Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 23rd, 2023
The 2023 Annapolis Film Festival kicks off tonight, March 23, with a screening of Stephen Williams’ Chevalier, based on the true story of 18th-century French composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the son of a French plantation owner and enslaved African woman. Starring the versatile Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Cyrano), the movie is a rousing take on racism at the time of the French Revolution.
That’s not the only exciting film in the mix at this 11th iteration of the Maryland capital’s premier cinematic event. With 36 features—documentary and narrative, both—plus 53 short films, there is a lot to choose from over the next four days. As always, the festival includes special programs, including “The Jewish Experience,” “The Black Experience,” “The Environmental Showcase,” “The Sailing Showcase,” and more. There are also plenty of industry panels and talks. What follows are 10 recommendations of films to see, based on my own past viewing at previous festivals or via advance screeners. All titles are hyperlinked to the movie’s page on the festival website.
In the spirit of frankness that is the hallmark of author Judy Blume’s writing, I will admit to having only read one of her novels, and that one the 1978 Wifey, which I snuck off my parents’ bookshelf as my teenage hormones ran out of control. But one does not need to have been an avid consumer of her fiction to appreciate its impact and legacy. Plus, with an older sister who did have quite a collection of Blume lying around, I was always well aware of her importance to the culture. Now, thanks to the insightful and profoundly moving new documentary Judy Blume Forever, from directors Davina Pardo (116 Cameras) and Leah Wolchok (Very Semi-Serious), everyone can join in the well-deserved recognition of why Judy Blume is worth celebrating, then, now and forevermore.
King Coal (Elaine McMillion Sheldon)
An elliptical meditation on the place coal mining has occupied in Appalachia over the past 100 years and more, King Coal, from director Elaine McMillion Sheldon (the Oscar-nominated short documentary Heroin(e)), defies conventions of the nonfiction format to weave in and out of memory and time. Filled with striking images photographed across a number of states, the film plunges us into a history of pride and trauma, with race an occasional factor. It’s a powerful cinematic journey.
Richard Wayne Penniman (1932-2020), otherwise known as Little Richard, is one of the 20th-century’s greatest musicians, yet has never yet received a documentary treatment. Thanks to director Lisa Cortés (All In: The Fight for Democracy), that error is now rectified. Her profile of the star undertakes not only to highlight his artistic achievements, but to remind us of his status as Black and queer icon, both. Wop-Bop-A-Loo-Bop-A-Lop-Bam-Boom! Cortés populates her movie with legions of celebrities and historians, through both new interviews and archival footage, who speak to the influence of Little Richard on music and the culture at large. We hear from the likes of Mick Jagger, John Waters, Billy Porter, Nona Hendrix (one third of Labelle), Tom Jones, Nile Rodgers, and others, including family members and friends, and insightful scholars such as Zandria Robinson, Fredara Hadley, Jason King, and Tavia Nyong’o. Anyone entering Little Richard: I Am Everything with little to no knowledge of the subject will emerge fully educated in a great variety of ways.
In Mama Bears, the first solo-directed feature documentary from filmmaker Daresha Kyi (Chavela), we learn a thing or two about the rabid way people hold on to such systems of power and repression. The title comes from the eponymous volunteer group of mothers of LGBTQ +children. Most of them are also very religious—primarily Christian—and have found the organization after rejection from their churches. As Kimberly Shappley, mom of Kai (now Esther), a transgender girl, states it most plainly, “Do you want a dead son, or a living trans daughter?” Sadly, there are far too many folks who make the first choice. Even more tragically, we are currently in an era of rising transphobia and pushback against the great gains in LGBTQ+ rights of the past few decades. Still, this movie gives us hope, for the protagonists we meet are deeply embedded in the same social circles as the ones on the attack. If they can look into their hearts and see a path forward that is filled with love and support, then anyone eventually can do the same.
