Montclair Film Festival First Weekend: Empathy, Emotion And Connection

Montclair Film Festival Executive Director Tom Hall can add a new title to his resume: Cinema Therapist.

This year, more than ever, the Montclair Film Festival asks “And how does that make you feel?”

The more than 170 films, beginning with the opening night offering Far From The Tree, will take filmgoers on a roller coaster ride of emotions that leave you feeling connected to people and experiences in ways you never had before and that’s just what Hall wanted.

“I watched this movie [Far From The Tree] at home in my pajamas and I ugly-cried through about 80 percent of it because it’s so beautiful and so moving,” says Hall. “We are trying to build community, bring people together and reflect diversity at this film festival. This movie radically changed my thinking as an individual about how rich and wide diversity really is, and I wanted it to set the tone for the rest of the festival.”

Hall says empathy is a fitting tone setter for the Festival because all films this year are in some way or another speaking to an experience of hope and understanding. Hall adds that there are often therapeutic or cathartic moments to many of the films featured in the first weekend.

The festival’s closing film, Believer, takes a step beyond empathy to show what is to become an ally for others.

Believer tells the story of Dan Reynolds, lead singer of Imagine Dragons, who was raised Mormon. Reynolds become a rock star and an inspiration to Mormon youth but he also discovers a problem — suicide rates among LGBTQ teens skyrocketing. Reynolds tries to use his position in the community to bring the church and the LGBTQ community together, challenging the church to transform.

“It’s a hopeful film that explores how to be an ally and explores the difficulty in reconciling conflicts in one’s own families and lives,” says Hall.

In between Far From The Tree and Believer are a host of amazing films that will get you thinking and feeling. Here are just a few from the first weekend:

The 5 Browns: Digging Through The Darkness

Director Ben Niles with the Five Browns.

Director Ben Niles has a gentle touch with his intimate look at The 5 Browns: Digging Through The Darkness. Siblings and Juilliard-trained pianists, The 5 Browns — Desirae, Deondra, Gregory, Melody and Ryan — became a sensation shortly after forming as a group in 2002. They had played hundreds of concerts around the world and their music topped Billboard’s classical charts, but lingering in the shadows of the group’s amazing talent and success was a dark secret — the three sisters had been sexually abused by their father, Keith Brown, for years. Brown ultimately pled guilty and is serving a 10-year sentence.

Niles was able to tell their story in a way that even Melody, the most private and press-shy of all the siblings, ultimately found cathartic to watch.

“This was the first time I watched the full film and I look so sad in every frame,” Melody said, at the talkback after Friday’s screening and shared what it was like to participate in the film.

“At first, every time [Niles] was there, I felt like he was the grim reaper pulling me back into a grave of this darkness, but he turned out to be such a nice guy.”

It was only toward the end of filming, that Melody felt comfortable enough with Niles to share her story on camera.

“I’m glad he showed how it really is, because if we sugar-coated what our lives were, we wouldn’t be helping anyone,” says Melody.

Helping others who have endured abuse is the goal of the film, as Melody’s sisters, Deondra and Desirae, have become active in working to change legislation that limits when victims can come forward and seek justice.

“We are meeting people who are first coming forward 20, 30, 40 years after experiencing abuse,” says Deondra. “I knew if we were willing to share parts of our story we would see a difference. It’s been rewarding to know that young children in our home state of Utah will be protected because of our work.

Deondra and Desirae are working with Senator Gillibrand in New York, where the statute of limitations in New is 23, meaning an 18-year-old has only five years to come forward with abuse allegations. After that, individuals lose all opportunity to prosecute.

The film beautifully captures the struggle and courage of the Brown sisters’ to come forward and their journey to heal. Equally moving are the performances throughout the film; the music of The Five Browns, magnificent and awe-inspiring, speaks to the strong bond that the five siblings, who are estranged from both their parents, have been able to create together.

