Fantasia Film Festival 2017 Wrap-Up: My Festival vs. Your Festival

Recently, I chatted with a film writer/critic who had never been to a film festival, which, I feel, gives me license to begin this piece with a bit of an explainer on big events. Some premiere festivals — like Cannes, Telluride or New York — program a compact slate that is possible to view in its entirety over the course of the festival, provided you have superhuman stamina and require little sleep to function. Others such as Sundance, Toronto and, yes, Fantasia compile hundreds of films into a single program that spans a wide variety of taste profiles. It’s possible to stick to one sidebar of programming or mix and match to create an eclectic experience.

The upside of these more expansive programs is the attendees’ ability to maximize their time and tease out fascinating, unexpected connections between films. The collision of distinct artistic sensibilities in such a compact period leads to revelatory lines of thought about the state of contemporary film. (Witness the bizarre pairing of Toni Erdmann and Raw at last year’s Fantastic Fest and what they illuminated about women in uncomfortable settings.) The downside, however, is that making sweeping statements about such a festival overall is exceedingly difficult. It drives me crazy whenever critics describe large festivals as “good” or “bad.” Apart from the major trades, few have the luxury of partaking in the vast array of available options. If we’re being honest, we need to say “my festival” to acknowledge that our experience is primarily reflective of our own curatorial impulses — and secondarily of the festival staff itself.

This is all a prologue to say that “My Fantasia” was not optimal. I’ve been covering the festival remotely, which means I’ve been relegated to a fraction of the full catalogue for my viewing choices. Without my feet on the ground in Montreal, my ability to discern the breakout hits of the festival was limited to what broke through the latest political bombshell on my Twitter feed. I could claim films like 78/52, A Ghost Story and Better Watch Out influenced my experience (all of which I saw at prior festivals before they made the Fantasia lineup). But that would just be dishonest.

The films I watched tended to bear more of a resemblance to Toni Comas’ Indiana. The film had all the motions and signifiers of an ensemble genre film but none of the substance. It’s a series of Midwest scenes, shot in crisp black and white, in search of a narrative. Nothing connects its opening documentary-style vignettes about the supernatural to the jaded ghost hunters whose exploits take up much of the runtime. The film is an empty, soulless mess whose failings are amplified by a festival environment where opportunity costs are killer. (The program description of Indiana is better than the actual film.)

I could say something similar for Tony Datis’ Le Manoir (The Mansion). This contemporary take on the haunted house thriller takes characters played by YouTubers and leaves them without WiFi in a specter-infested mansion for a weekend getaway. The film has its small pleasures, but it’s mostly a bore in its neatly patterned take on a familiar genre. From its exposition-heavy early scenes, where each set of two characters conveniently pair off to share their central conflict in the film, the writing is on the wall. Datis, a music video director for Skrillex and Katy Perry, makes his leap to feature filmmaking, offering little more than some flashy aesthetics to these recognizable tropes.

One film that did manage to strike an enjoyable balance of genre revisionism and pure entertainment was Tyler MacIntyre’s Tragedy Girls. To get the elevator pitches out of the way immediately, the film is Generation Z’s Nightcrawler and Scream for YouTubers. (See, you don’t have to use them to invoke their spirit!) Two high school girls, Alexandra Shipp’s McKayla and Brianna Hildebrand’s Sadie, seek diversion in their sleepy town by creating copycat crimes from the killer they manage to capture in the film’s opening scene. They’re doing it not only for the thrill of the act, but also (like true millennials) for social media engagement. True crime is merely the latest trend that a brand can ruthlessly capitalize on to expand their footprint.

Crime scenes are optimized for Instagram and victims are picked to optimize follower growth. This social media obsession afflicts more than just the self-proclaimed @TragedyGirls, too. A decorated blackboard in their classroom breaks down the Civil Rights movement with the display “If MLK Had An Instagram.” When a police officer sets up caution tape around a crime scene, he’s glued to his phone. McIntyre astutely observes how everyone now lives in two planes simultaneously: for the Tragedy Girls and their classmates, it’s the high school hallway and the digital gauntlet cradled in their palms.

Tragedy Girls does fall into some conventional trappings in its third act, but it’s still an undeniably amusing journey the whole way through. Some fun intra-team rivalry between McKayla and Sadie keeps the film exciting as each slightly doubts the other’s competence. Their fully intertextual banter (“some Final Destination shit”) makes the obvious callbacks feel a little bit more natural by establishing how their understanding of the world is formed by the culture they digested.

Among the other titles I screened was Gordian Maugg’s Fritz Lang, an imagination of how the famous director came to develop his fascination with the real-life murders that informed his classic 1931 film M. It’s auterism to the max as Maugg intercuts footage from that film as if the images are Lang’s sights in the present tense. Once Lang involves himself in the case and becomes a subject of fascination for the killer, Fritz Lang begins to feel like a take on Bennett Miller’s Capote – albeit far messier.

Greg Zglinski’s Animals falls into a similar camp: promising but unfulfilled. It’s a startling take on the couple-torn-asunder domestic drama that feels like a surrealist interpretation of Gaslight. Yes, there are talking animals that urge characters to take action. Unfortunately, Zglinski never quite finds the bridge between the bizarre and the banal. His hyperreal arguments are so lacerating in their ferocity that the more imaginative portions needed a much stronger support system than they received.

So, while “My Fantasia” was a mixed bag, that’s on me for not putting in the work to sift out the gold in the dirt. (And note that this roundup does not include the best film I screened, Federica Di Giacomo’s Libera Nos, which received its own write-up.) I can’t make any grand pronouncements or bold proclamations, except that I need to either learn to read program descriptions more critically or invest in a plane ticket to Montreal next July.

Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).