Roger Ebert Home

Nashville Film Festival 2021 Preview: Invisible, Clara Sola and Four More Highlights

The 52nd Nashville Film Festival, which kicks off Thursday, September 30th, and runs through Wednesday, October 6th, aims to showcase the beauty of its city like never before. In-person screenings will be held at various iconic cultural venues throughout Nashville, rather than the usual multiplexes, while live musical performances are guaranteed to further enliven the proceedings. A total of 150 films—both feature-length selections and shorts—will screen during this week, with many titles available to stream at home (click here for the full lineup). Kicking off the festival on opening night will be Brent Wilson’s documentary about one of the towering geniuses in American music, “Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road,” which will be shown at 6:30pm at the concert venue Rocketown, 601 4th Ave. S. Though the film’s director is not related to his titular subject, despite their shared last name, this feels like the sort of picture a protective family member would’ve made about the visionary Beach Boys songwriter and his struggles with schizoaffective disorder, since it doesn’t dig deep enough into its fascinating subject matter, most of which was powerfully dramatized in Bill Pohlad’s 2014 film, “Love & Mercy.” Of course, the film is worth seeing simply for the time it allows us to share with Brian Wilson himself, as he revisits cherished tunes on a pleasant if not all that illuminating car ride with his pal, Rolling Stone editor Jason Fine. When Fine informs him that his band’s one-time manager Jack Rieley passed away years ago, you can see Wilson’s heart breaking in real time.

While the Brian Wilson profile will likely be an essential watch for music fans, I made a point of viewing six other selections for this preview piece that are even better, starting with T.J. Parsell’s episodic, uplifting documentary, “Invisible,” which shines a light on various female musicians whose sexual orientation resulted in them being persecuted in Nashville. Some of the most moving scenes center on Dianne Davidson, an extraordinary singer/songwriter who landed a publishing deal at age 16 and toured with legends the likes of Linda Ronstadt and the Moody Blues. But when she dared to pen her first lesbian love song, she found that her career was over at the mere age of 21. Among the lovely songs we get to hear in full during the second half of Parsell’s film, none are quite as indelible as the one Davidson performs with Ronstadt at the retired Grammy-winner’s home. Now that Parkinson’s has robbed Ronstadt of her singing voice, she likes to invite friends over to sing for her, and when Davidson delivers her splendid rendition of “Sixty-Minute Man,” Ronstadt spontaneously joins her for a duet, proving she can still harmonize, albeit at a lower volume. Rather than resign herself to a life in the shadows, Davidson is the proud mother of an adopted son from Kazakhstan and has decided to record a new album so that she can sing for those who, like Ronstadt, no longer can. “Invisible” is full of bittersweet stories like these, and it ranks alongside Morgan Neville’s “20 Feet from Stardom” as well as Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s “Shut Up & Sing” in its insightful tribute to unsung artistry and rousing courage. 

“Invisible” screens at 7pm on Tuesday, October 5th, at Marathon Music Works, 1402 Clinton St., and is available to stream from 10am on Thursday, September 30th, to 11:59am on Wednesday, October 6th.

Photo Credit: Jas Shelton - Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Sometimes all it takes is a single song to birth a film in the imagination of its creator. Aimee Mann’s haunting rock number “Deathly” famously inspired Paul Thomas Anderson’s audacious screen epic “Magnolia,” so much so that a slightly altered version of its opening line found its way into the mouth of the film’s heroine, played unforgettably by Melora Walters. Now Walters is among the fabulous supporting cast in Justin Corsbie’s thoroughly entertaining narrative feature debut, “Hard Luck Love Song,” which is directly inspired by Todd Snider’s song, “Just Like Old Times.” We see Snider performing his endearing tune over the end credits, and it does indeed hit many of the plot points in Corsbie’s picture as it tracks the misadventures of an ingratiating hustler, Jesse (played in the film by Michael Dorman). One of the best scenes in the movie is spawned from a verse that draws laughter from the crowd, where Jesse manages to sweet talk his way out of trouble when confronted by a cop (Brian Sacca). The self-destructive nature of Jesse’s character, riding high on his lucky streak, has us perpetually perched on the edge of our seats, waiting for the other shoe to drop. When it finally does, the film succumbs to silliness and opts for escapism, despite the fact that its strongest moments suggest a more challenging third act for its protagonist. Yet there is no denying the film’s appeal as a star showcase for Dorman, who is a lot of fun to watch as he gives free hugs as a way of sharing his gratitude, while gliding through life like a tumblin’ tumbleweed. “Thought I’d catch you before you blew away again,” his old flame says, waiting outside his room at the Tumble Inn. 

“Hard Luck Love Song” is available to stream from 10am on Thursday, September 30th, to 11:59pm on Wednesday, October 6th.

The opening shot of “Porcupine” finds its main character, Audrey (the ever-sublime Jena Malone), bent over and apparently crying before she thrusts her head back to reveal she’s actually laughing. It’s a fitting way for M. Cahill’s second feature as writer/director, following 2007’s “King of California,” to begin as it proceeds to continue playing with our expectations. With her hair dyed blonde, Malone exudes an effervescent charm evocative of “You’ve Got Mail”-era Meg Ryan, as Audrey remains steadfast in her desire to be a fixer, even with her job, boyfriend and apartment all spiraling out of her grasp. Her addiction to cute animal videos on her phone has us assuming that she’ll eventually be adopting an adult dog. Instead, she puts herself up for adoption—despite the fact her parents are still alive, though emotionally distant—leading to a hilarious montage of awkward parental dates. Eventually, she finds the ideal father figure in Otto (Robert Hunger-Bühler), whose initial thorniness causes him to resemble the human equivalent of the film’s titular animal. He is downright snobbish about his knowledge as an aeronautical engineer, but as he and Audrey grow closer, he develops true paternal feelings for her, to the point where his own children start to feel left out. Otto reminded me of the longtime building manager at my Chicago apartment who immigrated from Europe, isn’t prone to small talk and has a rare devotion to his tenants. I even enjoyed how Cahill decides to end the film by simply cutting to black rather than needlessly tying up the remaining loose ends, much like how my building manager promptly leaves the room after his work is finished.

