Montreal's annual World Film Festival is such a large and eclectic event, with so many pictures from so many lands, that it's particularly valuable for spotting new trends and ideas on the movie scene. In the past couple of years, I've reported on the large number of films about family-related subjects that have surfaced here.
This year moviemakers seem less preoccupied with family issues, but compensating for that was a surprising quantity of pictures focusing on children and teenagers. This tied in with the strong presence of first-time filmmakers on the program, many of them young and still close to their own growing-up experiences.
It's encouraging to see how many writers and directors are turning away from the aliens-and-explosions school of cinema and applying their energy to human-scaled portraits of realistic human situations.
No movie explored the world of young folks in a livelier way than "Small Wonders," due in American theaters on Oct. 4 and well worth a visit by anyone who cares about children, music, or simply a good time at the movies.
One of the rare nonfiction films to reach commercial screens, it follows the adventures of a dedicated New York schoolteacher who turns underprivileged inner-city kids into tuneful violinists - and celebrates their success by arranging a Carnegie Hall concert where her little protgs share the stage with world-renowned virtuosi like Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman.
Originally titled "Fiddlefest," the movie extols the joys of music without ignoring the sometimes harsh realities of modern education - such as the fact that its heroine, Roberta Guaspari-Tzavaras, saw her enterprise almost wiped out when New York City cut off its funds in 1990 after 10 years of success. She is still going strong, and "Small Wonders" picks up where "Mr. Holland's Opus" left off in showing how a teacher with a vision can change the lives of pupils in ways that will resonate for years. Allan Miller, a respected filmmaker and orchestra conductor, directed the picture.
Another angle on youth
A very different study of youth comes from Belgian directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Darden, whose "La Promesse" sheds light on a situation reaching crisis proportions in many countries: the plight of illegal immigrants who may be bitterly exploited in their adopted countries but can't appeal to the authorities because of their illicit status.
The main character is a teenage boy who should be in school but spends most of his time helping his father's racket of importing laborers from Turkey and Ghana, charging them outrageous rents for horrible housing, and coercing them to work on small-time construction projects for below-scale wages.
When an African worker is fatally injured in an accident, the boy promises to look after his wife and infant son. This puts the teen on a collision course with his father, who wants the penniless woman and baby out of his life. Directed with a sense of forceful realism that would do a documentary proud, "La Promesse" tells a politically charged and dramatically powerful story that deserves a wide audience.
Adolescent life is again the focus in "Childhood's End," an American picture written and directed by Jeff Lipsky, who earned acclaim as a movie distributor before going behind the camera to make his debut feature.
Set in Minneapolis a few years ago, it traces the coming-of-age challenges faced by several teenagers who find their lives turning in unexpected directions. The film is sexually frank - two characters are gay high school girls, for instance - but Lipsky's seriousness and sincerity turn the drama into a responsible effort to find the good in flawed personalities and portray what he calls "the beauty within human imperfection," as he said when introducing the movie's world premire here.
Other pictures with a youthful slant included "A Tale of Summer," a light comedy of college-age romance by Eric Rohmer, one of France's cinematic masters; and "Manny & Lo," filmmaker Lisa Krueger's well-acted drama about a pregnant teen hiding out from society with her younger sister, already playing in the United States.
Films about young adults
Still other movies looked at young adults. The prestigious opening-night slot was occupied by "She's the One," an uneven Edward Burns comedy that recently opened in US theaters with its slender story about two brothers caught in complicated romantic rivalries. "Palookaville," coming to theaters next month, is Alan Taylor's amusing comedy about young men trying to pull off a hilariously botched robbery that they mistakenly think will revitalize their aimless lives.
To be sure, the festival's screens were often filled with movies centered on older folks, some directed by world-class filmmakers. These included "The Phantom Heart," a study of a lovelorn father by French director Philippe Garrel; "A Self-Made Hero," a dark comedy about the aftermath of the Nazi years by French director Jacques Audiard; "Breaking the Waves," a highly controversial study of an unconventional marriage by Danish director Lars von Trier; and "Three Lives and Only One Death," a look at a paradoxical personality by Chilean filmmaker Raoul Ruiz. All have attracted much notice, so look for them in theaters before long.
These and other attractions lent spice to a festival whose most memorable moments were often provided by youngsters receiving a healthy amount of serious attention from a diverse group of international filmmakers. It's a trend to be encouraged.