The Lens: More weekend films at the 2009 Festival
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 14, 2009 - Helen, Directed by Joe Lawlor & Christine Malloy. The titular figure in this strange film about lost identity (a theme of several of this year's festival film) is an 18-year-old girl with no real future. Raised in foster homes for her entire life, she's about to graduate from high school and enter a world with no family, no connections, nothing more to fill her time than her unrewarding job as a hotel housekeeper.
When a classmate disappears, Helen is hired by the police to play the part of the missing girl in a filmed reconstruction of her disappearance (it's never clear why the police would be doing something like that...). For the first time in her life, Helen has a role to play, a way to imagine herself into a different life - one that even comes with a new set of relatives and friends as she is slowly pulled into the circle of her missing counterpart.
"Helen" is beautifully photographed and staged with a slow sense of consideration that plays its study of character against an almost forbidding modern environment. Making her film debut, Annie Townsend's strong, natural performance carries most of the dramatic weight and makes "Helen" a challenging, cerebral portrait of an emotionally undeveloped young woman walking a line between personality and performance. Is Helen growing emotionally, or simply learning how to adopt the role that people - the family and friends of the missing girl - want to see? A strong feature and a throwback to the idea-oriented postwar arthouse cinema, "Helen" is a portrait of a young woman as a tabula rasa. Like Chance in "Being There," she finds herself - or pretends to - by simply trying to fit in.
"Helen" trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31tML_ebIt4
Directed by Joe Berlinger (Berlinger in attendace)
"Crude" is a skillful, informative, and even intimate film that goes deep inside the kind of dry, almost abstract news story you can read on any given day ("Village in Amazon rain forest sues Chevron for environmental damage"). Looking behind that story, director Joe Berlinger provides the details, the drama and the repercussions, weaving an intricate analysis of events and personalities across two continents, from South American villagers poisoned by the oilfield's waste to activists preparing to confront Chevron stockholders to celebrities drawing publicity to the issues by throwing their support behind the case (OK, semi-celebrities - Sting's wife - but there is a brief performance by The Police). This is no-nonsense documentary film-making at its best: smart, conscientious and thorough. And though many things are unresolved at the end, there's just enough of a dramatic pull to the film to convince you that the good guys might actually win this round.
The Lens is provided by Cinema St. Louis.