Sarasota Film Festival Day 1: Narrative Feature Competition Begins With ‘In Fabric,’ ‘The Third Wife,’ and ‘Sister Aimee’

2019 SARASOTA FILM FESTIVAL: The 21st annual Sarasota Film Festival has been underway since April 5, opening with Avi Belkins’ doc, “Mike Wallace is Here,” and showing out-of-competition films for the past several days. As a jury member of the Narrative Feature Competition, the festival began for me on April 11.

There are six films being showcased in the Narrative Feature slate, including Peter Strickland’s “In Fabric,” Paul Harrill’s “Light From Light,” Gan Bi’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingman’s “Sister Aimee,” Ash Mayfair’s “The Third Wife,” and Dominga Sotomayor’s “Too Late to Die Young.”

The diverse festival, set in the heart of balmy Sarasota, Florida, “brings forth a range of timely topics and important conversations,” festival Chairman Mark Famiglio stated in an earlier press release. The 21st installment of this non-profit organization’s festival backs up Famiglio’s words with a clever slogan: The Beauty of Intelligent Film. This would prove to be a rather true statement based on the results of the first three films viewed.

“In Fabric”
dir. Peter Strickland

Peter Strickland, director of 2014’s “The Duke of Burgundy,” delivers a bizarre and haunting exposé into the world of retail and couture through a pair of spellbinding and evocative vignettes with his latest film, “In Fabric.”

Academy Award nominee Marianne Jean-Baptiste (1996’s “Secrets & Lies”) stars as Sheila, a single mother living with her grown son, Vince (Jaygann Ayeh), and his enigmatic lover, Gwen (played by Gwendoline Christie of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” fame) in Southern England. Sheila lives a reclusive and mundane life. She diligently fills her time with the duties of her career and caring for her flippant son. As Sheila grows more cramped with her living arrangement, she begins shopping at the most peculiar department store you’re likely ever to encounter in a film. From its freakishly fetishistic owner to its demonically dominant sales clerk, the store is like something out of the mind of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone.” Seeking a way out of her cloistered shell, Sheila purchases an artery-red dress to wear on an upcoming date. The rendezvous is likely one in a series of encounters that have gone or will continue to go, to no avail for Sheila.

Following the acquisition of the dress, things begin to go awry for the forlorn protagonist. As Sheila’s curiosity leads her to uncover the history of the dress, she begins to experience a developing sense of gloom and dread that follows those who wear the cursed garment. As the dress passes down from Sheila to its next owner, Reg (Leo Bill), the gown carries with it the weight of catastrophic consequences and a propensity for destroying washing machines, burning flesh, and creating deadly mischief.

Engrossed in haunting imagery, “In Fabric” unleashes an outlandish and idiosyncratic tale of bewilderment and befuddlement. Peter Strickland’s crimson palette soaks through the movie like a blood-stained tissue, dripping with peculiarities as far-out as they are nonsensical. Wholly original, if not wildly unconventional, this is certainly to be a film like few have seen before. While it would be great to continue the Sheila story-line down the path of the history of the dress, it is a small complaint to make about such an inventive film.

Now when can we get a Gwen spinoff?

“In Fabric” is distributed by A24, and premiered at Fantastic Fest September 2018. It is making the rounds on the circuit now and does not have a scheduled release date in the United States yet.  

GRADE: (★★)

“The Third Wife”
dir. Ash Mayfair

Ash Mayfair‘s debut feature, “The Third Wife,” is based on the life of her great-grandmother. Set in late 19th century Vietnam, 14-year old May (newcomer Nguyen Phuong Tra My) is sent off to become the third wife to the wealthy landowner, Hung (Long Le Vu). She soon discovers that a woman’s primary duty is to marry and provide her husband with children. She befriends Hung’s first two wives but quickly looks to gain status in her household when she learns that the only way to earn the title of Mistress of the House is to deliver a male heir to Hung.

