Miami’s GEMS Film Festival, now in its seventh year and operated by the Miami International Film Festival, has long served as a sneak preview for some of the awards season’s most promising foreign and independent features and documentaries. Only this year, the festival is not in Miami: It’s virtual, so local audiences can save themselves the hour-long drive and the parking cost, and enjoy these promising titles from the comfort of their homes.
Running from Thursday to Sunday, the festival features 20 films from around the world. I had the opportunity to screen three of them in advance, and here are my takeaways.
This audacious sophomore feature from writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine is a meta psychodrama in two distinct parts. In the first chapter, unsuccessful film director Allison (Aubrey Plaza) arrives at a remote lakeside cabin to refresh her creative juices, only to find herself both mediating between the home’s bickering owners: Gabe (Christopher Abbott), an unemployed musician, and Blair (Sarah Gadon), his unintentionally pregnant partner. All of their conversations, simmering in awkward beats, are filled with linguistic landmines skillfully rendered by Levine and his bravura cast, until this triangle’s untenable situation crashes headlong into chapter two—a flashback of sorts in which Allison, then a troubled actress, finishes a difficult film shoot with a manipulative director (Abbott) and his colluding costar (Gadon). If chapter one borrows from the millennial mumblecore playbook of Joe Swanberg, the second chapter captures the Altmanesque tumult of a film shoot with lived-in aplomb, as life bleeds into art and vice versa—bleed being an operative word. As the connections between the chapters gradually come to the fore, we begin to see that, for Allison, filmmaking presents an eternal canvas for vengeance and catharsis. “Black Bear” is anything but a love letter to cinema; it’s more of a poison-pen missive, shot with the exuberance of a director unshackled from the rules of the game.
True crime and culture shock collide in director Jiayan “Jenny” Shi’s engrossing documentary about the 2017 disappearance of Chinese native Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old graduate student living in Illinois. Shi draws on moving diary entries Yingying wrote during her six weeks on campus, capturing the essence of an enterprising ecologist with a bottomless love for her family, whose one apparent mistake led to a citywide search, national news in China, and the apprehension of a potential serial killer. A skillful storyteller respecting both the human and procedural intricacies of Yingying’s case, Shi interviews Chicago detectives, fellow Chinese in the United States, and Yingying’s devastated parents and sibling, whose foundations begin to crumble as they grasp at ever-vanishing threads of hope. Eastern beliefs about the afterlife and the soul’s journey add to the urgency of the family’s quest, and suggest that an ostensible accident captured on video—a wounded bird falls, and dies, at the feet of Yingying’s boyfriend—could represent so much more.
Kim A. Snyder, director of 2016’s “Newtown,” follows that documentary with another film completed in the shadow of gun violence, this one hitting particularly close to home. The illuminating “Us Kids” follows the student activists from the Parkland school shooting of 2018 from the birth pangs of the #NeverAgain movement through the organization and realization of the March for Our Lives through their summer bus tour to galvanize voters for the midterm elections. True to its title, no adults are interviewed for Snyder’s camera; few are even pictured in archival footage. The central pillars of the movement—Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg and Cameron Kasky—not surprisingly anchor the movie’s narrative and emotional core. So does Sam Fuentes, the MSD student seriously injured in the attack, and whose combination of nerves and PTSD famously manifested when she threw up onstage at the March for Our Lives. Fuentes’ everyday struggles to come to grips with the tragedy she suffered are a reminder of the human toll on these warriors for gun safety, who have often projected unassailable strength and confidence in their mission. But none had the desire for celebrity, and Snyder’s intimate portrait effectively transcends the mainstream media’s portrayals—presenting these “kids” as conflicted survivors torn between school and activism, hope and despair for a future that, despite their tireless efforts, may still be out of their hands.
All-access passes for the seventh-annual GEMS Film Festival run $80, and tickets for individual screenings cost $9.99. Visit miamifilmfestival.com/festival.