Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
If you came to last year’s Chicago Critics Film Festival, the only film festival programmed by a working critics association, you could have seen the Midwest premieres of “First Reformed,” “Eighth Grade,” “Leave No Trace,” “Searching,” “Support the Girls,” “We the Animals,” “Abducted in Plain Sight,” “Revenge,” “Damsel,” and “Fast Color.” That’s just in ONE YEAR. The festival has grown so much in its six years of existence that it’s become one of the most important film events not just in Chicago but all of the Midwest. This year’s edition includes over two dozen premieres, a 35MM presentation of “Alien,” and guest appearances by Tom Skerritt, Tatiana Maslany, Jim Gaffigan, Jay Duplass, Lulu Wang, Aisling Franciosi, and a dozen more.
Understanding that you can’t see everything (although you can for an amazingly low $150 for a full-festival pass of over two dozen films), I thought I’d highlight our guest screenings, the ones for which you will be able to hear from the people who made the films. Then I’ll pick out a few more highlights at the bottom. See as many as you can. You won't regret it.
Overall, this is our strongest line-up yet, which is saying something if you’ve been to our festival before. Every single one of our films has been approved by a committee of working film critics, giving them a stamp of quality that you don’t get from every film festival. Here are some of the highlights (click on the titles for more information and to get tickets now):
FRIDAY, MAY 17
Star/writer Kelly O’Sullivan and director Alex Thompson in attendance for a Q&A!
At the start of the summer, Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan) has an abortion just as she lands a much-needed job in an affluent Chicago suburb – nannying six-year old Frances (played by the scene-stealing Ramona Edith-Williams). With no time to recover, she clashes with the obstinate Frances and struggles to navigate a growing tension between Frances’ moms. As her personal relationships suffer, a reluctant friendship with Frances emerges, and Bridget contends with the inevitable joys and shit-shows of becoming a part of someone else’s family.
GREENER GRASS is a deliciously twisted comedy set in a demented, timeless suburbia where every adult wears braces on their straight teeth, couples coordinate meticulously pressed outfits, and coveted family members are swapped in more ways than one in this competition for acceptance. The film is a twist on everyday suburban life both a love letter and an “FU” where the characters make life-altering decisions on a whim and being polite is held to a highest standard, even if it means you go too far.
Writer/Director/Stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe in attendance for a Q&A!
SATURDAY, MAY 18
Directors Raed Alsemari (“Dunya’s Day”), Amy Bench (“A Line Birds Cannot See”), Christopher Good (“Crude Oil”), Will Goss (“Sweet Steel”), Alex Kavutskiy (“Squirrel”) and Geoff Marslett (“The Phantom 52”) will be in attendance for a Q&A!
After a space merchant vessel perceives an unknown transmission as a distress call, its landing on the source moon finds one of the crew attacked by a mysterious lifeform, and they soon realize that its life cycle has merely begun.
Star Tom Skerritt in attendance for a Q&A!
SUNDAY, MAY 19
Over the past fifteen years, hundreds of refugee children in Sweden have become afflicted into Resignation Syndrome, withdrawing from the world into a coma-like state for months, or even years. The families of these children have been subjected to severe trauma in their home countries, followed by the anxiety of a lengthy asylum process and an uncertain future. Intercut with sweeping Swedish landscapes, Life Overtakes Me follows three families for over a year. Viewers are immersed in their lives as the anguished parents struggle to care for their sick children.
Directors John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson will be in attendance for a Q&A!
When influential Chinese artist Ma Liang (a.k.a. Maleonn) realizes that his father Ma Ke, an accomplished Peking Opera director, is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, he invites his father to collaborate on his most ambitious project to date – a haunting, magical, autobiographical stage performance featuring life-size mechanical puppets called “Papa’s Time Machine”. Through the creation of this play, the two men confront their mortality before time runs out and memories are lost forever.
Director S. Leo Chiang in attendance for a Q&A!
THE NIGHTINGALE is a meditation on the consequences of violence and the price of seeking vengeance. Set during the colonization of Australia in 1825, the film follows Clare (AISLING FRANCIOSI), a 21 year old Irish convict. Having served her 7-year sentence, she is desperate to be free of her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (SAM CLAFLIN) who refuses to release her from his charge. Clare’s husband Aidan (MICHAEL SHEASBY) retaliates and she becomes the victim of a harrowing crime at the hands of the lieutenant and his cronies. When British authorities fail to deliver justice, Clare decides to pursue Hawkins, who leaves his post suddenly to secure a captaincy up north. Unable to find compatriots for her journey, she is forced to enlist the help of a young Aboriginal tracker Billy (BAYKALI GANAMBARR) who grudgingly takes her through the rugged wilderness to track down Hawkins. The terrain and the prevailing hostilities are frightening, as fighting between the original inhabitants of the land and its colonisers plays out in what is now known as ‘The Black War.’ Clare and Billy are hostile towards each other from the outset, both suffering their own traumas and mutual distrust, but as their journey leads them deeper into the wilderness, they must learn to find empathy for one another, while weighing the true cost of revenge.
Star Aisling Franciosi in attendance for a Q&A!
MONDAY, MAY 20
In this funny, uplifting tale based on an actual lie, Chinese-born, U.S.-raised Billi (Awkwafina) reluctantly returns to Changchun to find that, although the whole family knows their beloved matriarch, Nai-Nai (grandma), has been given mere weeks to live, everyone has decided not to tell Nai Nai herself. To assure her happiness, they gather under the joyful guise of an expedited wedding, uniting family members scattered among new homes abroad to surreptitiously say their goodbyes.
Director Lulu Wang in attendance for a Q&A!
TUESDAY, MAY 21
PINK WALL is a modern day romance, following the six year relationship of Jenna (Tatiana Maslany) and Leon (Jay Duplass). Intimately told through defining moments along their journey together, the film explores how both friendship and resentments grow as the pressures of adult life confront them.
Writer/Director Tom Cullen and Stars Tatiana Maslany and Jay Duplass in attendance for a Q&A!
WEDNESDAY, MAY 22
“Blinded by the Light” tells the story of Javed (Viveik Kalra) a British teen of Pakistani descent, growing up in the town of Luton, England, in 1987. Amidst the racial and economic turmoil of the times, he writes poetry as a means to escape the intolerance of his hometown and the inflexibility of his traditional father. But when a classmate introduces him to the music of “the Boss,” Javed sees parallels to his working-class life in Springsteen’s powerful lyrics. As Javed discovers a cathartic outlet for his own pent-up dreams, he also begins to find the courage to express himself in his own unique voice.
Director Gurinder Chadha and star Viveik Kalra in attendance for a Q&A!
THURSDAY, MAY 23
Single mom Shelia, gifted with sometimes prophetic dreams, moonlights as a paranormal investigator while working at a car-rental service counter and raising her teenage son, Owen. After her appearance on a local radio program, she’s contacted by Richard, a recent widower who thinks his departed wife may be “haunting” his East Tennessee farmhouse. Agreeing to help, Shelia brings along Owen and his classmate Lucy in hopes of understanding the mystery.
“Luce,” one of the best films of Sundance 2019, makes its Chicago premiere!
RogerEbert.com editors Chaz Ebert, Brian Tallerico, Nick Allen, Matt Fagerholm, and contributors Peter Sobczynski, Collin Souter, Mark Dujsik, Patrick McGavin, Angelica Jade Bastien, and Allison Shoemaker are all members of the CFCA.
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