Another film that threatens to stray into the world of terminal whimsy is Todd Rohal’s The Guatemalan Handshake (2006; April 22 at 9 pm and April 24 at 5:30 pm at the Somerville Theatre, with Rohal in attendance). As in Romantic, a strong female character quietly controls the chaos. Ten-year-old Turkeylegs (Katy Haywood) is a resourceful and reflective child with a sweet tooth: at one point she puts together a dessert that consists of a chocolate bunny filled with chocolate milk stuck in a bowl of whipped cream and drizzled with fudge sauce. It’s kind of a metaphor for the film as a whole; Rohal doesn’t seem to know when to stop piling on ingredients. And so we get Turkeyleg’s weird adult best friend Donald fleeing his dad for parts unknown after a power outage zaps the missing dog he’s searching for, and leaving behind pregnant Sadie whose father the Guatemalan demolition-derby driver disowns and. . . . Rohal’s busy, candy-colored visual style keeps pace with the narrative’s exhausting invention and he has a keen eye for visual absurdities, though he does rely too heavily on a tiny, orange electric car. In the end, though, all this effervescent confection doesn’t add up to much more than empty calories.
Whereas Handshake has no apparent point, two other festival films set out to teach lessons; literally, since they are about teachers. Mike Akel’s Chalk (2006; April 20 at 5:30 pm and April 22 at 3:30 pm at the Somerville Theatre, with Akel in attendance) chronicles a year at a fictitious Texas high school from the point of view of its misfit teaching staff. There’s the third-year history teacher who doesn’t know anything but knows how to get along with the kids and the first-year teacher who knows his stuff but is hopelessly inept at making a connection with his students. There’s the first-year assistant principal who finds the grind of administration much more daunting than teaching, and her friend the PE teacher who tries to exploit their relationship for favors. Sound funny yet? In fact, Akel brings funny dialogue and wry timing to a film that isn’t quite sure how pedantic it wants to be.
Ryan Gosling’s history teacher in Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson (2006 ; April 19 at 7 pm at the Somerville Theatre, with Fleck and screenwriter Anna Boden in attendance) combines the strong points of the two history teachers in Chalk. Too bad he’s also an alcoholic and drug addict. By day he regales his inner-city middle-school students with his hip, dialectical approach to history (Civil Rights Movement vs. Racist Establishment = Black Republicans?) and by night he’s hanging out with whores and smoking crack. So when does he grade papers? Sometimes he doesn’t even make it off the school grounds before he starts pulling on his pipe, and that’s when his 13-year-old student Drey (Shakeera Epps, the acting discovery of this festival) finds him sprawled out in a stall in the ladies’ room. What follows is a sometimes subtle, sometimes bombastic (Gosling’s performance ranges from brilliant to bug-eyed) parable about class, race, power, and the dialectics of family relationships.
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