The 2021 Miami Film Festival began this past Friday and run through next week. With both virtual and in-person screenings, the festival is hoping to appeal to a wider swath of South Florida’s public than usual. Last year’s festival was cut short by the initial stay-at-home orders that began sweeping the nation. Boys State remains the last film I’ve seen with an audience in more than a year. While the frustrations of missing the festival’s in-person experience are palpable, especially given the Miami Film Festival’s lovely array of venues, the show must go on. Luckily, the festival’s reach remains as strong as ever, with plenty to celebrate in its first two days.
Beans – 8 out of 10
Delivering a coming-of-age tale set against a historical event is always tricky. Yet director Tracey Deer expertly hones-in on how adolescence can often equate the discovery of who we are with our youth’s social faux pas. Beans follows twelve-year-old Kahnawà:ke (Kiawenti:io), or “Beans” as she is known, as her family becomes embroiled in the Oka Crisis of 1990. The standoff between the authorities and the Mohawk tribe would last for 78 days, disrupting families and inviting extremist attacks against the native peoples. Beans must handle her first encounters with racism and hatred, all while growing up and becoming the popular kids in her community.
Deer’s empathetic lens helps us understand Beans’ want for belonging at every step. She’s a young girl making friends for the first time. At the same time, she’s discovering that people hate her for her heritage and background. For someone seeking new opportunities in life, only to have the world openly revolt against her, can be challenging. Yet it’s the personal stakes of being a teenager, whether that be boy problems or finding her own style, that allow us a peek inside her growing confidence. Deer lays out an incredible arc of self-discovery for Beans, and the journey is relatable from start to finish.
Actress Kiawenti:io deserves much of the praise for the film’s success as well. With her first lines on-screen, you can feel a girl grasping for confidence and a desire to understand her identity. Over the course of the film, you feel her push the boundaries of her comfort, whether they’ve been set by herself or others. Beans’ emotional growth can be read from the mannerisms delivered by Kiawenti:io, and she never lets the film down. It’s a subtle performance that allows her to display incredible range.
The only real shortcoming of the Toronto Film Festival prizewinner (Audience Award – 2nd runner-up) is the film’s indie origins. Stitching in archival news footage helps deliver context, but it also makes some of the sequences on the ground feel less profound. A barricade does not live up to the images we see on screen, even if the actors sell the location’s importance. It’s a small shortcoming, but Beans’ scope and personal nature make this a film that everyone should seek out. You can also read my fellow writer LV Taylor’s thoughts on the film here.
Rebel Hearts – 8 out of 10
The Civil Rights movement, Sexual Revolution, and War in Vietnam have been immortalized on film time and time again. The events of the 1960s are often filtered through these windows, with each story contributing to our understanding of a changing America. From director Pedro Kos, Rebel Hearts provides a surprisingly energetic narrative stemming from the West Coast Catholic Church. The Los Angeles-based Sisters of the Immaculate Heart explored new ways to explore their feminism within one of the world’s most conservative organizations. Lead by Sister Corita Kent and the school’s progressive women, political action and grassroots organization spread throughout California.
In the midst of the cultural revolutions throughout the world, the American Catholic Church sought to maintain tradition. Yet, the women Sisters of the Immaculate Heart had carved out a niche within their local community. As they created protest art and danced in the streets, they drew attention to the unrest spawning in America. Even as they embarked on their empathy mission, Cardinal MacIntyre sought to restrain the progressive movement within the church.
Kos delivers a unique experience in Rebel Hearts thanks to the film’s unique visuals and pacing. Rather than rely on a singular medium, Kos utilizes archival footage, newspaper clippings, and animation to portray the events of the 1960s. The choice to replace original newspaper images with rolling footage pays off multiple times, creating the sensation of a living story. The use of original recordings and recent interviews helps sell the tactile experience. You can hear the scratchy vinyl or experience the wall of sound created from the protests.
Unfortunately, the dynamic nature of this experience harms the film’s introspective third act. The momentum swing is so drastic, the film begins to drag and fall into repetition. The scope changes as well, as new narrators are introduced to tell their side of the story. Some may forgive the film, as the emotion on display is heartbreaking to experience.
Perhaps the most moving testimony to the Sisters’ actions comes from the women who found their voice later-in-life. One of the participants acknowledges she could never become the fierce protestor she aspired to as a child instead of raising a family. Yet in 2018, she’s leading protest chants. After fifty years, she’s following the example set for her by the women of the church. Kos’ film provides a timely reminder that our actions may change the world, even if we’re unaware of our significance.
