A panelist in a Thursday night Q&A panel at EbertFest 2011 made the following observation, which I am paraphrasing:
"We are at a stage where literally everyone can make and publish a home movie about their family. Not that everyone should."
Roger Ebert found two of the best home movies on the festival circuit and brought them to EbertFest for our enjoyment. Those would be Thursday night's "Tiny Furniture" and Friday morning's "45365". Let's take a look at them.
1. "Tiny Furniture"
Is this a feature length home movie? Writer / director Lena Durham stars as Aura, a young woman returning from college away to live with her family as she figures out what to do next. Her real life mother acts as her mother. Her real life sister acts as her sister Daphne. Their home is her mother's real life home. All of that puts us pretty squarely in home movie territory.
Tiny Furniture is nominally, however, a fictional story which includes other characters not in her family. Those include two friends, who create a tension in her life, and two men as potential love / sex interests. Just a question: if you are a woman who is the writer/director/star of a fictional film, would you not write yourself better men as love interests and give yourself a shot with them? Lena/Aura doesn't, so maybe this isn't fictional after all. The two men are such jerks that actor David Call - who attended EbertFest - felt compelled to add this statement as he introduced the movie: "Just remember as you watch that I'm acting, and that I am a nice guy, and that I really do respect women". Ouch.
Lena / Aura sets the tone of the film with an easy humor and a gentle pace of the flow of her life. She is not trying to impress with big themes, but to be present and authentic. If she has body image issues - and she should not - she displays none of them in her no-makeup, unpretentious, casual wear day-in-the-life storyline. She's living in an upscale Manhattan neighborhood with obvious privileges, but is not living a privileged life.
Ostensibly, the story is about Aura being lost in the gap between college and career. What does she want to be when she grows up? A filmmaker? And what is she willing to be until she gets there? A waitress? And how long will she have to with her mother and sister until she decides? That is the surface tension in the movie.
I was captured by two other ways in which Aura is lost.
First, she is lost between Ohio (where she has just graduated from college and established her own identity) and Manhattan (the nest, which she has returned to). This lost-ness is represented by her two friends Frankie and Charlotte. Frankie is her college roommate from Ohio, and is moving to NYC to share an apartment with Aura. Charlotte is Aura's childhood friend who she meets at a party and reconnects with. These two collide at an art party in the city. Will Aura get the apartment with Frankie and continue her new identity established at college? Or will she get sucked back into her childhood life of privilege by Charlotte? Aura is lost between them.
Note: Charlotte is played wonderfully by non-actor Jemima Kirke, a real-life friend of Lena Durham - continuing the home movie feel. Jemima/Charlotte cinched the movie for me.
Second, Aura is lost between her family (mother/sister) and her independence. One thing I liked that illustrated this is three pivotal scenes where each in turn gets to vent. Aura at her mother - "It's hard for me right now". Her mother at Aura - "I'm just trying to be heard". And Daphne at Aura - "You disgust me." Wonderfully expressive screaming fits. At one pivotal point Aura's mother asks her "Are you happy living here?" That is indeed the question.
Brothers/directors Turner and Bill Ross - who attended EbertFest - have produced a loving documentary of their hometown in Sidney Ohio, which bears the postal code of the title. They filmed an amazing 500 hours of raw footage, and shaped the movie in months of editing.
Is there a plot? If so, it's known only to the Ross brothers. I had a sense early on as I watched it that the plot was the recognizable turning of the seasons. The passing of a year, with it's milestone events. Starting with Summer events like the county fair, a demolition derby, and the 4th of July fireworks. Maybe a June wedding. Off into the fall with an election cycle and football season. Ending with the snows of winter.
We meet real people along the easy flow of the seasons. Cops. Radio DJ. The candidate. The football team. The Ross brothers made some amazing editing choices in weaving their patchwork quilt of Sidney in a coherent manner. One choice that struck me as brilliant was a wedding scene where we never see the wedding. We see her dressing, and hear his vows. We then see him dressing, and hear her vows. That's it, and it's brilliant.
3. Two views of these home movies
We all see movies from our own life experiences and history. Especially such personal home movies as these two choices.
I had conversations with a new friend, a fellow festival-goer from Toronto that I met Tuesday morning at a breakfast. She's in the film industry and is Toronto / New York / Los Angeles. I am not in the business and am from small town Midwest USA. We're not likely to see these two movies the same.
I loved both movies, for different reasons. Tiny Furniture's NYC setting was foreign to me, but Aura's Ohio vibe resonated. And, as the Ross brothers explained, 45365 could be about any town in the Midwest. It could be about my town.
My new friend had the opposite experience. Tiny Furniture was her town, and she didn't like it's portrayal. "She's trying hard to be Woody Allen, and she is so not Woody Allen". (Was Woody allen even Woody Allen at 24 years old? )
She objected to the statement that 45365 represented all of America.
Her: "Do Americans know that Canadians see America as nothing at all like the town in this movie?"
Me: "45365 is my America every day. I know all of the people in that film."
Her: "I know none of those people."
No doubt, Sidney Ohio is not Tribecca. And here we have two terrific home movies about those two very different home towns. Count me as fans of both.
My photo galleries of EbertFest are found at http://www.lickcreekphotography.com/