FILM San Francisco IndieFest celebrates its Super Sweet 16 with multiple films presenting an appropriately teenage outlook on humanity: Most of the time, people suck. They suck in ways you expect, ways you don't expect, and ways you should have expected but chose not to, for your own sucky reasons.
Fortunately, not all of these lessons in disappointment come packaged in depressing movies — though at least one, Bluebird, does. In snowy Maine, an otherwise kind and responsible school bus driver (Amy Morton) screws up the head count at the end of her route, and a child is left behind on a long, cold night. The small town reacts as you'd expect, with stares and whispered gossip. But as it turns out, most of the characters affected by this tragic mistake are already in a pretty bad place, and must now face hitting a floor even lower than they'd imagined was possible.
Chief among them is the bus driver's weary husband (Mad Men's John Slattery, playing nicely against type except for one very Roger Sterling-ish scene), who's just found out he'll soon be unemployed, and the neglected boy's troubled mother (Louisa Krause), who adds this incident to her running list of personal demons. Writer-director Lance Edmands edited Lena Dunham's 2010 breakthrough Tiny Furniture (blink and you'll miss Girls' Adam Driver in a handful of Bluebird scenes); his first feature as writer-director is very much in the classic American indie mode, with ordinary people's lives intersecting in an ordinary town, extreme feelings of loneliness and unfulfilled dreams lurking just below the surface. Frankly, it can get morose, though Emily Meade (who resembles a younger Emma Stone) brings some spark as a high-schooler dealing with sucky boy drama on top of sucky everything else.
Less earnest, thank goodness, is the latest short from San Francisco filmmaker Vincent Gargiulo (2011's The Muppetless Movie), which screens as part of IndieFest's "#feelings" program. Filmed on location in Minnesota, Duluth is Horrible follows a handful of oddballs working through heartbreak via Reddit posts, awkward blind dates, and karaoke. Gargiulo — who told me during last year's IndieFest that the idea for Duluth came to him in a dream — wields his own brand of bizarre humor with complete confidence. Here's hoping he channels that into a feature film next.
Two of IndieFest's genre standouts also hinge on human shortcomings. Joe Begos' Almost Human follows a trio of friends dealing with the aftereffects when one is, uh, abducted by aliens, then returns a few years later acting mighty strange. The man's left-behind former fiancée and best friend have just enough time to come to grips with their guilt and paranoia before they have to start fending off creepy offers of "Join me and be reborn!" Yeah, this is a wall-to-wall John Carpenter homage — the lead character appears to have stepped right off the set of 1982's The Thing — but it's done exactly right, with some spectacular, blessedly CG-free gore effects to boot.
Also a must-see for horror fans: Zack Parker's Proxy, a Hitchcockian mindfuck of a movie that offers up so many plot twists it'd be nearly impossible to relay a spoiler-free plot summary — though as soon as you hear the pregnant woman's last name is Woodhouse, as in Rosemary, it's made pretty clear that this grieving-mother tale ain't gonna be what it seems. If you can make it through the brutal attack that happens in Proxy's first five minutes (close your eyes if you must), you'll be richly rewarded.