Coping with crisisDedicated to the memory of Joe Restaino, who succumbed to complications from bone cancer in 2010 at the age of 20, the Joedance Film Festival has a clear vision of whom it represents and whom it benefits. The annual cinema showcase, established later in 2010, was held on the first weekend in August in Charlotte’s Fourth Ward, where Restaino resided. Most recently, the festival was staged at Charlotte Ballet’s Center for Dance before the onset of COVID-19 precluded a public event this year. Proceeds from the festival are funneled toward research into rare pediatric cancer and the Leon Levine Children’s Hospital managed by Atrium Health. New short and feature-length films are both eligible for inclusion, provided that the filmmaker can demonstrate a connection to North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, or Tennessee.

There’s something to be said for the intimacy of a virtual Joedance as festival founder Diane Restaino welcomed us every night of the festival, filling a good portion of our computer monitors or TV screens. Many of us under lockdown have no doubt accustomed ourselves to streaming movies, miniseries, theatre, opera, and classical music into our living rooms and dens via Chromecast and Fire TV, but in this instance (unlike Charlotte Symphony‘s recent livestreams on Facebook and YouTube), our setup wouldn’t work with our Apple computers. We would need to purchase Apple TV or Roku to stream on our smart TVs. Obviously, the streaming process is complicated when you establish a paywall via Eventive.

Fortunately, my computer monitor is fairly large, with HD, and audio can be channeled to my Yamaha receiver via Bluetooth, so I can be as discriminating about the sound of Joedance films as I am about the photography. There were a couple of kinks in the ticketing process, but these did not degrade the quality of the product. In hindsight, Restaino likely wishes she had recorded different intros for each night of Joedance, but she did a fairly slick job for a beginner in reading her remarks. A segment of testimonials from Levine and Atrium personnel ran the first night and again on the second. When Restaino turned the proceedings over to festival director Chip White, solemnity vanished. Relaxed and spontaneous, White’s touch of folksiness wasn’t about the suffering children or himself – or even about our glorious region. He stuck personably and concisely to the films.

On opening night, there were a half dozen, viewable for 24 hours after your virtual ticket was punched. The first, Penny Press, was a documentary that sent Blythewood, South Carolina, filmmaker Anil Dhokai out to Oklahoma, where his father-in-law has a collection of elongated coin-rolling machines locked away in his squat backyard barn. It’s hard to say what Dhokai’s father-in-law, Tyler Tyson, loves most as he extols the wonders of the coin-rolling machines: the dies he has designed for them or the elongated coins themselves, which he has collected from his own creations and from anyone from anywhere who was willing to part with one of these treasures. Tyson is clearly a man who is prone to obsessions, but he becomes a cheerfully enthusiastic voiceover talent as Dhokai – using macro and telephoto lenses – homes in on individual coins, details of the pressing machines, and the rolling cogs of the presses as they turn pennies into mementos. There is one memorable obsession within Tyler’s obsessions, a series of coins he designed of places and mile markers along the fabled Route 66. I was so immersed in this lapidary world that I found the closing interior shot, as Tyler exited and shut the door of his little barn, a useful reminder of where we had been. Pity that the cramped quarters prevented Dhokai from shooting an establishing shot of all Tyson’s machines.

Gunpowder and Paperboy, written and directed by Durham native Todd Tinkham, was the first of two comedies on the bill – a zany, resolutely retro romance by a filmmaker and a cinematographer, Rachael Silberman, who clearly know what they’re about. Opposites attract and spark in this film as Paula, alias Gunpowder, is smitten by Paperboy, the new kid at school. The newcomer is hidden behind a white papier-mâché mask topped with a crown of brown and gold paper curls. White curlicue gloves and sleeves complement the mask. We’ve been introduced to Paula’s pyromaniac tendencies in the intro, where she’s playing with fireworks, but it’s in the classroom where her role as Paperboy’s champion is concisely planted. Paperboy sits down next to two bullies and a geek who will appear in a subsequent outdoor scene. One of the bullies makes his play, getting into Paperboy’s mask. Eventually, we see the bullies out in a field, getting set to beat up the geek, but Paula arrives on the scene, a goggled superhero with rockets shooting from each hand. When the bully starts up with Paperboy in class the next day, all Gunpowder needs to do is glare at him to make him stop. Lovably naïve, right? In 2020, we expect the bully to show up with an AK-47.