The Five Browns, now in their 14th season, are still performing together and have plans to tour in Russia for the first time. Learn more about how you can support Foundation For Surviving Abuse here.


Trauma is transformed into something beautiful and powerful with Liyana, a film that’s part documentary, part animated fantasy, as it looks at the world of — and through — five orphaned children in Swaziland.

The children, aided by an acclaimed South African writer, work through their own trauma by creating the fictional tale of Liyana, a Swazi girl who must rescue her young twin brothers.

The children’s word pictures take shape in beautiful animation stills that bring the viewer on a powerful, hopeful journey of healing and aspiration.

Shine Global gives voice to children and families by telling stories of their resilience to raise awareness, promote action, and inspire change.

Eighth Grade

Bo Burnham talks about making Eighth Grade

“I think the Internet makes eighth graders of us all so if you want to talk about the way we behave on the internet, why not use an eighth grader,” said director Bo Burnham at Saturday’s talkback of his funny, poignant film Eighth Grade.

Burnham recalled a time where he felt he was hiding behind “weak tools” — irony, cynicism and satire.

“I wanted to make something genuine and something raw and honest and vulnerable.”

Burnham does just that with Eighth Grade, aided in large part by actress Elsie Fisher, who plays the endearingly awkward Kayla, who is struggling to navigate between two worlds — real world vs. online and middle school to high school.

The film captures so much about the turbulence of adolescence and the central part social media now plays in perception and self image. A standing room only screening of both teens and adults connected enthusiastically to Burnham’s unique portrait of adolesence.

The Misogynists

Alternately funny and horrifying, The Misogynists, from director Onur Tukel, concentrates on America’s divide in a wild, 85-minute ride. Dylan Baker is brilliant as an angry businessman and Trump supporter in this satirical dark comedy set on the night Trump won the election. The film is an equal opportunity offender, provocative and uncomfortable, and laserlike in its ability to push buttons and show bias and hypocrisy.

Porcupine Lake

Director Ingrid Veninger takes us on a beautiful journey with Porcupine Lake, a coming of age film set in Northern Ontario in a time that is both simpler and screen free. The tale of a summer friendship between two girls who discover something more draws from Veninger’s own childhood experiences, right down to the road stop diner where much of the filming takes place.

Vulnerable and lonely, thirteen-year-old Bea (Charlotte Salisbury) finds a boisterous best friend in Kate (Lucinda Armstrong Hall) and a bond blooms quickly between them as they navigate the delicate space between childhood and adulthood.

The Children Act

In The Children Act, Ian McEwan’s adaptation of his eponymous novel, Emma Thompson is brilliant as Fiona, a leading British High Court judge tasked with making life or death decisions about the health and welfare of children. Fiona is consumed by work and disconnected from her husband Stanley Tucci and the couple’s marriage is in crisis just as Fiona must decide the fate of a teenage boy with leukemia. Thompson’s Fiona is so engrossed in her work and commitment to children that she loses her connection to her own personal life in the process. An unconventional decision to meet the boy ends in a connection she didn’t anticipate, leaving her forever changed.

StorySLAM: Close Encounters of the Worst Kind!

Amy Estes shares her story at StorySLAM.

Montclair Film continued its StorySLAM series with some return performances and a few surprises. Montclair Film Executive Director Tom Hall proved to be a great storyteller as he shared a particularly uncomfortable experience in a movie theater that fortunately did not keep from becoming the ultimate film fan.

Porcupine Lake director Ingrid Veninger told a moving story about spending a last night with men who were going to fight in a war they would not return from. Montclair’s Amy Estes told a cautionary tale about a roommate getting scammed. There were moving stories told by teens who braved the stage to share intimate experiences. The evening closed with veteran Moth performer Adam Wade telling a beautiful story about a boy, his mom, and a special trophy.

Tall Pines kicking off StorySLAM! @montclairfilm #mff2018 #keepconnecting

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