Boston Reel’s IFFBoston Recap Part 1— Sean Burns’s Picks

The fifteenth annual Independent Film Festival Boston wrapped up this past Wednesday night at the Coolidge Corner Theatre with a screening of Band Aid and a visit from writer-director-star Zoe Lister-Jones. Here’s a quick look at some films that screened during the festival’s final days.

LANDLINE

There’s a generosity you might not notice at first in writer-director Gillian Robespierre’s saucy sophomore effort. It’s an ensemble piece about a reasonably well-to-do Greenwich Village family, with two bickering sisters (Jenny Slate and her young doppelganger Abby Quinn) whose worlds are rocked by the discovery that their dad (John Turturro, perfectly playing the kind of nebbish who used to be cool and thinks he still kinda is) has been having an affair. Edie Falco fills out the quartet of excellent performances as a take-charge mom with pink Hillary pantsuits and what her husband affectionately calls, “the mouth of a truck driver.” The title refers to the payphones and answering machines prominent in the movie’s 1995 setting, but it’s more than just the presence of Turturro and Falco making Landline feel like an indie from that era. This is a compassionate movie forgiving these folks their foibles, even when they have a hard time forgiving themselves.

BAND AID

It’s a tart comedy for the first hour or so, with writer-director Zoe Lister-Jones and co-star Adam Pally starring as a childless married couple grinding on each other’s last nerve. When their couples therapist moves to Canada (possibly to get away from these two) they channel their frustrations into a garage band, penning brutally funny ditties with titles like “I Don’t Want To Fuck You Anymore.” Fred Armisen is a deadpan delight as a sex-addict neighbor pressed into duty as a drummer, and the movie feels like it’s building to some sharp insights about making art with your romantic partner. But instead Lister-Jones veers into kitchen sink melodrama, dropping the jokes almost altogether and tying it all up with homilies so pat they play like parody. Weirdly, I’d had to go use the restroom right before the film’s tonal shift and after my return wondered if I might’ve somehow wandered back into the wrong auditorium.

CHUCK

In 1975 little-known New Jersey boxer Chuck Wepner, aka “The Bayonne Bleeder,” shocked the sporting world by going 15 rounds against heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. (Wepner famously even knocked the Champ down at one point.) His story inspired a struggling actor named Sylvester Stallone to write himself a dream role that changed movie history, while Rocky’s real-life counterpart ended up with a one way ticket to Palookaville, chronicled here by director Philippe Falardeau as a jaunty, at times incongruously comedic disco-era romp with a game lead performance by Liev Schreiber. Elisabeth Moss channels Saturday Night Fever’s Donna Pescow as Wepner’s long-suffering first wife, while an almost unrecognizable Naomi Watts goes full va-va-voom playing his second. It’s a slick, entertainingly silly movie that owes more to Goon than Raging Bull, save for a surprisingly heartfelt turn by Michael Rapaport as the Joey La Motta to Schreiber’s Jake.

DAYVEON

There’s a big old bee’s nest buzzing just outside Dayveon’s front door, an unsubtle though not ineffective metaphor for the swarms of gang members menacing the troubled teen’s rural Arkansas community. He lives with his sister, both of them mourning an older brother shot dead last year while their parents remain unmentioned. The Crips have their eye on the kid, hazing him as a possible recruit the way we’ve seen in a thousand cautionary tales. What makes Davyeon feel so different is that writer-director Amman Abbasi transplants hood movie tropes to the Deep South, infusing the bucolic settings with some of the same junkyard lyricism we saw in executive producer David Gordon Green’s George Washington. But it’s more grounded and naturalistic than Green’s work, boasting two gorgeously inarticulate performances from Devon Blackmon and Dontrell Bright. The movie doesn’t end where you want it to, but it ends when it should.

HIGH LOW FORTY

Writer-director Paddy Quinn brings his crew from the mock-reality show Massholes down south for this ambitious tale of two estranged brothers reuniting after their father falls ill. Naive young Joe (played by the hugely charismatic Quinn) drives his trusty pickup from Texas to Los Angeles looking for black sheep Billy (Kurt Finney), who nobody’s heard from in the decade following his dishonorable discharge from the military. The story goes pretty much where you can probably guess it’s gonna go, but with a unexpected amount of charm and affection from these performers. As a filmmaker, Quinn is really good at the tricky, tonal stuff and not so hot on the fundamentals. (He could also do with watching less Friday Night Lights. The handheld slo-mo and twangy guitar were killing me after awhile.) High Low Forty is the kind of flawed debut that makes you eager to see what comes next.

The Independent Film Festival Boston runs every April, with a Fall Focus mini-fest each October and also year-round screenings and special events. For information on becoming a member visit www.iffboston.org.