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Norman Lear Meets J.D. Salinger: What To See At The Woods Hole Film Fest This Year

Oscar-winner and South Shore resident Chris Cooper plays J.D. Salinger in "Coming Through the Rye." (Courtesy)
Oscar-winner and South Shore resident Chris Cooper plays J.D. Salinger in "Coming Through the Rye." (Courtesy)
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The Woods Hole Film Festival kicks off its 25th anniversary season not a moment too soon. In one of the worst summer movie seasons in recent memory, this eight-day festival (Saturday, July 30, to Saturday, Aug. 6) on Cape Cod has come to the rescue, bigger and better than ever.

Over 130 films will be shown representing more than 30 countries, with more than a third made by women, and as always supporting emerging and independent filmmakers from New England. And to celebrate its silver anniversary, they’ve also upgraded the screening capability at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s (WHOI) Redfield Auditorium with the latest projection equipment, a brand new screen and surround sound.

Opening night will feature the moving documentary "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You," made by filmmaker-in-residence Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing in between its theatrical release and its appearance this fall on PBS. It’s a poignant, penetrating look at the brilliant 93-year-old who changed the landscape of TV mid-20th century by daring to take on the divisive issues of the day in a comedic format with "All in the Family," and later "The Jeffersons" and "Maude."

The film interweaves a wealth of material including revealing rehearsal footage and vintage talk shows; family photographs and re-enactments from Lear’s childhood; interviews with stars Carroll O’Connor, Rob Reiner, Esther Rolle, as well as commentary by George Clooney, Amy Poehler, Bill Moyers and Jon Stewart. The film explores Lear’s evolution from a smart kid in a broken home with painful recollections of his father, to a groundbreaking writer/producer who landed on the top of the heap in Hollywood, and also on Nixon’s enemies list, and ultimately embraced his role as a deeply empathic activist who understands that we’re all just other versions of each other.

The festival welcomes back many alums including Oscar-winner and South Shore resident Chris Cooper who plays J.D. Salinger in "Coming Through the Rye" by director James Sadwith about a 16-year-old student (Alex Wolff who will also star as Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the upcoming "Patriots Day") who sets out for New Hampshire in search of the author. Cooper will participate in a Q&A after the screening.

Alex Wolff in "Coming Through the Rye." (Courtesy)
Alex Wolff in "Coming Through the Rye." (Courtesy)

Also returning to the festival is Boston-area resident Amy Geller in her directorial debut with Allie Humenuk and their documentary "The Guys Next Door," about a mother of three from Newton, who became a surrogate and gave birth to two children for her friends, a gay couple living in Maine.

Other Boston area films include "The Peacemaker," a documentary by James Demo who wandered into Cambridge's legendary bar The Plough and Stars and discovered that its owner Padraig O’Malley — businessman, professor and recovering alcoholic — had evolved a template for conflict resolution learned while in recovery from his own addiction, and who then became instrumental in resolving international conflicts from Northern Ireland to Iraq. "Paper Lanterns" by Barry Frechette took him to Lowell and Harrodsburg, Kentucky, to document a Hiroshima bombing survivor’s commitment to telling the story of not only the Japanese victims, but also that of two U.S. airmen who died there in the bombing.

Also set in New England and not to be missed is one of the most unusual, funny, disturbing and subtly-observed buddy movies I’ve ever seen called "Donald Cried," about two high school friends (Jesse Wakeman and Kris Avedisian) who re-connect as adults in their hometown and end up mucking around in their cringe-inducing past. Rhode Island filmmaker Avedisian who wrote the screenplay, here directs himself in an Oscar-worthy performance as the grotesquely vulnerable, wildly original screw-up Donald, a character so off-putting I could barely watch, but also could not look away.

Reflecting the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 25-year-old film festival is featuring a large number of movies about breaking down barriers involving characters with disabilities including "Off the Rails." Adam Irving's debut documentary (slated to become a feature starring Julia Roberts) is about an autistic man whose obsession with mass transit lead him to be arrested for continually impersonating NYC subway and bus drivers and navigating their routes. Rebbie Ratner’s "Borderline" documents a woman with borderline personality disorder who first attempted suicide at age 5, and how 40 years later she continues to fight for recovery.

The festival, co-sponsored by WBUR, will also highlight movies about war and peace, the sea, music, the environment, and filmmakers from Maine, Cape Cod and the Islands. Five venues will host the screenings and the 10th Annual Kids Day, featuring the Oscar-nominated hand-drawn animated film "Song of the Sea." Master classes, workshops, panel discussions, live music and nightly parties cap off a celebration marking a quarter century of the film festival on the Cape.

Related:

Joyce Kulhawik Twitter Contributor, The ARTery
Joyce Kulhawik, best known as the Emmy Award-winning arts and entertainment critic for CBS-Boston, is the president of the Boston Theater Critics Association.

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