REGIONAL FILM FESTIVALS are a gamble. For every uncompromising new vision, there’s an obnoxiously inaccessible art school hack job—and it’s not always clear from the outset which is which. For every thrill you feel when discovering your new favorite filmmaker before they get big, there’s the knowledge that you might’ve just gotten suckered by a one-hit wonder. You can see the most profoundly ridiculous cinematic experiments succeed where they shouldn’t, and then you can see them fail again and again over the course of 120 minutes. It’s fun! But also risky.
Of the handful of local festivals I’ve seen over the years, none have embraced that high-risk, high-reward mentality as much as the indie-focused Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival, put on each year by the Northwest Film Center. This is the kind of fest where every movie on the docket has at least one scene that wasn’t mic’ed or lit properly; where there will, inevitably, be more than a few edits that could have been significantly more elegant; and where just about every film, be it a short or a feature, has a cast member who probably has rich parents, or who at least brought pretty good snacks for the crew, because as an actor, they just aren’t cutting it. But even taking all that into consideration: This year’s Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival offers 14 features. I absolutely loved three of them, I really liked another three, and the rest... well, let’s just say they made some interesting choices.
Those are pretty good odds.
The most polished of 2016’s selections is undoubtedly The Devout (screens Sat Nov 12 & Sun Nov 13), an intense, expertly paced drama in which the parents of a terminally ill child are drawn into a discredited professor’s pseudoscientific theory of reincarnation. It boasts an unusually high number of actors you’ll recognize from the CW, but I suppose that’s shooting a film in British Columbia for you. I’d compare it to Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin in that it’s a film that knows exactly what it wants to do within the scope of a modest budget—and then hammers that one thing home with exacting precision.
The most pleasant surprise, on the other hand, might be The Village of Middlevale (Fri Nov 11 & Sun Nov 13), a Kickstarter-funded, semi-improvised Renaissance faire mockumentary from a team of Tacoma-based filmmakers. Let the record show that, as a snobby film critic, the words “Kickstarter,” “mockumentary,” and “semi-improvised” all send a chill down my spine—but Middlevale boasts an ensemble cast with fantastic chemistry, plus an editor with a great feel for which gags to run with. If you’re still chasing that slightly uncomfortable high you got from season two of The Office, you may find it here.
And then there’s The Pearl (Sat Nov 12 & Sun Nov 13), a documentary which profiles four middle-aged transgender women from Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. It’s an intimate portrait of women who have spent a lifetime coming to terms with who they are and how they fit in the world around them, often without finding definitive answers. But rather than focusing on struggles of being trans, the inherent drama of The Pearl is in the small moments when these women can feel like themselves. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.
Those are the safest bets. If you don’t mind some rougher edges, Finding October (Fri Nov 11 & Sat Nov 12) and Finding Bosnia (Fri Nov 11 & Sat Nov 12) are similarly named, completely different road movies that both manage to wring a great deal of charm out of a small number of elements—three twee twenty-somethings and a car in the former, and a talented documentarian and the nation of Bosnia in the latter.
Beyond that, how much reward you’ll find will largely be a function of how many technical shortcomings and oblique storytelling risks you’re willing to tolerate, all while hoping for an unexpected genre twist or a particularly well-observed moment. I can’t make that calculation for you—but with odds as good as this festival’s, taking a chance or two is definitely worth your time. I wish you the best of luck.