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The Red Carpets of the 2024 Chicago Critics Film Festival

What makes the Chicago Critics Film Festival so special (besides the fact that it’s the only festival curated by critics) is that it truly is a love letter to Chicagoan cinephiles. 

This year’s festival featured its strongest line-up to date, where over two dozen films had their Chicago premieres at the historic Music Box Theatre. The festival always brings out a stellar array of guests, and this year over a dozen came out to discuss their films. 

On the red carpet, RogerEbert.com spoke with the talent in attendance for opening-night title “Sing Sing”—co-writer/director Greg Kwedar, star/co-writer Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin, and stars Paul Raci and Sean “Dino” Johnson—as well as festival selections “Babes,” which brought director Pamela Adlon to the Music Box, and “Dandelion,” for which lead actress and executive-producer KiKi Layne walked the red carpet. Finally, for the closing-night Chicago premiere of locally filmed “Ghostlight,” writing-directing duo Alex Thompson and Kelly O’Sullivan were joined on the red carpet by stars Keith Kupferer, Tara Mallen, and Katherine Mallen Kupferer,  a real-life family of Chicago actors who portray one in the film.

The following interview quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity. 

“Sing Sing” was the opening night film for the Chicago Critics Film Festival. Led by Colman Domingo, the feature follows a group of men, all incarcerated at the Sing Sing correctional facility in New York, who find healing and purpose through forming a theater troupe. 

On Friday, May 3, Director Greg Kwedar and stars Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin, Paul Raci, and Sean “Dino” Johnson walked the red carpet for the film, a rousing drama inspired by the real-life Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) theater program and that features buzzy standout performances from Maclin and Johnson, both actors who were formerly incarcerated at Sing Sing. 

Maclin and Johnson play fictionalized versions of themselves in the film, which required them to resurface painful memories. “It was a little traumatic going back into that perspective of my life,” Johnson told RogerEbert;com

For Maclin, the physical sensations of filming in a prison were especially challenging. “In one of the scenes where I’m in a cell by myself, the cell we were filming in was right underneath the cell I was actually in,” he explained. However, both actors agreed that “Sing Sing,” with its themes of hope and resilience, was an important story to tell. 

“The good outweighs the bad,” Johnson shared. “The process of RTA has been Sing Sing’s best-kept secret for years. To be able to let people know what’s going on there and the progress being made outweighed the discomfort I felt.” 

Added Maclin: “The overall message that we wanted to deliver to the world outweighed the apprehension. We had to get this out. We had to get it out to the people, because we want them to see that we are more than just prisoners.” 

For Kwedar, finding humanity in places that attempt to suppress it has been a key feature of his filmography. With “Sing Sing,” he wanted to dive even deeper. He noted that his film and CCFF selection  “Ghostlight” both focus on art’s role to instigate healing. 

“I’m a fan of [“Ghostlight”] and how those two works fit together in a constellation,” he told RogerEbert.com. “I think what both cumulatively say is that art can emerge in the most unlikely places. Even in places that can’t support it, it can still blossom.” 

This emphasis on hope and resilience is also what prompted him to shoot the film with more warmth than what would normally be expected of a prison film. “The canon of prison films that have preceded ours has largely built most of our expectations of what prison is. Having actually gone inside a prison and particularly witnessed the beauty of the RTA program, I was far more interested in drawing closer to that than trying to perpetuate a lot of the gratuitous violence that has often been shown.”

Paul Raci, an Oscar-nominated actor for “Sound of Metal” who lived in Chicago for many years as a sign-language interpreter in the criminal justice system, told RogerEbert.com that “Sing Sing” hit close to home. Raci plays Brent Buell, a playwright and theater director who volunteered with the RTA program at Sing Sing for more than 10 years; Raci, alongside Colman Domingo, is one of the few SAG actors in a cast filled predominantly with people who were formerly incarcerated. 

Yet for Raci, he shared that the set of Sing Sing was a gift because everyone came to learn from each other. “There was no ‘I'm above you,’ and it was an even field,” Raci told Roger Ebert. “These guys [referring to Maclin and Johnson] are real actors, and Colman and I were in their turf as we filmed in a prison. We weren’t on a Hollywood movie set. For me, I was just honored to be there and witness Clarence and Sean’s process. They gave me as much as I could ask from any actor I've ever worked with.” 

Maclin affirmed that learning was a two-way street on set; while he had a lot of experience acting through being a part of RTA’s plays, performing for a film was a different experience altogether. “In theater you have to project big, because you want the guy in the seat in the far back to hear every enunciation,” Maclin shared. “For film, you bring it down. I didn’t have to be so loud.” 

Emmy-winning actress, writer, and director Pamela Adlon (“Better Things”) brought her feature debut “Babes” to the festival on Saturday, introducing the Chicago premiere and participating in a lively post-film Q&A for her heartfelt buddy comedy, about two childhood best friends (Ilana Glazer and Michelle Buteau) whose bond is tested when one decides to have a baby on her own following a one-night stand. 

On the red carpet outside the Music Box Theatre, Adlon—whose acclaimed FX series “Better Things,” which followed a single mother raising three daughters in Los Angeles, frequently drew inspiration from her own life—reflected on working with Glazer and Jon Rabinowitz, who co-wrote “Babes,” while ensuring her own voice as a filmmaker shone through on the screen.

“Naturally, I think I bring all of the things that have made me, up to this day, into everything I do,” Adlon told RogerEbert.com. On “Babes,” though, she was less concerned with making the script personal to her own experiences of motherhood than with putting her protective instincts to use on set. “As the shepherd and director of the whole piece, it’s my responsibility to protect it: to protect the characters, the relationships, the story, and the comedy.”

