Although its position as the premier film festival in town has been secure for a number of years, the Las Vegas Film Festival still seems like it’s struggling to find an identity, and this year’s event was at times frustrating, even while it highlighted a number of strong selections and provided plenty of support to the local filmmaking community. Although the festival was spread out over eight days, there were only two or three events on most days, and the schedule was split between the Brenden Theatres at the Palms (where the festival had been held for the last couple of years) and Downtown’s Inspire Theater (where the festival was located before its move to the Palms). Along with some delays and technical difficulties, that gave the event a bit of a disjointed feel, although turnout at most of the screenings I attended was strong.
There were only four narrative features (including the last-minute addition of local feature “Death to False Hipsters”) on the schedule, and the best I saw was the Sundance sensation “The Farewell,” which opens in limited release in July (and will probably be in Vegas theaters sometime after that). Inspired by writer-director Lulu Wang’s real-life experiences, the movie stars Awkwafina as Billi, an aimless aspiring writer in New York City who travels back to China with her family when her grandmother is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The family, however, has decided to keep that news a secret from Billi’s grandmother, and so they’ve concocted a quickie wedding for Billi’s cousin as an excuse for the far-flung family members to visit.
Wang explores the cultural gap with sensitivity and humor, and she makes a connection between the Chinese tradition that seems so horrifying to Billi and the other ways that family members, in any culture, lie to each other with what they think are good intentions. Awkwafina, who gave scene-stealing comedic performances in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Ocean’s 8,” demonstrates impressive range as Billi, who’s quick-witted and sarcastic but also often lonely and insecure. The movie is a warm and nuanced portrayal of family bonds that transcend generational and national barriers.
Among the seven documentary features, I caught two with local connections, both about the struggles of prominent Las Vegans. Benjamin Berman’s “Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary” starts as a portrait of the veteran comic magician before detouring into a somewhat solipsistic examination of the difficulties of documentary filmmaking. Berman’s ruminations on his own filmmaking process are not as insightful as he makes them out to be, but the movie always comes back to the prickly, uncompromising Johnathan, who’s been living with a degenerative heart condition for years now, far beyond how long doctors predicted he’d last.
Local filmmaker Robin Greenspun’s latest documentary “The Zen Speaker: Breaking the Silence” showcases Vegas-based political fundraiser and business consultant Amy Ayoub, who recounts her harrowing years as a survivor of sex trafficking and abuse, and how she turned those horrific experiences into motivation for activism and empowerment. Like Greenspun’s previous documentaries (including “Semicolon; The Adventures of Ostomy Girl”), “Zen Speaker” is more of an educational tool than a cinematic achievement, but it’s hard not to be moved by Ayoub’s remarkable life story.