Even though Roger Ebert’s alma mater, the University of Illinois, is a brisk 20-minute walk from Champaign’s Virginia Theatre, the main venue for the 17-year-old film festival that bears his name, not many of the students are able to break away from their studies to take advantage of the daily screenings.
But this year, Ian Leighly decided he had waited long enough. The 22-year-old native of Cottage Grove, Minn., is attending his first Ebertfest alongside his father, who came down from Minnesota to share the experience.
“I am currently technically a ‘super senior,’ “ Leighly explains. “I came to Champaign as an engineer in the mechanical engineering department. But three years in, I decided I didn’t enjoy it. I am now a sophomore technically in industrial design.”
However, “I am also a minor in cinema studies. That is why I am going to Ebertfest.”
Leighly and his father are also attending the panel discussions that take place on campus at the student union, including Friday’s lively debate about the future of film criticism featuring such notables as Scott Foundas of “Variety” and Richard Roeper of the “Chicago Sun-Times.”
“The best part of film festivals is the dialogue that happens. Not just watching movies but understanding and discussing them, especially between people who are in the industry and people who are consumers of the industry.”
Leighly grew up watching Ebert and Gene Siskel’s movie review shows on TV. “We used to tune into it every weekend.” He read other critics, “but as I became more mature, it was great just reading Rogerebert.com and reading his reviews. My Dad and I used to talk on the phone and say, ‘Hey, Roger gave this four stars. Maybe it is something we should go see.’ “
His school duties prevented him from seeing Friday’s screening of “Girlhood,” a French import about young black girls growing up in the tough suburbs of Paris. “I actually have a project due today for my industrial design class.”
But he has liked “Moving Midway,” film critic Godfrey Cheshire’s documentary account of his family’s efforts to move their 160-year-old plantation house to a new location. “I thought that was a very telling tale that went from being a documentary of the house to becoming a discovery of family’s history.”
Most meaningful to Leighly is the trailer that plays before each feature that focuses on how the festival is still thriving even after Ebert died in 2013 while continuing to promote his belief in the power of cinema.
“When Roger says in the trailer, ‘I like when movies take us somewhere that I didn’t see coming. And that makes them alive.’ ‘Moving Midway ‘really did that.”
He also enjoyed “The End of the Tour,” the latest film by director James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now”). The biographical drama that opens in theaters July 6 is about late author David Foster Wallace (“Infinite Jest”) and his relationship with a reporter doing a story on him for “Rolling Stone.”
“I heard the title of his book before, but I knew nothing about the author. But seeing that story unfold, seeing the characters develop—I thought the acting was excellent. Jason Segel, who is a comedy actor, doing a docudrama role as Wallace and pulling it off, was great.”
So what does Leighly want to do when he graduates? “I want to be a toy designer.” Definitely a growth industry with all the new “Star Wars” films coming out.