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The Lens: At the festival on Nov. 13

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 12, 2009 - Laila's Birthday, Directed by Rashid Masharawi. It's been described as a comedy, but one of the most fascinating things about "Laila's Birthday" is how carefully it ignores outright jokes, choosing instead to create an environment of frustration and misdirection that recalls the cerebral playfulness of Jacques Tati's films.

At its center is Abu Laila, a cabdriver (who used to be a judge, as he repeatedly explains) going through a typical day in the Palestinian West Bank, with all the frustrations and conflicts that entails. He just wants to get through the day and make it home for his daughter's birthday party, but living and working in an occupied territory make that a struggle.

Although it may sound like nothing much actually happens in the film, director Masharawi and actor Mohammed Bakri build things up so subtly that the viewer is pulled into the driver's world - a world in which missing cell phones and a misdirected wedding procession are given almost as much weight as checkpoints and bombings - almost without noticing it. Aided by an excellent musical score and carefully molded by Bakri's extraordinarily understated performance, the film is a small revelation, capturing the realities of contemporary Palestine with a great deal of charm and an even greater sense of humanity.

Albino Farm

Directed by Joe Anderson and Sean McEwen
Tivoli 9:45 pm
(with co-director McEwen in attendance)

There's nothing particularly inspired about "Albino Farm," a formulaic horror film about college kids lost in the middle of nowhere, whispered old legends, and odd behavior in a rural town so tiny it's not even on the map, etc. But there's probably enough in the way of shock tactics, blood and creepy make-up effects to keep the most-devoted genre fans interested.

On the plus side, the production quality is good, the small-town imagery refreshingly accurate (the film was shot in southwestern Missouri), and former wrestler Chris Jericho brings a little Gary Busey-like craziness to a brief role.

On the down side, the young actors are irritatingly self-conscious much of the time and the filmmakers tend to treat people with physical handicaps as a kind of short-cut symbol of monstrosity (read your Robin Wood, guys!).

St. Nick

Directed by David Lowery
7:15 p.m. Tivoli
(with Lowery in attendance)

Running through nearly every scene of David Lowery (https://www.davidpatricklowery.com/)'s first feature is a feeling that the film is always just a few minutes away from turning into a tragedy. Two children, a boy and his slightly younger sister, wander through an unfriendly wilderness, take up residence in abandoned buildings, and occasionally wander into the company of strangers. It's not clear where they are - the press materials say that the film is set in Texas - or what they're running from, but they move with such a strong sense of determination that you know they must have a good reason.

Lowery's mysterious, evocative film has been compared - not unjustly - to the open-eyed romanticism of Terence Malick, but I'd also credit him with both the meditative quality of Bresson's mid-60's films like "Mouchette" and - though this may seem like a contradiction - the hard-edged naturalism of films like Kelly Reichardt's "Wendy and Lucy." His unnamed young heroes see the world around them as it is, remaining stoic in the face of whatever it deals them.

With full confidence in his visual skills but also eliciting completely natural performances from his young cast (real life siblings Tucker and Savanna Sears), Lowery has made an unusually strong, uncompromising debut.

The Lens is a blog from Cinema St. Louis, hosted by the Beacon.