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TCFF 2022 Drama: Marisol, Jasmine Is a Star, Disfluency, & Gummy Worm

Libe Barer as Jane in Disfluency

Alongside the big-ticket Spotlight features like Till, She Said, and Empire of Light, the 2022 Twin Cities Film Fest is highlighted by dozens of excellent if lesser-known films. Those include documentaries, Minnesota-connected short films, and several pleasant surprises among the narrative feature films listed, among them four films focusing on resilient young women facing conflicts defined by their youth, their gender, and their experiences. Marisol, Jasmine Is a Star, Disfluency, and Gummi Worm are four of TCFF’s efforts that shine a spotlight on young women seeking, and sometimes, if not always, finding empowerment.

Marisol (dir. Kevin Cassanova Abrams, 2022)

I can hardly say enough good things about the excellent Marisol, a nearly-perfect indie film directed by Kevin Cassanova Abrams and starring newcomer Esmeralda Camargo in her first film role. It’s a film that is practically perfectly shot, edited, and scored in a subtle verité style that reminded me of another film about the experience of the undocumented immigrant: the extraordinary ¡Alambrista! (dir. Robert Young, 1977), which told the plight of an everyday worker with an uncommon, unfettered realism.

Abrams takes a similar tack in Marisol. The camera lens is always in an unobtrusive position, poised to capture Camargo’s expressive bewilderment, the edits simple and logical, the music only occasionally and subtly underscoring the onscreen action. Every actor onscreen seems and feels perfectly natural, their characters clearly drawn and motivated.

Camargo plays Marisol Rivera, a studious young first-generation Mexican-American who spends her mornings cleaning horse stalls and her evenings hitting the books. And her hard work and relentless studies about to pay off. After years of living with her aunt, she’s finally won a prestigious scholarship and ready to leave Southwest Texas for a new life in California.

But the same bookishness that makes Marisol an academic high achiever makes her standoffish in the eyes of classmate Justin, a brooding incel-in-training whose getting most of his learning on far-right anti-immigrant websites. He learns something about Marisol even she doesn’t know: she’s undocumented.

Much of Marisol then takes place on the road, where a 21st-century Underground Railroad network of kind-hearted Americans guides Marisol north, through Wichita to Des Moines and ultimately, Minneapolis, with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on her trail. Having for most of her life relied on others to make decisions for her, Marisol must now navigate an uncertain future on her own.

There’s little to fault with this excellent coming-of-age film. Maybe the title, one shared by a few other indie shorts and features in recent years. Or a third-act near-conclusion as generous police detective attempts an off-the-books resolution that seems less than perfectly plausible. But those are nitpicks: if you have a chance to see Marisol, you must: it’s as excellent a film documenting the experience of the undocumented as I have seen in the 45 years since ¡Alambrista!

Jasmine Is a Star (dir. Jo Rochelle, 2022)

Like Marisol, Jasmine is a Star offers a look into a community rarely represented onscreen through the perspective of a young teen girl approaching adulthood. Jasmine Is a Star depicts the coming of age of a 16-year-old Minneapolis girl juggling the demands of family, friends, school, and ambition—but whose albinism complicates most aspects of her life. Sadly, the color of one’s skin remains what many people are too commonly judged by, and young Jasmine experiences this judgment at nearly every turn.

Determined and resolute, Jasmine aspires to be a model and takes her goals seriously. In one way, her albinism might set her apart from others in a competitive field; yet in others, there are no role models, products, or resources specifically devoted to people like her. At school, Jasmine’s sensitive vision requires special seating, sunglasses, and assistance; legally blind, she cannot drive and depends on Lyft for transportation. Being a teen is complicated enough without the additional complexities of her albinism.

When a big break seems to arrive, the moment is pocked by microaggressions and othering: her employers see her only as “alien.” Her protective father recognizes the mistreatment while Jasmine, too young and too eager to understand fully what’s happening, seems oblivious to the issue. In a world where albinism is more typically presented onscreen as something to be feared or reviled—like, say, a Bond villain—Jasmine’s issues are real and presented in well-written scenes that escalate conflict organically.

YouTuber and influencer Iyana Leshea plays Jasmine with sincerity, and I can only assume the actor has faced a few similar challenges of her own. Director-writer Jo Rochelle, a Minneapolis native and graduate of NYU’s Tisch School for the Cinematic Arts, manages in the film’s brisk 60-minute runtime to convey Jasmine’s journey emotionally and efficiently. Shot in Minneapolis, the film’s backgrounds—First Avenue, The Mary Tyler Moore statue, Pillsbury Mills, and others—will be immediately recognizable to TCFF audiences. And while some of the supporting performances feel less organic than Leshea’s, Jasmine is a Star takes the traditional coming-of-age story to new places and breaks down existing stereotypes.

