Fantasia: Week Two in Review
Delving into the original films that dominated the week.
Following the first week of Fantasia, where the expectation to expect the unexpected was set, this second week was all about surprises. In the slew of films that I viewed between the 21st-27th of July there were some clear standouts for me.
Goodbye, Don Glees!, dir. Atsuko Ishizuka
Tackling numerous hopes and fears we face when we see our school friends for the very last time, Goodbye, Don Glees! is a perfect window into that past. Schoolkids Roma, Toto, and Drop gather one last time to celebrate their last summer together with one last celebratory fireworks display. They decide to record the moment using a drone, bought from some years’ worth of saving money, hoping to capture the magic of their friendship before they part ways. But after their celebration (and their town’s own fireworks show), a wildfire begins to spread in the forest below them.
Their drone has crash-landed in the midst of the damaged foliage, and have been accused of starting the fire with their own unapproved gathering. They resolve to venture into the transformed forest to find the drone and prove their innocence, but without their bearings in a changed landscape, their journey requires a lot more from them both physically and emotionally as they only have each other to rely on.
Goodbye, Don Glees! clearly has a younger audience on the forefront of its mind but anyone who’s ever had an adventure with their childhood friends will find something to latch onto. Deeper themes of purpose & belonging are packaged in a honorably level approach to its foremost audience, but instantly transmissible to older generations too. The film’s characters are as much representative of its younger audience as they are older ones in hindsight. Kids and adults will see parts of themselves in some combination of the three soon-to-be graduates, and its approach to heavier themes of fragility is just as strong as its follow-through, broaching mature themes of loss and grief without pandering to a softened image for younger audiences. Don Glees is a great emotional journey that has some comforting things to say, and comes recommended from me.
The Diabetic, dir. Mitchell Stafiej
Mitchell Stafiej’s third film comes from a very personal place. Following Alek, a 30-year-old type 1 diabetic’s return to his hometown, he expects old friends still there to be just as impulsive as he is. But he finds himself to be an unchanged element among his childhood chums as others have made lives for themselves, and can’t operate on the same unpredictable platform Alek is demanding on a whim. Only one friend shows up for the ride, and Alek takes that as an excuse to put himself on a dangerous bender for himself and those around him.
The Diabetic is shot in shaky & tight framing as if from a video camcorder, granting its verité style a sense of unease with manic energy crawling underneath every moment. Alek is a deeply unlikable person, and the film doesn’t take long to present that to you. However much of his antagonizations are magnified by his excessive alcohol consumption and poor management of diabetes is up to the viewer. But there’s something that can potentially be misunderstood about the film, and it’s the expectation that Alek has the capacity to realize how harmful he is to those around him. In short, he doesn’t, really.
There’s still a lot of misunderstanding surrounding diabetes and as someone who’s had type 1 for a few years now (with quite recent traumatic memories of being diagnosed), high blood sugar can manifest some pretty extreme anxiety, fear, and irritability. If you’re already struggling with mental illness, poorly managed levels will further warp what’s already there, if not create something new entirely out of that. The film is presented in real time, and the grounding Alek’s chronic illness provides the narrative suggests that his reality is as concrete as ours. Alek may be harmlessly boisterous or a truly vile person, but this version of reality is never really revealed. He’s not absolved of any wrongdoing however, just influenced heavily by the imbalance of chemicals in his brain. Which makes the film’s events that much more unpredictable. But there is a sort of clockwork to the whole warped experience in The Diabetic.
The narrative is segmented by chunks of red-colored video art with a melodramatic voiceover. Be it Alek’s innermost fears and anxieties put to words, or an apparition of his diabetic rage, it works opposite his actual desires for taking the trip down memory lane. And while it may seem like this film is occupied primarily by malice, there’s also some strong and pure elements of compassion here too; a sequence of Alek, previously passed out, awakening with his friend and a older man they met who happens to also be type 1 that recognized the signs of hypoglycemic shock and acted quickly. In the scene that follows this Alek has a sobering moment of clarity between him and his friend that becomes this absolute version of himself in a way. But he lets the darkness in despite his revelation, shifting back into his own worst enemy, and by following his own path forged by good intentions he damns himself. The Diabetic is certainly not for everyone, but it is a darkly compelling hellish slice-of-life film with a lot on its mind. Take the time to sit with it.
Deadstream, dir. Joseph & Vanessa Winter
Alright, let’s shift moods for a bit.
Deadstream is going to be a crowd favorite. I mean, it already is, at least for the folks who have seen it by now, making the rounds at each and every festival offering space for new genre film entries. As a horror comedy, Deadstream faces an uphill battle especially for the seasoned horror crowd, as a lot of diehards make it known that the sub-genre is a very hard thing to pull off. They’re not wrong, not by any means, but the response to filmmakers aiming for the perfect balance is harsh to say the least, maybe too much so.
But what Joseph and Vanessa Winter have crafted here is indeed in the sweet spot many believe is so hard to strike into. We follow buzzy streamer and YouTuber Shawn, known for doing stupid things on camera (think one-man-band Jackass), who we find in the wake of public backlash from acidic cyclic internet drama, as he tries to save face by live-streaming himself spending a night in a haunted house for as long as he can. Everything we know about independent streamers and YouTube personalities, from their two-dimensional façades to their Kaufman-like always-in-character nature, is on the hot seat for the duration of the film.
