Some Freaks

(USA 2016)

A line from an old Billy Idol song (“Hole in the Wall”) appropriately sums up the plot of playwright Ian MacAllister-McDonald’s charming and touching debut feature film Some Freaks:

“We were such an ugly pair,
The chameleon twins they’d stop and stare.
Lovers know when love has gone.
A black hole there where love was once the end.”

Rhode Island high school senior Matt Ledbetter (Thomas Mann), who has the unflattering nickname “Cyclops” because of the patch he wears over his fucked up eye, doesn’t fit in with his classmates. Awkward and unpopular and literally a freak, his only friend is schlubby neo-maxi-zoom-dweebie gay motormouth Elmo (Ely Henry), who seems eager to blow just about any guy—not that any guy is ever going to let him. Lucky Matt gets to hear all of Elmo’s fantasies in graphic detail as they play video games. Yipee.

A chubby new girl (Lily Mae Harrington) in thrift store clothes and green-streaked hair flirts with Matt in biology class. Matt doesn’t know what to make of her, but he’s obviously intrigued even though he’s all shy about it. She turns out to be Elmo’s cousin Jill, who’s staying with his family for the school year after some trouble at home in Oregon.

Jill and Matt get off to a rocky start when she overhears him crack a fat joke about her to Elmo. Despite her tough facade, cynical and insecure Jill is forgiving—she has no choice because she has a thing for Matt. The three of them start hanging out. To Elmo’s dismay, Matt and Jill fall for each other and start dating.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

The end of high school brings about a quandary neither starcrossed lover anticipated. Jill gets into college out West, leaving Matt behind on the East Coast. Thus begins their long distance relationship. They lead separate lives and make similar changes without telling each other: Matt gets a glass eye and starts working out while Jill gets a new wardrobe and goes on a diet. Suddenly normalized, Matt goes to a party and hits on chicks while Jill attracts the attention of frat boy hottie Patrick (Lachlan Buchanan), who went to high school with her. His mean girl pals were not very nice.

Matt and Jill’s metamorphoses clash when he visits her six months later and they discover that their natural connection is now strained and forced. What’s worse, they bring out something ugly in each other. Is this the death knell for their relationship?

Written and directed by MacAllister-McDonald, Some Freaks is impressive even with its flaws, especially for a first time full length feature. The story and the characters recall John Hughes and Todd Solondz, but this is by no means mere imitation or an update of either. I like MacAllister-McDonald’s straightforward and unsentimental view. Yes, much of what happens here is predictable; however, there are enough twists that I didn’t see coming to keep it interesting if not fresh. The actors put a lot of heart into their characters, and it shows—even Buchanan, whose Patrick is underdeveloped and not entirely believable.

I happened to see Some Freaks on April Fool’s Day with my teenage nephew. All things considered, I couldn’t have planned it better.

With Marin Ireland, John Thorsen, Sylvia Kates, Devon Caraway, Brian Semel, Nikki Massoud, Stephen Thorne, Shannon Hartman

Production: Half Jack Productions, Mountview Creative

Distribution: Good Deed Entertainment

Screening followed by a live Q and A with Ian MacAllister-McDonald, Lily Mae Harrington, and Ely Henry

97 minutes
Not rated

(Tower City Cinemas) B

Cleveland International Film Festival

Center of My World [Die Mitte der Welt]

(Germany 2016)

Center of My World, director/screenwriter Jakob M. Erwa’s adaptation of German author Andreas Steinhöfel’s 1998 novel for young adults, is not a home run. Fortunately, though, Erwa knows how to extract enough charm, particularly from its two main actors, to downplay its shortcomings and proffer a respectable and enjoyable film.

17-year-old Phil (Louis Hofmann) lives with his mercurial, flighty mother, Glass (Sabine Timoteo), and his twin sister, Dianne (Ada Philine Stappenbeck), in a gorgeous house on the outskirts of town. This family isn’t exactly The Brady Bunch: Phil is gay, Dianne supposedly communicates with animals, and Glass can’t commit to a partner for very long. She won’t even tell her kids who their father is.

Phil notices some friction between the women of the house after he returns from summer camp. When school starts, his best friend, Kat (Svenja Jung), encourages him to go after mysterious new guy Nicholas (Jannik Schümann), a dreamy transfer student who looks like a cuter blue-eyed version of Lance Bass with his chiseled cheeks, luscious lips, and perfect hair. Supposedly, he likes boys. Phil finds out for sure in the locker room one afternoon—and it leads to a passionate affair, insecurity, and a weird bout of jealous competition with Kat.

