IFFBoston Announces 2017 Jury Awards

The fifteenth annual Independent Film Festival Boston announced their 2017 Jury Awards at a ceremony this past Saturday night at the Somerville Theatre. Here’s a look at winners in the Feature Categories.

Documentary Feature Special Jury Prize: MAINELAND

Beijing Taxi director Miao Wang chronicles the cultural displacement of Chinese students at Maine’s Fryeburg Academy in low-key observational mode, hanging back and allowing us to absorb recurring themes and motifs without foregrounding them in the edit. Maineland conveys a refreshing ambivalence about the reasons for the kids’ experience, careful to include the school’s mercenary motivations for recruiting students from overseas, as well as the interests of their parents — most of them successful entrepreneurs — in having children conversant in ways of the West. The movie is a real visual treat, with some of the most evocative moments courtesy of the great cinematographer Sean Price Williams (Heaven Knows What and Kate Plays Christine) contrasting the cluttered Mainland cityscapes with Vacationland’s rural expanses. It’s also sadly telling that after spending a semester in America the kids all go home fat.

Documentary Feature Grand Jury Prize: FOR AHKEEM

The indomitable Daje “Boonie” Shelton will steal your heart in this unsparing look at life in St. Louis reform school, where funerals for classmates are shockingly commonplace and the faculty fights uphill battles every day to get these kids out into the world with diplomas instead of rap sheets. Unfolding against a backdrop of both local and national unrest following the nearby shooting of Michael Brown, For Ahkeem follows Daje through her senior year, disrupted by an unexpected pregnancy and a boyfriend who keeps ending up in jail. Directors Jeremy Levine and Landon Van Soest opt for a cinema verite presentation, eschewing interviews, voice-over and onscreen text that could have clarified a couple crucial story points. There’s also some footage that feels suspiciously finessed for storytelling purposes, but still, whenever Daje’s onscreen it’s impossible not to be moved.

The Karen Schmeer Award for Excellence in Documentary Editing: DINA

Editor Sofía Subercaseaux (who has also cut dramatic features such as Christine and Crystal Fairy) sifted through some 600 hours of footage in shaping this ingeniously structured portrait of an everyday life as engrossing and surprising as any fictional mystery. Chatty 48-year-old Dina Buno struggles with what her mother calls “a smorgasbord” of mental issues, including anxiety and autism. Directed with great compassion by Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles, the film follows preparations for Dina’s second wedding, this one to Scott, a meek Wal-Mart employee with Asperger’s Syndrome. Dina deepens as it goes along, slowly unfolding to reveal the fate of her first husband, the story behind those nasty scars on Dina’s back and it eventually expands to include the couple’s friends from all over the spectrum. That the movie is so funny without ever being funny at these people’s expense is something very special indeed.

Narrative Feature Special Jury Prize: COLUMBUS

The title city’s modernist architecture serves as a Greek Chorus in this visually elegant debut from video essayist Konogada. John Cho stars as a reluctantly dutiful son called far from home to his estranged father’s deathbed (the old man fell ill on a university tour) while The Edge of Seventeen’s Haley Lu Richardson delivers a star-making turn as a college library clerk looking for someone to kill time with on smoke breaks. This exceptionally quiet film is a sketch of souls stuck in stasis. She gives him tours of her favorite buildings, the actors arranged against the sleek lines of these structures as wry commentary on the characters’ self -imposed prisons. Sometimes all the frames within frames can get a little fussy for my tastes, but there’s a real, repressed power to these performances by Cho, Richardson and especially Parker Posey as the sick father’s too-young girlfriend.

Narrative Feature Grand Jury Prize: BEACH RATS

Writer-director Eliza Hittman’s ferociously tactile 2014 debut It Felt Like Love was a tale of roiling young hormones on the beaches of South Brooklyn. Her even-better follow-up covers a lot of the same territory, only this time from a boy’s point of view — a swaggering bro played by Harris Dickinson trying desperately to hide his homosexuality. These idle lads — grunting in their undershirts while snorting crushed-up oxys all afternoon, chasing tail on the Coney Island boardwalk at night — are like if the loutish Saturday Night Fever dudes couldn’t even dance. (Even their vape clouds are dicks in a movie where everything becomes a measuring contest.) Hittman’s superlatively subjective camera sexualizes all in its path, damp with a New York summer’s cruel humidity and a hazy, exhausted torpor. Beach Rats is the most evocative movie I’ve seen so far at the festival. It’s also the saddest.

The Independent Film Festival Boston continues at the Coolidge Corner Theatre through Wednesday, May 3d. For tickets and showtime information visit www.iffboston.org.