Why the Slamdance Film Festival isn’t more celebrated for its documentary finds each year is a question I ask, well, every year. Sure, its annual feature-doc program isn’t filled exclusively with good movies, but neither is Sundance nor any other festival. There have been at least a few in every crop of eight-or-so titles that I’d recommend, and in most year’s there’s at least one really terrific work.
Look at some of the successes to come out of Slamdance for proof that it’s worthy of serious doc fans’ attendance: Mad Hot Ballroom, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists and Steven Soderbergh’s And Everything Is Going Fine all had their premieres at the event, which runs concurrently with Sundance in Park City.
I’m not sure that anything from this year’s program will break out as a huge sensation, but I have a few favorites that I’d love to see find an audience beyond the festival circuit. Here are my ranked recommendations with a little bit about why I think they deserve your attention:
The first two thirds of this debut by Matthew Bauckman and Jaret Belliveau have a very Anvil! The Story of Anvil kind of vibe. It’s about a happy-go-lucky, rather naive Canadian filmmaker and kickboxing champion named Elliot “White Lightning” Scott who makes very low-budget martial arts action movies. They’re coproduced and shot by his bitterly sarcastic, more down-to-earth girlfriend and most costar a friend of his who might be the nerdiest man in Nova Scotia — he reminded me a lot of American Splendor‘s Toby Radloff (played in the movie by Judah Freidlander). In fact, everyone seems like they’ve jumped out of a Daniel Clowes or Harvey Pekar comic. But the filmmakers never seem to judge the subjects, not even when events go a little off the rails in the third act and climax rather shockingly. This is the sort of doc that could do really well at Austin events like SXSW and Fantastic Fest and eventually become a cult hit streaming as an exclusive on Netflix.
2. Little Hope Was Arson
Far and away this is the most polished film of this year’s program, because of its production value and subject matter it almost seems like it ought to be part of some true crime investigative series on cable. But while I do think its best future is on TV, Theo Love’s first feature would fit well with one of the more prestigious outlets like HBO or CNN Films. The focus is on a part of East Texas with one of the highest number of churches per capita in the country and how a bunch of those burned to the ground in early 2010, leading to an enormous arson investigation that turned out a few surprises. Ultimately it’s a very well-plotted story of faith, community, honor and the loss of each, and it’s full of characters who are colorful and raw yet totally genuine. Full of mystery then emotion then finally a bunch of questions regarding the outcome, it’s an exciting movie if you’re into heavy discussion after a doc. It’s also produced by a Marvel Studios creative executive (Trenton Waterson), if that’s any incentive for anyone.
As someone who isn’t at all into mixed martial arts, I was surprised at how hooked I found myself during some of the fights in this film, particularly during the climactic bout at the end. Directed by Allan Luebke, the doc follows a 37-year-old single mom who is trying for a career in MMA, and for a while it seems like your basic underdog feature, something that Hollywood would surely love to remake, but nothing too extraordinary. By the last act, though, I found myself more invested and involved with its characters than I realized. My eyes were glued to that last fight with serious concern. It may be slowly and sneakily captivating but it got me, and if a story like this can get me it’s sure to get many more. Throw this on Showtime for a double feature with Fightville, a regular on that network.
MORE FROM AROUND THE WEB: