There was awards buzz aplenty at the 18th Provincetown Film Festival, held this year from June 15-19. The annual festival, set at the Massachusetts resort town at the tip of Cape Cod, is not only a kickoff to the town’s summer season but also provides a premiere showcase for mid-summer releases as well as highlighting a number of the season’s best new documentaries. Below, I highlight the three films with the most buzz.
The festival got off to a buzzy start on opening night with the east coast premiere of Matt Ross’s “Captain Fantastic.” The winner of the Best Director prize at Un Certain Regard at Cannes in May, the film, which opens in limited release distributed by Bleecker Street on July 8, is a showcase for Viggo Mortensen. He plays Ben, the father of six kids, who along with his wife decides to leave the consumerist life and raise their family in a forest in the Pacific Northwest.
Suffering from bipolar disorder, his wife is hospitalized for three months before finally killing herself. Despite the protests from her father (Frank Langella) forbidding the family from attending her funeral, Ben hops into the family bus with his kids, and as a group, they decide to go anyway. Though Bleecker Street’s artwork for the film is of an eccentrically-clad family standing next to that bus (echoing the campaign for “Little Miss Sunshine”), “Captain Fantastic” is much more of a searing family drama, calling into question just what constitutes good parenting in this era.
AWARDS POTENTIAL: Though “Captain Fantastic” is easily Mortensen’s best work since his Oscar-nominated turn in “Eastern Promises” (2007), the Best Actor contenders look to be very strong this year, so Mortensen would have to be considered a long shot. More promising are the hopes for Ross for Best Original Screenplay. It’s one of those scripts where you think you know who the characters are, then the film flips your expectations on its head. Bleecker Street knows the awards game – it successfully brought Bryan Cranston a Best Actor nomination last year for “Trumbo,” and it has the most successful limited release film so far this year with “Eye in the Sky.”
Besides “Captain Fantastic,” whose favorable buzz lasted through the entire festival, the two titles that recurred most positively in reactions were documentaries. The most common question I was asked throughout the four days was some variation of, “Have you seen that tickling movie?” “That tickling movie” was “Tickled,” the New Zealand documentary that is on its surface about a practice called “competitive endurance tickling.”
Co-director David Farrier, an Auckland TV reporter, spots a video about the sport online and simply asks the American production company for an interview. The homophobic and threatening response he receives prompts Farrier and his co-director Dylan Reeve to dig further, but the novice filmmakers soon find themselves in way over their heads as they stumble into a deadly morass of identity theft, internet fraud and coercion.
AWARDS POTENTIAL: Despite the film’s ridiculous-seeming initial premise, “Tickled” turns out to be an effective and suspenseful piece of investigative journalism, just the type of film that the academy has rewarded in the past. But I suspect it will be difficult for voters to take seriously a film with the phrase “competitive endurance tickling” in its logline. Too bad.
The other most buzz-worthy entry in the festival (and the one that elicited an “awwww” anytime I mentioned it) was Morgan Neville’s “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.”
Neville, who won an Oscar for his 2013 doc “20 Feet from Stardom,” returns to music once more in his portrait of Ma, one of the most beloved musicians around. In 2000 he put together a group of Eurasian musicians, some with instruments that I had never seen before, to create music that evokes the sounds of their own countries. Though Ma gets ample screen time, Neville’s focus is more often on the members of the ensemble from such countries as Iran and Syria, where the time taken creating music has to be balanced with keeping yourself and your family safe.
AWARDS POTENTIAL: Very bright. With his Oscar for “20 Feet,” Neville is officially in the academy club, so any new work from him will be taken seriously. And the subject matter here is pure catnip for the cultural snob wing of the Academy. Beloved music icon brings together musicians worldwide to promote peace through music? I can almost see the academy writing the Oscar nomination certificate right now.
Buzz is a very difficult thing to measure at a film festival. Yes, you can read tweets from critics on the scene. But I find that the most accurate way to measure real buzz is to actually talk to festival-goers in the lobby or in line. A simple, “Are you enjoying the festival? What have you liked so far?” usually opens up a floodgate of opinions, and the folks in Provincetown were particularly opinionated.
Though modest in scope, this year’s Provincetown Film Festival showcased a surprisingly wide array of fine work, much of which will likely be hitting theaters throughout 2016. And it’s just a kick to be in a small town where, for four days, the focus of its citizens is on the wonder of film.