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SLO Film Fest reviews 3/15/18 

Editor's note: For more show times and films, visit


What's it rated? NA

What's it worth? Full price

Where's it showing? March 15 at 1:15 and 9 p.m. and March 16 at 4:30 p.m. at Downtown Centre


Kyle Rideout (Eadweard) directs this quirky heartwarmer, which he co-wrote with frequent collaborator and producer Josh Epstein. Newcomer Daniel Doheny plays Liam, a socially awkward teenager who has been homeschooled his entire life. Against the wishes of his protective mother, Claire (Judy Greer, Arrested Development, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Liam pursues the possibility of attending a public high school for his senior year. Once enrolled, a girl named Anastasia (Siobhan Williams, Hell On Wheels, UnREAL, Heartland) catches his eye and soon becomes the object of his affection.

The general synopsis may sound a bit been-there-done-that, but Adventures in Public School (or Public Schooled as it's known in Canada, its country of origin) manages to divert the trappings of its own subgenre, in the same vein as Lady Bird and The Edge of Seventeen. The story follows a very familiar pattern we've come to know through other coming-of-age comedies, but approaches it from a fresh angle. And the closer the film comes to an end, the more it diverges from the beaten path. As you're watching, it's satisfying to see one prediction after another turn out wrong.

The characters that inhabit Adventures in Public School, however zany for comedic impact, feel like fully formed human beings. The overprotective, smothering mother archetype is as old as time itself, which makes Greer's performance and Rideout and Epstein's script all the more commendable. Claire's exchanges with Liam are layered with nuance. Wanting to keep Liam under her wing isn't Claire's objective simply because the plot demands it, rather her character does. Similarly, Williams' Anastasia could have just been a run-of-the-mill girl next door. This isn't the case, although her character ironically ends up living literally next door to Liam, unbeknownst to him until the second act.

The highest compliment I think I can pay Adventures in Public School is to dub it the Canadian Lady Bird of last year. Coincidentally, the directors behind both films are better known for their acting work. Putting an actor behind the camera might have been the best possible move, but the real star of Adventures in Public School is the script. It's refreshing to ponder the different directions the story could have gone in and realize it wasn't afraid of taking the road less traveled. (86 min.)

—Caleb Wiseblood


What's it rated? NR

What's it worth? Full price

Where's it showing? March 16 at 10:30 a.m. and 7:15 p.m. at The Palm, March 18 at 2 p.m. at the Fremont


Directed by Joanna James, A Fine Line is a testament to women in the food industry, a male-dominated field. Joanna dives into the barriers that females face not only to start their businesses but the struggle for recognition. She presents the uphill battle of gender equality in the workplace through her mother Valerie James, owner and operator of Val's Restaurant and Lounge in Holden, Massachusetts.

This film introduces the audience to leading women in their respected profession: the first female Iron Chef winner, Michelin star restaurant owners, TV hosts, authors, and a world-renowned baker. All of these individuals share their triumphs and experiences of misconceptions of being a woman in business.

Joanna does a stellar job of telling the personal story of her mother in order to open a national discussion. When Joanna first started working on this film it evolved from sharing her mother's story to exposing the hurdles that women face in the food industry. She learns that less than 7 percent of chefs or restaurant owners in the U.S. are women, and the film takes a turn in another direction of telling that side of the story as well. She perfectly weaves in her mother's life and the influence that women have had in the industry over the years.

Val grew up in the restaurant business, as her father was the owner of a diner and five pizzerias. Inspired by the day-to-day interactions that he had with customers and the dedication it takes to run a business, she knew it would be her path, too. Achieving your goals is not an easy road to travel, and Val was no exception.

In her early adult life she married and started her family but continued to work in the family business. It wasn't until her brother took over the family restaurant that Val felt lost. She and her then husband weren't seeing eye to eye; she wanted to continue working in the industry and he wasn't supportive.

"With a divorce, kids, and loans, I became a bull and I kept going on," Val said.

Being a single mother and having insufficient funds were obstacles that weren't going to stop her from pursuing her path. With the help of family and friends, Val built the foundation of her restaurant in 1991. Since then Val has created not only a fabulous restaurant but a community of customers and employees. Customers love the spunky woman who damaged her vocal cords by yelling out orders to her kitchen.

Working for Val meant being a part of Val's restaurant family—she not only cared about her business but the people who continuously made it flourish.

