May 2, 2006

San Francisco Dispatch. 3.

Craig Phillips follows up on his earlier dispatch from the San Francisco International Film Festival with his takes on Le Petit Lieutenant and Runners High.

Le Petit Lieutenant My reports from the festival have been much fewer and farther between this year due to a suddenly overwhelming schedule, but I'm squeezing them in when I can. I'm also trying to avoid reviewing films that have already been written about at length here in coverage of prior festivals, but I did want to point in particular to two wholly disparate films that I hope don't get overlooked; in particular, a locally-produced documentary that I hope finds distribution in some fashion.

While it's certainly not a superb film, Xavier Beauvois's Le Petit Lieutenant got a rather scathing review in Variety and I feel compelled to defend it. The policier stars Nathalie Baye - whom I remember most vividly from The Return of Martin Guerre ages ago, though she was also seen here in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can - and she's remarkable playing a recovering alcoholic police commandant who joins a precinct at the same time as the titular cop fresh out of the police academy (a pouty Jalil Lespert). Together they work to investigate a case involving clochards, illegal immigrants and the Russian Mafia, before things take a tragic turn. But while it may remind one a bit of Prime Suspect à la français, this is less about the mystery than it is about the characters. And even a borderline cliché turning point as Baye's temptation to return to drinking is rendered with such acute humanity by the actress that it is still profoundly moving. The film works as a procedural and as a rendering of the life of a cop. It's to the film's benefit that it is presented so matter-of-factly and acted so earnestly, and I found myself forgiving it's occasional flatness.

Beauvois has been more prolific in France as an actor than as a director - this is his fourth film, with the previous efforts well-reviewed but little seen in the States, and it's likely Le Petit Lieutenant won't break that streak. But it's well worth seeking out, because of Nathalie Baye - who won a César for Best Actress for this - and the rest of the cast, and as an example of making something fresh and authentic out of relatively common material.

Runners High Meanwhile, doing a 180 from there: Runners High, up for a Golden Gate Award at the fest, is a well-made, even if extremely low-budget, documentary tracing a program for Oakland high schoolers called Students Run Oakland (SRO). The program gets kids out of trouble and on to the track, training to run a marathon - in the case of the year followed for this film, the Los Angeles Marathon. As in the case of Hoop Dreams, Go Tigers and other high school athletic-centered docs, the film narrows down the number of kids it focuses on to the most interesting core; in Runners High, it is a group of four, with the African American girl Ebony the most dynamic (emotional, moody, stubborn, funny - she's a riot, and a mess). Then there's Fred, an African American boy who you ache for and root for, as he moves from one home to the next, goes in and out of the SRO program - sometimes showing up in jeans and a hooded jacket to run in blase fashion. The other kids are even more inspirational - and more experienced runners - the Latino teens Marvin and Alma. (Marvin has a particularly memorable story to tell about breaking his leg, which makes his running prowess all the more remarkable.)

The SRO leaders are the charismatic coaches and runners Alphonso Jackson and Spencer Hooper, who disagree with each other on occasion, but always keep their eyes on the prize - the improvement of the self-esteem and confidence of each of the teenagers who participate. In the film, we also see them taking an interest in the kids' sometimes tumultuous personal lives.

Fred Jones Of course, this is the type of film that is hard to criticize; if it has a fault, it's that it could have gone a little bit deeper into the lives of some of these students, but we get to know all the players enough to feel touched by their ultimate accomplishments.

Again, for what the film's director Alex de Silva described after the screening as a "very, very low budget," Runners High looks surprisingly good and the camera people did a yeomen's work tracking alongside the runners as they train and compete as well as offering fly-on-the-wall views of the often challenging interactions between coaches/mentors and the students. By then you've been caught up enough in each student's well-being that the climax of the marathon itself is more moving than most of us would care to admit, without being manipulative. I'm sure if Hollywood ever acquired the story and made into a fictionalized movie, they'd certainly have the ending include one of the students winning the marathon, but in real life, for SRO, it isn't about winning literally - victory comes in finishing; the achievement is in believing.

Ebony accompanied filmmaker de Silva and the coach for a post-screening Q&A, where he revealed that they had cut about 170 hours of footage down to 87 minutes. Alphonso noted that this program was inspired by SR-LA, which has many more students participating. By the end, many audience members were ready to sign up as volunteers.

Note: Today (May 2) at 8:30pm, there will a satellite screening of Runners High at the El Rio on Mission Street; and at 10AM this Thursday (May 4) there will be a screening for schools. All the details are on their site.

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Posted by dwhudson at May 2, 2006 8:51 AM