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IFFB: Nathan Silver's Films Have A Messy Playbook All Their Own

This year’s Independent Film Festival Boston, which begins Wednesday, proves that storytelling by talented independent filmmakers is alive and well.

Director Nathan Silver has two feature films screening in the IFFB, "Exit Elena" and "Soft in the Head." Taken together they are proof of a highly original talent who clearly relishes emotional messiness and challenging viewers with troublesome characters.

A low-budget, low-key work with a nonprofessional cast, “Exit Elena” (12:30 p.m. April 27 at the Somerville Theatre) is an astute exploration of family dynamics that made me laugh even while shaking my head in dismay. Elena, a newly licensed live-in nurse, arrives at the Akerman home, only to learn that Cindy Akerman has not told her husband she hired someone to care for his elderly mother, Florence. Caring for Florence proves easy. It’s needy, nosy, intrusive Cindy who is the handful.

Somehow Elena, a gentle young woman with the air of a stray kitty about her, manages to settle in and Cindy manages to settle down. Then son Nathan appears, throwing the fragile equilibrium out of whack. Like so many families, this one may be a tad dysfunctional, but that doesn’t mean it’s not functioning.

My initial reaction to the Akerman household was to turn and run out their front door, but I, too, settled down and began to feel real affection for this frightfully ordinary, utterly unique family that could very well live next door to me. In fact, they almost do. The film was shot in nearby Arlington where Nathan Silver grew up. His mother, Cindy, who lives in Lexington, plays Cindy Akerman; Nathan Silver plays son Nathan; and various neighbors put in appearances. Also from Arlington is cameraman David Dahlbom, Silver’s best friend.

Silver and cowriter Kia Davis, who is affecting as Elena, came up with an initial outline and the cast, after many hours of rehearsal, improvised the dialogue. The process paid off handsomely. The dialogue is tight and so is the film. This was the modus operandi on Silver’s next film, “Soft in the Head” (7 p.m. April 26, at the Brattle Theatre.)

Set in New York City, it begins with an extreme close up of Natalia. Drunk, wearing a blonde wig, she’s slapped around by her boyfriend. She’s one hot mess. The same night she crashes the Shabbat dinner of her good friend, Hannah, and is unceremoniously evicted from this traditional Jewish household, but not before making a big impression on Hannah’s brother, Nathan, who seems to have some sort of disability that goes unmentioned.

Homeless, Natalia is taken in by Maury, a selfless Christian who shelters several homeless men in his small apartment. (Silver based the character of Maury on Prince Myshkin from Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot.”) Natalia careens back and forth between these two households and considers going back to her abusive boyfriend.

This film’s Nathan is played by Carl Kranz, not by Nathan Silver, although his mother does make an appearance as a kvetchy restaurant patron who complains about the table being unstable. Taking the table as a metaphor for family, it’s fair to say that in this film all the tables and many of the people sitting around them are unstable.

“Exit Elena” is the stronger film. “Soft in the Head” doesn’t fully cohere. The parallels between the two households seem forced, as do the scenes in the Jewish household. Not so the scenes in Maury’s apartment. Dynamic, charged, and powerfully acted, they call to mind the work of John Cassavetes. Sheila Etxeberriá is memorable as Natalia, as are actors Ed Ryan as Maury and Theodore Bouloukos as David, one of Maury’s emotionally disturbed and volatile charges.

“This Is Martin Bonner” (12:15 p.m., April 27, Somerville Theatre), written and directed by Chad Hartigan is a meticulously crafted film. Like its eponymous protagonist, it comports itself calmly and with dignity, grappling with serious issues while keeping most of the messiness off screen. Paul Eenhoorn is convincing and appealing as Martin, an Australian in his late 50s who has landed in Reno, Nevada, where he works for a Christian organization that mentors prisoners. Martin’s talk of developing and testing moral filters may fail to impress the convict he interviews in the opening scene, but these filters will prove critical for Martin.

The film has a strong sense of place, or, to be more precise, a strong sense of no place: Prisons, highways, motels, and gas stations comprise the landscape. The interior — anonymous motel rooms and apartments with white walls and unpacked boxes — are equally void of context and content.

Martin slowly develops a relationship with ex-prisoner Travis Holloway (Richard Arquette) and bits of their stories begin to emerge. How will these two characters reconnect with others, regain their senses of self, and rebuild their lives?

Does “This is Martin Bonner” sound bleak? Believe me, it’s anything but.

IFFB: The show goes on.

Erin Trahan reviews this year's shorts programs.

This program aired on April 22, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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