Center of My World is a cute and engaging story. Erwa does a nice job showing how any kid, gay or otherwise, has a lot to deal with when it comes to sexuality. The Chaun Ngo’s cinematography is well done, employing a bright color pallette verging on artificial that plays really well against the small town setting with all its gardens and summer greenery. The acting is generally good. Schümann is really easy to just…gaze upon, I guess, but in a harmless Teen Beat way.

All that said, Center of My World would have been a much gutsier film, say, 15 years ago. It probably would have made a bigger impact then, too. It contains hints and echoes of things I’ve seen before. The characters are a bit hollow; some of them come off as half-baked, rendering their importance to the story tenuous or questionable. These two boys have sex a lot, which is great. However, the sex scenes here need work even with the full frontal we get. More in-your-face than sexy, they come off as gratuitous. I don’t know if Erwa was trying to be shocking, but it didn’t work if he was. It’s like watching two puppies go at it. I hope that’s not the intended result.

With Inka Friedrich, Sascha Alexander Geršak, Thomas Goritzki, Nina Proll, Clemens Rehbein

Production: Neue Schönhauser Filmproduktion, Prisma Film, Universum Film, mojo:pictures, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Bayerischer Rundfunk, ARTE, Österreichischer Rundfunk

Distribution: Constantin-Film, Universum Film

115 minutes
Not rated

(Tower City Cinemas) B-

Cleveland International Film Festival


(UK 2015)

What would life be like in the 21st Century if humans never evolved beyond apes? How would our human qualities, good and bad, play out? Are humans any different from other animals? Director/screenwriter/actor Steve Oram illustrates his answer to these deep questions with Aaaaaaaah!, a project that sounds fascinating on paper but turns out to be anything but.

Following a group of modern primates (Julian Barratt, Noel Fielding, Lucy Honigman, Tom Meeten, Oram, Julian Rhind-Tutt, and Toyah Willcox), Aaaaaaaah! is an hour and a half of grunting, fighting over food and mates, flashing body parts, openly masturbating and having sex, peeing and pooping on stuff, and generally establishing dominance with gratuitous gore peppered throughout. The plot, flimsy and hard to follow, isn’t funny, witty, engaging, interesting, or thought provoking. It’s terrible, like a bad inside joke I’m not a part of or an even worse art film. I couldn’t wait for this to end.

Aaaaaaaah! very well may be the worst movie I’ve ever seen. EVER. It fails on every single level. Waiting to enter the theater, I overheard someone in line behind me compare Oram to early John Waters and Andy Warhol. Um, no—those guys both had a wit that Oram lacks, at least from what I can tell here. A better title would have been Uuuuuuuugh! 

(Tower City Cinemas) F

Cleveland International Film Festival


(USA 2015)

Kudos to screenwriter and codirector Brian O’Donnell for his first film, Akron. After a great setup, he throws in a crazy plot twist and completely changes the trajectory of the story: what starts out as a sweet, almost too cute romance turns into something weird, dark, and potentially calamitous. The drama here slowly simmers to a boil and starts to bubble over. O’Donnell treats a gay relationship as incidental and not something strange; it’s a given from the outset. Plus, he makes the city of Akron a major character without becoming a cheerleader.

Benny (Matthew Frias), a student at the University of Akron, meets another student, Christopher (Edmund Donovan), at a pick up football game. They start dating, and Christopher invites Benny on a road trip to Florida to meet his mother (Amy da Luz) over sping break. While waiting for him on the morning they head out, Benny’s mother (Andrea Burns) mentions to Christopher that Benny had an older brother who died when they were both kids. Christopher realizes that he and his mother are connected to the tragedy.

As much as I liked Akron—and there is quite a bit here to like—it has problems. The opening scene, which takes place a decade or more before the story, is confusing; no hints are given to tip us off that we are in the past. The scene is shot in a grocery store parking lot with current cars and license plates. It threw me off, and it took me awhile to realize that this scene occurred a long time ago. It’s a critical piece of the story, so it should have been done more carefully. For the most part, the acting is good; however, Benny’s mother is a Latina-lite Stepford wife who ultimately comes off as one-dimensional caricature rather than a fully developed character. Burns overdoes the doting mom thing. Particularly annoying is her peppering her speech with basic Spanish words that everyone knows; it doesn’t ring authentic because she’s whiter than Christopher. Sadly, the story fizzles in the end; the resolution is too fast and too neat, and some of the characters—especially Benny’s father (Joseph Melendez) and sister (Isabel Rose Machado)—get lost in the melodrama. I could have done without the sensitive folky score.

