These three films are among those competing at the inclusive, diversity-focused Bentonville Film Fest, happening through Aug. 16. Look for them streaming or in theaters in the coming months.
By Chris Chalk
Having just been introduced to Chris Chalk’s on-screen talent through his nuanced portrayal of Black cop Paul Drake on HBO’s Perry Mason, I was curious to watch Farewell, his screenwriting and directorial debut. The film begins as a character-driven drama with a group of friends gathering in an out-of-the-way country home (red flag #1) where the internet is down (red flag #2) to bid farewell to married couple Chance (Chalk) and Grace (played by his real-life wife, K.D. Chalk–and yes, their names are red flags #3 and 4), who are moving away for a job offer to support the writing of her new book (red flag #5). Nothing good ever happens to isolated, one-last-blast get-togethers among people who know each other too well, especially when there’s a writer involved.
I’m sad to report very little good happens in Farewell, either.
The early scenes play light and easy as Chalk paints a comfortable, well-worn camaraderie between old friends gathering for a last night together. There’s a multiracial Big Chill feel to the setup and a playful rhythm to the friends’ banter. Those friends, though, have an unusual amount of secrets and betrayals among them and no small measure of dysfunction. The complications pile up as more friends (ultimately, four couples including a same-sex couple and two of mixed race) arrive. It’s quickly apparent in this first part that the easiness is a facade, that a double-edged tension lies in every look and line of dialogue exchanged. By the time the last couple arrives, a particularly obnoxious pair, darkness is falling on the farewell party in more ways than one.
Unfortunately, that’s where the script bids adieu to common sense and credulity. In the bottom half, each character in turn abandons all pretense of psychological authenticity, sacrificing anything resembling natural reactions to the horror unfolding at the party to the holy god of nonsensical, contrived plot developments. Farewell has more plot holes than a J.J. Abrams Star Trek timeline; nothing about this film’s plot holds up to scrutiny. Every character’s actions are in service to the story, yes, but the story is in no way worthy of the service.
The film’s conclusion is both predictable and ludicrous, and not in the mind-bending way Chalk intends. Farewell looks good on screen–the lenswork is strong, and the actors do excellent work with the script they’re given. It’s the writing that utterly fails.
It’s sad, because the early scenes held such promise, the diverse and talented cast were refreshing to see on screen, and Chris Chalk clearly has a Hollywood career on the upswing. As long, at least, as he sticks to acting.
A Shot Through The Wall
By Aimee Long
A Shot Through The Wall begins with just that. Michael Tan (Kenny Leu) is a young Chinese-American cop who, during the confusion of a heated foot chase, accidentally discharges his weapon, pointed at no one, in the hallway of a Brooklyn building where a black suspect has fled. He immediately holsters the weapon and regroups with his partner to find the suspect. But within moments, wailing and yelling breaks out in one of the adjacent apartments. As they investigate the scene, Tan notices a bullethole through the apartment wall. On the other side lies an innocent black man, fatally shot through the heart by his stray bullet.
The fallout of the moment Tan’s gun accidentally discharged fills the rest of writer/director Aimee Long’s subtle film about consequences, race, relationships, immigrant experiences, grief, misunderstanding, duty and responsibility. These are not light themes, yet Long handles them with a magically deft touch, fully delineating her characters and letting their relationships evolve (and sometimes devolve) organically as the case is judged by the police bureaucracy, courts, media, public opinion, and each other.
Long’s characters are full of complexities, and the relationships aren’t neat and tidy. Michael Tan still lives with his traditional Chinese parents, his mother a constant whir of cleaning, cooking and criticizing (though it becomes clear this is how she expresses her deep love for her son), his father a taciturn follower, at least until riled. And Tan is engaged to Candace,t he warm and sensitive mixed-race daughter of his police chief, a black man who has embraced his future son-in-law with pride. It gets complicated, as life so often does.