Romance is treated equally concisely, beginning with a recess scene outside the school building, where Gunpowder sidles up to Paperboy and lights up a cig. Paperboy reacts by inching away. A closeup of Paula’s cigarette smooshed into the brick wall and extinguishing capsulized her consideration – and her resolve. Then Paperboy, still texting on his cellphone, inches right back. A later scene begins with a drone shot over a bridge as Gunpowder trails Paperboy across a bridge, where they introduce themselves to each other. The spare dialogue that follows, as Paula sets up a rendezvous with now-identified Dale, is admirably compressed, with a memorable pickup line, “Wanna watch the sun set?” Maybe a little too compressed, since Dale departs while the sun is still out. The aftertalk with Silberman and Tinkham, intercut with winsome outtakes from the filming, was the best of the evening, disclosing that most of the budget had been spent on fireworks. Of course, the closing shots of fireworks bursting in a nighttime sky, symbolizing romance achieved, didn’t exactly blaze new trails, but they didn’t need to.

By far the longest film of the night, written by Allen Gies and Shawn Nguyen, Karma’s Shadow is easily the most polished and complex, thanks to director and producer Rob Underhill, who hails from Morrisville. We can grasp that instantly in Underhill’s opening film-noire shot of a manhole cover exhaling steam into out-of-focus lights dotting an urban nightscape – and we hear it in the deep rumble of the musical score. In less than 25 minutes, Karma’s Shadow shuttled me back and forth from New York City in 1980 to battlefields in Vietnam and a shady Saigon saloon in 1970. New York cop JW is at the center of the tensions that drive this international thriller, temperamentally at odds with his old war buddy, Billy Preston, now a dirty politician in New York. Our hero has also made an enemy of Preston’s drug-dealing connection in Ho Chi Min City, Tien. JW may hardly remember Tien, who was jealous of the love that had flamed up between JW and Lan, the woman he wished to marry – with added spite toward the ease with which he formed a bond with Lan’s son Vu.

The situation is more than a little combustible as JW accompanies Billy to a showdown at mobster Adolfini’s lair. JW has not yet discovered that Billy is dirty and does not realize that Adinolfi has kidnapped the grown-up Vu. He certainly doesn’t realize that Tien has poisoned Vu’s mind against him by saying that JW murdered the beautiful Lan. Everyone is surprised that the girlfriend Vu has picked up within two days of arriving in the US is JW’s daughter. They try to play this absurd coincidence as comic relief, which may help viewers forget that Vu swiftly direct-dialed Vietnam without operator assistance in 1980, an operation that requires 13-15 digits even today. There are other plot points to nitpick in the Gies-Nyugen script, but Underhill paces the action so swiftly you probably won’t catch them. The acting is more than a cut above the Powder-Paper idyll, with fine outings by R. Keith Harris as JW, Michael Rosander as Billy, Alexis Camins as Tien, Jennifer Finley as Lan, David Dollar as Adinolfi, and Jessie Leung as the elder Vu.

Written, directed, and produced by Kerry Everett out of Charlotte, Ella dramatizes the story of the only woman ever lynched in Wyoming, Ellen Liddy Watson Averell. Under 15 minutes long before the postscript titles come on, Everett’s screenplay is a little too compressed. What Everett told us in her aftertalk, that one of the reasons Ella settled in Wyoming was because she could vote there, is barely hinted at in the opening scene, where Ella extracts a “Votes for Women” sash from a hope chest before going downstairs to serve dinner at a boardinghouse where she is employed. Things move quickly. Ella flirts with one of the boarders, Jimmy, between slices of pie, and he proposes to her on the front porch in the next scene. The wedding has to be performed secretly in another county so that Ella can achieve her ultimate goal, owning her own homestead.

