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SF IndieFest Is a Valentine to Movies and Movie Lovers

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Steve Zahn in the SF IndieFest opening night film, 'LaRoy,' playing Feb. 8 at the Roxie and streaming online. (Courtesy SF IndieFest)

The movie business is in a perennial state of constant tension between ambition and collaboration, joyful inventiveness and jaw-dropping paydays. This roiling undercurrent, usually invisible to the public, gushes to the surface in the run-up to the Academy Awards ceremony. There is an antidote, however, to Hollywood’s annual backslapathon: SF IndieFest.

The 26-year-old flagship of Jeff Ross and company’s calendar of film events, the San Francisco Independent Film Festival (Feb. 8–18 at the Roxie Theater and online) is a beacon to anybody excited by the basic impulse of making movies. In its heart of hearts, IndieFest is a celebration of the minor miracle of finishing a film and getting it up on a screen in front of a live audience.

Think low budget, not low bar. A terrific example in this year’s festival is Sorry We’re Dead, the anything-goes feature debut of East Bay writer-director Alex Zajicek. His twentysomething protagonist Lana Jing, developed with actress Sarah Lee in a trio of short films (I Edit Lectures, How to Be Animated, Losing My Head) going back to 2018, is a frustrated wannabe screenwriter and filmmaker stuck in a sub-entry-level job cleaning up the video recordings of deathly dull university lectures.

Thankfully, Sorry We’re Dead is an angst-free, deadpan charmer that doesn’t ascribe a great deal of weight to Lana’s rite of passage. The reed-thin plot – Lana sleepily zaps an external hard drive instead of a generic Pop-Tart in the microwave, with blame for the lost lectures falling on coworker Burd Juarez (gifted physical comedian Davied Morales) — is merely a scarecrow (a poor man’s MacGuffin, if you will) to hang a succession of sight and sound gags employing all manner of techniques, including onscreen text, stop-motion animation and breaking the fourth wall.

Person with "L" label on forehead lays on bed, label maker at side
A still from Alex Zajicek’s ‘Sorry We’re Dead,’ which plays Feb. 10 and streams online. (Courtesy of SF IndieFest)

In the hands of a typical film-school graduate, the film could easily play as a shameless audition reel. Instead, Zajicek (aided and abetted by the patron saint of Bay Area indies, producer and cinematographer Frazer Bradshaw) neatly passes off all of his ideas and experiments (including the witty hash he cooks up on the soundtrack with sound designer Kent Sparling and sound mixer David Silverberg) as Lana’s latent creative wizardry.

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The director and actress are seamlessly in sync, with Lee (who has a producer credit) nailing every bit of business, prop, line reading and head-tilt required to not only execute the continuous stream of audio/visual stunts but to convince us that Lana just might have the imagination and savvy (if not the self-confidence) to write and direct a film one day.

Conceived and crafted as a tongue-in-cheek ode to filmmaking (complete with ironic references to classic three-act structure), Sorry We’re Dead distinguishes itself from the countless other movies about a socially awkward, smart-mouth underachiever with a nonexistent love life and a well-intended but misguided mother. (And, while we’re at it, from almost every other “portrait of the artist as a young person.”)

This free-range, rule-mocking approach to movie grammar, sound and storytelling reminded me of Schizopolis (1996), Steven Soderbergh’s fifth and probably least-seen feature. When Lana slaps a Post-It note with the word “dead” over the “Sorry we’re closed” sign on her office door in Zajicek’s film, she hits a self-deprecating, anti-corporate note that echoes Soderbergh’s subversive business-world comedy.

Two people sit at a bar in red light
John Magaro and Steve Zahn in Shane Atkinson’s ‘LaRoy.’ (Courtesy of SF IndieFest)

In addition to rule-breaking local films, SF IndieFest has a soft spot for genre films, a time-honored point of entry for young filmmakers. Shane Atkinson’s debut feature LaRoy pleasurably follows the dusty trail of Texas noirs that the Coen Brothers first traversed in Blood Simple, albeit without the gut-wrench of tragedy.

LaRoy (a place, not a person) opens with a seemingly milquetoast driver (Dylan Baker, one of the great character actors of our time) picking up a stranded stranger on a dark road. Their banter takes an ominous turn, writing an IOU to be collected later. The next scene establishes the film’s goofier side, with self-appointed private detective Skip (Steve Zahn in fine form) generously giving sad sack Ray (John Magaro of Past Lives) unsolicited photos of his wife ducking into a motel for a tryst.

As is usually the case in small-time crime yarns, the characters in LaRoy don’t display a lot of intelligence. That’s about the only explanation why Ray, in the wrong place at the wrong time and mistaken for a contract killer, accepts a bundle of cash to kill a complete stranger.

It could happen to anyone, of course, anyone whose wife needs a chunk of change to open a high-end beauty salon and who doesn’t want to lose her. Ray’s problem, which in the unnatural course of events becomes everyone’s problem, is that the job he poached was Dylan Baker’s.

The cast — except for Magaro, who has to play dumb and lovelorn — has plenty of fun with the script’s shenanigans. Along with “greed and betrayal do not pay,” LaRoy delivers another moral: Don’t talk to strangers.

The San Francisco Independent Film Fest takes place Feb. 8–18 at the Roxie Theater and streams online.

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