Defy Highway One

Highway One

The Defy Film Festival will return to its home base at Studio 615 in East Nashville this weekend. Defy did a solid job of programming a mostly virtual version of the fest last year, but it’s great to have the in-person event back.

Defy is a local favorite because of its consistently high-quality programming of experimental films. Lots of festivals include at least a few screenings of what they might refer to as “weird shorts” or “twisted animation” in their offerings, but Defy takes those bizarre and hard-to-classify categories and blows them up into one big celebration of strange cinema. And this year there are five features and 52 shorts vying for the eyes of the curious and the daring. Below are some of the highlights.

Director Jaclyn Bethany sets her feature film Highway One in the village of Cambria, which reads like a small town in an alternative Southern California where a group of former high school classmates gather for a New Year’s Eve party. All of the characters have Eastern European names, and the soundtrack includes lots of European folk melodies. These elements bring a dreamy fairy-tale tone to the drinking, weed smoking, confessional conversations, heartfelt reunions and general hijinks. Highway One is a bit like a surreal Big Chill, and at its best it recalls the talky ensemble films of Robert Altman, but with a weird and sexy style that often feels like a music video in the best way. Some of the loose poetry of this film is due to the fact that Bethany developed the scenes by letting her actors improvise off an outline she wrote. The writing and the acting are both hit-and-miss here, but I admire Highway One’s ambition, and Juliette Labelle is magnetic as the mysterious Nina. 

The 8th is a feature-length documentary about abortion activism in Ireland, and it’s one of the best docs I’ve seen this year. In 1983, Irish voters added the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland, establishing that an unborn child and its mother each have an equal right to life. One factor that makes this story unique is that abortion was already illegal in Ireland before the amendment was added, highlighting the deeply conservative bent of Ireland’s largely Catholic culture. Aideen Kane, Lucy Kennedy and Maeve O’Boyle share directing credits here, and these three filmmakers manage to make this clash of mostly young progressive feminists against religious lawmakers and cultural gatekeepers dramatic and human instead of merely pedantic and political. The 8th generously explores its subject from multiple perspectives, including input from activists on both sides of the issue. This mostly unbiased approach gives viewers a complex and nuanced understanding of the controversial medical practice and Ireland’s culture war around it. 

“Mantis” is a weird and sexy short about a week in the life of a young woman questing after her authentic identity. The film finds its protagonist in the middle of a postmodern pastiche of activities, relationships, fashion and media-mimicking in a vain search for her true self. “Mantis” gradually morphs into something of a horror movie featuring gory effects, digital trickery and cool costumes to illustrate its heroine’s transformation from a confused and powerless modern young woman to the ferocious feminine archetype represented by the titular insect. Tinna Jinn is enigmatic in a difficult, wordless role, and “Mantis” is an exceptional example of what we’re talking about when we talk about contemporary experimental filmmaking. 

“Richard Nixon: Getaway Driver” offers viewers a peek into an alternative reality where folk singer Phil Ochs is the gunman on the grassy knoll responsible for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. After firing the fatal shot, he jumps into a car driven by Richard Nixon. This cracked story unspools during the recording of one of Nixon’s infamous tapes, when the influence of LSD and alcohol finds the Tricky One making his bizarre confession. There’s some fun makeup and visual gags to see here as well, and the success of Oliver Stone’s new JFK documentary at Cannes makes this bizarre little film feel right on time. I’m not a liar. 

“Bakersfield” is another horrific short. This one finds a pair of murderers becoming the unwitting victims of bizarre occult body-snatchers. This short has a weird and recursive plot that makes for a strange tale that’s not entirely comprehensible — that’s not really a point against it, though. “Bakersfield” transforms its beautiful eponymous landscapes into the kind of isolating and deadly locale we always find in the folk-horror genre, and the dark forces that dwell in this desert are all the more terrifying because they retain their mystery. 

In “Song of the Common Loon” a drug addict struggles to overcome his childhood trauma. This trippy and hallucinatory story drifts from real-world conflicts to dream-time visions and troubled memories. The man’s fractured perceptions are an ideal subject for experimental filmmaking, and the sound editing here reminded me just how much I miss listening to films in big theaters. 

The Defy Film Festival runs Aug. 20 and 21. Festivalgoers will be required to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination in order to enter Studio 615. See the full schedule, and get weekend passes and iconic pink Defy bottomless beer cups at defyfilmfestival.com.

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