Little Rock Film Festival Weekend Highlights, Winners Announced

After a full week of films, parties, and music, the 9th annual Little Rock Film Festival comes to a close. Saturday night at the Ron Robinson Theatre, awards were given to the top films from the week in each category (see a full list below). This year’s iteration of the festival was better programmed than any that came before and the quality of selections from inside and outside the state spoke to that.

A crowd favorite came from New York’s Onur Tukel. “Applesauce”, a film best described as a black romantic comedy mystery thriller that pokes fun at the macabre, details the dissolving relationship between two couples when Ron, played by Tukel, tells his friends the worst thing he’s ever done over dinner. His confession, initially intended for Stevie Bricks’ radio call-in program “Tell All Tuesday,” sets off a rapid fire chain of events in which the friends detail the worst things they’ve ever done and are menaced by an unknown and vengeful person. At is best moments, the trajectory and pacing brings to mind the work of the Coen brothers. The cast is rounded out by Max Casella and Dylan Baker doing a great turn as Bricks, who was cast as an homage to his character in Todd Solondz’ film “Happiness”.

Afterwards Tukel sat down for a Q & A with director Bob Byington (whose “7 Chinese Brothers” was also screened at this year’s festival). Among the jokes and banter, Tukel detailed his creative process and gave a golden nugget of advice to aspiring screenwriters and artists everywhere: don’t overthink it.

Byington: So you wrote this incredibly fast, right? How many drafts did you have before you started?

Tukel: I try to write as fast as I can, just blindly get it all down on the page. My friends who are much smarter than me tend to write slower, because they’re probably making sure every detail is really good. I just want to get it all out, a little uninhibited . . . I think I had five drafts before we started filming, so if you include the one we actively worked on, I had six.

A personal favorite of mine is “Sweaty Betty”, a work of cinematic nonfiction that couldn’t leave the festival unnoticed. On the surface, not much happens. The episodic film has a dual narrative where two young, single fathers—childhood friends Rico and Scooby—are hanging out when a man happens to drive past and offer them a dog. The guys accept the offer in an effort to resell the dog to someone in the neighborhood. The other story centers on Floyd and his family, fixtures in the Landover, Maryland, neighborhood because they own an enormous sow named Ms. Charlotte. Floyd has had the pig since she was little and has managed to train her much like a dog. He is also attempting to turn her into the official mascot for the Washington professional football team.

The magic lies in the unbridled honesty with which these stories are told. Shot on a handheld camera, the film walks the line between nonfiction and fiction, even featuring music video segments, the most important of which stars Ms. Charlotte. Another quirk of the film is the editing. The conversations are semi-scripted, yet they all feel like they could be real conversations and are mostly uninterrupted. As co-director Joe Frank later explained, “sometimes, when you’re talking to someone in real life, you talk for ten minutes and kind of stop paying attention,” until something brings you back into the conversation. The result is an unassuming piece of work that is completely original in its execution and uncompromising in its hood narrative. The film triumphantly humanizes the real lives of society’s castoffs, the people that usually end up as tragic and empty archetypes in fiction and are ignored day after day. It is so enthralling it made me forget just how much I despise the name of the DC team—which is a lot of spite to lose track of. Indeed, “Sweaty Betty” is more punk rock than the documentary film that was supposed to be about punk rock.

Friday night at the Ron Robinson Theatre, Luke Meyer’s “Breaking a Monster” screened. The film follows the three pre-teen members of Unlocking the Truth as they rise from YouTube stars playing the streets of Manhattan, to signing an unprecedented multi-year million dollar contract with Sony Music.

Guitarist Malcolm Brickhouse, drummer Jarad Dawkins, and bassist Alec Atkins joined director Meyer for a fast and loose Q & A with the audience directly following the film. The attendees were then treated to a frenzied five-song set that saw the band eclipse their former selves; you can tell that touring has helped them grow into a confident and powerful three-piece with still endless potential.

If you missed out this year, get your popcorn ready for next spring, when the festival will take Rock City by storm. With ten years under its belt, the next LRFF is sure to please and one you won’t want to miss.

The winners for 2015 are:

Golden Rock Award for Best Narrative Feature: “Applesauce”
Golden Rock Award for Best Documentary Feature: “Crocodile Gennadiy”
Cinematic Nonfiction Grand Jury Winner: “Of Men and War”
Cinematic Nonfiction Special Grand Jury Mention: “Sweaty Betty”
Arkansas Times Best Southern Film Winner: “Uncertain”
Charles B. Pierce Award for the Best Film Made in Arkansas: “The Whispers”
Documentary World Short Winner: “The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano”
Narrative World Short Winner: “The Way Things Are”
Best Director of a Made in Arkansas Film: Jarrod Paul Beck (“Perfect Machine”)
Best Performance in a Made in Arkansas Film: Andrew Walker (“The Grace of Jake”)
Best Youth Film Winner: “Pyro”

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