Throughout the entire film I couldn't help but feel the empowerment of all these different women fighting their way to the top. All these women and many more out there have fought to earn their recognition. Val was the perfect personality to shed light on an ongoing issue. It's informative and tugs at your heartstrings all a once. (71 min.)

—Karen Garcia


What's it rated? NR

What's it worth? Rental

Where's it showing? March 16 at 9 p.m., March 17 at 1 p.m., and March 18 at 1 p.m. at Downtown Centre

Funny Story actually isn't very funny at all. Instead Director/writer Michael J. Gallagher (The Thinning, Smiley) and co-writer Steven Greene (The Thinning, The Wedding Ringer) bring us a tale of people fucking up exponentially, leaving everyone in their wake to deal with the awkwardness and devastation that follows.

Walter (Matthew Glave, Argo), a has-been actor for a nerdy fantasy show is dealing with the aftermath of leaving his wife for a younger (and much dumber) woman and the toll that's taken on his relationship with his 20-something daughter, Nic (Jana Winternitz, The Thinning). So after finding out his girlfriend is pregnant, Walter decides to trek up north to meet his daughter and her friends for a getaway in Big Sur, to reconnect and break the news in person. Enter Kim (Emily Bett Rickards, Arrow), Nic's friend whose supposed to head to Big Sur from Southern California, but then, after attending her estranged mom's funeral, her car breaks down. That's how we get the wacky yet surly duo of Kim and Walter road-tripping for hours up the scenic coast of California. It's a whole lot of angst and regret for one car, heaped with some heavy truth-telling (and truth withholding) and an extra dose of brand new fuck-ups just for good measure.

Funny Story has a lot of not great people making really bad decisions over and over again. This is disheartening, but the film is beautifully shot in a gorgeous place, and the actors play their parts convincingly. It's hard to root for or outright hate anyone here, but by the end of the film there's a glimmer of hope that at least one of the characters has changed enough to maybe begin to mend their relationship with a loved one. (84 min.)

—Ryah Cooley


What's it rated? NR

What's it worth? Full price

Where's it showing? March 16 at 7 p.m. at the Palm, March 17, at 1 p.m. at Downtown Centre


Directed by Megan Rossman, this brief seven-minute documentary explains how more than 40 years ago Deborah Edel and Joan Nestle co-founded the Lesbian Herstory Archives, the world's largest collection of materials by and about lesbians, which is currently housed in New York.

As members of a marginalized community, Edel was worried that such materials would be lost: "Our history was disappearing as fast as we were making it," she lamented in the film. Her goal was to preserve the material and make it accessible and comfortable for lesbians to access.

"We've gotten these desperate calls," Edel noted. "'I'm breaking up with my mother and I'm furious and I want to tear up my letters and my photographs, so please come and rescue them,' and I feel like we're the rescue squad and we go down, 'OK, give us your materials,' and we take it back to the archives and five years later they can come back and feel glad that they didn't destroy what they knew they were going to destroy."

We also learn that Edel considers the collection a form of activism.

"I deeply believe that activism is giving people knowledge and power, and that they get a connection to their own history, and that that is as important as protesting on the streets can be," Edel said. "That was why the archives were so important to me. They represented really giving a community back its own history, and that's activism."

Told via an interview with Edel and through archival photos and film, this compact documentary should make an excellent accompaniment to the two films it's screening with. Deborah Edel will be in attendance at the screenings for a Q-and-A. (7 min.)

—Glen Starkey


What's it rated? NA

What's it worth? Full Price

Where's it showing? March 15 at 1:45 and 9 p.m. and March 18 at 1:30 at Downtown Centre


How far would you be willing to go to stand up for your beliefs?

This question lies at the heart of Man on Fire, a documentary about Charles Moore, a 79-year-old retired Methodist minister who committed suicide by setting himself on fire in the small Texas town of Grand Saline to protest racism perpetrated against black Americans.

The documentary mainly consists of interviews with Grand Saline residents as well as Moore's friends and family, but is interspersed with re-enactment footage of the moments leading up to Moore's horrific death by self-immolation in a parking lot. What we learn from the film is that the retired minister had long been a passionate proponent of racial equality, and chose to kill himself to bring attention to the past sins of the town, which he felt had not properly atoned for its racist past.

