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Oxford Film Festival 2019: Diverse New Voices in Faulkner Country

Josh Wiggins in Giant Little Ones

Saturday night at the 16th annual Oxford Film Festival was prom—not an actual prom, but a sweet sixteen-themed awards ceremony complete with fried chicken and sangria, hosts in ballgowns and an electricity in the air where you felt the nostalgia of your own teenage dance. If you grew up in the south, like I did, your prom may not have felt anywhere as progressive as this one, and it wasn’t until I was standing in the packed auditorium of the awards that I realized I had mostly seen LGBTQ, minority-focused and movies with a female gaze at the festival, which ran this February 6 to 10. Given that Oxford is in Mississippi, a short distance away from William Faulkner’s beloved writing oasis, that felt like a beautiful accomplishment. Regional festivals are becoming more and more important in the film landscape, uplifting new, diverse voices in a time where people are viewing films in a group setting less and less. At Oxford, the success lay in the crop of powerful stories from fresh voices, many of which aligned with, and then furthered, our cultural conversation.

“Oxford has a long history of being an arts town and a place of liberal thinkers (William Faulkner was a great writer but also spent much of his time supporting black artists in the community for example). Our festival just goes along with what Oxford already has,” executive director Melanie Addington said. Since coming onboard in 2006, she has “tripled the budget and sponsors, expanded the mission to include more education, support for female and LGBTQ filmmakers and worked to grow attendance and national awareness of the event.” The hard work shines through, the festival standing out along with other southern festivals like Indie Memphis in Tennessee and Sidewalk in Alabama. Oxford’s year-round programming of screenings, workshops and educational opportunities means the festival is more than just about the movies. Its mission, the college-town vibe and charming town square where festgoers strolled for barbecue and bookstores, made the atmosphere welcoming. Southern hospitality is a real thing too, and volunteers at the festival leaned into it. For anyone who’s gone to a festival, or if you haven’t: having consistent transportation to venues, support with housing and a slew of awesome events goes a long way.

In multiple packed theaters for shorts blocks and features, there was a community dedication to the movie-going experience. The first two days of programming featured diverse films like Call Her Ganda, This World Alone, The Gospel of Eureka and a special screening of music documentary Negro Terror with a live performance of the film’s score. The delicate drama Giant Little Ones was one of the most compelling projects at the festival. Writer/director Keith Behrman’s film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival before being released recently on March 1st. The story centers on Franky, played with vulnerability and nuance by Josh Wiggins, who first wowed viewers alongside Aaron Paul in Hellion. Franky and Ballas (Darren Mann) are best friends. On the swim team together, and close since they were kids, there’s an apparent fragility and complexity to their relationship. On Franky’s 17th birthday, a drunken sexual incident between them changes everything. Where other films might play into tropes of the high school experience, Giant Little Ones chooses honesty over cliches. As the story unfolds, the boys’ connection disintegrates into a combative, one-sided feud. Rather than the plot asking “are they queer?,” it instead focuses more on why there is such a negativity that radiates when the school finds out the two boys shared a sexual experience. Franky becomes close with Ballas’ sister Natasha (a heart-breaking Taylor Hickson) and they bond over their mistreatment at school. She has her own trauma to cope with, something the other kids have turned against her. With supporting roles from Kyle MacLachlan and Maria Bello as Franky’s parents, the acting is superb. It’s refreshing to see a film more concerned with the grey areas in queer relationships, love and male ego than the black and white. There’s a message of acceptance, no matter who you desire, or why, and there’s a scene that evokes similar vibes to Michael Stuhlberg’s beautiful monologue in Call Me By Your Name. We need more of that.

Other festival standouts included Daniel Laab’s feature debut, Jules of Light and Dark. The cinematography, by Texas DP Noe Medrano Jr., is some of the best seen on the fest circuit this year. Like Giant Little Ones, the film takes a similarly reflective approach to same-sex friendships, here between Jules (Betsy Holt) and Maya (Tallie Medel). They’re together romantically, until they’re not. After a car accident spins them both into recovery, both mentally and physically, their bond is tested—Jules sees their connection more as a friendship. Robert Longstreet basically makes every project he’s in that much better. Remember his role in Sorry to Bother You and even in The Haunting of Hill House? Here, he plays Freddy, an oil rigger who finds Maya and Jules at night after their car crash. The film is very much about unaligned desires and missed timing, but Freddy and Maya have an unlikely connection. Freddy’s beer-fueled loneliness is assuaged by Maya and a dog he adopts (and later mistreats). None of the characters here are perfect, and we continually strive to even like them. But the film is shot so fluidly, and with so many close ups, that you feel connected to its subjects. Where other directors might pull your attention to plot-driving points in a frame or move on entirely, Medrano and Laabs allow you to linger with the characters. Each of their lives are moving at a molasses pace, and you feel the bittersweet lull. Medel’s wide eyes reflect carefully lit settings, from swimming pools to highways, and reactions to those around her. With such an introspective lens, the story allows us to sit with the complexities of unrequited love and unlikely friendship. We’re officially waiting for both Laabs and Medrano (also his feature debut) to make their next one.

Oxford’s Best Narrative Feature winner, This World Alone, showed how impactful small movies (a cast of 6) tackling big subject matters (God, gender, survival) can be. Another feature debut, this one from Jordan Noel, This World Alone takes place after a cataclysmic event has left the world without technology, electricity and the luxuries of our modern lifestyle. Three women—Connie (Carrie Walrond Hood), her daughter Sam (Belle Adams), and close friend Willow (Sophie Edwards)—live together in isolation. After Willow suffers a fatal injury, Sam travels out into the world to find medicine. She unexpectedly meets a wandering boy, Levi (Brandon O’Dell), and they become companions. Coming of age, complex friendships and gender constructs were the name of the game at Oxford; this one added to that pool. In one of the opening scenes, Connie draws the two girls to an open green pasture, a baseball bat in hand. She smacks Sam’s nose with it. Sam will have to get used to pain if she’s going to survive in the world now. This moment is when the film really grabs you and centers its power. The buttery, saturated colors of the cinematography juxtapose with the familial tension, and the shock of a mother purposefully attacking her daughter. She does learn to fight back. While some of the film’s emotional moments feel less earned than others, the minimal casting and lush visual language gives the film the intimate space to explore strength, weakness and survival—and nature’s lack of gender bias in those arenas. When you remove societal structure, what does strength really mean? They’re questions our cushy modern world may not always force forward into our conversations, but should.

Groups of attending filmmakers, which were many, flocked to the shorts blocks. Sometimes these get overlooked at fests, but Oxford showed no run-time bias when it came to sharing the spotlight. The “Queer Edge,” “LGBTQ” and “End Times” shorts blocks turning out to be the most surprising and emotional hours spent in the theater. “End Times” was admittedly rough, in a good way: eight back to back films about death. Who programs that?! Oxford, and we were all for it. Every block was solid, an eclectic mix of genres and subject matters. The highlights, though, all seemed to have a common thread—they pushed our expectations of relationships and what they should look like. In Sell Your Body, from filmmaker Jaanelle Yee, we meet a witty med school dropout Hannah (Nadira Foster-Williams). She’s about to go on a date with a couple she found on an app. As the film unfolds, there’s an uneasy tension and motivations get messier. As charming as Hannah is, we’d never expect her to take these romantic measures to pay off a loan—or would we? Yee has a fearless voice and Foster-Williams makes the movie. The Dress You Have On, a film with one setting and two characters, introduces us to Libby (Jessica Mendez Siqueiros) and Jess (Dana Aliya Levinson), a married couple confronting the truths about their desires and Jess’ recent gender transition. Filmmaker Courtney Hope Therond demonstrates her ability with dialogue, the two women becoming progressively more open about how they’re feeling, the stakes high but never feeling melodramatic. There are many “ideas” of a break up we see on screen, but here, it feels loving, honest and holds a mirror up to anyone who’s lost themselves in another person. It’s also shot in a tiny, tiny bedroom and 4:3, that choice adding to the claustrophobia of their codependence.

The One You Never Forget and All We Are tied for Best LGBTQ short. In the latter, from writer/director Will Stewart (also two people in one setting! Indie filmmakers using resources wisely!), two strangers find each other through a personal ad. Over the 16 minute short, their sexual transaction becomes more emotional and we soon learn there’s more under the surface for each of the men. Stewart’s filmmaking feels mature, trusting in the layers of the characters, which he delicately pulls back scene by scene. We could have watched these characters in conflict for another hundred minutes. The One You Never Forget, from Morgan Jon Fox, packs an emotional punch in just nine minutes. A young boy, Carey (London Curtis), has a big day ahead—it’s his first school dance. Although he acts secretive about who he’s taking, or how he feels, it inspires his mother and father to think back on when they first fell for each other. Shot by lauded DP Ashley Connor (Madeline’s Madeline), the film feels dreamy abnd innocent; when Carey’s date shows up, Fox takes the opportunity to pull at heartstrings. Relationships can transcend any expectations we may have.

At the awards ceremony prom on Saturday night, as budding filmmakers accepted hard-earned statues for their work, Oxford was also re-defining expectations around film in the south. Announcers and artists continually reminded the room how important inclusivity is. It takes filmmakers to tell the stories, but also festivals to get those stories out to communities that might otherwise not have access. Debris, a 14-minute rollercoaster that packed in more about race in America than most features, won the Best Narrative Short award. The Alice Guy-Blaché Emerging Female Filmmaker Award, along with $1000 from the Louis M. Rabinowitz Foundation, was awarded to Suzannah Herbert and Lauren Belfer for their work on the documentary Wrestle, about an Alabama state wrestling competition. Diverse films were programmed, but also celebrated and empowered. When asked how the festival allows its community to inform its broad programming, executive director Addington is passionate, and also realistic: “We try to find films that are for everyone. That does not mean every film is palatable and something for every person, but that everyone can find something to relate to in at least one of our films.”

On the last day of festival, some friends took a trip to Faulkner’s estate. Not far from the town square, you walk through perfectly planted trees to the finely preserved 1800s house. On the walls in one room, you can see the early scribblings of one of Faulkner’s first novels. As successful as he became, and the myriad of other artifacts in the house, this room stands out. At the start of any great artist’s career are those scribblings of ideas, unafraid musings and the beginnings of a new, bold voice. At Oxford Film Festival, we felt a lot of that.

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