Mill Valley Film Festival displays growth in all stages of life

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“The Dandelions”

As arthouse hits “Jules et Jim” and “Amelie” have shown in the past, French films have always had a talent for imbuing life with a whimsical charm, with a certain joie de vivre. Continuing in this tradition, “The Dandelions” freewheels through the vibrantly colorful yet psychologically troubled childhood of our schoolgirl protagonist, Rachel Gladstein. Prematurely obsessed with sex and death while bearing hostility toward her too-politically-correct mother, Rachel is a classic Woody Allen-esque case of neurosis. However, her walls begin to thaw when an unforeseen friendship blossoms between her and Valerie, an intrepid schoolmate who teaches Rachel to love life and helps resolve the tensions in her dysfunctional family.

With the look of a Parisian Wes Anderson flick, the fanciful world of “The Dandelions” is meticulously colorblocked. Everything from classrooms to kitchen cabinets pops with a rich palette of primaries and pastels. In one of the film’s most dreamily blissful moments, Rachel and Valerie frolic in the meadows while blowing on the movie’s namesake greenery. The film’s composition, which usually brims with clean, Ikea-chic design, is suddenly replaced with a shaky but remarkably organic home-recording style that truly captures the commonly longed-for joy of youth. Director Carine Tardieu knows how to channel nostalgia.

“The Dandelions” deftly handles serious emotional depth and humanistic drama without losing any of the fanciful charm that makes the film so engaging. Rachel’s family sphere is complicated when her dad is introduced to Valerie’s beautiful single mother, Catherine. When the Gladsteins’ stale family unit is shaken up by a temptress from where the grass is greener, Rachel’s parents begin to seriously tackle the woes of their relationship, and Rachel begins to realize that her parents are people too. That realization is one of Rachel’s many steps toward maturity and emotional closure, results of her new friendship. Valerie pushes her into unfamiliar territory, but it’s a delightful adventure in which Rachel swings to the rhythm of childhood until she finds her rightful ground where she can truly bloom — kind of like a dandelion.

— Jason Chen

“The Retrieval”

Filmed on the crisp desolation of the wintry Texan woodlands, “The Retrieval” marks filmmaker Chris Eska’s dramatic return to Mill Valley after his debut at the festival in 2007. The film unfolds in the American South around the time of the Civil War, as an adolescent black freedman is forced to come to terms with the conditions of his society and how they will affect the sort of man he will come to be.

Will is a member of a group of mostly white bounty hunters, whose forte is tracking down and returning runaway slaves to their masters. While his line of work directly reinforces the institution of slavery, which afflicted him personally for years and tore him away from his family, he depends on his gang for food, security and shoddy company.

However, his obedience is strained when he sets off on a mission with his uncle Marcus to track down a reputed runaway named Nate, and Will discovers that the “runaway” isn’t actually a slave at all but a fellow freedman. He must then make a choice between abandoning his stable life, awaiting his father’s unlikely return from the North, and betraying a man whom he can’t help but see as his kin.

Much of the movie is framed with a sullen sense of realism, with apt pacing marked by feelings of soft isolation that build to sudden bursts of franticness. Ashton Sanders makes a memorable debut as the young protagonist alongside the stern and wizened face of Tishuan Scott, whose portrayal of Nate rightfully won him the Grand Jury Prize for Acting at SXSW 2013. “The Retrieval” has drawn in accolades all across the national indie film scene.

— Erik Weiner

“One Man’s Show”

Newton Aduaka’s French drama “One Man’s Show” is a test in patience.

The story follows a few days in the life of aging actor Emil (Emile Abossolo M’bo in stunning, subtle form) after he is diagnosed with stomach cancer. We discover his life is the real charade as he sets out to make peace with the small wake of women whose lives he has impacted for the better and the far worse.

The film is divided into separate chapters with names like “Birth,” “Purgatory” and “Paradise,” just begging the audience to understand that this is a story about redemption. The narrative framework is interesting but does little to illuminate the confused and vague motivations of the main character. While Emil reflects on his life and mistakes, he gradually comes to grips with his own mortality, echoing the film’s repeated slogan, “You can’t outrun time.”

You can when it moves this slow — “One Man’s Show” has a glacial pace often drawn out with lingering scenes of characters wistfully roaming the streets of Paris at night or sharing silent car rides. While the tension of Emil’s potentially fatal diagnosis starts high, it quickly peters off once he begins making his rounds to the people from whom he seeks forgiveness.

The beauty of Paris is undeniable, but even it becomes played out once it’s clear some scenes exist solely as an excuse to frame the characters against its backdrop. While acted superbly and photographed with lush intimacy, there simply is not enough dialogue to go around for the film’s small cast. Aduaka’s “One Man Show” will undoubtedly not be requested for an encore.

— Ryan Koehn

“The Pretty One”

In “The Pretty One,” director and writer Jenee LaMarque tells a story of tragedy, imperfections and misguided identities. Identical twin sisters Laurel and Audrey (Zoe Kazan, “Ruby Sparks”) are complete opposites — the former lives at home painting copies of famous artworks and taking care of her widowed father, while the latter lives a stylish life working as a real estate agent selling storybook homes in the city. When a great tragedy befalls the family, Laurel is given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move away from home and pose as Audrey, who embodies confidence, independence and “prettiness” to Laurel.

Laurel gradually attempts to make the transformation from sweetly awkward to self-assuredly sophisticated, living in Audrey’s fashionably chic apartment and dating an older married man (Ron Livingston, “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” “Sex and the City”). But Laurel is able to step back and rethink her pseudo identity when she befriends — and later, falls in love with — her next-door neighbor Basel (Jake Johnson, “New Girl”).

LaMarque’s directorial touch is stylized without being pretentious. The film’s pastel colors are whimsical and fanciful — very “The Virgin Suicides”-esque. Equally as artsy is Kazan’s dual performance, which is both beautifully opaque and emotional. Though at times her performance is a bit overdone, it doesn’t take away from the film’s quirkiness. Johnson reigns as the sensible albeit odd Basel, who swims, reads and sunbathes with the wide-eyed “Audrey,” who, unbeknownst to him, is not Audrey at all.

“The Pretty One” delves into themes of individuality and insecurity while painting a picture of imperfect sisterhood. Its dreamy soundtrack, which includes the music of Frank Fafara, Simone White and (fittingly) Twin Sister, is the perfect backdrop to the idiosyncratic film.

— Addy Bhasin

 

Contact Jason Chen at [email protected].

Contact Erik Weiner at [email protected].

Contact Ryan Koehn at [email protected].

Addy Bhasin covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].