Everett has a down-to-earth feel for the western genre, and both Caitlin Kresse as Ella and James Self as Jimmy strike us as brave pioneers, helped by well-chosen period costumes. But their nemesis, cattle baron A.J. Bothwell, gets the most wicked and colorful lines. Feasting on them, Lon Bumgarner reminds us of all that is most treasurable in indie films. This is a homespun laughing villain, not rugged, dignified, or snarling, as Bumgarner goes completely against the Hollywood grain. Awkward and slightly scruffy, this Bothwell even waves his gun in an unfrightening fashion. Evil doesn’t need to be awesome to leave its mark. Everett succumbs to indie pretension only in framing her piece. We begin with an outdoor closeup of Ella gazing out into the distance, a shot that will replay after she and Jimmy have been strung in nooses by Bothwell and his gang. We surmise that Ella is looking back on her life in that moment or we just scratch our heads.

In her aftertalk, writer Sophia Watson disclosed that her 11-minute film, #Slut, was distilled from a screenplay that was originally 96 pages in length. Given multiple layers to cope with, #Slut seems too trimmed for comfort, but Watson’s talents as a writer and as the actress in the title role are unmistakable. The film is a cautionary tale about Grace, who wears the hashtag brand after a surveillance photo taken on a cellphone and broadcast over a laptop spreads its venom at her high school. Somebody does call her “slut” as she passes along a row of lockers in the hallway, but it’s unclear whether the teacher who exploits and abuses her afterwards knows anything about the cyber-slur. That tenuous connection is further weakened by Grace when she lingers in class after everyone else has left, and Mr. Blake makes his first move. There’s even a shot of Grace’s current boyfriend hesitating at the doorway before leaving the two alone.

The enveloping layer of the guy who snapped and broadcast the photo is left dormant while Grace’s story unfolds, fulfilling the voiceover we hear as he opens his laptop: “One small lapse in judgment can change lives forever.” When Grace’s story is done, we cut to a publisher’s office where the snoopy photographer’s manuscript has been accepted for a book. Mitigating this further exploitation of Grace’s story is the writer’s insistence that the proceeds should go to a women’s charity. Jenna Kanel is sophisticated and laudably succinct in her direction, while Keller Fornes brings the right combination of charm and menace to the teacher’s role. Somehow, Blake is a single parent taking care of an infant that Grace babysits.

Finally, from filmmaker James Sunshine, there was The Mountains We Climb, a sweet and madcap comedy romp directed by Jeremy Camp. All of this miniature, barely lasting more than three minutes, takes us into the mind of Alex on a first date. Both the girl and their restaurant rendezvous were chosen with appropriate cellphone apps. We heard no onscreen dialogue between Michael Meza as the eternally self-doubting Alex and Amanda Cruz as his cheerful and receptive date. Visually as the voiceover unfurls (shared by Meza with Josh Calvin), we shuttle between scenes of the actual Alex (primping, driving to the restaurant, and engaging with Judy, his date) and the mental Alex among scrub brush at the foot of a chalky mountain, which he laboriously proceeds to scale. Since we never hear how Alex charms Judy, the main payoffs are in cutaways when Judy finds Alex funny and later, in the parking lot, where they kiss before parting. With Judy’s laugh, we switch from wilderness to woods, where fantasy Alex dances with delight, and – after the kiss – we escalate to Alex frolicking half-naked at the foot of a waterfall. Comically, Alex’s self-doubt ultimately prevails in the dead of night, but a series of outtakes at the falls return us to joy after the credits roll.

Multiply all these wonders by three and you get the magnitude of the Joedance Film Festival and the regional talent that has made it possible.