We're all fond of saying that living in the Bay Area isn't like living anywhere else in the country. It's true most days, but we're regularly reminded that all American cities share certain problems, and all suburbs are similar in some ephemeral way. That paradoxical coexistence of uniqueness and universality that is our usual condition comprises the unofficial, underlying theme of this year's Cinema By the Bay festival, presented by the San Francisco Film Society at the Roxie Theater, November 22-24, 2013.
The weekend-compressed lineup of 10 programs includes narrative features, documentaries and shorts that span the Bay Area from a golden Sonoma County hillside to a rainy-day crowd in the Castro. The common denominator, to the degree I can identify one, is a freshness, diversity and quirkiness to the central relationships that feels specific to the region that claims San Francisco and Oakland as its hubs.
Opting to launch the series with nail-biting entertainment rather than consciousness-raising drama, Cinema By the Bay starts with a spooky visit to a God-fearing Appalachian clan. Butcher Brother Mitchell Altieri's Holy Ghost People (Friday, Nov. 22, 7pm) follows a young woman and a hard-drinking vet as they insinuate their way into a snake-handling cult, all in hopes of rescuing a vanished relative. After a night of soothing dreams, Banker White and Anna Fitch's personal documentary, The Genius of Marian (Saturday, Nov. 23, noon), effectively sets the tone for the day with a gutsy, moody foray into self-examination.
Britta Sjogren's Redemption Trail (Saturday, Nov. 23 at 2:15pm), a kind of contemporary feminist Western, imagines two traumatized women of vastly different backgrounds who land in the same safe space. Tess (Lisa Gay Hamilton) manages a hilly, isolated Sonoma vineyard; her contact with other people, by design, is minimal and cursory. She's always in control, taking care to wall off the childhood memory of cops shooting her Black Panther dad to death in his home. By contrast, Anna (Lily Rabe) is a self-assured gynecologist who thrives on people and lives with her husband (Hamish Linklater) and young daughter in affluent, organic bliss in the Oakland hills. When a tragedy pulls the trap-door on Anna's life, human contact is the last thing she wants.
Redemption Trail is a journey of healing that attempts to blend, with uneven results, the contemplative rhythms of a character-driven story, the multicultural linkages of a John Sayles film and the dramatic exigencies of most narrative films (a subplot involves pot-growing and related violence). Highly controlling in their own ways, Tess and Anna don't hurdle their obstacles so much as extend tentative visiting privileges to the other person. They're not agents of each other's recuperation, however, so much as fellow travelers on a dusty, two-lane road that might just intersect with the highway to big-city assimilation.
That's the destination, and goal, of 19-year-old James and slightly older military vet Tyler, real-life lovers fleeing close-minded Chico for the gay mecca of the Castro in American Vagabond (Saturday, Nov. 21, 4:30pm). Instead of a welcoming community, they're hit with the chilly reality of unemployment and homelessness. Finnish filmmaker Susanna Helke's feature-length documentary is constructed from slivers of atmospheric on-the-fly footage and shards of James' narration, and augmented with fleeting encounters with other young, homeless gay men in Golden Gate Park and on the streets.
American Vagabond emanates from an America where parents can't reconcile ingrained religious beliefs with their homosexual, flesh-and-blood children. James' folks eventually do, but it's not the happy ending any of them (or the viewer) could have anticipated. To her credit, Helke doesn't pander to a European TV audience's appetite for reality TV-style ugliness or sordidness. She is handcuffed by pivotal events involving James that take place off-camera, though, and which not only must be conveyed via narration but necessitate a shift in the film's point of view.
Saturday night and a chunk of Sunday is given over to programs saluting the East Bay dance-video production company YAK Films (Sat., Nov. 23, 9:30pm), the alumni of S.F. State's cinema department (Sun., November 24, noon) and this year's inductees into the Film Society's Essential SF pantheon. Tip your chapeau to Richard Beggs, Joan Chen, Nathaniel Dorsky, David Hegarty, Anita Monga and Kontent Films Sunday, November 24 at 5pm in a free event open to the public (RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org).
The weekend wraps with Dear Sidewalk, Jake Oelman's 21st-century screwball comedy. Deadpan instead of farcical, faux-hip rather than merely ironic, and defiantly resistant to the not-so-easy resolution of a happy-ever-after ending, Dear Sidewalk pairs Gardner, a vaguely geeky mail carrier (Joseph Mazzello) on the cusp of 24, with free-spirited, 40-something divorcee Paige (Michelle Forbes) who's just moved into a house on his route. That description may put you in the mood for a wildly anarchic take on Jonathan Demme's 1986 hoot, Something Wild, but Oelman and writer Jake Limbert have much more modest goals.
You might think the choice of Gardner's occupation is more than a tad retro, but the movie tackles it head on and has a good deal of fun with it. (If delivering letters is an anachronism, wait 'til you get a gander at Ben Stiller's job in the misguided The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, opening December 25.) Indeed, Dear Sidewalk is charming, affectionate and winning as long as the characters (both lead and supporting) continue to develop and expand. At around the 55-minute mark, however, standard screenplay structure demands a falling out between the cross-generational paramours. Unfortunately, Paige abruptly stops being fun while Gardner becomes an even more reactive and passive figure than he's been heretofore.
In for a dime, in for a dollar, so you'll stick with Dear Sidewalk and its star-crossed couple to the end. Alas, there is nothing about Gardner and Paige, or the indeterminate and generic neighborhood they cohabitate, that speaks to any aspect of the Bay Area experience. In that regard, it's an unfortunate note on which to close such a wide-ranging survey of regional filmmaking and local color.
Cinema By the Bay runs November 22-24, 2013 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. For more information visit sffs.org.