job in making what is a very niche subculture relatable without resorting to Christopher Guest-esque ridicule. Although he certainly pokes fun at the absurdity of slash fiction, Liford’s script is well-observed and ultimately sees Neil’s fantasies as a healthy way of relating his life through the prism of pop culture. The sexual content is not explicit, and would only alienate the most uncomfortable audience members.
Ultimately Slash is a sweet, engaging teen movie with a few solid laughs and some surprisingly well-done fantasy sequences given the low budget. Marks is the clear highlight in the acting department, and despite his occasional lapses into mannered dialogue Liford is a filmmaker to watch.
The Love Witch
Although this film held its Canadian Premiere at Fantasia on July 16, I had the opportunity to watch it as an online screener prior to the fest. That’s sort of a shame because The Love Witch is rare cinematic throwback that’s shot on 35mm and sumptuously designed to mimic the color-saturated look of ’60s thrillers like Topaz or Valley of the Dolls.
The story concerns a modern-day witch named Elaine (played by the beguiling Samantha Robinson) who uses various potions, dark sex magic and her own God-given good looks to lure men under her spell in an attempt to achieve true love. The problem is Elaine is looking for that love in all the wrong places, and instead of achieving any real connection with her lovers/victims these men become crippled/drained by their sudden devotion to her, and ultimately wind up dead.
Elaine’s casual attitude to her abuse of the dark arts comes back to haunt her when she gets carnally involved with the husband of her new neighbor Trish (Laura Waddell), and also has to contend with a police investigation of one of her murders. She winds up falling deeply for lead investigator Griff (Gian Keys), and the cycle of manipulation comes to a tragic and bloody head.
Filmmaker Anne Biller (Viva) is a one-woman-band, serving as writer/producer/director/production designer/costume designer/editor, even going so far as to have done all the exquisite paintings that hang throughout the film. She and her cinematographer M. David Mullen (Jennifer’s Body) absolutely NAIL the campy look and tenor of the cinematic era she’s aping, though unfortunately the novelty begins to wear off as what should have been an 80-90-minute film approaches the 2-hour mark.
Whether this fatigue sets in due to my own lack of understanding of the feminist themes being explored or Biller’s over-attachment to her own auteurism is up for debate, but anyone who finds themselves as gravitated towards this fresh voice as I was should seek it out at a festival or theatrical engagement to get the full experience.