Everything this film sets in its sights hits the target, sometimes in a too-real uncanniness. But when the terror starts for Shawn, the laughs begin for Deadstream’s audience as well as his in-universe subscribers. On paper this movie would seem more grating and annoying than satirical or entertaining, but Joseph Winter’s performance as the lead brings a needed stability to the world of chaos he enters. There’s a lot to like here, and Deadstream may not land for everyone but believe it when I say that anyone needing a fix for an under the table crossover of Paranormal Activity and The Evil Dead will find exactly what they’re looking for. You might just find this entering your next Halloween film rotation. Invite your friends.
Country Gold, dir. Mickey Reece
More people are aware of Mickey Reece as a filmmaker now, but they may either be in the stages of acclimating to his idiosyncratic style or deciding his films are simply not for them. With last year’s Agnes raising eyebrows and challenging people’s expectations of films by synopsis alone, Country Gold veers off into new territory with Reece’s fictionalized biopic of alternate versions of existing country music legends.
Reece stars himself as Troyal Brooks, his stamped version of hot ticket modern country pop star Garth Brooks, as he struggles with the one-way mirror of consumerism. Feeling pangs of desperation to reconnect with those who inspired him to set out on his musical journey, Brooks resolves to seek out his own hero George Jones, in part to regain inspiration as well as hopefully ignite a spark of friendship between them. Ben Hall plays a delightfully jaded & sardonic George Jones, entertaining Brooks for as long as he can stomach, who uses his time to charm George into working with him. Over a Memphis steak & wine dinner, Jones levels with Troyal that he has become disillusioned with life in the present and has planned to cryogenically freeze himself in the hopes that he can see the future of this world before he dies.
Structured a bit like the combination of a slice-of-life and “it happened one night” narrative, Troyal decides to spend George’s last day with him, as they phase between drinking, drugs, and happy-end massages to pass the time in the world George Jones knows too well, while Troyal struggles with his own comfort levels of hedonistic attitudes clashing against his own self-described “good old boy” asceticism. Troyal feels there’s a balance to be struck here, and in lucid bouts of self-discovery and discussions with George realizes that his public image need not reflect the person he truly is, or rather, Troyal is the exception in the ruling of recording artists hiding behind their own public masks.
The feeling of disingenuity grates at Troyal, and is best exemplified as the flat way Reece acts as him, which at first may seem like a mix of poor acting and vanity of casting himself in the lead role. However, in Reece’s long personal and public history of filmmaking he stays mostly away from being on the other side of the camera. The style he approaches Troyal Brooks feels on-par with the bizarre nature of his characters from previous films, such as Strike, Dear Mistress, and Cure His Heart or even his earlier fictionalized musical study of Elvis Presley in Alien. By the film’s end Troyal has made up his mind, returning to his rarely seen (even by him) wife and kids, as a press conference is held upon his return in their own living room. Country Gold is an introspective journey and not an examination of the musical stars that populate the film. If anything, Mickey Reece’s name guarantees an artistic straying from the path.
Hypochondriac, dir. Addison Heimann
We meet Will, a potter working for a startup who has been struggling with depression and debilitating panic attacks. As a traumatizing event with his mother comes back from his past to haunt him he suffers more and more until he feels compelled to try and face it to beat back the demons of his mind. Or are those demons not just in his head? When Will receives voicemails from his mother that suggests she knows everything going on in his life despite the distance he’s put between them since childhood, he begins to question what he understands to be real.
Anyone with a history of trauma or depression may find something extremely useful to cling onto here but it is not without its emotional difficulties. Hypochondriac doesn’t pull any punches, but not in a sensationalized manner that milks Will’s suffering for cheap scares or furthering plot. There is a genuine hopelessness that permeates the entire film’s proceedings, but not without its silver linings. The dread in fact builds to a constructive place but as a filmgoer you need to be ready for anything to get there as Will does, facing each brutalization with varying degrees of preparedness.
Will’s personal demon takes the visage of a wolf, which we see glimpses of in passing but also notably at the start of the film from a snippet of home video where young Will wears a wolf mask, howling at the camera at the beckoning of his mother. There’s a feeling of mental transmutation at play here, Will struggling with what his mother insists is a real & concrete thing that has terrorized her and him for their whole lives. Every choice Will makes to protect his own comfort and sanity seems to push people away to his confusion, and as the world seems to turn against him he retreats to his childhood home and makes some startling discoveries. His life may not be what it seems, but it can’t be pinned to his own psychosis.
Hypochondriac isn’t by any means a comforting watch but it can be a thoroughly therapeutic and cathartic experience. It will no doubt be compared to the issues raised in Donnie Darko, its themes attempting to be rigorously dissected under a cold, harsh light. While it successfully has us believe that this is what it’s doing, it doesn’t convince us that the outcome is in any real way different. The act of filmmaking and film watching are never entirely for escapist purposes, and as Heimann’s film is itself inspired by their own personal panic attacks, the crafting of Hypochondriac is just as medicinal for its audiences as it was for Heimann to see through to its end, if not more.
There’s one more week to cover! I’m behind on updating my reviews for Fantasia but that just means more thought goes into each title’s coverage. I’ll see you when I see you.