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COLUMN: The films shown at the International Film Festival you need to see


I don't like the term "movie buff," but I've been one since I was a baby. I saw “High Fidelity” from my mother’s womb, and my love affair began.

From “Toy Story” to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” I’ve seen a whole lot of movies.

More than 20 feature length films were shown at the Central Michigan International Film Festival, along with a bevy of short films. Amongst those, three features and one short film stood out to me, and I think that readers of Central Michigan Life should seek them out.

Eighth Grade

“Eighth Grade” was a coming-of-age film written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham. It is the story of Kayla Day, an eighth grader finishing her final week of middle school.

This movie was a solid coming-of-age story, especially considering how large and trope-filled the genre has become since its major popularity spike in the '80s.

On a negative to start, there are several montage sequences that don’t really work all that well. I can’t say much without spoilers, but they fell a bit flat. The soundtrack wasn’t that stellar either, although it really depended on the song. 

The main issue I had was with the framing device used. The movie is broken up into parts with the display of vlogs that Kayla records for her YouTube channel. These tend to drag out over several minutes, and they can border on tedious.

Despite the sometimes boring framing device used, “Eighth Grade” truly succeeds where it needs to. The plot is very good, being driven by the progression of Kayla’s last week and her search for real friendship, and the cinematography is quite stellar.

The biggest achievement of the movie is the feeling it gives viewers.

I’m sure that most of us, no matter our age, remember the sweaty awkwardness that is middle school. There are many scenes in which everyone is extremely uncomfortable in their own skin, and it's effective every time. 

This movie put me right back into middle school, and while that certainly wasn’t a place I wanted to be, it was kind of fun for the hour and a half it lasted.

“Eighth Grade” can be found for purchase online. It’s also streaming for free on Amazon Prime Video.

My Soul to Keep

“My Soul to Keep” is an ambitious sophomore effort from director Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad and his production company Exxodus Pictures. “My Soul to Keep” is particularly notable for featuring the talents of CMU alumnus Justin Hynous, especially in the screenwriting and editing departments. For that reason it was featured in my recent article about the film festival.

At a basic level, “My Soul to Keep” is a horror movie about a kid who is afraid of whatever it is that he thinks lives in his basement. One night, when left home alone, he is forced to face his fear.

To get the negative out of the way first, the soundtrack seemed a bit spotty in parts, and intrusive in others. There were definitely strong pieces of music that served the story really well, but once in a while there was an out of place pop-sounding instrumental that just didn’t work for me. It sort of broke the building tension and mystery of the film.

On a positive note, this movie stood out from the crowd for several reasons.

First of all, the script was pretty tight, with most dialogue feeling natural and the story having good pacing (difficult for some horror films). Furthermore, it was exquisitely shot. 

The main characters are all younger children, and their acting is really spectacular, especially for child actors in a lower budget movie.

The child-led aspect of the film lead to another thing that I really enjoyed about it: it was kind of adorable.

Usually that being said about a horror movie would be an extremely negative thing, but in this case it really served the story. It took me back to being a little kid with those basic fears of the darkness and the basement, and that was really comforting in a strange kind of way. 

Put that aspect together with interesting, creative paranormal elements and a surprise ending and you have a solid horror flick.

A distribution deal hasn’t yet been worked out, but in the meantime “My Soul to Keep” is going to keep making the festival rounds. Keep your eyes peeled in case it pops up on a streaming service sometime this year or next.

Breaking the Sound Barrier

“Breaking the Sound Barrier” is a documentary co-directed by CMU faculty Patty Williamson and Eric Limarenko. It is another film I featured in my recent article. 

This doc focuses on women in the radio industry, specifically their struggles and the still-present gender gap in on-air and behind-the-scenes talent.

This documentary was extremely informative, but it had two issues, both technical.

The first was acknowledged by the filmmakers in the Q&A: the less than stellar audio quality on some interview clips. As far as I understand, some of the interviews were conducted at a conference, and conditions weren’t ideal for crisp audio recording.

The second issue I found were the title screens and graphics. A lot of the graphics and title screens looked amateurish to me. They rode the line between minimalistic and done-up, and that didn’t serve the film well.

There are many more positives than negatives. The documentary is chock-full of statistics and historical figures that I never knew about, and I found those really interesting (especially the segments about the first women in radio).

Furthermore, every interview looked good, most sounded good and all of the featured subjects had quality information to share. This was really the core of the documentary (as it should be) and this is what made it a high-quality feature.

It is clear that Williamson and Limarenko were passionate about shining light on the subject, as well as their subjects, and that passion permeates throughout the project.

Williamson is unsure what the future holds for “Breaking the Sound Barrier” in terms of release, physical or otherwise. Remain on the lookout for updates in that area.

Something About Alex (Short Film)

“Something About Alex” is a 20-minute award-winning short from 2017 that we were very lucky to see at this year’s festival. It’s a subtitled Dutch feature from relative newcomer Reinout Hellenthal.

I can’t say much about “Something About Alex” without spoiling it. What I can say is that it sensitively deals with timely issues using a refreshingly surprising script, well written characters and great performances from everyone involved.

It’s imperative that you see this short film. I know that most people don’t bother with short films as a format, especially outside of festivals. Despite that fact, it would definitely be worth your time to seek out “Something About Alex.” It just may surprise you.

From my research, it doesn’t appear that “Something About Alex” is streaming online yet, although I’m sure that it’ll receive some fanfare when it comes online, due to its reputation as a big award-winner.

Overall, I’d call this year's Central Michigan International Film Festival a success in terms of quality. A lot of good films were exhibited that I didn’t have the chance to see, but I’m very pleased that I got to see the four mentioned above. Definitely seek out any of these movies if you haven’t seen them already, as they’re all well-made and enjoyable.