It finally feels like springtime again with the return of the Independent Film Festival Boston. Canceled in 2020 and banished to virtual screens in 2021, the area’s annual feast for cinephiles returns at last in person, starting this Wednesday, April 27, and running through Wednesday, May 4. Once again offering eight days of eclectic selections at beloved indie arthouses the Somerville Theatre, the Brattle Theatre and the Coolidge Corner Theatre, this year’s festival is also screening for the first time at WBUR’s CitySpace (technically the only IFFBoston venue actually located in Boston). After testing the waters with last October’s 11-film Fall Focus at the Brattle, program director Nancy Campbell and executive director Brian Tamm have come roaring back with a vengeance, bringing 36 features and 45 shorts they’ve collected from far and wide.
Quite a few film festivals, such as Wicked Queer earlier in April, have opted to continue with a hybrid model of theatrical and virtual screenings, citing the opportunity to geographically expand their reach. But Tamm — who I know for a fact hates watching movies at home — can’t wait to get back to connecting with local, in-person audiences. “We had to do it,” he says of IFFBoston’s virtual incarnation, “but it felt like running a film festival from inside a well. Like there was a festival going on somewhere else while we were at our desks doing tech support. For us and for our filmmakers, it felt really disconnected.”
After all, it’s impossible to tell how your movie is going over when everyone’s watching it at home. On the other hand, “when you’re standing backstage at Somerville One and something happens on screen that makes the whole audience gasp or scream, that’s a really thrilling moment for a filmmaker,” Tamm enthuses. “It’s a really cool thing that you lose virtually. One of the things IFFBoston is known for among filmmakers is that we have really good audiences. Bringing them back is what I’m most excited about.”
So it makes sense that the festival kicks off with one heck of an audience picture. Writer-director John Patton Ford’s “Emily the Criminal” was my favorite movie I saw at Sundance this year, a white-knuckle thriller starring Aubrey Plaza as a gig worker drowning in student debt who finds a promising new career in credit card fraud. Ford’s film has a lot to say about economic inequality and labor exploitation practices, but it uses politics as the engine for a gripping crime drama instead of an opportunity for lectures. It’s no surprise Campbell was so adamant about booking the film for opening night, as this is an exceptional, escapist entertainment that’s also sharply engaged with the realities of contemporary life.
The rest of the festival offers such a wide-ranging array of films that if you can’t find something to your tastes you’re probably not looking hard enough. “It’s a buffet,” Campbell explains. “We like this stuff. Maybe you want to try it?” There are documentaries profiling everyone from Putin’s nemesis Alexei Navalny to heavy metal icon Ronnie James Dio. You can pick and choose from films about Newton South High School’s debate team, a man who made millions illegally smuggling Pez dispensers, or the story of two volcano scientists in love.
The most eye-opening of the docs for this critic was “The Janes,” which chronicles a crew of Chicago women in the early 1970s who operated a clandestine network providing safe and affordable, illegal abortions. “It’s a bonkers story,” says Tamm, one that’s only grown more scarily relevant since we saw it at Sundance back in January, “now that several states have lost their f---ing minds.” (WBUR’s Deborah Becker will be moderating a conversation with directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes after the screening at CitySpace.)
The giants of international film are well-represented in this year’s lineup, with world cinema weirdo Peter Strickland’s “Flux Gourmet” promising gastrointestinal distress in one of the Brattle’s late evening slots. There’s also a new film from the legendary Zhang Yimou, whose “One Second” finds a movie fan falling in love with a vagabond amid Mao’s Cultural Revolution. But personally, I’m most excited for director Claire Denis’ “Both Sides of the Blade,” which finds the 76-year-old provocateur teaming once again with Juliette Binoche for another unusual love triangle. “We’ve had Claire Denis at our screening series before,” Campbell notes. “We’re always excited to see what she does, especially in collaboration with Juliette Binoche. I think they’re really doing interesting work together. They present a vision of flawed womanhood and the female spirit which is nuanced and very French. Definitely something some people aren’t comfortable with,” she laughs.
(I believe Campbell’s referring to the now-notorious Q&A after IFFBoston’s Brattle Theatre screening of Denis’ intensely sexual, sci-fi head-scratcher “High Life,” at which the director was asked about why she didn’t present more positive female role models in her films. “What the f–-?” Denis famously answered. “I’m not a social worker.”)
In far more crowd-pleasing fashion there's Cooper Raiff’s “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” in which the writer-director stars as a directionless bar mitzvah disc jockey fresh out of college, falling for an older woman played by Dakota Johnson. It’s the kind of movie you try mightily to resist (my gawd, that title!) but end up falling for anyway. The great Emma Thompson gives one of her warmest and funniest performances in “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” starring as a buttoned-up widow who hires a hunky young sex worker to help her sow some extremely belated, wild oats. She’s a scream, but also surprisingly touching as the kind of woman who brings a to-do list to a hotel room with a gigolo.
Closer to home, the Local Cinema Spotlight is on Yarmouth native Peter Horgan’s “How to Rob.” On the surface, it’s a familiar story of two stick-up guys from Quincy who knock over the wrong North End bookie, but beneath the Boston crime movie cliches is a surprising lyricism, building to an unexpectedly emotional conclusion. The festival closes with Milton’s own Jenny Slate voicing “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” a feature-length expansion of her popular stop-motion shorts about a googly-eyed seashell searching for his family.
This wild and diverse range of offerings has Tamm optimistic about audiences returning to IFFBoston this year. “I think people are sick of watching movies on TV,” he explains. “Whatever’s streaming, it’s not differentiated. It all just becomes ‘content.’ I think people are looking for what Nancy brings to the table, which is curating things she thinks are worth watching that might surprise you, instead of just an algorithm that gives you more of the same.”
This year's Independent Film Festival Boston runs from Wednesday, April 27 through Wednesday, May 4.