When the globe-straddling fifth annual Richmond International Film Festival concluded Sunday with its Red Carpet Awards, two of the Virginia-made films received recognition from the judges.
I viewed them back-to-back at RIFF’s Byrd Theatre venue. Both films concern looking for someone, reunion with and pursuit of love, and the effort to assert one's personal identity. While approaching these issues from far different angles, both use the past as a window into the universal heart.
Coming Through the Rye , written and directed by Emmy Award-winning James Steven Sadwith, introduces us to Jamie Schwartz (Alex Wolff), a boarding school discontent, whose fascination with J.D. Salinger’s "Catcher In the Rye" inspired him to adapt the book for the stage. His desire to seek Salinger’s blessing involves a red-headed townie girl named DeeDee (Stefania LaVie Owen). Not too much is given away to say that they find the novelist after some amusing deduction by questioning the locals – including an innkeeper played by Richmond actor Michael Kennedy and a trucker portrayed by an almost unrecognizable Joe Inscoe. And Richard Fullerton, with whom I acted years ago in Tom Clancy’s NetForce. Retired journalist-turned-actor John Witt is glimpsed dining at an inn. And the annoyed Salinger is given suitable gruffness by Academy Award-winner Chris Cooper .
The story’s backdrop, gleaned through radio broadcasts and glimpses of television screens, is the turbulent mid-1960s. A sense of nostalgia but also of youthful energy is conveyed in the splendid lighting of Charlottesville-native cinematographer Eric Hurt (who tied with Byron Shah for Victor)
Hurt’s palette of color assists in transforming rural Virginia into the sun-dappled Northeast.
At times in pacing and due to the age of characters, the boarding school setting and the theatrical element, I was reminded a little of Wes Anderson and particularly his "Rushmore." But the difference is, Jamie’s hunt for Salinger is based on the writer’s experience. While he’s searching for the elusive writer, Jamie’s also trying to understand certain parts of himself, sexuality and love. And, as Holden Caulfield said, the difference between the real and the phony.
In the Q&A following with a producer, Sara Elizabeth Timmins, I learned a few details. A wonderful scene in which Jamie and DeeDee romp amid dandelions that she initiates by bopping open their blooms and sending seeds flying wasn’t quite as spontaneous as it seems. The flowers were imported from Vermont, their heads wrapped in foil, and planted in an Orange County field. The clunker car the two take off in is a Rambler American, which I thought perfect as an vehicular metaphor for this journey, but the production used a pair of them. One ran fairly well, for exterior shots, and the other that didn't, for interior. When the youngsters drive off, an establishment shot of the Rambler rolling down the country road features a sudden flock of birds that enter in a perfect “V” formation and swoop from the frame. This wasn’t CGI. As Orson Welles observed, “The director’s job is to preside over accidents.”
The RIFF judges gave the Best Original Music to the musicians behind Josephine. The film and score were conceived by singer-songwriters Rory and Joey Feek, with screenwriting collaboration by Aaron Carnahan and further musical contribution by Steve Rucker. The story concerns a Tennessee woman who, during the Civil War, has lost almost everything and doesn’t know if her husband, fighting in a Tennessee regiment for the Confederacy, is alive. She cuts her hair, puts on some of her husband’s old clothes, and is “gone for a soldier,” as the old Irish lament tells. She’s assigned to a small unit on detached duty that eventually finds its way getting shipped toward Richmond and the war’s end.
The film’s lead, English actress Alice Coulthard, was given the festival’s Best Actress recognition.
We learned during the screening that Rory’s wife, Joey, died on March 4 ending her prolonged fight with cancer. During the Q&A, the picture's first assistant director Dusty Dukatz led a quiet moment of memory for Joey Feek.
The film, in part bolstered by a Kickstarter campaign, was largely shot around South Boston in a remarkable 18 days. Casting was largely local and period production assistance was provided by Richmond’s Kevin Hershberger and LionHeart Film Works. The cast includes veteran actor Boris McGiver, who in the current season of "House of Cards" is the dogged reporter Tom Hammerschmidt determined to bring down the Frank Underwood administration. Here, in what would've been in an older film the Ernest Borgnine role, McGiver portrays the grizzled veteran Tally Simpson who takes the newcomer "Josephine" under his wing.
Interior complexities are at work in the film — turns out that Josephine isn’t the only character who is not the only one harboring secrets. There are a few anachronisms in the characters' speech though their coarseness is part of their characteristics as rough front line soldiers who’ve seen plenty of fighting and dying. The niceties of home are far away. Some silhouette scenes at twilight of the soldiers crossing ridges or patrolling fields are reminiscent both of "Band of Brothers" and "Saving Private Ryan" and there’s some resemblance in the battle sequences to "Cold Mountain." The film hints at the “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight” nature of the conflict when the detachment stops to admire a grandee’s estate and, in a later sequence, burns a place suspected of harboring Union soldiers. (The house seems to be owned by a bloody-faced John Witt). There, torch in hand, Josephine admires formal dresses in a bureau when her reverie is caught with a result you’d not expect.
"Josephine" poster image. (Courtesy Richmond International Film Festival)
This is a love story, though, based on actual letters written by a husband and wife, and, we are reminded that it’s estimated that 1,000 women donned grey or blue to join their husbands and loved ones in the war. The perfunctory medical examinations allowed some to get away with the ruse, though injury or illness revealed their secret. The film came out of the Feeks’ mutual interest in the source material; here they are together in a video that was an inspiration for the film:
Keep your eyes out for distribution about these films and remember where you heard about them first.
For a complete list of the RIFF honors, see here.