Yet, A Shot Through The Wall never becomes encumbered by its plot or boring or tedious in its choices. This is not a film that hammers on a single message, such as “cops are racist,” or “Black people don’t get a fair shake,” or “the media is out to get you.” Nothing is that simplistic in this film. Leu infuses his subtle performance with equal measures of stoicism and bewilderment, fear and regret. The emotional authenticity of every character propels the story forward. They change as they begin to understand what is lost, who is harmed, and to answer the questions of who is responsible and to what degree, and how to protect the ones we love.
Leu’s quiet tumult roots the film in something real, but all the performances have their chance to shine. Ciara Renee is particularly luminous in a role that goes beyond the typical supportive girlfriend trope, and Tzi Ma has a powerful father-son moment with Leu in a third act scene that knows how to use silence to convey emotion. Unlike the eponymous bullet of its title, nothing in the film is misdirected.
Ultimately, A Shot Through The Wall is a film about the decisions we make under stress and accepting responsibility for our choices, intentional or not. It’s compelling the way indie filmmaking can be at its best, in that it challenges our assumptions and takes us on a journey through complexities with the power to shape the way we see the world, and each other in it.
Take Out Girl
By Hisonni Johnson
Hedy Wong has her defiant look mastered. Chin up, jaw set forward, heavily lined eyes narrowed, black L.A. ballcap pushed low on her brow, dark bangs all but obscuring her view. This, Take Out Girl, the new feature from director Hisonni Johnson, instantly shows us, is a woman with grit. In a different film era, that word would be moxie, maybe gumption. She has those in spades, too.
What happens when a desperate, hard-edged young Chinese-American woman delivering food from her family’s Chinese restaurant in lower L.A. crosses paths with an even harder-edged drug kingpin? Indie movie magic.
Take Out Girl is the world’s first Chinese food drug delivery drama. That setup works in part because it’s based, apparently, on Wong’s true story. The film’s materials don’t make clear to what extent the crime drama parallels her lived experience, and third act developments seem likely to be significant departures from the real story, but the drama is rooted in plausibility.
Tara’s motivations are simple. She cares only about protecting her aging mother, Wavy, who works relentlessly long hours in the family Chinese restaurant despite a crippling back injury. Money’s too tight and work is too demanding for luxuries such as medical care or days off. Tara leaves college, where she excelled in economics to the point that other students were buying her notes on her way out the door, so that she can spend more time helping the restaurant. Making life easier for her mother is her singular goal. Her ex-classmates have it easy, she implies (“Becky,” she wryly calls one smiling white student sorting through a hand full of hundred dollar bills to come up with twenties for her notes), and she judges them with disdain, taking their money. They don’t get it. They can’t.
Filmed in a part of Vegas far removed from tourists or beautification efforts, the drama’s landscape is the harsh concrete jungle of the weary lower middle class. Resigned desperation is endemic in Tara’s world. People put on tough fronts because being vulnerable is dangerous. “Everyone got dirt,” she says, cynically. “Everyone got an angle.” Survival depends on willingness to go above and beyond what’s expected, such as Wavy pushing beyond exhaustion to keep her restaurant, and family afloat. In Tara’s case, she channels her entrepreneurial spirit below and beyond into Breaking Bad territory; if you can’t get ahead playing by the rules, break them.
The multicultural cast brings their A game to this world. Their characters only superficially fit society’s prescribed roles for them–hardworking, super-smart Chinese, temperamental and dangerous Latinos, Black men as ex cons. Johnson shows why the stereotypes exist, but then gives them individuality and agency. Other standouts among the cast are Ski Carr as Lalo, the drug lord with a fierce intelligence and fiercer passions; J. Teddy Garces as Lalo’s intimidating but discerning right-hand man; Lynna Lee as Wavy, the mother Tara loves but who has depths Tara doesn’t see; and Glee’s Dijon Talton as the ex-con janitor who becomes something like Tara’s moral compass.
The third act is the weakest, particularly the climax of the film, yet Johnson and Wong’s often heartbreaking film is compelling all the way through, and sticks with you. And I have a feeling I’m destined to think of the film any time I now get Chinese takeout: one order of Pepper Steak to go with undercooked onions. Hold the crime.