LOS ANGELES FILM FESTIVAL By Justin Lowe

The defining moment of the Los Angeles Film Festival (June 19-29), presented by Film Independent, didn’t occur at a gala screening or a high-profile filmmaker panel, but transpired instead at the fest’s annual Finance Conference as Mark Gill, former president of Miramax and currently CEO of The Film Department, delivered the keynote address.

As widely reported in the entertainment press, Gill’s speech presented a comprehensive overview of the state of independent film, detailing his premise that “Yes, the Sky Really Is Falling.” He cited a variety of reasons for the poor performance of indie releases this year, including the surfeit of films available for sale and competing against one another for screen space, the flight of capital from the independent sector, contracting (or collapsing) foreign sales opportunities, the poor theatrical performance of documentaries, and the recent demise or reconfiguration of specialty outlets New Line, Picturehouse, Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent, as well as ominous rumors if imminent collapse at ThinkFilm..

These and other factors have contributed to a contraction in financing and distribution opportunities for independently produced projects — apparent even at the beginning of the year from slow sales at Sundance and the major spring festivals. The trend was also evident during LAFF, as distributors passed over a number of strong competition films, although a deal was announced before the fest for Morgan Dews’ doc Must Read After My Death, acquired by Gigantic Releasing, while IFC picked up Barry Jenkins’s narrative Medicine for Melancholy, which had premiered at South by Southwest.

Jenkins’s inventive two-hander captivates with fine performances from Wyatt Cenac as Micah and Tracey Heggins as Jo, San Francisco African-American 20-somethings navigating the awkward aftermath of a drunken one-nighter. Undaunted by Jo’s firm indifference to his attempts at establishing a further connection, Micah’s spontaneous familiarity with the city wears down her initial resistance as they develop a comfortable, if somewhat wary, rapport and maybe even the beginnings of a romance.

Shooting with a de-saturated palette reduced nearly to black and white, Jenkins lends many of his infrequently lensed San Francisco locations an almost classic resonance. James Laxton’s deft HD cinematography suits the film’s intimate scale while opening an expansive sense of the city’s possibilities.

Adopting a similarly low-key approach, writer-director Sean Baker’s third feature, Prince of Broadway, is a surefire charmer that leverages primarily non-professional actors, improvised dialogue and practical locations to craft a persuasive portrait of contemporary New York life. Illegal African immigrant Lucky (Prince Adu) works the seedier side of Manhattan’s fashion district, hustling knock-off designer shoes and handbags. When his ex-girlfriend shows up and dumps her toddler (Aiden Noesi) on him, claiming that Lucky’s the boy’s father, he’s forced to come to terms with his bachelor lifestyle and the responsibilities of parenthood.

Baker captures his characters on grainy DV in an informal verite style that pays off with a level realism seldom achieved on similarly limited budgets. Prince of Broadway’s abundant charisma helped Baker win LAFF’s juried $50,000 Target Filmmaker Award and will work wonders with receptive audiences.

Writer-director Lori Petty’s semi-autobiographical 70s-set domestic drama The Poker House was less successful at achieving authenticity, despite its non-fiction origins. Jennifer Lawrence plays Agnes, a version of 14-year-old Petty, the eldest of three sisters living with a drug-addled single mom (Selma Blair) whose disorderly home is party central for a constant parade of neighborhood lowlifes. Agnes and her siblings gingerly navigate this emotional minefield, never losing faith in their ability to endure.

Barely skirting outright melodrama, Petty elicits impressive turns from her primarily female cast, particularly Lawrence (who won the fest’s narrative acting award) as her stand-in, despite an over-written script and distinctly heavy-handed directing.

Among competition documentaries, Pressure Cooker received a special commendation from the jury for its portrayal of inner-city Philadelphia youth attempting to improve their lives through the culinary arts. Although essentially a standard kids’ contest doc, co-directors Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker latch onto several live-wire students determined to excel in the culinary field, which lends the production some pleasing momentum.

Hoping to capitalize on the electoral season, Boogie Man presents an intriguing depiction of notorious Republican National Committee chair Lee Atwater’s career and his management of George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign. Filmmaker Stefan Forbes ably fills in the background on Atwater’s development of now-familiar negative campaign tactics, but ultimately breaks little new ground covering the strategist’s career or detailing obvious parallels with contemporary hardball politics.

Defying a serious-minded doc field, Sacha Gervasi’s raucous Anvil! The Story of Anvil — an entertaining account of the influential and largely forgotten Canadian hard-rock band — took the audience award, but was still seeking a distributor capable of handling the distinctly niche picture. Darius Marder’s treasure-hunter profile Loot (pictured above) won the $50,000 Target Documentary Award.

The Summer Previews sidebar sneaked a variety of mid-year specialty releases, although none appear likely to approach the nearly $4 million in box office earned by last year’s LAFF prizewinner, Young@Heart. Among the titles in summertime release, only audience award recipients Man on Wire from James Marsh and Jonathan Levine’s The Wackness have broken $1 million in box office.

Despite the high-profile summer movies bookending LAFF, with Universal’s Wanted opening and Hellboy II closing the fest, the overall mood was more subdued than last year, although apparently not due to the rapidly diminishing likelihood of a SAG strike. Fewer parties, more event restrictions and the souring of the acquisitions market all seemed to be contributing factors.