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TCFF 2022 Closing Night: The Inspection, After the Gunflint, Empire of Light

Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

After two weekends, more than 80 in-person screenings, and another 100+ films streaming on the festival’s virtual platform, Twin Cities Film Fest 2022 came to a close Saturday, Oct. 29 with a final flurry of first-rate films and audience awards. Among the films screening on TCFF’s final day: the new film from A24, Elegance Bratton’s autobiographical The Inspection; a local intergenerational outdoor-thriller After the Gunflint; and Sam Mendes’ newest, Empire of Light. Those and a dozen or so other films were followed by a next-door afterparty and the announcement of the festival’s award winners. Scroll on!

The Inspection (dir. Elegance Bratton, 2022)

Elegance Bratton’s first feature film is based on his own experience as a young gay Black man in the early aughts as he commits to joining the Marines. It’s an intense, moving experience, another in A24’s long line of surprising successes, and a film that takes its depiction of boot camp seriously.

Ellis French, played by Jeremy Pope, is the Bratton character. As the narrative begins he’s down and out, near-homeless, and rejected by his straight-arrow single mother Inez (Gabrielle Union). He seems an unlikely candidate for the Marines with his soft-spoken demeanor and slump-shouldered posture. But with no options for the future, he enlists nonetheless.

And in basic training he endures not just the grueling routines familiar to filmgoers, but a deep-seated prejudice of the “Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell” era, no shortage of latent homoeroticism, and surprisingly, a modicum of the camaraderie and support he could never find in his youth or on the streets. Pope is excellent as a young man who, in his officer’s words, can queer anything, but commits to his enlistment wholeheartedly. So is Union, even if she’s onscreen only at the film’s start and end, in a frosty, conflicted role as a mother whose prejudice runs every bit as deep as her love.

The Inspection is scheduled for wide release Nov. 18, 2022.

After the Gunflint (dir. J.D. O’Brien, 2022)

This Minnesota-made intergenerational drama is written and directed by J. D. O’Brien and has been more than three years in the making, following a pandemic-related hiatus after production began in 2019. While a film made, as O’Brien says, for “$30,000 and favors,” can scarcely compete with new studio productions from A24 or an Academy-Award winner like Sam Mendes, regional festivals like TCFF can provide indie films a real boost. And that was highly apparent in the well-received screening of After the Gunflint.

Too-busy-with-work-for-his-family man David (Al Norby) and his teenage daughter Jenna (Josie Axelson) join her grandpa (and David’s father-in-law) “Pops” (Bruce Purcell) for a northern Minnesota fly-fishing trip that’s full of harsh terrain and generational conflict.

Some old wounds have to be set aside when and old rope-bridge fails as they cross and Jenna breaks her arm. With no way to return across the canyon it bridged, the three now face a 15-mile hike. At camp that evening, old wounds surface between the three, and in the middle of the night, an agitated Pops suffers a heart attack. Now Jenna, her broken arm in spatula-sling, and her conflicted father have to carry Pops, unconscious but alive, to safety.

After the Gunflint must have been an arduous shoot in the Minnesota north woods. In some scenes you can see the mosquitos swarm about the actors like ravenous little locusts. Filming was delayed for a time during COVID, and Axelson, who began the project when she was just 16, was now celebrating her 20th birthday during the Saturday screening, finishing her senior year at New York University. All homegrown talent, Axelson, Norby, and Purcell give the script their all. And while in some places the story lacks the polish or finesse you might see in a major-studio release, After the Gunflint still finds moments of sincere, heartfelt emotion that will impact any father, daughter, or grandfather.

Empire of Light (dir. Sam Mendes, 2022)

A top-notch Olivia Colman, a well-deserved comeuppance for Colin Firth, a little early-’80s ska, and poetry from W. H. Auden and Philip Larkin, all in an ode to the magic of cinema—I felt like Empire of Light was made just for me. And for much of its runtime, it was: a fascinating budding interracial romance between Colman’s Hilary, a manager at an English coastal cinema, and Micheal Ward’s Stephen, a new employee there, set at a time when racial tensions ran high (as if they didn’t before or still).

As unlikely a pairing as Hilary and Stephen’s might seem, it feels truly organic, and even while an initial physical attraction evolves into a deeper and more caring friendship, Sam Mendes’ direction is far more assured than the script itself, which, simply, never really knows exactly where it’s going. I love Colman’s character. She thrives on portraying these complex women whose desires and abilities go unseen by a misogynist culture. Is a woman who wants a drink and a f*ck and is unafraid to speak her mind such a threat she needs to be medicated, maybe even institutionalized? Her boss, Mr. Ellis (Firth) takes the same with no repercussions, only rewards.

Empire of Light is on firm ground when focusing on Hilary’s needs and actions. Less so, though, when tracing the racism that confronts young Stephen. (And in the last moments of the festival, I couldn’t help but think back to the opening night and the lynching of Emmett Till.) The insertion of some of the era’s pop-cultural ephemera—the Wilder-Pryor collaboration Stir Crazy, The (English) Beat’s glorious punk-ska party Wha’Hoppen?—make for glorious reminders of a multicultural utopia beset by violent Neo-Nazi skinheads beating at the doors.

And although I love perhaps as much or more than anyone a Cinema-Paradiso-like ode to the wonders of the cinema, Empire of Light concludes with a few moments of its magic, photographed in all its dusty splendor by the incomparable Roger Deakins, only to decide this film needs a more explicit conclusion. Or two, perhaps three. By the fourth, you’re ready for credits to roll. It’s not a film that’s greater than the sum of its parts, but those parts—Colman’s performance in particular—will still make Empire of Light worth a night at the movies when it releases widely in the U.S. December 9, 2022.

TCFF 2022 Awards

Following the closing-night screenings and at the afterparty, director Jatin Setia announced the festival’s awards. I was especially pleased to see the excellent Marisol recognized for the Breakout Performance of its lead, Esmeralda Camargo; After the Gunflint (above) was also recognized, deservedly so, for Breakout Achievement.

  • Best Feature Film Award: Women Talking, directed by Sarah Polley
  • The Robert Byrd Best Documentary Award: Wildcat, directed by Trevor Frost and Melissa Lesh
  • Best Short Film Award: The Cosmopolitan West, directed by Molly Ratermann
  • Audience Award, Feature: Sins Of The Father, directed by Vanessa M. H. Powers
  • Audience Award, Non-Fiction: A Letter to Bryson, directed by Adrian Wilson
  • Audience Award, Short Film: The Mosquito, directed by Ross Michael Johnson & Jackie Deschamps
  • Indie Vision — Breakthrough Performance: Esmeralda Camargo, Marisol
  • Indie Vision — Breakthrough Achievement: Steven Hauge, J.D. O’Brien and Brett Schnacky, After the Gunflint
  • Fun Is Good Bill Murray Comedic Shorts Award: V.I.P., directed by Marisa Coughlan
  • TCFF Changemaker Award (Climate Action: Food & Fashion): Maggie Baird and Stephanie Dillon
  • TCFF Lifetime Achievement Award: Chris Mulkey
  • 2022 North Star Awards: Beau Bridges and Tom Cavanagh
  • TCFF ‘Empower’ Award for Justice: Deborah Watts and Teri Watts

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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