Sundance Round-up (Part 2): Viktoria, My Prairie Home, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Viktoria (Maya Vitkova, 2014)

Apparently based on the true story of how a baby born without a belly button in Bulgaria became the poster child for the country’s fading Communist regime, Viktoria  pulls off a narrative trick so odd and intriguing that it helps cover up just how ponderous the film can be. The first half focuses on the baby’s mother (Irmena Chichikova), who dreams of a life outside of Communist Bulgaria, but is held back first by her pregnancy, and then by the celebrity that her baby brings her. In this section you feel the mother’s frustration and desperation, and when the film flashes forward nine years to show how the attention from the government has turned her child into a spoiled brat (played as a 9-year-old by Daria Vitkova), it almost seems like the movie is turning into one of those demon-child movies where the parent is the only one who sees how awful their child is.

However, once the government starts collapsing, the film shifts its attention to Viktoria herself, showing how having her celebrity yanked away at the same time that her mother becomes completely resentful of her takes its toll on the poor girl. She changes from a self-centered child who would push down her crippled friend for her own amusement into a teenager kept in her apartment by her resentful mother (as a teen Viktoria is played by Kalina Vitkova). The mother could appear pure evil at this point (here the film turns and seems to become one of those evil-parent movies), but with the first section of the film to inform why she hates her child it manages to avoid that, and grow into something truly complex. Also, while the film is mostly done in a straightforward manner, it isn’t afraid to throw in some odd, sometimes funny moments of surrealism, like a slow-motion birthday party for Viktoria shortly before the fall, where she chases Bulgarian government officials around a yard like they’re little kids, while her mother watches in disdain. The film is probably longer than it needs to be by at least 20 minutes (the last act tries to add further layers involving Viktoria’s grandmother, but it doesn’t quite land), but these dynamics and flourishes are fascinating enough to make up for that.

My Prairie Home (Chelsea McMullan, 2013)

Though Queer Cinema has flourished over the last 20 years (on and off in the mainstream), the T part of the LGBT community rarely gets a thorough portrait in any sort of cinema. Rarer still is a glimpse at transgendered people who opt not to change their gender, but to be rid of it completely. My Prairie Home  is an intriguing portrait of one such member of the community, Canadian indie-folk singer Rae Spoon. The film is a mixture of interviews with Spoon themself (Spoon prefers to go by gender-neutral terms) about their music and troubling upbringing by a schizophrenic evangelical father, footage of Spoon’s touring (they find themself most comfortable on the road) and music videos of Spoon’s songs made for the film.

My Prairie Home  feels somewhat padded (it runs 77 minutes, just above the “official” feature-length threshold), but while not all of the material is immediately captivating, it does give a fascinating look into the kind of life almost never seen in mainstream film, as Spoon discusses how they came to realize their lack of gender, and how finding a community of like-minded people in the big city helped them to that path. The material on Spoon’s upbringing is particularly engaging, as there aren’t many films which focus directly on the often troubling consequences of being LGBT in an evangelical Christian environment. Spoon’s music is low-key but engaging, and it would be a pleasing outcome if this movie could break out and give them further exposure in America.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)

What is it that makes something “cool”? This question is especially worth considering in the realm of film, a medium that’s been helping define “cool” for decades, and tends to attract artists also striving for that quality. But being cool requires you to become something everyone wants to be, while still remaining distinctly yourself. OK, and maybe having good taste in ‘80s pop music. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night  (why don’t more movies try titles as long, mysterious and fitting as this?) is such a film, as director Ana Lily Amirpour knows exactly what she’s going for, something so familiar yet so distinct, so meandering yet so chill, that like the cool kid at school you’re more than willing to follow it down whatever crazy path it takes.

The film is set in the fictional small town of Bad City, Iran (it was actually shot in a rundown oil city in southern California, giving the film an added layer of weirdness), where the kind-hearted Arash (Arash Marandi) lives a simple life – working as a gardener, caring for his junkie father, taking in a stray cat. Life in this town seems pretty blah…outside of the bodies piling up in a ditch that no one seems to be noticing, which we learn is the result of a vampire stalking the town’s residents (played by effortlessly badass Sheila Vand). Sporadic events occur throughout, and a romance eventually blossoms (beginning with one of the funniest meet-cutes in recent memory), but for the most part the film has a very chill, laid-back atmosphere. The film threatens to be ponderous, yet it’s so slick and stylish that you’re more than willing to roll with it, especially when it produces images as weirdly awesome as the hijab-clad vampire rolling down a street on a skateboard at night, shot in black and white. Did I mention that the movie was in black and white? Seriously, it’s pretty cool.