All Gone to Look for America

in 40th Seattle International Film Festival

by Amber Wilkinson

This year’s New American Cinema competition at the Seattle International Film Festival was notable for a number of films that travelled into the backwaters of the US, using the rural and small-town landscapes to influence mood and find new narratives.

The most traditional of these was Little Accidents — the feature debut of writer/director Sara Colangelo. Heading into the familiar American indie territory of social justice — or the lack of it — her film is set in a claustrophobic West Virginian mining town in the aftermath of an accident. A cave-in has left a crew of miners dead and the sole survivor Amos (Boyd Holbrook) permanently injured and facing a moral quandary regarding what evidence to give about the event. His doubts are mirrored in a subsidiary plot regarding youngster Owen (Mud’s Jacob Lofland, a born natural to this sort of role), who becomes lost in a moral maze of his own after tragedy strikes.

Although the film suffers somewhat from a tendency towards overplotting from Colangelo at the expense of character development, which leaves the female characters weak, she builds an oppressive atmosphere. Her use of the geography of the town is also worthy of note, as she emphasizes the contrast between the dark spaces of its surrounding woodland — holding dangers of its own — with the manmade gloom and industry of the coal mine.

It is woodland that takes centre stage in Lise Raven’s second feature Kinderwald which, unusually for an American independent film, is presented almost entirely in German. Set in the backwoods of America in the 1850s — a time when virtually all of America was backwoods — she explores the harshness of the wilderness faced by early pioneers.

The time period may be considerably removed from that of Little Accidents but the themes of community pulling together and apart over shared tragedy are similarly evident, along with a sense of man inflicting industry — once again mining — on an unforgiving landscape. Nature is dominant, emphasized at every turn by Will DeJessa’s excellent cinematography, with human life an outsider. Even here, though German migrants Flora (Emily Behr), John (Frank Bruckner, who also co-writes) and young boys Caspar and Georgie (real-life brothers Leopold and Ludwig Fischer) are considered more alien than others, marked out by their language, their unusual relationship — explained deep into the movie — and their religion. Raven moves at a measured pace but her refusal to go beyond the surface to explore deeper tensions in the community, relying instead a pair of overamped bad guys and late-stage melodramatics to conclude her story, is a shame.

Finally then to Andrea Pallaoro’s accomplished Medeas (co-scripted with Orlando Tirado) — so tightly shot and taughtly written that it belies its debut status — which uses the dusty landscapes of rural California to tell a tale of familial disintegration. Seattle’s New American Cinema competition featured much hand-held camerawork, which made the more austere, locked off approach of Pallaoro and cinematographer Chayse Irvin (an up-and-coming name to look out for) stand out. A 1980s setting is hinted at by the presence of a Walkman cassette player but there is a sense of timelessness in the household of Christina (Catalina Sandino Moreno), her husband Ennis (Brían F O’Byrne) and their five kids. As with Little Accidents and Kinderwald, tragedy is key but here it is the sense of impending strife which drives the tension — heavily signposted by the Euripide’s story invoked by the film’s title.

Christina is hearing-impaired, meaning that her household is marked largely by silence, a situation that allows Pallaoro to gradually shift the atmosphere from companiable to threatening as infidelity places pressures that neither Christina nor the gruff and older Ennis are able to articulate.

Striking images abound, from half-glimpsed sex with a baby resting in the foreground to more animated scenes of children horsing around with their father as he ‘plays dead’. Nature also comes to the fore, from the ongoing drought faced by the family’s farm to the diegetic soundtrack, while the dappling golden light and welcoming landscapes offer stark contrast to the emotional shadows that threaten the family. The destination of Medeas may be obvious but the journey to it offers a quiet but emotionally tense meditation on different forms of alienation and conflict, while Palloaro’s refusal to morally judge his characters feels bracingly fresh.

Amber Wilkinson