While directing “Babes,” Adlon studied each scene carefully while leaving room for spontaneity. “What I like to do is organically see the world around me, and see the people that are part of the scene, including background actors, and make sure it all becomes part of the piece,” she said. “You just have to be open, not rigid—you have to be fluid.”

Though “Babes” is Adlon’s feature directorial debut, she’s well-established as a director on the small screen; after helming two episodes of the first season of “Better Things," Adlon went on to direct every episode of its remaining four seasons. Adlon’s still “excited” about what she achieved across “Better Things,” but the opportunity to “present this one, beautiful present to everybody” in the form of a feature film was one Adlon seized eagerly.

“It’s got all of the feelings, shifts, and earnings of many seasons of television, put into one film,” Adlon said. “So I feel energized by the whole aspect of that and hopeful that people will want to keep making films.” Before heading inside, Adlon added, “the fact that it’s in this theater is the cherry on top.”

On Monday, KiKi Layne walked the red carpet at the Music Box ahead of a screening of “Dandelion,” a musical drama written and directed by Nicole Riegel ("Holler"). 

Layne, who also executive-produced, stars as a struggling Cincinnati singer-songwriter who reluctantly takes a gig at a motorcycle rally in South Dakota, only to fall for a charismatic guitarist (Thomas Doherty) and embark on a journey toward discovering her own voice. 

Layne spent eight years in Chicago and got her start in the local theater scene while studying at The Theater School at DePaul University. Back in town for the “Dandelion” screening—as well as a day-before live gig at Reckless Records in Wicker Park, where she performed original songs from her upcoming EP and teased some of the music she performed in the film—had the sense of a “homecoming,” the actress told RogerEbert.com. 

“It’s at the root of everything I do,” Layne said. “I learned so much about who I am as an artist through the Chicago theater scene, and so I’ll always have so much love for the art scene here. I think it just gave me certain gifts—an understanding of craft, and a work ethic—that I carry with me wherever I go.”

For the actress, catapulted to fame in Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a background in theater was particularly helpful as she worked to hone her skills as a musician while playing one in “Dandelion” and actively pursuing a solo musical career. 

“In theater, each time, there’s always something that’s different; maybe a line came out weird, maybe you or your scene partner skipped half a page,” Layne said. “That can happen with music as well, and so it’s about giving myself permission not to be perfect.”

There was no better film to close the festival than “Ghostlight,” which also won the festival’s Audience Award after its sold-out Thursday, May 9 screening. Directed by local filmmakers Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson (“Saint Frances”), the film follows Dan (Keith Kupferer), a middle-aged construction worker who, grieving a family tragedy, pushes away his wife Sharon (Tara Mallen) and daughter Daisy (Katherine Mallen Kupferer). Dan finds unexpected comfort and solace in a local Chicago troupe, whose production of Romeo and Juliet forces him to confront his buried emotions.

O’Sullivan, Thompson, as well as Kupferer, Mallen, and Mallen Kupferer were in attendance for the film’s red carpet. It was the third sold-out screening of the festival and it was evident that it was a special night for many. Mallen explained that many of the film’s Chicago cast and crew had not seen the film, ahead of its local premiere at the Chicago Critics Film Festival. The energy at the Music Box was equal parts chaotic and tender, and there were many moments when the talent would pause their interview on the red carpet to greet a crew member or friend who was coming by to see the film. 

O’Sullivan and Thompson co-signed Kwedar’s observations about the ways “Sing Sing” and “Ghostlight” parallel one another. O’Sullivan thinks it all comes back to the power of timeless stories. Thompson added that both films speak to the desire to remix stories in a contemporary fashion. “Reinvention is something that we're all craving right now,” Thompson told RogerEbert.com. “Romeo and Juliet, the plays of “Sing Sing”… These stories are deeply complex, and I think both of our films are taking old themes and making them new again.” 

“Ghostlight” marked the first time O’Sullivan and Thompson, who are real-life partners as well as creative collaborators, have co-directed a feature. 

“You don’t really split the energy,” Thompson said, "You’re building on each other’s strengths.”

For her part, O’Sullivan said, “It’s nice to know that somebody always has your back. There's somebody you can always turn to and run ideas by. Even in the moments we had friction, it was nice because out of friction comes interrogation, and you realize you do have a strong perspective.” 

The film deals with many heavy themes such as dysfunctional families and teen suicide. It surprised the Kupferer-Mallen clan to find that many of the film’s most emotional moments came from unexpected places. “I watched the trailer and I’m a blubbering mess,” Mallen said, laughing. “And you’ve seen it three times,” Kupferer-Mallen interjected. 

Kupferer shared that, while he knew that some of his scenes were going to emotionally resonate with the audience, he was thankful for the ways O’Sullivan and Thompson’s blocking, lighting, and direction amplified his performance. 

“I knew some scenes were going to have an impact on me and the audience,” he said. “But even for those more obviously emotional sequences, Alex and Kelly were good at making sure I didn’t do too many takes. It was easier to hang on to the emotion of a scene because of that where repetition could have very easily made it dry.” 

As for capturing their family dynamic on-screen, certain scenes verged on documentary for the trio.  ‘The dinner table scene where we’re eating pizza … That was the scene where I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is our family,’” Kupferer-Mallen said, laughing alongside her parents.. 

For Mallen, it all comes down to the script. “A lot of the back and forth our characters have, even though it’s scripted, was so easy to do,” she shared. “It was a gift. The script fit on our family like a glove.” 

The 2024 Chicago Critics Film Festival was held May 3–9, at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. All photography credited to Brigid Presecky.

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