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PFF Springfest 2018: Leave No Trace and Blindspotting

This weekend marks the Philadelphia Film Festival Springfest. The weekend seeks to highlight hits from the winter festivals like Sundance, making some of the best independent films that will be out this summer available for an early viewing. Leave No Trace (Dir. Debra Granik)

The kickoff of the festival was also a return to a form from a former festival favorite. Debra Granik, whose last narrative feature work was 2010's Jennifer Lawrence starring Winter's Bone, makes a welcome follow up with Leave No Trace. The film stars Ben Foster as Will, a father living with his 13 year old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) in the woods just outside Portland, OR. The two aren't homeless because they have no other option- they are there by choice, skilled at living off the grid without the need for basic societal comforts. Yet as we learn, the skill is also formed from a deeper need to escape everything in the world of people. Will is not a bad father or a bad person- he is a man doing the only thing he knows how to do in order to survive.

We get little information about their backstory- everything we need to know is in their actions. It's an expert example of the economy of storytelling. It starts early in the film, with the sound of a helicopter, getting louder and louder. We think it may be hovering over the woods, or on its way to somewhere else, but then Will wakes up and it stops. It was just a dream- but Will appears startled and upset. At this moment it becomes clear that he is probably a veteran, struggling with some kind of intense Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Yet he doesn’t present in the typical ways that someone like him struggles. He doesn’t drink, is not on opioids, doesn’t have a gun. People are suspicious of the fact that he shares a small tent with his daughter, which as a viewer does come off as strange. Yet it’s only about sharing warmth in the cold Northwestern nights. He is tested time and time again, and yet his commitment to protecting his daughter and himself never waivers.

It is a challenging time for Will especially, because Tom is beginning to desire certain creature comforts that come with being an adolescent- food when she wants it, other kids her own age, even jewelry. She’s an adolescent now and she is starting to think for herself. She isn’t like her dad, and she is starting to realize that what drives his need to be far away from the world has nothing to do with her. Yet there’s the tricky thing, of the enduring bond of a parent and child, and at still such a young age, that complicates the whole scenario.

In the end, Leave No Trace is a story about what happens when maybe healing is impossible- and all that can be done is a controlled management. It reminded me of Manchester By The Sea in that regard, but with Granik’s compassion for American lives lived on the margins, complete with an array of non professional actors and real filming locations. Ben Foster has been playing a certain type of unstable man for years now, but he’s never conveyed this kind of brokenness with such vulnerability. Anyone who has ever loved a struggling veteran or a person with PTSD will be wrecked by this- I feel the tears welling up just writing about it. It may not feel like a groundbreaking work or announcement of the arrival of a major new star, but Leave No Trace is certainly one of the better movies of 2018 so far.

Leave No Trace opens in theaters June 29th, 2018.

Blindspotting (Dir. Carlos Lopez Estrada)

On a side note, I nearly didn't make it to the second film, as I got hit with a sudden bout of nausea and a migraine right before it began. I powered through though, and boy am I glad I did, because seeing the Philadelphia premiere of this powerful film was an unforgettable experience.

Blindspotting stars Daveed Diggs (Hamilton, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) and Rafael Casal as two best friends Colin and Miles, who have grown up together in Oakland. The two have seen their hometown change dramatically over the years, thanks to an influx of tech money, rising rents and gentrification. Police brutality has always been an issue, but Blindspotting is set in a post-Oscar Grant world, where Black Lives Matter has raised the consciousness of the public and the police killings of unarmed black men are all over the news.

The film starts with three days left on Colin’s probation, and tells the story of a week in the life of these two. Colin just spent two months in jail for an aggravated assault, the details of which are revealed in a narrated flashback scene as comic as it is brutal. That’s the essential tone of Blindspotting- laughing at the hard realities of the lives of Colin and Miles, because, as the two stars shared in a post viewing Q&A, there’s no time to wait for things to be funny- there’s such an onslaught of bad news in poorer communities that if you wait for a time further down the road for things to be funny, they never will be.

Colin and Miles Work as part of a moving company, which affords them to see the changing realities of a gentrifying Oakland up close and personal. Diggs and Casal, who  co-wrote the script together over a process of many years, make lots of room for free styling, turning their experiences into bars that they spit with a removed confidence. It’s hard not to think of Spike Lee while watching it, especially his film Chiraq, which also has its characters speaking often in rhymes and various pentameters. Blindspotting is operating on a near Shakespearean level, Colin and Miles acting as charming fools trying to live their best lives- like a woke Claudio and Benedict.

The inciting incident of the plot happens early, and is even featured prominently in the trailer. Late at night as Colin is hurrying home to his halfway house before curfew, he sees a white cop (Ethan Embry) shoot and kill an unarmed black man as he is running away, his back turned. It shakes and rattles Colin, obviously- but it is complicated by how he's doing his best to keep a low profile, and keep his nose in his own business as his probation comes to an end. Yet the tension builds and builds, culminating in an explosive, incredible final confrontation- one that will surely make many "Scene Of The Year" lists come December.

It’s a movie that will almost certainly dominate film conversations over the summer and through the fall- and hopefully have a long shelf life on streaming platforms. It’s the kind of movie that will speak dramatically to young folks, but also educated the older festival attendees about the many issues facing the struggling young people of today.

Blindspotting opens in theaters everywhere July 27th, 2018.

Springfest continues through Sunday, April 29.

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