[Jim Thorpe Independent Film Festival] Short Films: Six Must-See Shorts From This Year's Festival - Reviewed

Edward attended JTIFF

Now in its second year in a picturesque mountain village in Pennsylvania (Telluride East?), the Jim Thorpe Independent Film Festival recently showcased nearly a hundred films, largely by emergent and student filmmakers. One of the blessings of the smaller, startup film festival is that audiences get an opportunity to sample quirkier, more idiosyncratic works that might not make the cut at more established venues like Sundance or Tribeca. 

While this year’s JTIFF predictably dished up its fair share of clinkers, there were enough diamonds in the rough to warrant special mention. Admittedly, I did not view every one of the 93 offerings at this year’s showcase in the Mauch Chunk Opera House – a former vaudeville house/movie palace/pocketbook factory newly reincarnated as a performing-arts venue – but I did see enough of the shorter features to winnow out a few titles for especial mention. Here are my picks of the best, in strictly alphabetical order.

Beta Persei, by Katherine Clark, is a stellar offering that focuses its lens on Gene Withersby (played by Christopher Waldron), a thirtysomething planetarium owner. The film’s title is derived from the eclipsing star Algol, known informally as the Demon Star. When Gene himself goes into emotional eclipse after the death of his mother, he hires an assistant named Kitty (Indra Andreshak), who escorts him on his increasingly delusional exploration of the universe. Star-crossed by grief, Gene takes refuge in the mythologies depicted in the night sky, especially the saga of Perseus and Medusa and the rescue of Andromeda. As Gene and Kitty’s relationship launches into deep space, the light shows at their planetarium become more fanciful and vivid, though also darker and more obscure. Shakespeare notwithstanding, the fault may indeed be in the stars, not our selves.

Julia Xanthos Liddy’s Everything’s OK NYC is one of the few documentaries in the festival. Described as a “loving elegy” to the former OK Cigar shop in Manhattan’s SoHo district, this film wins a crown--more properly, a corona--for its high-quality production values as well as the suavely cool characters the filmmaker chose to showcase the fine art of cigar smoking. The only thing missing from this noteworthy offering is a sequel narrating how this shrine to urban swagger got reinvented in a 19th-century Jim Thorpe storefront just a butt’s throw from the Opera House. Maybe next year?

The Garage, Steve Summers’s tender tribute to a Baby Boomer boyhood, presents an engaging storyline that is at once fanciful and fact-driven. If reviewers were forewarned that they would be viewing a film in which candy corn morphs into John Glenn’s orbiting space capsule, they might have scoffed at the sheer corniness and spacy-ness of such an out-of-this-world concept. But Summers proves himself an apt virtuoso who nimbly crafts a seamless narrative out of these seemingly disparate tropes. For older viewers such as myself, the film evokes nostalgia for a pre-Twitter America when its leaders commanded admiration and respect for their consistency, fortitude, and moral authority.

Gridlock, an offering by the Irish filmmaker Ian Hunt Duffy, presents a tightly-wound study of human nature when confronted by suspicion, paranoia, and shoot-from-the-hip blunderbuss. The plot is disarmingly simple: a cart horse gets killed by a motor vehicle on a rural road, causing a minor traffic jam amidst the hedgerows. But the road rage in Gridlock is far more complex than usual. When Eoin (Moe Dunford), an impatient driver, leaves his car momentarily to check on the scene, his six-year-old daughter mysteriously vanishes from the back seat. Choked with anxiety, her father wildly confronts each of the other drivers in the queue, accusing them, one by one, of kidnapping her. This is the spark that kindles a dramatic tension that is at once palpable and combustible and Hitchcockian. The mob behavior illustrated here is eerily reminiscent of the ritualized mayhem in Shirley Jackson’s classic short story, The Lottery, in which townspeople vote each year to stone a neighbor chosen by lot. In the spirit of spoiler-free reviewing, I will not disclose the climactic scene that finally reveals the fate of the missing child. Gridlock is definitely worth a detour.

Time for some comic relief. Paco, by the student director Catalina Jordan Alvarez, is a charming story of an eccentric and loveable urban derelict in Philadelphia (played by Brian Jordan Alvarez) who prefers handling to a handout. Paco’s only demand on life is having a chance to dandle passersby on his knee each morning. Charmingly interpreted by a nonprofessional cast, this has got to be the least complicated screenplay ever: no complex psychological subplots, no convoluted plot twists, no forays into symbolism, surrealism, or the supernatural--just the unadorned joyfulness of Paco as Homo ludens following his bliss and sharing his quirky self with the men, women, or children he invites into his warm and wacky world. Bend a knee!

In another comic offering, That Smell, director Kyle Lavore sniffs out two middle-aged bibliophiles who base their aesthetic judgments on the premise (or nostrum?) that if you can’t judge a book by its cover you can at least smell it. Lavore’s peek into what he calls the “secretive and persecuted world of book sniffing” becomes a charming portrayal of two awkward nerds (Nate and Trisha, portrayed by Jay Paranada and Keilly McQuail, respectively) who meet each other nostril-to-nostril in a second-nose bookstore. Fortuitously, Trisha happens to be the sinuous woman who heads up the local chapter of the book-sniffing movement. Will Nate pass her smell test or nosedive further into olfactory isolation? The nose knows. 

 -Edward Moran