The fortieth annual Denver Film Festival's kick-off last night, November 1, at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House was a decidedly low-key affair, especially in comparison to the 2016 launch, when future Oscar winner Emma Stone strolled the red carpet prior to a preview of the left-field blockbuster musical La La Land. But while star power was decidedly absent, the evening scored anyhow, thanks largely to viewers' discovery of Lady Bird, an opening-night selection that offered the sort of pleasant surprise the DFF shoots for every time the theater lights go down.
Yes, the red carpet was on view outside the main entrance to the Ellie, and a slew of press representatives were standing alongside it in the half-hour or so prior to the scheduled 8 p.m. start of the festivities. (As usual, this time turned out to be a rough estimate.) But the folks introduced by the fest's Neil Truglio were mostly unrecognizable, even to hardcore film buffs. Directors and producers for small-scale indies predominated, leaving interviewers with the challenge of figuring out who the hell they were before being able to ask them questions.
But at least there was plenty of artistic hair, as evidenced by the photo above.
Watching this awkward dance was a typically diverse mix of festival attendees. Twenty-somethings with hipster beards whose meticulous trim jobs suggested they'd been chiseled rather than brushed. Older dudes sporting hats so pretentious that their brims practically sneered. Women showing off the latest in cultural appropriation or fashions that were eye-catching but highly impractical, such as the tight, ankle-length skirt worn by a woman on crutches that made her look as if she had a single, pod-like limb instead of the two legs the garment actually concealed. And folks who responded to the imperative to dress up with a figurative middle finger.
Those sweatpants were really fetching, pal. Way to stick it to society!
Inside, the massive venue was far from full. The two upper levels were unoccupied, with the exception of one guy who wandered from seat to seat on the second-to-the-top deck, as if expecting that cell phone that slipped from his pocket last year to be stuck between the cushions.
But the main level was crowded with the sort of attendees that have helped the event last for four decades. The kind who will go to the festival no matter what film is playing.
The first speaker of the night was DFF director Andrew Rodgers, who last year turned heads with a fiery address about the role of the arts during the Trump era, delivered in the immediate wake of the 2016 election. This time around, however, nostalgia was the order of the day, with Rodgers dishing about the average price of a movie ticket in 1978, when the festival bowed (less than $3), the number-one film at the box office that year (Grease), the Academy Award Best Picture winner (The Deer Hunter) and so on.
Back in the day, Rodgers pointed out, movies weren't as easy to see after their theatrical run ended as they are today, when assorted streaming and cable services can immediately provide access to any flick that pops into a film lover's head. As such, a major mission of film festivals back then — reviving great productions of the past, to make sure they aren't forgotten — has been largely superseded.
For that reason, Rodgers said, it's not enough for festivals like the one he oversees to simply put great stuff on the screen. They must also offer ancillary satisfactions, like Q&As with filmmakers and other bonus content, in addition to creating a diverse community among those who appreciate bold storytelling, memorable imagery and the other joys associated with the art form the DFF brain trust, including co-founder Ron Henderson, who Rodgers shouted out from the stage, continues to celebrate.
Following Rodgers to the podium was festival director Britta Erickson, whose own talk was more traditional. She previewed festival highlights such as tributes to the films of Denmark and Poland, virtual-reality displays, panel discussions at the McNichols Building space dubbed the AnneX and more.
Then came Lady Bird, whose buzz has been more of a quiet whisper up until this point. But the volume should rise once more folks get a chance to see the directorial debut of actress Greta Gerwig, who also wrote the script. The story revolves around Lady Bird, played by Saoirse Ronan in a performance that channels Gerwig in ways that recall leading men in Woody Allen-directed flicks. She's a willful teen in deadly dull 2002-era Sacramento, where she attends a Catholic high school and longs for escape to the sort of East Coast college that her parents — Laurie Metcalf as her guilt-inspiring nurse mom and Tracy Letts as her unemployed, whimsically depressed dad — really can't afford.
The plot follows the usual coming-of-age pattern, and many characters have stock origins. For instance, it doesn't take a psychologist to figure out what it means when boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges) declines Lady Bird's invitation to touch her breasts because of the deep respect he has for her.
Fortunately, Gerwig manages to infuse the roles with a fresh, off-kilter charm that defies cliché. She's not a great visual stylist yet — there are more shots of driving by stuff than in your average real estate video on YouTube — but she's got a terrific spirit and the sort of empathy that transforms the potentially stereotypical into the universal.
The audience at the Ellie may not have known what to expect regarding the film, but from the early scene when Lady Bird hurls herself from the family car rather than listen to one more minute of her mom's ranting — a bit followed by a quick cut to a cast on her arm marked with the words "Fuck you, mom" — ticket-holders were on board. And while neither Gerwig nor any of the actors from the movie were on hand to speak about it afterward, the happy tones that emanated from the theater made it clear that no one felt shortchanged.
The more often that sound is heard over the next ten days, the more successful the 2017 Denver Film Festival will be.
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