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Vail Film Festival celebrates women filmmakers


Jennifer Morrison's directorial debut, Sun Dogs, was the opening night film at the 15th annual Vail Film Festival. - SCREENSHOT
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  • Jennifer Morrison's directorial debut, Sun Dogs, was the opening night film at the 15th annual Vail Film Festival.
Thursday, April 4, marked the first day of the 15th annual Vail Film Festival, which this year celebrates women filmmakers — every film, documentary and short was written, directed or produced by a woman, in order to tell stories with a feminine perspective. That's important — the 2018 iteration of an annual study by Dr. Martha M. Lauzen of San Diego State University showed that, in 2017, only "18% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films" were women, suggesting a systematic failure within Hollywood to support women seeking executive positions in the industry. But, given that those figures haven't changed by more than a percentage point or two she began the study in 1998, what else is new?

In any case, the filmmakers on site for the beginning of the festival presented an exciting range of independent films, many of which will be available for mass distribution within the next year — once they've finished their trips around the film festival circuit, building hype and support.

While waiting for the red carpet arrivals, I met a few of the filmmakers to be featured: producer Claudia Murdoch, actor Isra Elsalihie and production assistant Will Veguilla of the Mateo Márquez short film The Invaders. The film's plot rests on fear of the Other, theorizing social structures that may grow from an increasingly xenophobic society. The film has its world-premiere screening on Saturday, April 7, at 1:30 p.m., for those interested — individual tickets are available for any individual production.

The opening kicked off with a screening of Sun Dogs, the directorial debut of Once Upon A Time/House actress Jennifer Morrison. The film follows Ned Chipley, played by Michael Angarano. Chipley's an intellectually disabled young man who, after 9/11, wants to join the U.S. Marines, attempting to enlist every year and getting rejected. After four years, nobody's had the fortitude to tell him it'll never happen — not his nurse mom, not her injured trucker partner and certainly not anyone at the recruiting office. The plot kicks off when recruiting office head Master Sargent Jenkins, played by rapper/actor Xzibit, strings him along, giving him a fake assignment as a "sun dog," supporting the fight on the homefront. This leads to Chipley recruiting implied sex worker Tally Petersen (played by Melissa Benoist) to help stalk casino owner Sameer Singh (played by Nicholas Massouh), who he thinks is really Uday Hussein. After his dreams crash down upon him, Chipley goes to San Francisco, where he cosplays as Robert De Niro's character from The Deer Hunter and tries to talk people out of jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.

And if you think I could make this up, go watch it on Netflix.

The acting's strong across the board, make no mistake, especially by Angarano who embodies "sweet boy who inspires those around him to follow their dreams." And it is beautifully filmed, with memorable visual and auditory quirks. But there's a contempt in that stereotype of the sweet, inspiring simpleton, an infantilization. Everyone around Chipley treats him like a child, except Petersen, who thinks he suffered a traumatic brain injury overseas until the climax — and when she finds out, she calls him retarded and a virgin to boot. Classy.

While talking about this festival, a friend brought up an interesting point: how are the films selected for this festival making those in attendance look at themselves and how they interact with the world around them? Dodging all questions of class contempt like an oncoming bullet, the characters in Sun Dogs set a low bar for how to treat people with intellectual and developmental disabilities; it's easy to feel like one is better than the people on screen. But could you really do what they couldn't and tell this "sweet and earnest boy" to his face that his dreams are doomed? That he'll never be a Marine? Do you really have that in you? And are you really any better than any of these people whose good intentions lead Chipley to humiliation?

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