Turn on the news, open up the paper, or fire up your Facebook feed and it’s undeniable: Bad news seems to be everywhere. It’s all too easy to find yourself hopeless, brimming with anxiety and even perpetually baffled, all in the name of awareness and “staying informed”. But not all the news is bad, and focusing on the uglier realms and realities of this world can often leave us blinded to the good news all around us, and the happiness weaving its way through our lives. The Feel Good Film Festival descended on the North Hollywood Laemmle’s Theater August 3-5 to remind us that there is plenty of good news to be found, if you’re looking. From Documentaries, to Short Films, to Features and even Films By Kids, there truly was something for everyone. My mother, God love her, used to constantly remind me (in some misguided attempt to prepare me for reality, no doubt) that “Life isn’t fun.” The FGFF offers a counter-argument, and then some: No, life isn’t always fun. It is complex, and miraculous, and witty, and mostly, it is what you make of it. And that makes me feel… Good. Well played, FGFF.
The formula for a feel good movie is simple: Extort the most compassionate emotional reactions you can from the audience by showing tear jerk content which appeals to anyone with half a heart, then wrap it up with a happy ending. The problem here is that a peaceful conclusion doesn’t necessarily counteract a tragic climax. A prison inmate finally meeting his son for the first time isn’t going to quell all of the horrible atrocities he committed to end up behind bars in the first place. The notion of a family living together in a peaceful Sierra Leonne community does not dismiss the years of genocide that happened there just years earlier. A select few of these films, primarily shorts such as The Kid, Bboy, and Hip Hop Hassim, transcend these archetypes in delightfully original ways. While a “feel good moment” is not an immediate pallet cleanser, many films on display manage to put a smile on the audience’s face long after the theater lets out.
Films playing at the Laemmle Theater in NoHo force audiences to pick and choose between two sets of motion pictures ran simultaneously; the festival would otherwise extend to over a week. Most of the features could easily be shortened to at least half of their run length and are at times unbeatably slow, some are ostensibly amateur, but many won over even the most discerning of film critics.
Drum and Play
This is a quaint little short that all Angelenos have seen at one point or another. Two vagrants square off for the same piece of prime real estate – one, a jovial guitar player, the other, a fuming drum player. In the end, they must put aside ego in order to coexist and use teamwork to suck as much money from tourists as possible. It is a pure instrumental short, and even then the sound tracking is a little off. The production here wasn’t over the top, but the message is steeped in “ain’t-it-sweet”. Also, am I the only one who wants to see the director’s cut where the two bums tear one another’s skin off with just their instruments?
The Road to Jacob
A burly convict has been in and out of prison his whole life. When his next parole hearing is granted, what’s to keep him from going straight back? If you guessed his 9 year old son which he has never before met, then you have probably also seen this short. It’s a bit of a tear jerker with a happy ending, not straying from the FGFF formula. Although a tad drawn out, this short film is a well produced family drama.
Fambul Tok (family tree)
While not a typical film at “Feel Good”, this documentary can be seen as the epitome of the paradigm. We are all familiar with the terrible, unspeakable evils which occurred during the Sierra Leonne Civil War in the 90s. If you are not, then pick up a history book, as they are unspeakable. Presently, aggressors, oppressions, and murderers are living among the communities they have aggressed, oppressed, and families they have had a hand in murdering. Sound like a set up for a terrible sitcom? You’re close – it is a set up for the terrible documentary titled Fambul Tok. Although it serves as an informative piece about the unjust history of this African nation, nothing is quite a deterrent from that “feel good” feeling than the systematic genocide of civilizations. Yes, blood is thinker than water. Especially when it flows by the river full.
Two B-boys with a history of rancor battle it out on the kitschy TV show, America’s Best Street Battles. The premise is nothing new (have you seen the new Step Up movie?) but the production, acting, and more than anything else, the break dancing is all executed with deft precision. The different grains and filters used throughout the film and during flashbacks give this short an added charm. This one is definitely recommended for any fan of music or dance.
A tale of the dirty south and the mentally challenged. The premise itself is enough to carry the inspirational value of this feature while back stories steeped in child abuse and the power of basketball carry it to an unnecessary run time of over 90 minutes. While I’m certain that many people can relate to this film, I’m equally certain it bored just as many audiences.
A Pony for Connie
The 1920’s were a simpler time. A time when everyone from hobos to children dressed in a suit and tie and everyone smoked, including hobos and children. This might have something to do with my infatuation with any period piece from that era, but in A Pony for Connie, a hard talking preteen boy and his chums try to win a local contest for this sister, who hasn’t said a word since their father left them. This original story is done very well – from the child acting to sticking with the 20s motif, which a great number of directors botch. The Leave it to Beaver feel of the film gives it familiarity while the length of the story keeps the audience engaged. Can Connie be saved if her brother wins her that pony? Well, it wouldn’t be a feel good film if it had a doubly sad ending.
