Citizen Jane Film Fest: 4 Films from the Bizarre to the Poignant

Jason Ritter in “Bitch”

The Citizen Jane Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri focuses solely on films by women. Now in its 10th year, the fest includes a day of film school training, a summit on the role of women in the film industry, and shorts by budding filmmakers as young as 16 and even seven years old.

Why Columbia? It’s also the home of the all-documentary festival True/False, which draws the big names of doc-making each March. Additionally, Columbia is the home of Stephens College, an all-female institution that boasts digital filmmaking and TV and screenwriting degree programs.

I saw eight feature-length films in this year’s festival, and I liked all but one of them. The work was consistently daring and/or innovative. In the bizarre category were “Bitch” and “Lemon.”

Filmmaker Marianna Palka in “Bitch”

Written and directed by Marianna Palka, who also stars in the film, “Bitch” is the story of a wife and mother of four who has lost sight of her own ambitions in order to take care of her family. They rely on her so much, in fact, that she even buys her own Christmas gifts from her husband. When he fails to listen to her calls for help, she begins to act like a dog. She barks, growls, bites, walks on all fours, and rolls around in her own filth.

This dark comedy stars Jason Ritter as the husband and Jaime King as the sister. Ritter’s character goes into denial, and there are many laughs, even as the film borders on horror. Then, a tonal shift occurs, and the movie becomes a bit more serious. This shift was jarring, but I was able to go along for the ride. Despite the strange nature of the film, it was compelling throughout.

“Lemon,” on the other hand, was strange and absurdist for no apparent reason. Directed by Janicza Bravo, who co-wrote the script with her husband and star, Brett Gelman, “Lemon” is a character sketch of a man who is a lemon in every way.

Brett Gelman and Michael Cera in “Lemon”

The character reminded me a bit of Mr. Bean in that he has no social skills, but at times, he’s genuinely mean. Therefore, the comedy is dark and short-lived. The biggest problem with the film is that there seems to be no cohesiveness to the storyline and no point to any of the action. It’s the only film I saw at the festival that I didn’t like, in spite of a number of well-known costars, including Judy Greer, Rhea Perlman, Nia Long, and Megan Mullally. The funniest turn came from Michael Cera as an indulgent actor.

The most poignant of the four films is “Sami Blood,” a period piece written and directed by Amanda Kernell and set in 1930s Sweden. It explores the extreme prejudice among the Swedes during that time period against the Sami people from Lapland, who wore traditional costumes and herded reindeer. They were thought of as less intelligent and called “circus animals” and “dirty Laps.”

The protagonist, played by newcomer Lene Cecilia Sparrok, is a young teen who grows tired of being looked down upon and living on the outside of Swedish life. When she steals a dress from a clothes line and changes out of her traditional garb, she crashes a dance and meets a boy. Then, she escapes from her all-Sami boarding school and makes it to the city.

Breaking into a world that she scarcely understands and where she knows no one but the boy she met proves difficult, of course. She has no money and no place to go, but she manages to make a new life for herself. We know this because in the opening scene, we see the girl as an old woman, returning to Lapland for the first time since her escape in order to go to her beloved sister’s funeral.

Much of the film’s success is a result of Sparrok’s understated and moving performance, and this little-known story of prejudice and culture clash is a welcome departure from the subject matter of most of today’s films. Not surprisingly, the subtitled film has already been shown at prestigious festivals such as Toronto, Sundance, and Venice.

The fourth film I’ll write about here is called “Blame.” Directed by 22-year-old Quinn Shephard, who stars in the film and co-wrote it with Laurie Shephard, the story focuses on a high school student named Abigail who apparently was hospitalized for a period of time with multiple personality disorder, prompting her classmates to nickname her “Sybil.”

Quinn Shephard and Trieste Kelly Dunn in “Blame”

She’s particularly tormented by a classmate named Jennifer (played by Trieste Kelly Dunn) who is hell-bent on being the mean, bad girl. She’s apparently being raised by her stepfather, played by Tate Donovan. When a new good looking drama teacher shows up (Chris Messina), Abigail is attracted to him, and Jennifer is jealous of the attention Abigail receives from him.

While the actors give the script everything they’ve got and are compelling to watch, the story becomes a bit convoluted and predictable when the teacher finds its difficult to resist the beautiful Abigail. What bothered me the most is that there’s a moment in the film when a character wrongfully accuses a man of sexual assault. While I know this does happen, I can’t help but feel concerned that this Lifetime-movie-esque move only perpetuates the belief that girls and women falsely accuse men of assault more often than they actually do.

Chris Messina and Quinn Shephard in “Blame”

While “Blame” held my interest throughout, I ended up feeling dissatisfied with the sum of its parts. Shephard and Dunn are both talented actresses, and despite the problems with “Blame,” Shephard is also a filmmaker to watch.


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