Film fest's fine features

The Ashland Independent Film Festival opens Thursday with the feature "Wendy and Lucy," a powerful yet quiet film about a young woman who stops in a small Oregon town on her way to Alaska and so sets in motion events which are rife with unintended consequences.

Whether this film is among those now referred to as the latest incarnation of neo-realism is perhaps not as consequential as is the studied examination of Wendy who is faced with a perfect storm of problems: she is painfully alone; is arrested for shoplifting and so loses her dog, Lucy; her car is broken, irretrievably. It soon becomes clear that these events will test her resiliency and determination to maintain a fragile equilibrium.

This film, with no backstory and only the sparest of dialogue and plot, explores corners of the human heart that are immediately recognizable yet too often ignored by mainstream Hollywood. Commercial films have, for decades, insisted that the narrative arc must bend toward conquering seemingly insurmountable odds, include a redemptive moment and close with a Disneyesque denouement. "Wendy and Lucy" proves to be the exception.

'Paper Covers Rock'

Like "Wendy and Lucy," "Paper Covers Rock" is a fine feature film that examines the pain and the courage of a young woman, Sam, who has lost everything, including herself, and is confronted with an overwhelming sense of isolation.

In the aftermath of a failed suicide attempt — which comes in the set up of the film and is so unexpected that moments pass before the import of what she has done fully registers — she loses her six-year-old daughter, spends time in a psychiatric hospital, and emerges feeling lost and desperate while searching for a modicum of stability.

The complexity of the film is embedded in the character of Sam and begs the question of whether she can or wants to reassemble her life and reunite with her daughter.

Nothing is clear; all is ambiguous.

As a character, Sam is simultaneously sympathetic and exasperating, hopeful and despairing. Her sister, Ed, while insisting repeatedly that she wants only to help Sam, conveys elements of familial destructiveness that frame their relationship, which never feels unequivocally loving or nurturing.

"Paper Covers Rock" is a modest yet evocative film that concerns itself with a brief, exigent moment in the life of a young woman who is overwhelmed by a sense of loss — of self, of a child, of a coherent life.

'Garrison Keillor: The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes'

Any documentary about an individual always begs the question: Is he or she interesting? No matter fame or anonymity, are their lives compelling?

"Garrison Keillor: The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes," is a fascinating, behind-the-scenes example. You don't have to be a fan of "The Prairie Home Companion" or of Keillor to thoroughly enjoy this intimate examination of a man who, in the mid 1970s, turned a small radio show in Minnesota into a national treasure, affording Keillor the weekly opportunity to broadcast his rare brand of entertainment to millions of listeners. He has proven to be a gifted monologist, humorist, singer and storyteller who blurs the lines between what is real and what is fiction as he spins tales of an idyllic place called Lake Wobegon.

The title of the film comes from the fact that Keillor's signature footwear is a pair of red sneakers that he wears with a generic dark suit, white shirt and red tie. Like his dress, with the exception of those shoes, he always seems self-contained, even remote, as he heads a freewheeling yet well organized production.

What is remarkable about the film is that for all of the joy he brings into the lives of so many people, he rarely laughs with, well, gusto. Actually, behind that sagging face, the bushy eyebrows, and the round specs, he seems to carry a mantle of melancholy. Or perhaps it's the counterintuitive demeanor of shyness and deep-seated reticence when away from the stage and the microphone.

It is to the filmmaker's credit that the camera lingers on Keillor with slow-moving patience, allowing the film to develop, thus revealing the man as father, performer and person; and what is shown is not always consistent with the man who can spin compelling tales about people who are ever so ordinary yet in their own way extraordinary. Not unlike Keillor.

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