Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
I am the first person to admit that there is something magical about attending an opening weekend showing of a blockbuster movie. Theater packed to the gills, everyone abuzz with anticipation, the thrill of seeing something that everyone is going to see, before most people…it’s an amazing experience, mostly because you are in the middle of something bigger than yourself, an “I was there!” moment in the making.
And yet…there’s something fake about the experience at the same time. No matter how excited you are about the film you’re seeing, a part of you is aware that this excitement is the result of a massive multi-million dollar marketing campaign that burrowed its way into your consciousness. No matter how visionary the film may be, deep down you know that it was “vetted” by countless executives and screened by countless focus groups, all with the intention of making it as commercially viable as possible. In other words, no matter how thrilling that opening night might be, your being there is more a product of a successful business plan than artistic vision.
So where can a true film lover go these days to get away from this machine, and see what true passion and commitment to a project can create? “Indie” houses can certainly do the trick, but even they are not immune to the siren song of the major studios. Every major production company has an “independent” wing these days, and A-list stars often flock to these projects as a means to gain critical attention come awards season, thus removing most if not all of the independent spirit they are trying to capture.
The answer to this question is as obvious as it is elusive: film festivals.
For most of us, that phrase conjures up images of the Entourage boys partying in Aspen or Cannes. And while it’s true that the major festivals have mostly become another excuse for Hollywood self-congratulation, there are countless smaller festivals that occur all the time across the country (and the world, I’d bet), even if their marketing budget doesn’t match up to the big boys. You might not see any major stars or spectacular special effects, but you will almost certainly see what happens when artistic expression and passion meets persistence and determination. These are the movies that would never get past the “notes” process in Hollywood, and perhaps because of this, they are infused with a freshness that you can’t find anywhere else.
Or so I have come to learn. Full disclosure: before this week, I have only been to one film festival in my life. Intellectually, I know that the movies they screen are going to be wonderful…and yet whenever I contemplate going, I somehow convince myself that they are all going to be either depressing in that “Oh God…what ELSE can go wrong?” kind of way, or else hopelessly indulgent in that “Screw you, studios…look at what a brilliant filmmaker I am!” kind of way. And this week didn’t promise to change that perspective either.
My brother has spent the past several months working tirelessly on the Washington Jewish Film Festival. When my wife and I first got the brochure in the mail, it was full of movies that sounded intriguing…but it quickly became overwhelming. I mean, with so many options that no one has ever seen before, how can we pick which one to craft an entire evening around? When we called and asked for advice, he proudly invited me to the opening night gala. The film that we were to see was called Hey Hey, It’s Esther Blueberger, and it was described to us as “a coming-of-age story about a thirteen-year-old Jewish Australian girl.” I promise you, this was not one of the movies we had circled, and it sounds as appealing to you as it did to us. But a film festival employs people to screen and select movies…and this one was chosen to kick off the festival…so it couldn’t be terrible, right? And with that vote of confidence running through my head, I accepted the invitation.
After the screening, it was clear to me that there was only one problem with this movie: unless you live in or near Australia, it’s going to be hard for you to see it.
Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueberger begins the titular girl’s story one week before her bat mitzvah. She is so unpopular at school that she eats her lunch alone in the school’s attic, then spends her evenings trying to explain to her mother why none of her “friends” have RSVPed for her party yet. Her life gets an unexpected boost when she is befriended by Sunni, a popular rebel girl from the local public school. This friendship (and maybe any friendship at all) opens Esther up to a rich social life that she never experienced before, and she flourishes, even as her relationships with her family and previous life begin to suffer. By the end, both of these worlds collide on her, and she’s forced to choose between the path of rigid conformity, or unpopular originality.
If this synopsis sounds like Can’t Buy Me Love meets Mean Girls, then that’s only because words can’t begin to describe all the intangible ways that this film soars. Here are just two:
1. Character Development – Esther Blueberger is one of the most fully-formed characters I’ve seen in a long time, and that’s no small feat considering she was played by an untested pre-teen. Throughout the movie, she fluctuates between moments of startling maturity and shocking immaturity in a way that only an adolescent can truly accomplish, and in every case it is wholly understandable and real. And even after we “get” who she is and the journey she’s on, there are still many small moments that surprise and charm you, such as when she is ordered by her mother to have dinner with her twin brother. The two kids sit at opposite ends of the table like their parents, discussing their days with joyless detachment…all the while spilling their foods over their heads (as though showing each other that they are not, in fact, anything like the adults that control them). Esther keeps to herself mostly, and yet we share in her joy (as when she finds a new pet ducking) and her sorrow (as when she discovers her duck’s fate) as clearly as if we were reading her diary.
And yet this is only half of the story. There are many movies that effectively show us one character’s journey…yet almost by definition and necessity give short shrift to the people around them. By contrast, Hey Hey Esther Blueberger shows us not only the ways that Esther herself is affected by events, but it also takes the time to show us in real ways the effect that she has on those around her. For example, Esther finds herself distancing from her twin brother throughout the movie, a fact that continually frustrates her. At a particularly stressful moment for her, she runs past him while he’s praying, and shouts something mean before she slams the door to her room. Instead of following her, the camera lingers on the brother as he slowly turns back to his prayer, and quietly asks God to make Esther be nice to him again. It’s a small but heartbreaking moment, and this movie is filled with them.
2. Humor – Despite its relatively deep subject matter, Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueberger is filled with sincerely funny scenes that somehow simultaneously take the viewer out of the story, while keeping them firmly entrenched in it. When Esther’s mother tearfully declares that they are going to family counseling, the ensuing vignette is wonderfully absurd; while the family struggles to sit comfortably on beanbag chairs, the counselor solemnly and methodically peels an apple. On another occasion, Esther and a new friend attempt to assume an air of sophistication as they contemplate losing their virginities, yet do so while covering their lips with rainbow sprinkles. To describe any more would be doing the film a great disservice, but there were enough truly funny moments that the movie would almost certainly be billed as a comedy, despite the fact that at it’s core, it’s not.
I could continue, but there is little point, since doing so would further spoil the movie-going experience for those who will see it one day. But the point remains that Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueberger is exactly what film festivals are all about. It’s a movie that you would have never ever heard about otherwise (quick…name another Australian film from the past ten years not made by someone named Baz?) and if you had somehow heard of it…you probably would not have given it a second thought (after all, what part of thirteen-year-old Jewish Australian girl do you relate to?) And yet by placing it as the centerpiece of the WJFF, a full audience of people were introduced to, and fell hopelessly in love with, a simply wonderful movie.
If there’s any justice in this world, Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueberger will have a long and prosperous life in the U.S. and throughout the world. In that case, do whatever you can to see it. However, even as we wait for that day, there are dozens of other Esther Bluebergers out there just waiting to be discovered. The next time you get the opportunity to attend a film festival, take it, no matter what day you have free, no matter what movie you get to see. You might not experience the buzz or electricity of a summer blockbuster, but I can all but guarantee that you’ll see something refreshing and unique.