This heartwarming short has no dialogue. Instead, an elaborate story is told through Morse code between two rooms in a grammar school with an adjacent chalk board. A student sits his grandfather in one room while attending a class in the other, where his teacher continues to draw algebra equations on the chalkboard. Her tap tap tapping is heard in the other room by said grandfather, who deciphers the Morse code chicken scratch as a message from his long lost love. The entire theater erupts in laugher when the elderly man scuttles along the school hallway with all of the haste of a 99 year-old only to burst into his grandson’s class room and give his teacher a Gone With the Wind smooch of grandeur, only to realize later that it had been a case of mistaken identity. This darling short picture has two elements missing from most major Hollywood productions: originality and heartfelt soul.
Hip Hop Hassid
This short film follows the true story of a Hassidic Jewish rapper. Take that statement and gives it a 26 minute runtime complete with pick-up urban street interviews and you have Hip Hop Hassid. Although engaging, edgy, and enchanting, this short lacks the mass appeal that other Feel Goods embrace with full force. I liked it. Anyone familiar with the hip-hop or the Jewish community will like it. Unfortunately, I was left with the impression that Hassid’s reach might be slightly shallow.
We all had those irrational phobias as children. For me it was ghosts. For many, including the kid in the aptly titled, The Kid, it is heights. When a single mom dumps her 10-ish year-old son on her neighbor because the elevator in her apartment building is broken and the boy refuses to walk down a flight of stairs (that is the actual set-up), the unemployed 20-something neighbor eagerly takes on the babysitting duties. It is through the unlikely bonding of child and manchild that the kid is eventually able to conquer his fear, much to the delight of his mother. The reason this is such a great feel good film is because nothing of consequence happens. There is no real trauma or war to be won, only the personal victory of a lonely kid – the lonely kid inside all of us.
You know that scene in American Beauty where the plastic bag is blowing around in the wind? Take 3 minutes of that and add a dramatic orchestral score and you have Spiritus. For what it’s worth, this micro-film is produced surprisingly well. The slow motion whimsical nature could inspire giggles in some just as it might inspire tears of joy in others. If you enjoy esoteric art house, or are just simply curious, I highly recommend you spend 3 minutes of your life viewing Spiritus.
Pad Yatra: A Green Odyssey
A shocking documentary about a group of 700 nuns, mountaineers, a handful of Americans, and a holy man who trek across the Himalayas, one of the world’s primary resources of fresh water. That in itself could easily be a feature film, however, the M.O. behind this treacherous pilgrimage is not a religious one, but an environmental one. The group travels to remote villages deep in the mountains in order to educate people about recycling, reducing waste, and reusing whenever possible. This feature follows one Angeleno’s tale of her trials and tribulations during this remarkable journey and includes rare and amazing footage from their march. A personal favorite feature at FGFF, I would consider this a must see.
Operation: The Future Looks Bright
This cute short film documents one man’s initiative to make the world a better place for his family with little miracles. It’s the small, simple things, like handing out water on a hot day or teaching his daughter to give away her favorite thing in the world (balloons), which put positivity back into the world and a smile on everyone in proximity. The production is amateur and the camera work is shaky, but the message perseveres. Without a doubt, this short has to be just about the sweetest thing I’ve seen on the big screen.
This instructional video pairs a former Olympic gymnastic in his 90s with a cute animator in her 30s to produce a short about correcting one’s posture. While a bit of an oddball of a Feel Good, this short is packed with useful information that remains with me even now. Walk Tall isn’t going to win an Oscar anytime soon, but it is short, charming, and may just end up airing on Disney Channel/Nick Jr. in between episodes of Hanna Montana/Yo Gabba Gabba.
The Missing Key
Here is an imaginative original if there ever was one – in a world where gramophone-headed people communicate by playing records, one such vinyl head, and his clarinet playing cat, are preparing to graduate composer college and must prepare a final concerto in order compete in a alumni recital and win some kind of music themed prize. The actual plot gets a little confusing, as the only communication going is through song, but the story is subsequent to the beautiful animation and electric personalities possessed by every character. There is drama, there is action, there is humor, there is weirdness, and there is loads of original music. The music, quite literally, comes alive and takes on different shapes according to the projected emotions possessed by each piece. The sort of elaborate and creative story telling is not the same recycled content found in Hollywood, but a piece of motion picture art to be cherished. As a cartoon aficionado, this short struck me as pure gold. While it might be too vulgar for Nickelodeon and not quite weird enough for Adult Swim, for The Missing Key, the future is a symphony of opportunities.
Triple Concerto in D Minor
Australian short “Triple Concerto in D Minor” is only 8 minutes in length and has zero dialog, but writer/director Daniel Mitchell manages to say quite a lot. Triple Concerto is the story of young Rebecca and her unorthodox ambition of playing the triangle (of all things) in the National Youth Orchestra. There is some beautiful imagery here suggesting that even the smallest of gestures – when backed by love and fueled by passion – can brighten our landscape, however brief or minute the spark. Young actress Alex Cook is sublime as the aspiring triangle-enthusiast, and no explanation is needed concerning where, how, or why such love and dedication were born. What matters, we are reminded, is that in a world full of “biggest is best”, there are some who still care for the details and the afterthoughts, striving tirelessly to pursue one tiny moment of perfection in a world so often abhorrently off-pitch.
