https://youtu.be/WNZc3Vr1Oy4

I was able to attend just three of the films showing this year at the 14th annual Independent Film Festival Boston – but luckily two were incredible, and one will likely hang on around the top of my list until year’s end. (Of all the films I missed out on, it was having to skip Ira Sachs’ “Little Men” that was the most disappointing, both due to how big a fan I was of his previous effort, “Love is Strange,” and to how enthusiastic the love for it was from my fellow critics.)

050616i IFF Boston“Newtown” was, unsurprisingly, well-received as a powerful meditation on grief following an unthinkable tragedy. And while I saw it at the Tribeca Film Festival two weekends prior and not at IFF Boston, “Always Shine,” starring Mackenzie Davis, continued to make a successful festival run as its indie, DePalma-lite nature picked up some new and eager fans. The raw production made for some awkward jump cuts, lessening my enthusiasm, but it’s worth seeing for Davis’ performance alone.

The first film I saw was the one I was the most excited for – “The Fits” – and it’s the one that has lingered in my mind the longest. Running a brief 72 minutes, Anna Rose Holmer’s film never relents, capturing our attention from the first seconds and holding it tight until the credits wrap. The story follows a young girl, a tomboy who helps her brother in the gym while he trains her in boxing. One day she sees the neighboring dance team as they practice and becomes entranced with the sense of sisterhood the members radiate. The film explores themes of what young people (particularly girls) do to fit in, while highlighting the significance of standing out and forging a unique identity. Instead of being content as a coming-of-age story, the film deviates quickly into the metaphysical as the girls are gripped by a force beyond their control.

Leading the charge is pint-sized Royalty Hightower as Toni, and she’s arresting, imbuing the character with graceful physicality as well as a steely force of will. The real thrill comes from the atmosphere that hums and croons until a breathless crescendo. It’s the characters’ moments of joy that become transcendent. Whether it’s in two girls racing through an abandoned school, illuminated by their sparkling costumes or ear-to-ear grins, or Toni letting loose an explosive routine infused with dance and her boxing skills in a private moment. These are the moments that place “The Fits” into the “something special” category.

 

Later in the day I watched “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” which was positively delightful. Taika Waititi has shown a self-assured vision in his past efforts – the offbeat family drama “Boy” and the farcical “What We Do in the Shadows” – that hinted at an innovative and vibrant potential and left me dying to see what he would do next. Waititi’s deft hand has struck again in his latest persistently grin-inducing film. Equal parts action romp and absurdist comedy and peppered with some genuinely heartfelt moments, the film may also be Waititi’s best. Sam Neill as Uncle Hec and Julian Dennison as mischievous Ricky Baker shine as accidental outlaws whose misadventures and bonding generates equal parts laughter and subtle emotional resonance. Forced on the run and to live in the beautiful New Zealand bush, the film tackles a surrealist attitude reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” and anything by Edgar Wright.

042616i-The-Intervention

The last film I saw was also the closing film, “The Intervention,” directed by actress Clea Duvall, and it was easily the most disappointing. The biggest hurdle is Melanie Lynskey’s insufferable lead, Annie, who has so few redeemable attributes that she comes across more like a villain. In all fairness, remarkably few of the film’s characters are likable. In an attempt to create a sense of realism in the way friends and loved ones fight, the characters instead came across as unrealistically egotistical and narcissistic. Ben Schwartz and Alia Shawkat largely escape this (the former deserved more time to shine) and while I was thrilled to see Duvall and Natasha Lyonne playing a couple in my own little version of a “But I’m a Cheerleader” sequel, it was primarily Lyonne who sparked any real fire into her underwritten role.

Taking on a worn structure as is, “The Intervention” provides little for the general moviegoer to relate to as the friends spend time at a luxurious family farmhouse and drink endlessly. There’s some grace in Duvall’s direction, and she has momentary shots that are beautifully tangible, such as ones where the friends drink and smoke until the fire has burned out around them. Despite the promise behind the camera and the overall quality of the acting talent, by the end of the film there was a sense of relief at not having to spend any more time with these insufferable characters.

The season of great movies is only just beginning, and IFF Boston will be back in a few months with its Fall Focus program. Cinema is a yearlong engagement, and IFFBoston is only the tip of what it has to offer us as consumers.

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