Day three at the Virginia Film Fest was full of cinematic bounty. Three films, three winners. Here’s my breakdown of each:
When Riley Keough and Gina Gammell started filming on the Blue Ridge Reservation in South Dakota way back in 2015, they weren’t thinking so much about making a film, but rather they were just recording life on the Res with friends they had made when Keough was shooting American Honey. What grew out of those visits and filming sessions was an accidental movie that has become one of the best films of the year. I interviewed Keough and Gammell yesterday, and will write a longer stand alone post on the film soon, but let me say, it’s a wonderful, profound piece of work.
Going Varsity in Mariachi
As a person who doesn’t think of himself as a fan of mariachi, I was skeptical of how enjoyable I might find a film on the subject to be. But the power of cinema is that when a movie is made exceedingly well, it can open your eyes to an art form that maybe you didn’t know how to appreciate. The terrific documentary Going Varsity in Mariachi is just such a film.
I think far too many of us think of Mariachi as a form of music that gets played at a table in a Mexican restaurant when it’s someone’s birthday. That impression has devolved the reputation of the music into kitsch. Going Varsity in Mariachi goes a long way in restoring a sound that is a touchstone in Mexican culture. I know for me, when I heard the instruments separated, I was able to appreciate the classical notes in the violins and the hints of jazz in the trumpets. It really is beautiful music when you learn how to hear it.
The film follows a group of high schoolers who compete in competitions between other schools in Texas, located near the Mexican border. Abel Acuna is their multi-award winning teacher, and as the movie begins, he knows he has perhaps the greatest challenge of his career with his class of students. Many of them have only taken up their instruments recently, and as a group, they are far from cohesive.
In some ways, Going Mariachi is like an inspirational sports movie about how this group of young people find themselves and even their futures (many of the students are counting on music scholarships to go to college) through music. Their school has a robust history of success in competition despite being deeply underfunded and residing in a low income district.
Over the course of the film, we see how they fall, get back up, and eventually rise. There are many painful bumps along the way. One student is kicked out for missing practice, the group gets crushed by other schools in their first competition, and they receive a deadly low excellence rating from the judges.
I don’t want to spoil what happens from there, but I’ll just say that you really come to care for these young people and the stories. Most of the film focuses on four students: There’s the captain of the team who wants to use Mariachi to help her get her PhD in pharmacy school. There are two young girls in love with each other who hope to continue their relationship beyond high school. There is a boy who has talent, but a lack of self-discipline. And a young woman whose only chance at college is through a music scholarship.
They are all so easy to root for.
There is also a great mini-subplot about how this once most masculine of art forms is beginning to change due to the number of young women taking up the art. The lyrics to the songs they sing are changed to move away from a purely male perspective.
I spoke with the film’s producer Julia Pontecorvo, and as with any documentary that traces a journey, she had a great fear that the story might not conclude in a way that would leave them with a marketable film. Without saying too much, let me say that after seeing the film, those worries clearly must have melted away for her.
Going Varsity in Mariachi earns its status as a real-life inspirational take. It’s a lovely and highly entertaining film, directed and edited with real cinematic verve. At this time the film is still negotiating for distribution. I hope it finds a home. It is well worth seeing.
The Holdovers, Alexander Payne’s first film since receiving the only lukewarm critical response of his career with Downsizing, is an excellent return to form. Mark Johnson, the film’s producer, revealed in the post-film Q&A that he and Payne wanted to create a character-driven film in the vein of the great films Hal Ashby (Being There, Shampoo, The Last Detail, Harold & Maude) made in the ‘70s. They have succeeded with aplomb.
Reteaming with a pitch-perfect Paul Giamatti for the first time since 2004’s Sideways, The Holdovers is about a curmudgeonly prep school teacher (Giamatti, naturally), a student (Dominic Sessa in a great acting debut) who gets stuck at the school over the holidays when his recently remarried mother decides to take her honeymoon over the Christmas holiday.
While one could argue the film is largely about these two lonely souls who bond over a two week period, the heart of the film is the school’s in-house cook played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, in her best role since she broke through with Dolemite is my Name. As Mary Lamb, she is even lonelier than Giamatti’s underachieving instructor Paul Hunham and Sessa’s swept aside Angus. Her son was the rare black student at the school, and his death in Vietnam (the film doesn’t just tip its hat to ‘70s films, it takes place in 1970), is a wound that will clearly never heal for her.
Adrift for a fortnight, these three beautifully drawn characters move forward to a bittersweet conclusion that is unusually gentle when taken into context with modern cinema. It’s a movie about how sometimes people come into your life for only a short span, but during that time, they make an impact well beyond the brevity of their visit.
The Holdovers is a special film that is often very funny and surprisingly sentimental for a filmmaker like Payne, who often delivers comedy with barbed edges. Payne’s latest shows that nine films into a thirty plus year career, he has new cards up his sleeve.
Perhaps the highest compliment I can give to The Holdovers is that I suspect Hal Ashby would have been proud to call the film one of his own.