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Vancouver International Film Festival includes Victoria’s own Connor Gaston’s first feature, The Devout

Mustang, The Sound of Trees, The Devout, My Good Man's Gone, 600 Miles, Eadweard, There will be Blood, Green Room, Into the Forest

During the second half of my deep dive into the Vancouver International Film Festival I started taking a few more chances. I went to films I knew less about. I made some blind choices, just seeing whatever filled a timeslot well. I really went wild.

And sometimes that pays off.

For instance, Mustang, a Turkish language film from director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, is easily one of my favourites of the festival (stayed tuned to for my official picks!) and I knew absolutely nothing about it going in.

The film starts with a scene of pure joy, as we meet five Turkish sisters who decide to walk home from school one day rather than bus, and end up swimming, wrestling and generally having a wonderful time with other students at the beach. After days of painful family dramas, I was delighted by the simple youthful exuberance of this opening.

But all is not well.

I won’t ruin the plot but this ultimately heartbreaking and utterly spellbinding film tackles changing traditions and gender roles in a society that is modernizing, but slowly. It is not an easy film to watch, so raw are the emotions, but Mustang achieves greatness by wielding a compelling story and fabulous performances from the young Turkish girls, making it a surprise delight at VIFF.

One of my favourite Canadian films of the festival is another I knew nothing about going in. Ultimately awarded the Best Emerging Canadian Director by the festival jury, François Péloquin brings a subtle beauty to his feature The  Sound of Trees, and finds his story in moments rather than plot. The movie, a coming-of-age story about a young man in a small Quebec town, is a touching and meditative take on a particular Canadian experience.

A small town boy myself, I was delighted at the accuracy in detail of the film. From ripping donuts in parking lots at night, to firing off homemade potato cannons, I have never seen such an accurate portrayal of growing up in a rural town. But beyond that, the film captures the melancholy, the boredom, the longing and the bittersweet joy of growing up in a tightknit community. This tender film eschews a traditional narrative arch to focus on formative moments in the main character’s (impressively played by Antoine L'Écuyer) life and is all the richer for it. It is a confident and quietly beautiful piece of filmmaking.

Another great piece of Canadian filmmaking is Victoria’s own Connor Gaston’s first feature, The Devout, for which Gaston was awarded the Best Emerging BC Director by the festival jury. Sometimes it’s tricky reviewing films from locals because you probably know them and you’ll probably see them again soon, but I’m happy to report, I can without hesitation sing the praises of this confident and touching film.

The Devout is about a deeply religious family with a young daughter who has cancer. With the parents appropriately shaken up and exhausted, the situation takes a turn when the daughter begins to say things and reveal information she couldn’t possibly know anything about. It would have been easy for this tale of faith and grief to go flying off the rails, chasing a plotline that could eclipse the film’s emotional core, but instead Gaston uses the hook to dive even deeper to the film’s strengths: the relationships between its characters and its take on family. Somber, but with moments of joy and quiet beauty, The Devout is an emotional film that announces Gaston as a talent to watch.

I know it might sound odd, but film festivals are exhausting. It wears you down watching movies all day, every day. And although we don’t often talk about it, sleeping through a movie or two is something of a film festival tradition. So it’s high praise to say My Good Man’s Gone kept me awake and engaged despite my being almost certain I had reached my breaking point and would be enjoying a little kip, no matter the quality of the movie.

From Vancouver director Nick Citton, the film is about a brother and sister who go to a small town in Arkansas after their father dies there. Rick Dacey and Cheryl Nichols play the siblings, who have a complicated history with their now deceased father. As they sort through his belongings and develop relationships with the people in the town, they also must sort out their own issues and figure out how to stop letting the past get in the way of the present.

The performances from the two leads are excellent, but the true stars of the movies are the townspeople who are, often, non-actors. Citton, who was at the screening, said nearly everyone from the town where they shot the film is in it, and the film itself is at its best when delivering slice of life vignettes of these people and their ways. Citton has a real talent for editing together genuine interviews with music and images that create an almost meditative appreciation of their way of life.

The abrupt ending of 600 Miles is the best moment of a film that is a generally exciting and a refreshingly matter-of-fact thriller revolving around the smuggling of guns into Mexico from the United States for the drug cartels. Tim Roth plays an ATF agent who ends up getting kidnapped by a young, frightened gunrunner and taken to Mexico. What ensues is often jarring and violent, but also honest and straightforward, with little in plot or filmmaking to manipulate the audience’s response, an approach which suited the film well.

Eadweard is a BC film that other people at the festival I talked to seemed to enjoy a whole lot more than I did. It’s about the inventor and photographer who took the first moving images; simple multi-photo sets of animal and human motion, many of them featuring nude models, which are still screened in film classes today. The subject is interesting enough but something about the Canadian Heritage Moment tone of the whole thing and Michael Eklund’s channeling of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in There Will Be Blood that completely took me out of the film. There are occasional inspiring moments, but as a whole I felt the film was held back by its own insistence on being odd.

One of the best moments of the festival for me was sitting down at The Rio Theatre, draught beer in hand, ready for whatever Jeremy Saulnier was about to throw at me with his new film Green Room. This was one of my most anticipated films of the festival, based solely on Saulnier’s last movie, Blue Ruin. Green Room did not disappoint in being an intense, no holds barred, good time at the movies.

It’s a simple premise: a struggling punk band agrees to play a show at what turns out to be a neo-Nazi compound out in the Pacific Northwest woods. Things go poorly and they find themselves having to fight to get out. Simple, sure, but with plenty of opportunity for genre mayhem, of which, I am a fan.

This film isn’t breaking any molds, and lots of people aren’t into this kind of unhinged violence, no matter how competently directed it is or how exuberant the filmmakers clearly are about the whole experience. But for this film fan, Green Room was right up my alley with its punk spirit and its energetic approach to its chaos.

I have to admit, I have a soft spot for survivalist movies, so Patricia Rozema’s new film Into the Forest, was right up my alley. This BC-shot features stars Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood as two sisters who are forced to survive alone in a house in the woods after North America loses all electrical power for reasons unknown. At first it is merely inconvenience and life goes on much as it did before, but as days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months, just staying alive begins to become a greater challenge.

It’s a gripping film because it takes a realistic approach to the situation and the characters involved (although why they bothered to have it set in the ‘near future’ I could never quite figure out). This isn’t some YA novel post-apocalyptic future. This is us, now, suddenly faced with the challenge of surviving without the comforts and ease we’ve all grown accustomed too.

Page and Wood are both fantastic and the acting chemistry between them is a joy to watch. Rozema approaches the material with patience and clear eyes, which suits the material perfectly, allowing the natural drama of the situation and the personalities of the sisters to carry the movie. It’s at times terrifying, at others touching, and overall, extremely compelling. The biggest problem was it got me all worried about the lack of canned foods in my house.

The Vancouver International Film Festival continues until Oct. 9, so if you find yourself in the Lower Mainland or feel like making the trek over, I highly recommend checking out the last couple of days. My VIFF experience, however, has come to an end for this year. I had a fantastic time, as I always do. I’ve not been to the big festivals of the world, but out of the local ones I make a point to attend, VIFF is one of my favourites.

I’ll post my Best of the Fest as it wraps up later this week.