The Montana Film Festival isn't just about broke-down homesteads and men squinting into the horizon or galloping horses and rambling pickup trucks. There's some of that kind of thing, of course, because who doesn't love quintessential Montana tropes? The breathtaking Charlie Russell skies of 2003's Northfork, Philbert Bono's soul-searching road trip in 1989's Powwow Highway, the startling snowfall among towering pines in this year's Winter Light—all will screen as part of the festival's retrospective.
But thank goodness for diversity.
The inaugural festival, which runs Thu., Oct. 1, through Sun., Oct. 4 and is presented by the Roxy Theater and the Montana Film Office, offers an eclectic and finely curated lineup with three new locally made films that experiment with fresh twists on Montana themes, plus buzz-worthy independent films that have nothing to do with Montana at all.
"There's a real true independent spirit about what we're doing here," says Roxy Director Mike Steinberg. "There are Montana films made on their own and films that are pioneering and maverick—some of which are getting more national attention than others. But they all have that independent voice."
Montana premieres include Love Like Gold, directed by Kier Atherton, and Mathew Miller's Subterranea—both of which star local actors and familiar haunts (see page 21 for full reviews). The Triangle, another Montana-made feature directed by several people, including Roxy programming coordinator Andrew Rizzo, tells the story of three filmmakers who venture into the wilderness to capture the culture of a secluded commune, with shocking results.
Steinberg says these anticipated Montana premieres, funded mostly through Kickstarter campaigns, will bring in big crowds. Even though the Roxy hosts locally produced films in its Homegrown Shorts program, it's a rarity to see three non-documentary features in one place at one time.
"There is a vital film community in Missoula," Steinberg says. "It's not as large as other places, of course—like Seattle—but there are a lot of people making films here and a lot of film fans."
Strong local filmmaking is important to the Montana Film Festival, but Steinberg's vision goes beyond that. He sees the event as an opportunity to showcase the most innovative filmmakers working in the independent industry today. For that reason, he and Rizzo also selected some bold out-of-state films to complement the Montana-made fare.
Tangerine, directed by Sean Baker, tells the story of an African-American trans sex worker who finds out her pimp/boyfriend is cheating on her with a white CIS-gendered woman. With her friend Alexandra, also a trans sex worker, she heads out onto the streets to confront the lover. Sounds depressing and dark, right? It's not, exactly. The action-packed comedy has gotten rave reviews—including at Sundance—for its heart, heartache and hilarity. It was also filmed on three iPhones, which gives it that exact cutting-edge feel that Steinberg was looking to showcase.
"It's a beautiful film," he says. "Gorgeous. You can see that it was made on iPhones, but the beauty of it—and what that technology contributes to the story—is so present."
Another film, Krisha, which won the SXSW Grand Jury Award Prize, is experimental in an entirely different way. Director Trey Edward Shults cast his aunt, mother, grandmother and himself in a fictional story about a woman attending a family reunion after years of estrangement. The cast doesn't play themselves, but the story is inspired by Shults' family members and a similarly dysfunctional family reunion. His aunt, who plays the title role, told indiewire that her relationship to her character was more like her relationship to her late alcoholic father.
"The performance from the main actress has been compared to Gena Rowlands from A Woman Under the Influence," Steinberg says. "It's a fresh film and it's being released next year, but we have an opportunity to screen it now."
I Believe in Unicorns, about a young girl in an abusive relationship who uses her imagination to escape, was directed by Leah Myerhoff of New York City's Film Fatales collective. Results, a comedy starring Guy Pearce about two personal trainers trying to get an unbearable slob into shape, was directed by Andrew Bujalski, who is best known for directing the black-and-white, analog-shot film Computer Chess, which screened at the Roxy two years ago. In other words, these are the vanguard of independent filmmaking.
Part of the Montana Film Office's mission—and the Roxy's, for that matter—is to promote the idea of Montana as a good place for filmmaking. To try and further that goal, Steinberg has enlisted the films' directors (and some actors) to come to Montana for post-screening Q&As.
In addition, the retrospective part of the festival provides a chance to watch or re-watch those films that have become part of Montana's catalogue. If you've never seen 2002's The Slaughter Rule, the first feature film directed by Winter in the Blood's Andrew and Alex Smith (and starring a young, not-yet-heartthrob Ryan Gosling), here's your chance. You'll also be able to catch the infamous 1980 Hollywood bomb, Heaven's Gate, directed by Michael Cimino.
"It did flop, but it flopped because it went over budget so much and the studio pulled it back," Steinberg says. "It had so much bad press. I've only seen the two-hour version, but that blew me away. I mean, come on. Careening down a mountain with 45 people on horses and a big Montana backdrop? That's a great movie, no matter what happens."
The Montana Film Festival runs Thu., Oct. 1–Sun., Oct. 4. Visit montanafilmfestival.org for schedule and tickets.