It’s a relatively short drive—a few miles beyond the beltway on I-66, and then on to Route 50 for some 16 miles or so, past the charming town of Aldie, Virginia—to get to Drive-In Heaven.
For the next week, the Loudon Arts Film Festival is having a festival under the stars; the hosts at 50 West winery have enhanced your normal movie theater fare with some fine selections of red and white wines, live music, food truck offerings from seafood and BBQ to ice cream, and a beautiful view of sundown in the foothills.
Oh, and then there are the flicks. Damned fine ones, too.
Last night marked the area premiere of playwright Chisa Hutchinson’s finely tuned, emotionally wrenching The Subject, a two-hour feature film that on the surface is about the ethics of documentary film-making but that soon forces you to dig deeper to contemplate the ethics of art, the great divides of class and race—and the horrific wreckage caused by the self-anointed who think they can change the world without changing themselves first.
Jason Biggs stars as Phil Waterhouse, a documentarian at the height of his fame, haunted by the violent death of a young man who starred in the film that made his reputation. (And his fortune.) His girlfriend, Jess—the cool, calculating Anabelle Acosta—tries unsuccessfully to bring him out of his funk. Phil spends his days endlessly reviewing footage of Malcolm (the quietly affecting Nile Bullock), harboring regrets the roots of which are not revealed for some time. To make matters worse, Phil and Jess soon realize that someone is secretly filming them through an uncurtained window. Director Lanie Zipoy skillfully shifts our gaze from the action inside Phil’s house to the view of the silent “documentarian” who trails Phil at home and on the set of his current project.
One symptom of Phil’s regrets is seen in the relationship he develops with another young man he is currently filming—Kwame (Caleb Eberhardt, in an explosive and emotionally vulnerable role) is supposed to be just another street tough. But when Kwame’s mother dies of cancer, he suddenly drops his documentarian objectivity and reaches out to console Kwame, even providing financial support as well. The two-dimensional Tisch-school artiste is beginning to step into his own third dimension, but the process will require more painful twists and turns before fully realized.
Screenwriter Hutchinson teases her audience with a hint of All About Eve, through the introduction of a production assistant, Marley, who quickly insinuates herself into Phil’s private and professional life. (All About Eve being Jess’s favorite movie, there is the obligatory Bette Davis clip thrown in for good measure.) It becomes clear that Marley, played here to cool, cynical perfection by Carra Patterson, represents the darker, exploitative side of Phil’s personality; Marley’s encouragement of Phil’s worst instincts, coupled with her seduction of Phil (with the surveillance camera outside rolling, of course) sets of a chain of events that sees Phil alone, his reputation ruined.
Any normal film would end with Phil’s just desserts, but Hutchinson uses comeuppance as a mere prequel to one of the most riveting, tension-ridden sequences imaginable, as Malcolm’s mother Leslie forces her way into Phil’s home and confronts him over his callous treatment of her dead son.
Aunjanue Ellis sets the screen on fire with her performance as Leslie, cutting Phil to pieces with every syllable and every look his way. Zipoy’s work, choreographing every angle of this confrontation, highlights the shattered and shattering of hearts here. The intensity of Ellis’s and Biggs’s scene, as Leslie shreds every last remnant of Phil’s emotional defenses, will burn permanently into the memory of anyone who comes near it. The refusal to provide a nice-and-tidy conclusion, moreover, is a reminder that the film isn’t just about a documentarian’s conceit, but about our own.
Those who are familiar with Hutchinson’s work—I first encountered her through the Contemporary American Theatre Festival—are aware of the breadth of her talents; in this her first full-length screenwriting credit (based on her stage play The Subject), film audiences can finally meet a dramatist whose wit and skill can fill the screen, and the mind, vividly indeed.
The opening short on this night was Skin, a harrowing journey into the darkest part of the American white-supremacist soul, but with a truly Jordan Peele–like twist, as a nearly deadly parking-lot racial encounter between a Black man and a white mob results in an act of revenge as potent as it is memorable.
The Loudon Arts Film Festival (LAFF) runs through September 19, 2020, at 50 West winery, as well as online. For information and tickets visit loudounartsfilmfestival.eventive.org/welcome. If you prefer your films virtual these days, no problem—try here: watch.eventive.org/loudounartsfilmfestival.