You might expect the Portland Film Festival to be some kind of bonanza for locavore cinephiles. You'd be wrong. Festival director Josh Leake hopes his event, now in its second year, becomes Portland's Sundance, with independent films drawn from around the globe. In addition to the movies, including three free outdoor screenings, there's a heap of networking events, workshops and panels. But we were curious: What's Portland about the Portland Film Festival? Here's how three local offerings shake out.
One of two opening-night films (the other is Sex Ed), the documentary Glena confirms a few things: Obsessives make great subjects. Obsessive underdogs? Even better. But it's also proof that discarding context is risky. The woman at the center of Allan Luebke's feature directing debut is Glena Avila, a 37-year-old single mother from The Dalles who's doggedly chasing a career in mixed martial arts, at an age when other fighters think about retiring. We see how this pursuit has caused her personal relationships to crumble, and Luebke appropriately allows other characters to slide into the periphery. But when it comes to the broader landscape of women in MMA, the film falls short. To his credit, Luebke doesn't let Glena devolve into a schlocky tearjerker, and a scene where Avila must lose one pound in 20 minutes to make weight is genuinely stressful. The film, which premiered at Slamdance, has caught some big attention: Charlize Theron, Zoe Saldana and the Rock want to do a fictionalized version for Hollywood. Mission Theater: 7 pm Tuesday, Aug. 26. Clinton Street Theater: 2 pm Saturday, Aug. 30.
Another underdog story crops up in Residue Years, a portrait of Portland-born author Mitchell Jackson. Largely a companion piece to Jackson's autobiographical novel of the same name, the documentary charts how a poor black kid went from playing basketball at Irving Park and dealing crack on the streets of Northeast Portland—which landed him in prison for 16 months—to becoming a lauded professional writer. Jackson is a compelling subject with a self-deprecating way of describing himself, and his visits with childhood friends, high-school counselors and his mother, in particular, are moving. But the interviews with staff at Bloomsbury, Jackson's publisher, are gratuitous and self-serving. Living Room Theaters: 6:45 pm Thursday, Aug. 28. Mission Theater: 2 pm Saturday, Aug. 30.
I Play With the Phrase Each Other claims to be the first feature film composed entirely of cellphone calls. But Jay Alvarez's movie transcends gimmickry. Unfortunately, it transcends it to a place of insufferably smug, bloated pretension: 110 minutes of self-involved millennials speaking into their phones about rude customers, vibrators and their fears about magnetic fields. The film—shot entirely on iPhones, in superfluous black and white—might fancy itself as having something to say about ennui and disconnection in the digital age. But it's impossible to overcome the stunningly awful dialogue: Portlanders spend "winters recessed in squalid, unshaven apartments"; while "a sliver of fluorescence…reminds me that while I'm convalescing, my atmospheres are always waiting for my return." It's as if someone played magnetic poetry with a semiotics textbook, or maybe threw the first drafts from an intro creative writing class into a blender and put the resulting logorrheic slop to the page. Clinton Street Theater: 6:45 pm Wednesday, Aug. 27. Laurelhurst Theater: 2:30 pm Sunday, Aug. 31.
SEE IT: The Portland Film Festival runs Aug. 26-Sept. 1 at multiple venues. See portlandfilmfestival.com for schedule and ticket info.