Whiskey & Apple Pie
As far as fulfilling the festival’s primary promise (Feel Good!), no film was better suited than the beguiling documentary Whiskey & Apple Pie. When two women set across America on a quest for “Elder Wisdom” the results were remarkable, quotable, and entertaining. The audience collectively chuckled, nodded, clapped, and even wiped away a few tears. Featured Elders included actress Tippi Hedren, actor Mickey Rooney, war veterans, Miss Senior America, various elder artists, activists and many more. All participants in the documentary were aged 75 or older, and their vibrant, passion and luminosity were inspiring and humbling. If wisdom is what the two film-makers were after, then I would say they found it in spades.
One particularly memorable moment came as a commentary on the evolution of technology and how it has affected human interaction. One subject lamented that advances in technology have altered our ability to communicate with one another in a genuine, intimate manner. There was a sadness in her eyes as she explained that we have lost the ability to simply sit in a room with another person and truly experience their presence without the constant disruption of simulated “contact” through texting, internet browsing, and general compulsion towards our tiny keyboards – the glowing obsession in our palm. To consider that technology has indeed made us less human was sobering, though-provoking and hopefully a catalyst for personal growth. Another beautiful moment came when a woman who had experienced Katrina first-hand spoke with candor and wit about believing that God had forgotten about or lost her, so that she promptly took to her knees and informed Him, “Here I am.” She surmised that if she had any advice to pass on to a younger generation, it would be, “If you’re gonna pray, don’t worry. And if you’re gonna worry, don’t pray.” Another elder offered the gem, “Be nice to everybody. Don’t be a sourpuss” as her best bit of guidance to be filed under “The Secret to Happiness”.
Perhaps most exciting was the portion of the film dedicated to Passion. To see individuals of 80, 85, even 90+ years still pursuing their art, cause, or business venture with unbridled zest and clarity of focus was truly inspirational. One gentleman joyfully expressed that he hoped to paint until someone found him frozen to his chair, his easel before him, paintbrush in-hand. John Barrymore once said “A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.” There was not a whiff of regret in Whiskey, but much evidence of renewed, long-cultivated, and even fresh dreams to be sought and captured. And if that doesn’t make you feel good, well, maybe give the whiskey a try.
The Assignment, starring Linsey Godfrey and French Stewart, was Utah filmmaker Timothy J. Nelson’s final project. Tim’s obituary states that his passion was “telling stories that uplift and inspire, teach and empower”. He was known for his advocacy with youth and victims of abuse. Throughout the film, the writer/director’s affinity for young people and his reverence for their dreams and potential was evident. In what was perhaps the most striking element of the screening, four young-20-something actors took to the stage for a Q and A. They spoke primarily of Nelson’s kindness, candor and generosity, the lead actress reduced to tears at the mere mention of his name. What Tim accomplished with this film was a heart-felt homage to high-school–our brief treading in that small pond which we almost universally mistake for a vast, turbulent sea. Prodigious young Eliza, feisty eyes fixated on a prestigious music academy in France, is central to the story. But her steely determination is shaken when an unorthodox teacher challenges his students to look deep into their family and personal histories — something she knows shockingly little about. “Those who cannot recall the past are doomed to repeat it.” You get the jist. Assignment was heavily reminiscent of Dead Poets Society on occasion, but without all the death and poetry. And while some of the plot points and revelations were a tad “on the nose”, I could still easily respect Nelson’s ambition for the project. The film’s conclusion veered dangerously into smothering sentimentality, but the characters were endearing enough and the story sprinkled with sufficient intrigue to earn the more sinfully-syrupy moments a “pass”. Nelson battled cancer furiously and gracefully, right til the very end. His dedication to story and youth are inspiring and evident in the work he cleaved to even in his final hours. It’s not often that the story behind the man creating the story is perhaps more inspiring than the story itself. And while that may be a mouth-full, in this case, it’s also true. I enjoyed both the film and the history of the man behind the film. Kudos, Tim J. Nelson. Your film and your life left a sliver of light in a Hollywood very often consumed by shadow. And that makes me feel Good.
Film producers, cast, crews, and audiences like all came together for the Feel Good after party in the small alleyway adjacent to Laemmle’s following the long weekend of film viewing. In addition to a break dance performance from the cast of Bboy, patrons enjoyed refreshments including wine and FFGF sponsors, Icelandic Glacial water, graciously offering guests a complimentary way to cool off during the triple digit heat. As the reels stop, the Feel Good Film Fest comes to a close, yet like any good film that shapes perspectives, shakes foundations, or stays with the audience, movie goers are left with the good vibes which endure the daily muddle of life and a lasting Feel Good afterglow.