#MFF17 Diary: Opening Night’s Triumphant ‘Step,’ Then ‘The Dinner,’ ‘Casting JonBenet’

weekend

Montclair Film Festival truly started off with a bang — when a group of powerful young women, the “Xinos Step Team” from Hillside High School, NJ, took the stage by storm and represented the art of stepping to an appreciative crowd at the Wellmont Theater. Their opening number blew away the crowd, a packed house gathered to see the Festival’s opening night film “Step,” which documents the inspiring lives of another group of girls on a step dance team, in their senior year at an all girls’ high-school in inner-city Baltimore, all trying to become the first in their families to attend college.

Girls step team from Hillside, NJ open #mff17 @montclairfilm

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The film, directed by Amanda Lipitz, and the first opening night film for the Montclair Film Festival by a female director, was incredibly moving, bringing tears to audience members’ eyes more than once, spontaneous clapping/cheering during its poignant moments and a standing ovation at the end of the film. On hand for a talk back after the film were step coach Gari McIntyre and college counselor Paula Dofat as well as the film’s producer Steven Cantor.

McIntyre shared how she saw herself in every single one of the girls on the team, because she grew up with a lot of struggles at home and did not have a 4.0. Once she become involved as coach it became her mission to “inspire or be there for one girl.”

Dofat was emotional, telling the audience, “I cried today, I cry every time I see it,” adding that seeing the film reminded her of why she gets up every morning. Dofat offered an update on all the girls featured in the film — all are still in college. Dofat and the school continue to offer support by way of an alumni coordinator, who visits the girls and helps them with their transition.

The Dinner

If you see “The Dinner” (now playing in theaters this week), and then go out to dinner after the film, you will have plenty to talk about! Most of the action takes place at an ultra swanky restaurant (the kind where it takes three months to get a reservation), but there are also flashbacks that explain how the four dinner guests — two brothers played by Steve Coogan and Richard Gere, and their respective wives, Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall — ended up having what is first an awkward, then contentious and later explosive evening together. Despite the gorgeous, fanciful food being served, the Dinner’s guests quickly lose their appetite as the meal serves as a meeting to confront an issue affecting both families — what to do about an unspeakable act by their sons and how to deal with it.

“The Dinner” channels the intensity of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf with verbal sparring and shocking secrets revealed. Expect to be surprised and have your nerves frayed by the end at what has to be the most uncomfortable dinner date ever.

Well that was one wild ride!@thedinnermovie @montclairfilm #mff17

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Writer/director Oren Moverman, and Montclair’s own Alex Hall who edited the film, answered questions at the talk back after the film which screened Saturday at the Wellmont Theater. Moverman says the film challenges people to deal with both feelings of hate and compassion for the characters.

“If you loved the movie, send everyone you know to see it. If you hate the movie, send everyone you hate to see it,” Moverman said jokingly.

Casting JonBenet

Director Kitty Green has taken the 1996 murder of JonBenet Ramsey to a place no one else has gone. And in doing so, Green has also pioneered a whole new territory of documentary film making, one that leaves the viewer unsure of how to react. “Casting JonBenet” looks at the shocking murder from the perspective of unknown actors, all being interviewed to be cast in a film that will include re-enactments of the events leading up to the murder, including the many possible theories of what happened in the case that was never solved.

The actors are from Boulder or the surrounding area, and some only have a degree or two of separation from the Ramsey family. Some have endured their own tragedies, including a woman who auditions to be Patty Ramsey whose own brother was murdered. We hear their stories, we hear their beliefs and theories about the crime, and in some cases, what the actors share in interviews borders on the absurd. That absurdity parallels many of the details of the murder case that struck so many as strange — a three-page ransom note, a kidnapping that never took place, a false confession — and dominated the media, turning what had happened to a young beauty queen into a national fascination.

By the end of “Casting JonBenet,” Green takes the audience away from the absurd back to the tragedy itself, the sadness of what really happened, a beautiful six-year-old girl’s senseless death.

Following the film, which screened Saturday at the Bellevue Theater, Green, who grew up in Australia, and was first exposed to American families through Brady Bunch reruns, explained at the talk back how she became fascinated with the case and how it affects human nature. An audience member asked Green about having difficulty knowing whether she should be laughing at times during the film and how it reminded her of a Christopher Guest mockumentary. Green said she let the actors be their real selves, which in some cases yielded some awkward/funny moments, as well as very moving ones. She added that by the end, when it came to re-enacting the family in a series of evocative scenes, the unknown group of actors rose to the occasion and performed the difficult scenes with deep emotion, something she believes came out of the intimacy of the process.