This year’s San Francisco Independent Film Festival (hereafter “Indie Fest”) re-affirms its alt-culture credibility early with the button-pushing pre-apocalyptic comedy “Doomsdays.” Peak Oil and deliberate burglary and vandalism may not be normal subjects of comedy. But in the hands of director Eddie Mullens, they mix together in a biting comic cocktail that only aesthetic pearl-clutching types will loathe.
Dirty Fred (an unrecognizable Justin Rice thanks to bushy beard and glasses) and Bruho (Leo Fitzpatrick) have accepted that Peak Oil is a reality despite oil companies’ cheery disinformation campaigns. They respond to this imminent crisis by deciding for differing reasons to enact their version of living off the land. That means breaking and entering various Catskill Mountain summer homes and living off whatever resources they find, such as liquor and junk food, until unwelcome intrusion (read: the original owners) force them to leave. But the duo’s survival dynamic soon gets thrown off kilter when they acquire a couple of hangers-on. The resulting disruption soon forces Dirty Fred and Bruho to re-assess what they want for their futures.
Rice and Fitzgerald display a wonderful comic chemistry thanks to the decidedly divergent comic personalities they bring to life. Rice’s smooth talker can switch from talking outraged homeowners into believing his deliberate break-in was a simple misunderstanding to artfully dropping French phrases to charm a potential sexual partner. Fitzgerald’s hilariously hostile anti-car vandal mixes unpredictable comic violence with an oddly admirable crazed intensity.
The various break-ins committed by Dirty Fred and crew never feel repetitive. Director Mullens keeps things interesting by varying the events that occur in the course of the invasion. Through a partying hanger-on’s eyes, the viewer learns more about what motivates the two leads. Beginning with Bang and Yell’s naughtily catchy opening, the music makes the burglaries fun in a button-stabbing way.
“Doomsdays”’ humor ultimately shows a dark side. American society is so addicted to using oil in everything that it cannot deal with the concept of making do without oil. Instead of waiting for fellow Americans to wake up, Dirty Fred and Bruho are adapting in their own decidedly unconventional way.
How does a man deal with grief and guilt if openly expressing emotion is considered un-masculine? Brothers Eric and Tommy try to answer this question in Daniel Patrick Carbone’s quietly unsettling rural drama “Hide Your Smiling Faces.” The unexplained death of one of Tommy’s friends causes both brothers to question their personal responsibility and even speculate on possible motives behind the death. Macho stoicism definitely takes a beating courtesy of the brothers’ emotional withdrawal and even a contemplation of suicide.
IndieFest’s amazing Centerpiece documentary “Teenage” shows how the societal molding vs. individual self-determination struggle was built into creating the social construct known as adolescence. Director Matt Wolf’s fascinating adaptation of Jon Savage’s book uses rare archival footage and actual diary excerpts to capture America’s and Europe’s decades-long evolution beyond the simple child/adult dichotomy. Viewers will be entertained by learning about 12-year-olds’ 73-hour workweeks, Britain’s first celebrity junkie, and the stunning similarities between the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Hitler Youth.
The familiarity of “Grigris”’ plot may cause jaded viewers to roll their eyes at Mahat-Saleh Haroun’s drama. The story of the poor man who runs afoul of a local gangster while trying to raise a large sum of money (700,000 francs to pay father figure Ayoub’s medical expenses in “Grigris”’ case) can be found in quite a few film noirs. While Haroun definitely isn’t interested in telling a melodramatic story, his film doesn’t quite succeed as an example of gripping realism. The viewer never really connects with the titular character’s struggles.
Grigris, for the curious, happens to be dancer Souleymane Dede’s nickname. A paralyzed and twisted leg doesn’t prevent the young man from becoming a popular performer. Yet accolades can’t fill a couple of notable holes in the dancer’s life. There’s the aforementioned lack of financial resources to pay Ayoub’s hospital, which leads Grigris to work for local gangster Moussa’s gasoline smuggling racket. But there’s also loneliness, a situation which might be remedied by the entrance of prostitute and fellow outcast Mimi into his life.
Despite this description, “Grigris” is not completely dismissable. Haroun may establish that Grigris is at heart a good man. Yet his willingness to lie to Moussa to raise the 700,000 francs to cover Ayoub’s medical expenses affects how the dancer’s subsequent actions are viewed. For example, does Grigris genuinely love Mimi or is he playing on her sympathies? Did the fear and humiliation that Grigris experienced at the completion of one job for Moussa lead to an act that would earn the gangster’s wrath? The director leaves it to the viewer to judge the morality of Grigris’ actions.
“Grigris”’ other virtue comes from being a window into life in Chad, an African country generally unfamiliar to the West. Here, washing clothes by hand and repairing battered transistor radios are still viable professions. Gasoline smuggling has the risks and rewards associated with smuggling illicit drugs. The film’s portrayal of Islamic influence on daily Chad life will surprise those who associate Muslim culture solely with political extremism. Swearing on the Koran to establish one’s veracity has an impact matching the Christian swearing on the Bible. Contrary to current Western treatment of similar stories, Mimi’s prostitution is never depicted by seeing her in frontal nudity mode.
Overall, despite its unique aspects, “Grigris” never graduates beyond adequacy.
(“Doomsdays” screens on February 7, 2014 at 9:15 PM and February 13, 2014 at 9:15 PM. “Hide Your Smiling Faces” screens on February 8, 2014 at 4:45 PM and February 13, 2014 at 7:00 PM. “Teenage” screens on February 9, 2014 at 7:00 PM and February 12, 2014 at 7:00 PM. “Grigris” screens on February 8, 2014 at 12:15 PM and February 9, 2014 at 7:00 PM. All screenings take place at the Roxie Theatre (3117-16th Street, SF). For further information, go to www.sfindie.com