“Porcupine” is available to stream from 10am on Thursday, September 30th, to 11:59pm on Wednesday, October 6th.

It’s no surprise that Brandon Kramer’s riveting documentary, “The First Step,” has the top-drawer quality of Kartemquin, considering that it was made in association with the Windy City non-profit production company and a number of its giants—co-editor Leslie Simmer, along with editorial consultants Gordon Quinn and Steve James—offered their invaluable contributions in the cutting room. Kramer succeeds in humanizing all sides of the controversy swirling around CNN political contributor Van Jones as he works to bring people together from South Los Angeles and West Virginia to join him in his crusade to pass bipartisan criminal justice reform during President Trump’s term in office. Any endorsement from a leader whose rhetoric is as offensive as Trump’s can spell the kiss of death on any legislation, however well-intentioned it may be, yet Jones sees a baby step in the right direction—resulting in 10,000 people being released early from federal prison—as being infinitely preferable to righteous inaction. Activist Louis L. Reed has a moment guaranteed to earn applause at festivals where he schools a naysayer, Lawrence Leiser, in how he managed to build a life for himself while in prison, despite the obstacles that the system stacked against him. Equally powerful are the scenes between the disparate groups Jones has joined together, one Black and one white, who connect through the shared tragedy of drug addiction and begin to learn more about one another’s experiences. This is an extremely illuminating look at how real change occurs in these divisive times, never shying away from the missteps made along the way.

“The First Step” screens at 10am on Saturday, October 2nd, at Rocketown, 601 4th Ave. S., and is available to stream from 10am on Thursday, September 30th to 11:59pm on Wednesday, October 6th. 

One of the most breathtaking feature debuts in recent memory is easily that of Costa Rican-Swedish writer/director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén, whose “Clara Sola” is a deeply provocative meditation on organic spirituality and the religious strictures designed to suppress it. The uniformly excellent cast of first-time actors is headed by dancer Wendy Chinchilla Araya as Clara, a 40-year-old woman who is believed to be the healer of her remote village. Her mother (Flor María Vargas Chavez) refuses a doctor’s urgent request to have her daughter’s spine straightened, insisting that her body should remain as God intended it, prompting Clara’s 14-year-old niece, María (a revelatory Ana Julia Porras Espinoza), to pointedly ask, “Then should I have kept any teeth crooked?” The superhuman virginal traits that Clara is required to have start to clash with the primal urges simmering within her and echoing throughout the surrounding forest. Her infatuation with Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón), the man in charge of looking after her Biblical white horse, builds to a climactic explosion that causes María to hold her aunt in an embrace reminiscent of Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Renaissance sculpture, the Pietà. Whereas Rose Glass’ own excellent debut feature, “Saint Maud,” juxtaposed the horrific acts of its unhinged heroine with her religious delusions, Mesén’s film finds palpable magic in Clara’s sexual and spiritual awakening, suggesting that miracles are possible when we reject the unearned shame espoused by archaic texts. There is such entrancing mystery to the film’s final moments that it is bound to leave viewers buzzing about its significance afterward. 

“Clara Sola” will screen at 2pm on Monday, October 4th, in the small theater at Belmont University, 1900 Belmont Blvd.

Like Emma Seligman’s masterful “Shiva Baby,” Stephen Karam’s screen adaptation of his Tony Award-winning play, “The Humans,” wrings a staggering amount of visceral tension and suspense out of what appears to be, on the surface, a simple family gathering. Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) welcomes her family on Thanksgiving to the new Chinatown apartment she shares with her boyfriend, Richard (Steven Yeun), which is lensed in widescreen cinematography by Lol Crawley that heightens one’s paranoia of encroaching decay. The fear of floodwaters voiced by her father, Erik (Richard Jenkins), hits home especially hard in light of the historic flood New York City endured earlier this month. Crawley finds inventive ways of making characters appear isolated even when surrounded by family, such as Brigid’s ailing sister, Aimee, played in a marvelous dramatic performance by Amy Schumer. Though she brings her trademark drollness to certain laugh-out-loud lines, she is equally engaging in serious moments, particularly the painful call she privately has with her ex. We can’t hear the ex’s voice, but we know precisely what is being said on the other line purely by observing Schumer’s deflated body language. The sole holdover from Karam’s original stage production, Jayne Houdyshell, is wrenchingly effective as Jenkins’ wife harboring grief, and the near-catatonic grandma played by June Squibb provides the film with its achingly emotional highpoint, as her family reads a meaningful letter she wrote just prior to her losing a hold on her own identity. Karam’s film deserves to be a major contender during this year’s awards season, and there’s no question it will be an impeccable closing night selection for the Nashville Film Festival, since it’s the sort of small-scale character study that is best seen on the biggest screen possible.

“The Humans” screens at 6:30pm on Wednesday, October 6th, at the Belcourt Theatre, 2012 Belcourt Ave.

To purchase tickets and view the full festival schedule, click here.

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the Literary Editor at and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Code 8 Part II
God Save Texas
Article 20


comments powered by Disqus