No Legs. All Heart. (Pablo Durana)
In No Legs. All Heart., from director Pablo Durana (The Deepest Cave) we follow the story of double-amputee André Kajlich, who in 2017 became the first hand cyclist to compete in, and complete, the grueling Race Across America (or RAAM), which runs 3082 miles from Oceanside, California, to Annapolis, MD, over the course of just 12 days. Difficult enough for regular bicyclists, none of whom generally sleep more than 90 minutes a day, it’s even more challenging for someone using just their upper body. In the documentary, we learn all about Kajlich’s story (a night of drinking in Prague that turned tragic) and his work to achieve his impressive goal. It’s as inspiring a tale as they come.
Based on Australian author Tim Winton’s 1997 novella of the same name, the new film Blueback, from writer/director Robert Connolly (The Dry), offers a gentle, occasionally thrilling, paean to nature conservation that is now more needed than ever. We jump back and forth between the present and the past as Abby (changed from a boy named Able in the book) remembers the events of her childhood that set her on a journey to become a marine scientist. Brought home by her mother’s stroke, she returns to the sheltered bay where she spent many hours in the water. Among her long-ago acquaintances was a giant blue groper, the titular “Blueback.” Her memories, and the message they bring forward to today, are filled with beautiful odes to the wonders of the planet.
Whether or not the story of how Richard Montañez created the Flamin’ Hot® line of Frito-Lay’s Cheetos® contains much, little, or no truth (according to the company, the treat was developed by an executive named Lynne Greenfield), the new film that bears the name of the popular snack is a delicious cinematic romp from start to finish. The feature directorial debut of actress Eva Longoria (Overboard), Flamin’ Hot offers more than just one possible version of how a blockbuster munchie came to be, also serving as a rousing paean to underdogs everywhere, especially be they people of color, and Mexican Americans, specifically. Hungry now? Get ready to crunch down and enjoy (but have a glass of water ready in case the spice overwhelms).
The Grotto (Joanna Gleason)
Veteran actress Joanna Gleason (The Skeleton Twins) makes her feature-directing debut with The Grotto, a sweet midlife coming-of-age movie about finding love just when all seemed lost. Betsy Brandt (Claire in Motion) stars as Alice, a fortysomething woman bereft after the suicide of her fiancé. Though he may have left without any claim of ownership to the house they shared (with his parents swooping in to take it back), he at least gave her half-ownership in a Joshua Tree bar and music venue, the titular “Grotto.” And so the despondent Alice heads over form L.A., where she finds, despite herself, that adventure might just await. A bit too pat at times but grounded in lovely performances, the film is heartwarming and bittersweet in equal measure.
The Starling Girl (Laurel Parmet)
Set in a patriarchal religious community in Kentucky, The Starling Girl gives us 17-year-old Jem Starling, a young woman experiencing desires that force her to question all she has learned about God and obedience. Eliza Scanlen (Babyteeth) stars as Jem, bringing a combination of innocence and rebellion to the dramatic table, supported by strong work from Lewis Pullman (Top Gun: Maverick) as Owen, the married youth pastor who catches her eye. As rules are flaunted and the system threatens to crumble, we discover that everyone has a secret of sorts and that no structure can survive when built on a foundation of hypocrisy. Writer/director Laurel Parmet, making her feature debut, makes sure the story never descends into caricature, allowing everyone their full dimensionality. It’s a great take on the power of curiosity and agency in a world that would deny both.
Susie is lonely. A part-time college student, she lives with her ailing mother and produces a true-crime podcast on the side. Sadly, almost no one listens to it. But then, one day, she solves a mystery in her own backyard and suddenly the accolades and attention come in droves. She’s a hero, and no longer alone. That’s how things appear, anyway, as Act I comes to a close in Sophie Kargman’s Susie Searches. An expansion of her 2020 eponymous short (in which Kargman, herself, played the lead), the feature accompanies the title character through the ensuing misadventures which bring her both headache and joy. Kiersey Clemons (Asking for It) stars as Susie, joined by two other fine actors, Alex Wolff (Castle in the Ground) and Jim Gaffigan (Collide). Filled with surprises, the movie proves engrossing from start to finish.
For more information on all the festival’s offerings, visit its website. Enjoy!