In just five years, the Nevada Women’s Film Festival has gone from a small gathering put on by a few dedicated organizers to one of the major events on the Las Vegas film festival calendar. This year’s festival at Downtown’s Eclipse Theaters had strong attendance at every screening I went to, including a few with audience members sitting on the floor or standing in the corridor because every seat was filled. And more importantly, festival organizers (led by founder and executive director Nikki Corda) helped foster a sense of community, drawing a large number of filmmakers for a relatively small festival, including Vanguard Award recipients Jordana Spiro and Angelica Nwandu, whose film “Night Comes On” was a winner at Sundance last year.
“Night Comes On” is a sensitive coming-of-age drama about a teenager just released from juvenile detention, reconnecting with her younger sister and coming to terms with her troubled family history, including a violent father who was responsible for her mother’s death. Stars Dominique Fishback and newcomer Tatum Marilyn Hall both do great work, and the screenplay by Spiro and Nwandu tackles weighty concerns without being heavy-handed or manipulative. Although there were technical difficulties that marred the screening, that didn’t dampen the audience enthusiasm for the hour-plus of conversation with the filmmakers afterward.
That level of enthusiasm and engagement was present throughout the festival, from post-screening Q&A sessions to the Friday-night welcome reception to conversations in the hallways. NWFFest showcased a number of local filmmakers, and I especially enjoyed Nevada-based short films “Silver Girls” (from Reno), “Hello Darling” and “Razzle My Berries,” the first two of which previously played at Boulder City’s Dam Short Film Festival in February. Directed by Mike Breen, “Silver Girls” is a sweet but incisive portrayal of the way that longtime friends can grow into very different people without even realizing it. Former “Absinthe” star Anais Thomassian’s “Hello Darling” is a surreal, funny and sometimes disturbing character study about a woman driven over the edge by inane social niceties.
Heather Aradas’ “Razzle My Berries” is the perfect kind of film for NWFFest, taking on absurd beauty standards for women within the framework of a chipper horror-comedy. Aradas explores the dark depths of a 1950s-era beauty salon with some top-notch costumes, production design and makeup effects, along with very good performances from her entire ensemble. It’s a very promising, accomplished piece from a filmmaker who’s been steadily making her mark on the local scene.
Among the non-local shorts, Kelly Wittenberg’s essay film “Representative,” about her complicated relationship with her late father, effectively weaves together stock and archival footage with narration to create an insightful collage of memories and impressions. Comedy “Mr. Right Now” is a frank, entertaining look at female sexual desire in middle age, with a warm and funny lead performance from writer Jody Booth. And “A Little Bit Pregnant” starts as an uncomfortable comedy about friends reconnecting before evolving into a more serious examination of pressures women face in long-term relationships.
On the feature side, Kathryn L. Bucher’s “The Summerlands” was a wonderful surprise, the kind of under-the-radar gem that film festivals exist to support and discover. Its combination of naturalistic drama and educational documentary seems awkward at first, but Bucher manages to successfully weave together the disparate elements. She combines a road trip story about two half sisters reconnecting with a school project shot by one of the characters, examining California history via various historical landmarks. The narrative sections are shot in familiar digital video, while the documentary is on gorgeous Super 8 film, and together they add up to a touching story about family history and connections, and the struggles of coming of age as both a teenager and an adult. Hopefully other film festivals and some indie distributors will take notice.
Even if they don’t, NWFFest will continue providing a platform for filmmakers like Bucher to tell their stories onscreen, and to come together to support each other in those efforts. That’s the most important thing any film festival can offer.