It’s always hard to say goodbye when the Middleburg Film Festival comes to an end. Four captivating days of film, friends, discussions, and a memorable concert.
We would be setting out on a late afternoon flight to LA which gave us plenty of time before departure to do some last minute squeezing in and what a squeeze it was. Jason Reitman and I talked at 8am about The Front Runner. Then Maggie Gyllenhaal arrived from London, flying in for a special tribute after a screening of her film The Kindergarten Teacher.
If you haven’t seen Gyllenhaal’s performance in The Kindergarten Teacher, head to Netflix and seek it out. Now.
Lisa Spinelli will rank as one of the finest characters in her repertoire. A forty-year-old kindergarten teacher. Married with teenagers. Her children live on their phones and her husband loves her dearly if not intensely. It’s a comfortable routine at Lisa’s suburban home and she’s a bit bored with it. Her reprieve is her evening poetry class taught by Gael Garcia Bernal. Lisa wants more, she’s creative and she wants intellectual stimulation. It’s through class one day that her student Jimmy, five-years-old, shows her spirit and promise. Lisa recognizes his full potential and takes the young poetry prodigy under her wing.
The problem is Lisa’s own poetry is stale and doesn’t quite catch her professor’s attention and so one night, with one very wrong turn, she passes Jimmy’s work off as her own. Why is Lisa doing this? What are her motivations and longterm intentions ? What makes Gyllenhaal so great in this film is how we’re able follow her with intimate tension. She’s got her reasons and gradually we begin to fathom them. We’re there as she wakes Jimmy from a nap to go to a poetry meet. We’re there as she continues to brazenly steal his work. We come to understand why Lisa oversteps that line all for the sake of chasing creativity. It’s deeply unhinging to watch, but Gyllenhaal commands this performance as her obsession with Jimmy moves from nurturing to dependency. You feel for Lisa even though you’re not sure how dark of a turn this film will take. She’s living a mirage of her creative self through this unsuspecting child.
Parker Sevak’s Jimmy’s performance is engrossing. Going along with every bad move, with no understanding of what his doting teacher is up to. It’s a treacherous path they take together, and the destination is shattering. Seek it out. You won’t regret it.
My morning wasn’t over yet. I had been invited to moderate a Q&A with Nadine Labaki to talk about her film Capernaum, a raw and gritty look at poverty on the streets of Lebanon. Labaki has done a terrific job with her third outing as a director and the film is by far one of her finest. Her passion to do something as an artist is evident in every scene, as she devotes all her creative talents to highlight the horrors of poverty. We follow the struggles of Zain, a 12-years-old gamin who lives in the most poorest of slums. He’s been arrested and wants to sue his parents for giving him a life he never asked for. His rough childhood has given him a bitter edge, but he warms to precocious maturity when he’s got to look after anothet youngster, little Yonas. He plays big brother and finds almost heroic strength, as a child wise beyond his years. It takes an emotional toll to watch young children in such dire situations, but Labaki gives a tender voice to the situation, an issue that sadly isn’t exclusive to Lebanon — it’s a global issue as Capernaum urgently reminds us.
Once Labaki and I wrapped our Q&A, we dashed back to the resort. With barely time to catch my breath I was sitting down with Viggo Mortensen and Peter Farrelly to talk about Green Book. The film would go on to win the audience award for top narrative at the 2018 Middleburg Film Festival. “We want to congratulate our Audience Award winners Green Book and Biggest Little Farm,” said Middleburg Film Festival Executive Director Susan Koch. “This year’s slate included fantastic films from all over the world that not only entertained and engaged our audiences, but also contributed to our understanding of the world and one another. It was especially fitting to close the festival with Green Book, a film that speaks to our common humanity.”
“We’d like to thank everyone who contributed to the success of this year’s festival,” said Middleburg Film Festival Founder Sheila C. Johnson. “From our filmmakers to our sponsors to our filmgoers, it was wonderful to witness the overwhelming enthusiasm for the films, conversations, and other special events. Here in the stunning setting of Middleburg, Virginia, the entire festival was abuzz with lively and thoughtful conversations generated by these terrific films.”
On that high note, the 2018 Middleburg Film Festival wrapped and it was back to Dulles Airport to head home.
This year’s festival screened 29 films from 17 countries. The interviews I was lucky enough to conduct will be coming soon, so stay tuned for those.
The films were all terrific choices. Festival-goers were abuzz, excited to get their look at so many prominent titles that feature in the Oscar conversation.
It was time to say goodbye. So long till next year, Middleburg. Thank you to Sheila Johnson and Susan Koch for your superb festival and for having us back. See you again in 2019.
Here’s a gallery of memories from my delightful weekend.