Monday, February 04, 2008

August Evening

Indie films are supposed to eschew glamor, and instead tell stories about marginal people ignored by mainstream Hollywood -- and in styles other than the conventional "three act structure." Indie films are supposed to be "different."

Unfortunately, indie films have "gone Hollywood" over this past decade. With rare exceptions, they've become predictable. Endless films about quirky, dysfunctional families. Inbred films offering "inside peeks" into the world of indie-filmmaking. Films peppered with pop culture references. Films full of navel-gazing angst by young adults contemplating their tedious relationships.

August Evening now threatens to rescue the indie film, returning the genre to its roots as a movement that once upon a time delivered originality and authenticity.

Despite its over two-hour length, August Evening is an absorbing film, shot in a minimalist (and occasionally rough), unsentimental style. It follows the travails of Jamie (Pedro Castaneda), an elderly Mexican-American laborer who loses his wife and agricultural job in quick succession. Yet he accepts these tragedies with remarkable stoicism, taking his lumps and moving on with quiet fortitude.

Living with Jamie is Lupe (Veronica Loren), his daughter-in-law by his long deceased son. She's sort of adopted Jamie and his late wife as the parents she would have like to have had, staying with them rather than moving on and remarrying.

If August Evening has a theme, it's about the way life's misfortunes force people to move on, pushing them out of their comfortable ruts. Loved ones die, jobs are lost, yet people cling to their memories and routines, until financially or socially their fingers are pried loose from the past.

With a matter-of-fact, semi-documentary style (allowing for the occasionally romantic shot), August Evening follows Jamie and Lupe as they move among the homes of Jamie's other, less-than-perfect, grown children, his job loss having made him dependent on them. Along the way, he unselfishly tries to marry off Lupe, because "it's right" that she should marry again, never mind that her marriage would leave him that much more alone.

A newcomer to acting, Pedro Castaneda infuses his character with a simple, quiet wisdom, and manly unselfishness, reminiscent of Richard Farnsworth's performance in The Straight Story. Castaneda has been nominated for a Best Male Lead Independent Spirit Award this year, and he deserves to win. As does August Evening, which is up for the Spirit Award's John Cassavetes Award.

While I'm on the subject of the Spirit Awards (I'm a voting member), I'd like to endorse Parker Posey for Best Female Lead for her work in Broken English. This may be her fest film since the 1990s, the decade which saw Posey's excellent Clockwatchers, Henry Fool, The House of Yes, and Dinner at Fred's -- yes, I include Dinner at Fred's on that list; it's a Christmas classic waiting to be discovered.

I also hope the late Adrienne Shelly wins Best Screenplay for Waitress. And if you haven't seen it, see Ms. Shelly's previous Sudden Manhattan, a small and funny film which I'd describe as the work of "a female Woody Allen." It's a quirky, observational, navel-gazing indie film -- but done at a time when quirky, observational, navel-gazing indie films were still something of a novelty.

Besides which, Adrienne Shelly did it so well.


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