May’s hopes begin to materialize when she becomes pregnant with her first child. Through her term, May begins an accelerated journey of self-discovery that will lead her towards forbidden love and the destructive ramifications that can ensue if she were to follow her heart. In a culture where women would rather die than live with the shame of dishonoring their family, May’s is a story of hardship and oppression.

Mayfair’s inaugural film is a gorgeously shot and deeply personal coming-of-age tale. “The Third Wife” is an expertly crafted triumph. From the opening frame when May is delivered up a river, to the lush bamboo forests, rice patty fields, and jagged mountains that paint the gorgeous backdrop for their village, Director of Photography Chananun Chotrungroj paints a handsome portrait for us to feast our eyes upon. There is one take in particular that will likely be among my favorite shots of the year, as May’s reflection in the river splits the screen in two.

Nguyen Phuong Tra My’s performance is reserved and remarkable, rooted and acutely effective. She and her sister wives carry the mostly-female cast exceptionally well. While the ending leaves the viewer a tad flummoxed, “The Third Wife” would be a noteworthy selection should Vietnam make it their official entry for the Foreign Language Oscar (if deemed eligible and/or selected).

“The Third Wife” is distributed by Film Movement, and premiered at Toronto in 2018. It is set for a May 15 release date.  

GRADE: (★★)

“Sister Aimee”
dir. Samantha Buck, Marie Schlingmann

Directors Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann were on hand to present their film, “Sister Aimee,” to the Sarasota film crowd. Buck’s debut documentary, “21 Below,” had premiered at the Sarasota festival almost exactly ten years ago, and she seemed to beam with the same excitement to be back with this feature.

The year is 1926, and the world’s most famous evangelist and performer is Sister Aimee (Anna Margaret Hollyman), a woman who wants out of the business. After reaching her breaking point, she and her lover, Kenny (Michael Mosley of Netflix’s “Seven Seconds” ), decide to pull a disappearing act and blaze a trail to Mexico. Aimee is on the road trip to gain freedom from the spotlight. Kenny is using the trip to develop the novella he has written about “The Boy with No Name.” His subject became a legend the night he saved Pancho Villa by killing five men with one slice of his sword.

Aimee can’t help but add a sense of dramatic flare to just about everything she does, so rather than set up a story about her drowning at sea, she has her assistant tell the police that she evaporated while swimming in the Pacific. This leads to the world searching for their beloved Aimee, making the getaway a little more challenging for her and Kenny. The pair must then acquire a guide to take them through a less noticeable passage. There is only one woman up to the task who also lives a secluded life and seems to have no idea who Aimee is. Rey (Andrea Suarez Paz), a gun-smuggling Mexicali with a mysterious knife and a more mysterious past, makes the group a trio as they head for the border.

As Aimee and Kenny discover Rey’s side job of toting guns from the US to Mexico, Kenny becomes fascinated with her as a subject for his next chronicle, leaving Aimee to feel like a third wheel on her own adventure. But as the three continue on their journey, the two ladies begin to form an unexpected bond and grow to have a clearer understanding of each other’s sordid past.

Sister Aimee” has a great story behind it and is “based on true events, mostly made up,” per the opening scrawl of the film. The ensemble delivers some pretty strong performances, especially from its two leading ladies. The film could potentially be a breakthrough vehicle for Anna Margaret Hollyman, who seems to have star-quality written all over her. The supporting cast includes brief – but effective – performances from Amy Hargreaves, Macon Blair, Lee Eddy, and Julie White.

While it is frolicsome and amusing in context, “Sister Aimee” takes you to church, but doesn’t quite get you to the altar. Engaging and campy at times, the film never seems to go all-in with some of the side themes it otherwise dances around. It is a promising film for Buck and Schlingmann, who also wrote the script.  The world is looking forward to seeing what the duo – and Hollyman – do next.

“Sister Aimee” is produced by Kill Claudio Productions and Santa Rita Film Co., and premiered in January at Sundance. It has since played at South by Southwest but does not have a scheduled release date in the United States yet.  

GRADE: (★★½)

What do you think of “In Fabric,” “The Third Wife,” and “Sister Aimee?” Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

The Sarasota Film Festival runs from April 5 to April 14. 

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