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Bentonville Film Festival 2021 Highlights

The Bentonville Film Festival is one of the most progressive in the world, understanding that elevating different voices changes the artistic landscape for the better. This year’s edition just wrapped yesterday, and included a program of which 71% of the projects were directed by women, 75% by people that are BIPOC or AAPI, and 87% featuring a female lead. Like a lot of regional festivals, most of their program premiered at other events like Tribeca or international fests, and this year’s edition had a robust virtual program yet again, which allowed me to check out some of the offerings. Overall, I found a truly diverse slate of films, the best of which centered stories that we don’t hear every day, opening up the cinematic conversation in ways that helps everyone find their voice. These are the three standouts:

“Catch the Fair One”

Darren Aronofsky produced this intense, unflinching thriller that features an incredible performance from US boxing world champion Kali Reis. Unlike a lot of athletes-turned-performers, Reis looks completely at home in front of the camera, slipping into her role in what feels like a genuine breakout performance. She stars as Kaylee, a Native American woman with a missing sister who is given evidence to suggest that she’s now been sex trafficked by a nearby criminal organization. She decides to follow the trail of evidence into some of the dark corners of the world, hoping to find her sister or at least enact revenge on the people who took her.

Reis is phenomenal, using her athleticism to turn Kaylee into something like a tightly coiled boxer, just waiting for the right time to throw a punch. Supporting performances, including Kevin Dunn (“Veep”), are strong throughout, and director Josef Kubota Wladyka has an excellent sense of space and pacing, but this is really Reis’ vehicle, and she carries every single scene with a physical intensity that’s tied to her character’s emotional trauma. IFC recently picked this up for a future release and I truly hope it leads to more work from both Reis and Wladyka.

“The Novice”

Another recent IFC pick-up, this intense drama earned raves after its premiere at Tribeca, where it won an acting award for star Isabelle Fuhrman. I don’t suspect it will be her last for this film. Written and directed by Lauren Hadaway, a sound editor on a film that this one has been compared to, “Whiplash,” “The Novice” is the story of a young woman named Alex (Fuhrman), who joins the rowing team at her college. An irrationally competitive person, Alex pushes herself mentally and physically to rise among the ranks from the novice team while also starting a relationship with a woman named Dani (Dilone) and butting heads with a fellow rower named Jamie (Amy Forsyth).

While it’s tightly edited and impressive on a technical level, “The Novice” is really a performance piece, giving Furhman the best part of her young career, and revealing what this actress is capable of delivering. There are a few scenes that feel overwritten in how they highlight and underline what’s going through Alex’s head, but Furhman overcomes all of that to deliver a grounded, deep performance. She truly understands people like Alex, competitors who refuse to give any ground even when they don’t know why they need to win so badly.

“Mogul Mowgli”

One of the special events of Bentonville this year was the screening of fest favorite “Mogul Mowgli,” which premiered at Berlin way back in February 2020 before working its way through a number of festivals and arriving in theaters next month. Finally able to catch up with this drama, I can see what the buzz has been about, although I suspect it will be unfairly compared to the multiple Oscar nominee “Sound of Metal,” given it features Riz Ahmed again playing a musician struck down by an unexpected physical condition.

In this one, Ahmed, who co-wrote the film directed by Bassam Tariq, plays Zed, a rapper whose fame is rising when everything is derailed by a debilitating physical condition that forces him into medical treatment. Unable to find nearly enough strength in his muscles to do simple things like walk, Zed’s arc is that of a man slowly working through the stages of denial, unwilling at first to even cancel his tour. As the people around him disappear, leaving his distant father as his unexpected ally, Zed’s priorities shift. Ahmed gives another riveting performance, never playing the clichés that could have turned this project into melodrama. He’s one hell of an actor, and he’s only getting started.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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