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Shine and Thunder rise at Montana Film Fest

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The second annual Montana Film Festival showcases several narrative gems, including Always Shine. The feature begins with an epigraph that may be a tad misleading: "It is a woman's birthright to be attractive and charming. In a sense, it is her duty... She is the bowl of flowers on the table of life." The quote comes from a book about poise, personality and beauty, written predictably by a man. After that we see the introduction of our two main characters, a struggling actor with a fiery temper named Anna (Mackenzie Davis) and her timid, more successful friend Beth (Caitlin Fitzgerald). We see Beth in a close-up doing screen tests for a movie in which a couple of men are telling her all about the extensive nudity the role requires while they call her beautiful and sweet. You will throw up. Then we see Anna losing her temper with a mechanic who's overcharged her. The mechanic tells her she should "be more ladylike." At this point, I'm worried: Is the whole movie going to be a heavy-handed lesson in feminism, where the men are unequivocally awful and the women are victims?

But then the two friends head to an isolated home in Big Sur for a weekend of soul searching, and thankfully, the film (based on a script by Lawrence Michael Levine) takes a series of strange and satisfying turns. I wonder if director Sophia Takal is deliberately messing with us. The women are unlikeable in different ways, but not without redemption. Always Shine chronicles them in a superficial industry controlled by men, but at its core, the film is a lot more about the women's complicated relationship with each other. They're jealous, and they don't know themselves—it's a dangerous combination that can't help but culminate in violence.

This is a David Lynch-inspired distortion of reality. By the end, nothing is certain, especially not the moral agenda I thought we were being fed at the start. Always Shine makes for an absorbing, entertaining and surprisingly deep cinematic experience.

Least favorite camping experience.
  • Least favorite camping experience.

In the short film Thunder Road, also screening at the festival, a young police officer gives the eulogy at his mother's funeral. More than brilliant, it's unlike any short film I've ever seen. Jim Cummings directs and stars as Officer Arnaud, who goes through all the feelings of grief in front of a subdued, likely scandalized audience. The film, which won this year's short film grand jury prize at Sundance, is shot by cinematographer Drew Daniels in a single 12-minute take. It begins with a woman speaking familiar, trite words into a microphone with that characteristic reverb so common in church services.

The real show begins when Officer Arnaud takes the stage with a pink boom box in hand to deliver his rambling speech. His mother was a saint and he was an ungrateful son. He stutters, says inappropriate things and cries. He threatens to perform Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" for the crowd (his mother's favorite) and then, God help us, he does.

It's an exciting film first of all because Cumming's performance transcends space and time with its veracity. He's at once funny and heartbreaking, made all the more impressive because we know he did it in a single take.

Secondly, I can't get over his police uniform. Thunder Road comes to me at a pivotal time. In the wake of so many high-profile instances of police violence, I find it harder and harder to accept a police officer's humanity. But we were all babies in our mother's arms once—even mean cops who are drunk with power and shoot from the hip. Officer Arnaud, his pink boom box and his plainly human grief serve as a healthy reminder of that inescapable fact.

Always Shine screens at the Roxy as part of the Montana Film Festival Sat., Oct. 8, at 6 PM and Sun., Oct. 9, at 4:30 PM. Thunder Road screens Sat., Oct. 8, at 8:15 PM, along with other shorts.

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