A State of Madness – 5 out of 10
Examining the past mistakes of a country can be easy with hindsight. Yet, the dark true stories of a nation’s past can continue to breed resentment and anger. A State of Madness, the Dominican Republic’s submission for the 2020 Oscars, looks back at the failure of its healthcare system during the Red Scare. In the 1950s, political upheaval throughout the Caribbean and South America saw the rise of Communism and Socialism. Oppressive regimes seeking to keep their power cracked down on the weakest in their midst. Director Leticia Tonos examines this fight through the story of Dr. Antonio Zaglul, a man who fought the government for his patients’ wellbeing.
After several patients of a local mental asylum escape onto President Rafael Trujillo’s personal estate, Dr. Zaglul (Luis José Germán) is assigned to run the facility. The university professor has experience in European medicine and can teach his workers new medical techniques. Yet the asylum he inherits is in disrepair. The machines don’t work, the inmates run wild, and the town visits on Sunday as a form of entertainment. As Zaglul cleans up the facility, new inmate Aurora (Jane Santos) discovers a figure from her past in the holding cells.
While the story at the center of A State of Madness is worth telling, it stumbles over its feet on several occasions. The patients’ depictions represent harmful stereotypes of the mentally ill, especially with the mannerisms many portray. Given the lack of knowledge about treatment and the facility’s condition at first glance, it’s not impossible to understand the devastation of untreated mental illness on a patient. However, A State of Madness does not have a singular inmate who meets caricature status, but dozens.
The second problem facing the film stems from its cartoonish villain. Gonzales (Pavel Marcano) embodies the government employee that’s found himself untouchable. Yet his winking performance stands in stark contrast to the other performances in the film. He’s uncaring, yet Zaglul continues to approach him like he’s ever shown an ounce of empathy towards a living creature. Even if we buy that the two are old friends, Gonzales lays out his philosophy towards those with mental illness early on. We’re never shown a moment of self-reflection from the character, and the one-note performance grows tiresome.
To the film’s credit, the hospital’s actual design makes it a living character within the narrative. As Zaglul teaches his staff the correct methods of treatment, you can visibly see the mood improve. The lighting gets better, the walls become less dirty, and the world begins to function. There are unmistakable bonds of community throughout the wings of the hospital. Unfortunately, the negatives weigh A State of Madness down and turn it into a frustrating miss.
Ludi – 5 out of 10
The immigrant struggle to find steady work resonates throughout the country. In the time of COVID, these fears are compounded, especially with the rise of pro-nationalist messages. The struggles of many workers are ignored in favor of overarching narratives. The feature debut of Edson Jean, Ludi tells a story of an overworked nurse struggling in the home-care industry. While it features some excellent performances, the story misses the mark.
Ludi follows our protagonist of the same name (Shein Mompremier) as she struggles to make it America. Coming from an immigrant background, she sends taped messages and money back to her family. Her cousin and goddaughter still lives in Haiti, and with her graduation approaching, she requires a new dress for the occasion. Even as Ludi looks to provide for her family, she puts up her guard to those around her. This often puts her at odds with her co-workers, a bus driver, and her landlord. When her landlord forces her to care for a difficult patient, she starts to reexamine her own priorities.
Jean and Mompremier create a compelling character in Ludi. The actress fills the character with a hopeful yet reserved personality. She’s easy to root for, and her exhaustion with her work is extremely relatable. You can read the anger and resentment on her face, even if she knows the difficult work helps her succeed. The immigrant struggle, one of finding your own path while living up to your community’s expectations, can be felt in every frame. The burden of providing for the family, even as your miles away, remains compelling. It’s clear that Momprempier is an alluring screen presence, even when the film does not work.
Jean’s screenplay serves Ludi best and builds her out well. However, the remaining elements of the film struggle to come together. Even as the other characters display relatable moments, her struggles can feel repetitive. This becomes extremely clear when Ludi meets George (Alan Myles Heyman), her foil for the second half of the film. His resentment towards age and the caregiver is palpable. Even when Heyman’s performance rings true, it’s difficult to connect with George. Sadly, the chemistry and screenplay fall short of building a genuine connection between the two.
Ludi feels like a debut film, but it also shows a lot of promise for its two key figures. Mompremier delivers a relatable performance that showcases future starring roles’ potential. Jean clearly has the skill to direct, and many of his compositions in this film are spectacular. As he develops as a writer, he will be one to watch. He creates empathy for his characters through the visuals alone, a skill many directors lack. Ludi is an interesting but imperfect start to his career.