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A Dispatch from Canada’s Whistler Film Festival

Whistler Film Festival

For nineteen years, the Whistler Film Festival has been a mountainside home for some of the best award-winning and independent cinema in the world. What started off as a small gathering has evolved in size, shifting from a place where the massive Vancouver film community would annually attend splashy parties and revel in sponsored swag rooms and habitually take over some of the village’s fanciest restaurants to something smaller in scale. With shifting economic realities and a shifting community, the current iteration is far more intimate, with a strong contingent of exceptional filmmakers refocusing the festival on the films themselves.

Under the leadership of founder/executive director Shauna Hardy Mishaw, the event is a hybrid which showcases films from around the world while also hosting industry events, including days of seminars about everything from use of music in film to power pitching and screenwriter labs. It’s these industry events that encourage much of the talent to attend, making it feel even more like a kind of summit at the base of the mountain for the independent film community. 

Under Paul Gratton’s leadership, himself with decades of experience in film and broadcasting, the selection is often as iconoclastic and well-spirited as the affable director of film programming. His tastes are polyglot, but he often is drawn to films that have both an emotional and artistic hook, speaking to the varied local audiences in and around the venues but never afraid to challenge expectations when required.

The opening film this year was Lost Transmissions, the Tribeca-premiering film about mental illness directed by Katherine O’Brien and starring Juno Temple as a young artist struggling with mental illness who comes into contact with a local producer (Simon Pegg) whose own challenges soon overwhelm the calm the two initially find in each other. Pegg’s performance is the most exceptional part of the film, with his take on a character battling schizophrenia accomplished with a deft naturalism that speaks to his caliber as an actor. Pegg attended the festival (look for our interview soon here on /Film), and he brings the same intelligence and nuance to his conversations as he does to his roles on screen.

The other major celebrity attendees were Joe Pantoliano, here in Sean Cisterna’s From the Vine about an auto executive who runs away to Italy to find himself in the wine business, and Chelsea Peretti in Spinster, Andrea Dorfman’s maritime-set tale of an acerbic yet well-meaning woman who is coming to terms about whether she can find happiness without the need of a partner or child. 

Gratton has a good relationship with Netflix, and he presented The Irishman on the big screen to sold out audiences despite the fact that the film was already available for home viewing. This remarkable film continues to captivate audiences, and even if some were not keen on the running time, the true cinephiles experienced one of the great films of this (or any) year in proper presentation.

Numerous films which had garnered attention at other festivals made their Western debut, including Sophie Deraspe’s Antigone. A twist on the classic Greek tale of family tragedy, this story of an immigrant family in modern day Quebec has a scorching lead role performed by Nahéma Ricci, in a film that delves in to contemporary concerns of criminal justice as well as timeless issues about brothers and sisters, the lack of reciprocity when helping out siblings, and how the fiery passions of youth are doused when crushing reality comes to bear. Antigone won Best Canadian film at TIFF, was selected for Canada’s Oscar pick, and dominated the jury prizes at Whistler, including taking home the prestigious Borsos Award.

That award is named after Australian/Canadian director Philip Borsos, who shot his films in the Pacific Northwest, and this year they screened a beautifully restored version of his Golden Globe-nominated debut The Grey Fox. Kino Lorber did an exceptional job resuscitating the film that has been languishing for years, the out-of-print DVD looking like someone haphazardly captured a 16mm from their phone. The movie is a lovely take on the Western myth, involving the true story of Bill Miner, a stagecoach robber (played with a gleam in his eye by Richard Farnsworth) who finds the transition from prison life to normalcy to be a difficult one and sets his sights on robbing trains. Historically and thematically, the 1982 film fits beautifully between McCabe and Mrs. Miller (also shot near Whistler a decade before), and the early-’90s Unforgiven, each of them in their own ways stories about characters coming to term with changing times. There are even echoes to the likes of The Irishman, and the newly-refreshed film is ripe for reconsideration. 

Director Jeremy Lelonde and his co-writer/star Jonas Chernick, veterans of Whistler’s slate, returned with their quirky and effective time-travel film James vs His Future Self. Winner of several awards at the genre festival Toronto After Dark, the film is an intelligent and well-drawn character piece, with an engaging lead performance that dances comfortably between the cerebral and the silly. With co-stars Daniel Stern and Frances Conroy bringing additional star power, along with engaging takes by Cleopatra Coleman and Tommie-Amber Pirie, it’s a terrific slice of temporally-convoluted fun, twisting expectations with the end result being a rom-com unafraid to revel in quantum theory.

More than a dozen films saw their world premieres at Whistler, including Warren P. Sonoda’s musical/gangster film Things I Do for Money. Sonoda, a prolific filmmaker perhaps best known as one of the directors on the internationally celebrated mockumentary series Trailer Park Boys, casts Theodor and Maximillian Aoki as twin cellists who stumble upon a criminal conspiracy, the film brings in heist elements, gritty street drama from the steel town of Hamilton, Ontario, and a cast of sometimes surreal local gangsters, hitmen, and bingo players that all create a symphony of mayhem. It’s an ambitious film unafraid to mash up different tonalities, and with its impactful score produced by the film’s stars, a mix of first time and professional actors, and a colourful palate, there’s a great deal to appreciate about the work.

There were two cannabis-themed dramas, Geordie Sabbagh’s giggly Canadian Strain and Craig Pryce’s paranoid period piece The Marijuana Conspiracy, and both were well situated within the B.C. setting. Locran Finnegan’s Vivarium continued on its festival run, as did the high flying (and quite silly film) The Aeronauts. Sergio Navarretta screened the world premiere of his dementia drama The Cuban, starring Oscar winner (and recent Watchmen star) Louis Gossett Jr.

Finally, there’s The Rest of UsAisling Chin-yee’s brisk drama about family starring Heather Graham as the mother of a daughter (Sophie Nélisse) who become entwined in the life of her ex-husband’s new wife (Jody Balfour) after he dies. The characters shift from various degrees of selfishness and unsympathetic behaviour to eventually find ways of getting outside their own heads, resulting in a warm examination of how families are built rather than born.

At its heart, Whistler is about the same kind of family building, where disparate talents from around the world come together in a sense of camaraderie: talents driven to tell stories often outside of the mainstream, but ones that connect with receptive audiences. At its best, the festival is an incubator for ideas, with a contagious sense that these stories are ones that not only can be made, but appreciated. Festivals have never been more important to foster this kind of engagement, and thanks to savvy programing by Gratton and a welcoming environment in a beautiful part of the world (along with the draw of Pure Bread, a local bakery I’m particularly evangelical about), the Whistler Film Festival remains an intimate yet impactful stop on the festival calendar.

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