Akron isn’t a bad film. It could’ve been a lot more interesting, though—it certainly has the elements. It ultimately doesn’t meet is potential.

(Akron-Summit County Public Library) C+

Cleveland International Film Festival

Gala & Godfrey

(USA 2016)

Gala & Godfrey is a somewhat twisted and bitter romantic comedy—if you call it romantic or comedic. More accurately, it’s an examination of a relationship that probably never should have been, but the participants are stuck. Any child of divorce will relate to it. Sometimes, it’s interesting; other times, not so much. Either way, it’s surprisingly and refreshingly accurate.

Gala (Molly Pepper), a coat check girl at a Los Angeles rock club, crosses paths with Godfrey (Adam Green), the smarmy British front man of a third-rate wannabe “punk” band during the mid-’90s—think Third Eye Blind, Sublime, Blink 182, and Friends. A mildly intense love/hate thing develops between the two, and we see how neurotic both of them are. There’s a lot of material here, and much of it is amusing. Pepper and Green work their chemistry really well, creating an unlikely sweet and funny but dysfunctional bond that isn’t pitiable; the last part is key, because the believability of the whole thing rides on it. Gala & Godfrey easily could have flown off the rails—and it got unbearably close quite a few times. Fortunately, though, Pepper and Green pull it off. It certainly doesn’t hurt that director Kristin Ellingson recognizes the value of restraint and skillfully uses it at just the right moments.

I enjoyed Gala & Godfrey, but it feels like a work in progress. The “framework of a record album” concept sounds cool; executed here, though, it’s gimmicky and unnecessary, and ultimately ends up at best a momentary diversion and at worst a distraction that adds nothing to the story but cheesy graphics. The characters are strong enough to carry the film, so I’m not sure what Ellingson is worried about. She does an exceptionally awesome job incorporating Los Angeles into the story; the city itself is a principal character. Somehow, I don’t see the film working if it were set anywhere else.

Far from perfect, Gala & Godfrey is nonetheless warm, inviting, familiar, and slightly offbeat—much like an afternoon drinking in old Hollywood, a wonderful experience. Some minor tweaking that focuses more on idiosyncrasy and a few plot surprises would be good; then this would come off as not only more honest but far more interesting. It’s almost there.

(Tower City Cinemas) B-

Cleveland International Film Festival

Movie Home



(USA 2016)

I had the wrong idea walking into Mad; the synopsis in the festival guide painted a picture of a mean-spirited comedy about two fighting sisters and their mother who just had a nervous breakdown. I expected something along the lines of a loud, riotous snarkfest brimming with angry, deranged female humor that someone like Bette Midler might have done. Mad is not that at all—it’s far better.

First-time screenwriter and director Robert G. Putka drops us into the lives of three women: Mel (Maryann Plunkett), a lady starting her sunset years who just had a nervous breakdown following her divorce; her older daughter, Connie (Jennifer Lafleur), who has all the trappings of a yuppie life; and her younger daughter, Casey (Eilis Cahill), who is floundering as she quickly approaches her thirties. Mad explores the dynamics of the relationships between them without judgment or moralty, and gets into mental illness on the side.

The characters here are flawed, which makes the film not just believable but good. Very good. Mel may or may not be “crazy,” but she doesn’t step up to take control of her fate—which is exactly how she ends up committing herself to a psych ward. Connie is caustic—judgmental, condescending, insensitive, and extremely vocal, she can’t keep her malicious comments to herself. For some reason, her mother and her sister bring out her worst. A work situation involving a criminal investigation shows how far from perfect she really is. Casey is sweet but aimless, seemingly lacking any street smarts or ambition. She’s stuck—she tries to find herself in things like webcams, online hookups, and writing groups. It’s not working.

This all might sound heavy, but Mad has a sense of humor. An uncomfortable scene at Casey’s writing club is laugh-out-loud funny, but Putka generally doesn’t go for easy laughs. The humor here for the most part is subtle and has a basis in etiquette and social behavior. A fellow patient, Jerry (Mark Reeb), and the ward counselor, Todd (Conor Casey), both provide comic relief in different ways without becoming caricatures. The acting is quite good, and the whole thing is put together exceedingly well.

Putka doesn’t give much background on his characters, and that’s fine because it really isn’t necessary. He doesn’t treat mental illness like a Lifetime movie; he’s direct, objective, and not all that dramatic about it. He comes off a bit cynical, but I found his presentation refreshing; after all, therapy doesn’t work for everyone. I liked so much about Mad, which has many moments of brilliance. I hope to see more by Putka.

(Capitol Theatre) B+

Cleveland International Film Festival