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CIFF 2023: All Happy Families, Bike Vessel, Departing Seniors, Memorial

A great part of any regional festival like the Chicago International Film Festival is the ability to see local talent. This dispatch highlights a few Chicago-set stories covering several genres and styles, from a family comedy to a father-son documentary, a teen slasher, and a short dedicated to communal grief. 

In “All Happy Families,” struggling actor and screenwriter Graham (Josh Radnor) manages a family property belonging to his successful brother Will (Rob Huebel), an actor on a popular nightly soap. Their house needs new plumbing and a tenant, which is solved when Dana (Chandra Russell), an old friend Graham still has a crush on, comes to look at the apartment. Graham’s hangdog mien foretells his hesitancy to make a move on Dana, as does the upheaval happening in his life. For instance, his mother (Becky Ann Baker) was recently sexually harassed by her boss at her retirement party, and his pompous brother is mysteriously hanging around the house. There's also a looming scandal and some old man transphobia by Graham’s dad (John Ashton).  

Before long, Graham’s love life is further complicated by his mother’s aborted love of singing and his father’s gambling problem. It can be a bit much, and you can see how Haroula Rose’s “All Happy Families” could be too sprawling. But I would be lying if I said such bloat diminishes the film's charm.

“All Happy Families” is a notable shift from Rose’s debut feature “Once Upon a River” (a period piece and fable about a young woman’s expedition downriver away from a troubled home life). Issues about inequality still work their way into her newest film but are contained in conventional set pieces that rely on the actors' wit to keep you engaged. Radnor is particularly affecting, relying on a soft touch of forlornness for his character, even as his arc takes a backburner. Thanks to the film's multiple moving parts, "All Happy Families" is a mostly satisfying, feel–good portrait of family dysfunction.   

Bike Vessel” is a film about perseverance, a story concerned with structural racism, and a tale of heartwarming achievement. In Eric D. Seals’ documentary, Donnie is a retired IBM engineer. A survivor of three open heart surgeries, he has recently taken up cycling to regain his strength. Over two years, he moves from taking truckloads of medication to live to biking tens of miles. To commemorate five years of cycling, he and his son Eric (the film’s director) decide to ride 350 miles from St. Louis to Chicago. 

Their journey is touching, beginning with their training for the race. Eric is a novice cyclist compared to his veteran dad, and both father and son have strong personalities. During their rides, Seals jumps back in time by virtue of VHS footage of family holidays to track the moments and causes of Donnie’s surgeries. The film illuminates two major factors as culprits for the shorter lifespans African Americans routinely experience compared to their white counterparts: the unhealthy culturally specific diets most Black folks hold over from slavery—foods based on fat and salt—and the stress of needing to succeed against the racism of corporate America.

These are important themes, but the father-son relationship between Donnie and Eric really provides this documentary with the warmth of seeing two Black men share a life-changing experience. I couldn’t help but smile through every second, especially during the film's final ten minutes when their hard work comes to fruition. 

Having seen director Claire Cooney’s previous shorts—intimate stories like “Runner” and “After: A Love Story”—a teen slasher being her feature directorial debut feels out of place. Written by Jose Nateras, “Departing Seniors” begins on overly talkative terms. Within the milieu of his high school, Javier (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio) is a bullied, gay, teenage outsider. Jocks like Trevor (Cameron Scott Roberts) and Brad (Sasha Kuznetsov) pick on him; the class overachiever Ginny (Maisie Merlock) finds him threatening to her success. His only real allies are his teacher, Mr. Arda (Yani Gellman), and best friend, Bianca (an invigorating Ireon Roach).

The film's early going relies on overexplaining teenage tensions and providing unnecessary backstory for these banal characters. “Departing Seniors” doesn’t kick into gear until Javier gains psychometric abilities when the school bullies push him down the stairs. He can see the history behind any object he touches. When he grasps Bianca’s painting, for instance, he can see the moment she created it. This unique ability embroils him in the crosshairs of a masked, slashing serial killer rampaging through the school. Javier uses his premonitions, which depict his classmates’ demise, in bids to save them before it’s too late. 

Taking cues from “The Dead Zone,” Cooney’s film finds a rhythm when she uses bright, spacious hallways for sites of real terror. Unfortunately, the mystery lacks intrigue, spinning its wheels toward a predictable conclusion. You come to wish “Departing Seniors” took Javier’s abilities further, that he revealed the unlikely inner truths of these characters rather than merely being a plot device to propel the puzzle further. Whenever Roach is out of frame, you pine for her energy to return. She brings a level of charm, an assuredness that this film needs. “Departing Seniors” is a fascinating trial run in feature directing for Cooney, which spells out what she might be capable of with a better script. 

Memorial” is a simple yet effective documentary short from director Jon Siskel. Recalling the mass shooting at an Independence Day parade in Highland Park in 2022—a tragedy that rocked a community—the film begins on abstract terms. We see a montage of water, leaves, and the American flag in a window's reflection as survivors share their memories of the day that claimed seven lives and left eight injured. 

Siskel then leans on drones to capture the parade route through present-day eyes. The barren block is a haunting sight. These sweeping shots transition into a more conventional verité as Siskel documents the memorials and tributes held by those remaining. Editor Magdalena Hernandez gives these transitions a seamless quality, allowing the slow passage of time after a tragedy a tangible aspect. More than anything, Siskel shows the forms that collective grief can take. "Memorial" is a window into the kind of rituals that have become all too commonplace in every city and town in America, where mass shootings have become the unfortunate norm.

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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