The film, directed by Joel Fendelman, attempts to unpack not only the story behind Moore's death, but paints a portrait of the town he singled out. Grand Saline is a small town, and much of the film focuses on asking its residents to try and untangle fact from fiction when it comes to its past and present treatment of people of color. Some say the town has a long and storied history of racism, including keeping black Americans out of the city and even hanging them, while others question the veracity of such claims, which were the basis for Moore's very public act. Whatever side they end up on, it is very clear that many in Grand Saline are uncomfortable with the publicity Moore's death brought to their little town, and even more uncomfortable talking about the issue of race and racism and what role it may or may not have played in its history.

Regardless of how you feel about Moore's death, one can't help but see the country's struggle to come to terms with issues of race and racism, both in its past and in in its present, reflected though the residents of Grand Saline. Like the town's apologists, white Americans would like to believe that the country has moved on from its racist past, but as current events clearly show, that past is far less distant than we'd like to believe, and those old, deep wounds are far from healed.

Man on Fire asks us to ask ourselves some very hard questions, demanding not answers but at the very least a discussion that Americans, particularly white Americans, seem so reluctant to have. (54 min.)

—Chris McGuinness


What's it rated? NA

What's it worth? Full Price

Where's it showing? March 17 at 10:30 a.m. and March 18 at 10:15 a.m. at Downtown Centre


In 2010, the "godfather" of Cuban tobacco died at 91, but not before training his grandson to take over the tobacco business. Alejandro Robaina was considered a legend among Cuban tobacco growers, with his family farming tobacco since 1845. Now his grandson, Hirochi Robaina, is learning to overcome the challenges of having a tobacco farm in the documentary Prince of Smoke.

Hirochi's grandfather always knew that he would take the reins of the family business. One day Hirochi was given a note from Alejandro that said, "Hirochi you are my hope; don't let me down."

Director Matthew Gelb follows Hirochi during the tobacco harvest season, which lasts a total of 60 days. In the field with his workers, Hirochi picks the leaves while they are still ripe, but bad weather can ruin the crop. The issue that Hirochi is facing is climate change.

"Cigars and wine are like cousins, they both depend on the climate, the land, and the grower," Hirochi said.

The legacy on Hirochi's shoulders is immense; Fidel Castro even gave his grandfather an award. The race against bad weather and struggle to maintain the high standards of a tobacco legend is an amazing story to watch unfold.

I'm left in awe of the people who work together to make this farm possible. Gelb did a fine job of capturing the importance of this business to a man and his family. (24 min.)

—Karen Garcia


What's it rated? NA

What's it worth? Full Price

Where's it showing? March 15 at 1:15 p.m. and March 17 at 10:30 a.m. at The Palm, March 18 at 1:30 p.m. at Downtown Centre


The Eel River watershed in Northern California is the third largest in the state and is home to one of the most abundant wild salmon populations on the West Coast. But it's also been one of the most heavily impacted and exploited watersheds. Filmmaker Shane Anderson tells us all about that history, what it means for the future, and why we should care in his poignant, no-frills documentary, A River's Last Chance.

Beginning in the Mendocino National Forest and flowing into the Pacific Ocean via Humboldt County, the Eel River watershed and its rich natural resources supported Native American communities before European settlers arrived and industrialized it for salmon and timber in the late 19th century. Using an eclectic mix of interview subjects and historical material, Anderson chronicles the exploits of the river basin over time and how that hurt the salmon population and generally disrupted the river's ecological balance. A wake-up call from Mother Earth arrived in 1964 with epic rains and floods that, because of the extensive redwood clear-cutting taking place in the watershed area, decimated riverside towns, infrastructure, and industries, and continued to affect the area's ecology.

Despite those impacts and others like the installation of the Pottery Valley dam, which diverts Eel River water to the Russian River to aid wine country growth; the cannabis "green rush"; and the 2011 to 2016 drought, Anderson shows how the river and its inhabitants still persist—but not without many painful sacrifices.

By tracking its history and history's lessons, A River's Last Chance tees up a challenge for the future: to live within the Eel River watershed more sustainably. Cannabis farmers, loggers, and state officials mulling the relicensing of the dam are all called out in the film as holding the health of the Eel River in their hands.

At a little more than an hour long, this documentary never drags, yet still offers tons of interesting insight from its informed subjects, ranging from biologists to politicians to cannabis growers. (67 min.) Δ

—Peter Johnson

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