New Hampshire Film Festival: Slew of Breakthrough Performances Highlight a Strong Slate On Day Two

2019 NEW HAMPSHIRE FILM FESTIVAL: Day two of the festival delivered quite an exciting group of films to the Portsmouth community. The day was headlined by one of the festival’s biggest acquisitions: The Safdie Brothers’ “Uncut Gems.” The film, starring Adam Sandler, would wrap up the day as the Opening Night Feature (maybe yesterday didn’t count?). The film played at Telluride, and while I missed it there, I was certain to catch it this go around.

Before “Uncut Gems,” however, I was able to take in a few films that had strong buzz coming into the festival. The day started with Bob Byington’s “Frances Ferguson,” a quirky comedy starring co-writer and breakthrough star Kaley Wheless. The rest of the cast includes Martin Starr, Jennifer Prediger, David Krumholtz, and Nick Offerman as the narrator.

Based on actual events, Wheless stars as the titular Fran, a young mother and wife who has grown discontent with her humdrum life in the small town of North Platte, Nebraska. When she’s not mulling over which singular, bland color of ceramic mug to purchase online, Fran works as a substitute high school teacher. Whether she is just clinging to her youth or desperately looking for an escape from her loveless marriage, Fran has an affair with one of her underage students, and the scandal unfolds from there.

Wheless is an untapped gem. She’s energetic and witty, and so is her script. Her comedic, deadpan timing is spot on, and I think there are big things to come from the lovely and talented actress. My premonitions about Wheless aside, I had a hard time being comfortable with “Frances Ferguson’s” subject matter. While often times hilarious, there is a fine line to walk here, and I am not so sure the filmmakers walk it as subtly as perhaps they should have. There is so much well-intended humor that I can only wonder how great the film could have been if they would have chosen a less repugnant outlet for the disgruntled and apathetic wife to exhale into. Especially if she were going to do so in such a remorseless manner.

While Offerman’s matter-of-fact style of narration is humorous, and Wheless’ scene-stealing presence is an absolute head-turner, there is only so much the pair could do to buoy an otherwise vexing story.

“Frances Ferguson” is produced by Faliro House and is currently seeking distribution.

GRADE: (½)

Next up was Michael Barnett’s inspirational and controversial doc, “Changing the Game.” Barnett, a New Hampshire native, appeared in person to present the film to his hometown audience. A good portion of the movie takes place in New Hampshire, something he was very proud of.

“Changing the Game” follows three transgender athletes as they navigate the tumultuous years of high school. Andraya, a track star in Connecticut, and Sarah, a skier in New Hampshire, live in states that allow you to compete under the gender you identify with. Policies regarding transgender athletes vary from state to state, however, as we discover with Mack, a wrestler in Texas who must compete against the gender documented on his birth certificate.

The media hovers over their competitions like vultures swooping in to cover their story. Their situations have garnered so much attention that they have been broadcast nationally. Admittedly, there are two sides to the story, which is largely what Barnett covers in the doc. There are those who feel that consistency is important for these children: if we tell them they can use the gender identity-based bathrooms at school during the day, how can we tell them they must compete against the sex they were born into for sports? The other side feels there are clear athletic advantages for Mack, who is taking testosterone injections daily, as well as the physiological upper hand that Andraya and Sarah have (they don’t have to worry about having a period when running, as one protester suggests).

What Barnett seeks to discover is how we define what’s fair. He measurably exposes how most of the bullying these children experience comes from adults, not their peers. He lovingly shows the strong supportive families of these three athletes, which aids the audience in imaging how they would feel if their own child were in this same situation. This really pays off as the film unfolds and the controversies surrounding the athletes develop with their broadening success. Mack’s conservative, gun-loving grandmother really tugs at the heartstrings, and is proof that we all might act a little differently if we better understood the challenges these youth face.

We candidly glimpse into the athletes’ challenging lives, as they openly talk about the conflict of gender dysphoria. We see the gravity of discriminatory policies, communities with prejudices, and the daily struggle with online bullying. We are reminded of the heart-aching statistic that over 40% of transgender youth attempt suicide.

“Changing the Game” is such a powerful and significant film, full of emotion. I was moved to tears. This is a must-see doc for anyone who struggles with their own opinions on the subject matter, and an inspiration for those who already know.

“Changing the Game” is produced by SuperFilms!, Foton Pictures, and Glanzrock Productions, and is currently seeking distribution.

GRADE: (½)

While attending the Nantucket Film Festival earlier this year, I was able to see writer/director Annabelle Attanasio’s “Mickey and the Bear,” starring breakthrough sensation Camila Morrone. Her film played on Friday here in New Hampshire. I likened Morrone’s debut to Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone,” and Brie Larson in “Short Term 12.” You can find my full, four-star review here.

We wrapped up the evening with the aforementioned “Uncut Gems.” You can find my full review for The Safdie Brothers’ latest here.

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