Disfluency (dir. Anna Baumgarten, 2022)

Despite its disorienting title, Disfluency makes perfect sense as a study of trauma. Writer-director-producer Anna Baumgarten’s script takes a term more commonly associated with stuttering but focuses more on its broader interpretation, as any act that can disrupt the flow of spoken language. That academic notion is where the plot of Disfluency begins: in a college seminar, where unnerved senior Jane finds herself failing—for the first time in her life—in her final course. In an empty auditorium, bright and colored lights swirl above her as she sinks into her seat, clearly distressed by her vortex of emotions.

Jane (Libe Barer), we learn, was sexually assaulted at a party, but struggles to recall exactly what happened. Having flunked her final course, she returns to her parents’ lakeside Midwestern home for the summer, where she reconnects with her friends. Even aside from the assault, Jane is a unique protagonist: a childhood accident rendered her speechless for several years, and as a consequence, she learned American Sign Language. In college, she majored in linguistics (or perhaps speech communication), and at home she teaches single mother Amber (Chelsea Alden, “Shameless”) how to sign to be able to communicate with her deaf son.

Language, then—its fluency, intentionality, and lacks thereof—is brought to the fore in Disfluency. As Jane’s professor explains, disfluencies are disruptions in language; but Jane learns, through her friendships and family, that disruptions, like others, can be only temporary. Barer is excellent in a demanding role as Jane, a coddled, intelligent, high-achieving child learning to make her own decisions as she approaches independence. Her academic interest in language motivates her to achieve but also frustrates her sometimes-awkward interactions with others.

The film is also handsomely shot, especially in some difficult circumstances (during a fireworks show, on the water, under a pier) and acted with nuance and grace by Barer and the rest of the cast. A scene where Jane tells Amber what happened at school—in sign—is especially effective. So is one where her misophonia surfaces during a police interrogation. But the performances are uniformly strong throughout the film.

A third-act “six-months-later” skip may elide some of what brings Jane back to complete some unfinished business, but Disfluency nonetheless provides a compelling portrait of one kind of post-traumatic stress. With its academic setting, excellent cast, innovative script, and handsome cinematography, Disfluency makes for one of the lesser-known highlights of the festival.

Gummy Worm (dir. Eva Hoffman and James Birr, 2022)

If Marisol and Jasmine Is a Star focuses on girlhood and Disfluency a young adult just out of college, Gummy Worm examines a life-stage just a bit later down the line: the plight of the twentysomething. Its protagonists, Elle and Oz, seem like they have been together just a bit too long. While she relishes her time with her friends, her gardening, and her cooking, her interactions with Oz lack empathy and tenderness. Oz acts bored and distracted, and Ellie is tiring of being the relationship’s fixer.

At twenty-five, like their friends, Elle is facing a hinge moment in her life. Does she stick out a relationship that seems to be failing as she and Oz drift apart? Is there something better ahead? Or is it time to take that big leap into the unknown? Maybe, just maybe, their relationship can thrive if something—or someone–gives it a bit of a spark, so to speak.

Gummy Worm has some lovely cinematography in the montage sequences that encapsulate Elle and her friends’ adventures in nature and communal parties. Silent moments scored to “Daydream” and “I Don’t Know Why (I Just Do)” convey a warmth and intimacy with gestures and glances that tends to disappear, unfortunately, during the scripted dialogue, which sometimes comes across as stilted and often forgoes clarity for a verité-style improvisation. In a way, that’s both Gummy Worm’s weakness and its strength: the cast doesn’t quite convince when it comes to moving the plot forward with specific lines of dialogue, but at the same time the ensemble pieces feel sprightly and organic, full of the inebriated ennui of birthdays that seem a little less celebratory with each passing year.

As Elle leans into making a choice she thinks might save her and Oz’s relationship, the film leans into its gently comic tone. The actor Birdie (aka Bernadette Roden) is luminous, conflicted, and charismatic as Elle, who “isn’t quite into” what Oz thinks might save their relationship. Gummy Worm offers a little slice of life for the disaffected, dissatisfied Millennials who find themselves in their mid-twenties facing crossroads they never knew existed with friends and lovers they aren’t sure they can trust.

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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