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Take the Kids to Reel2Real

Film fest proves it's universal. Parents and children drive each other crazy.

By Dorothy Woodend 20 Feb 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every other Friday.

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Scene from 'Summer of the Flying Saucer.'

A number of films in The Reel 2 Real International Film Festival for Youth (opening this weekend in Vancouver) take as their subject matter the complicated relationship between parents and children. This is natural enough. There is no other relationship, at least which I've ever experienced, that comes close to being so perplexing, confounding and utterly consuming so much of the time. It's something of a relief to know that kids and parents around the world seem to share this experience.

In Italy, home to the original mama mia, friction between the generations threatens to get combustible in director Claudio Antonioni's feature film The Ball (Liscio). In a seaside Italian city, 12-year-old Raul and his mother Monica are locked in an age-old power struggle. (It's the usual drill: child wants normality, and parent wants freedom.) Monica, a beautiful mercurial nightclub singer with a taste for men (lots of men), is cut from Sophia Loren/Anna Magnani cloth. In short, she is one ripe tomato, storming through life, all heaving bosoms and smoldering eyes. It's little wonder that she seems to inspire both love and caution in her son.

Raul may worship his mother, but he sees through her bad behaviour and has little patience with the many different boyfriends who traipse through his kitchen in the morning, making painful conversation. So, with all the worldly authority of your typical 12-year-old, he decides to find a man for his mother, "the right one," as he says.

He sets his sights on his music teacher, a sensitive man with excellent taste and a nice head of silvered hair. Things seem to be going according to plan, but Raul isn't quite as astute about love as he thinks and as his plans begin to derail in spectacular fashion, he follows suit. Add in the betrayal of a friend, and Raul is soon picking fights at school, smashing windows, and wading into the ocean, a small figure heading resolutely towards the horizon. (If there was ever a clearer visual indicator of the pain and drama of being 12 and misunderstood, I cannot think of one at the moment.)

Musical discord

There are a great many smart, sly scenes tucked in sideways that you have to be paying attention to catch, such as one of Monica's ex-boyfriends meticulously feeding a plant with an eyedropper before cracking a book on the proper technique to grow marijuana. Or Raul's would-be girlfriend Manuela, armed with a double set of braces, and a seemingly voracious curiosity about kissing.

Although, this is ostensibly a kid's movie, it is European after all. There are even some moments that may surprise, such as Monica telling Raul, "You're my son, not my judge." He responds with some choice words of his own. But who among us has not wanted to tell our mothers to "f*** off" occasionally?

In amongst the sturm und drang, mother and son must find a way back to mutual respect and love. They do so through their shared understanding of music. Underneath the action, instrumental motifs are busily enacting their own version of events. Whether it's dance hall mazurka, played at the very beginning by Raul's grandfather, or Monica's own song, that finally allows her the freedom of self-expression -- music forms the subtext underneath, and voices the story's conflicts and resolutions in a language that is more articulate and honest than mere words.

Look, up in the sky!

In Ireland, father and sons are the ones stuck in generational conflict. Director Martin Duffy's film Summer of the Flying Saucer is set in summer of 1967, in a tiny Irish hamlet. In this small village, world events such as the Cuban missile crisis pass without note, while local gossip is passed around feverishly.

Young Dan Mullaney, fresh home from college and sporting his hippie finest, quickly incurs the disapproval of his friends and neighbours, who are convinced that an army of dirty smelly Bolsheviks are about the overrun the place. Dan's father is especially unimpressed with his son's peace and love hairiness. With a face like spoiled milk, and a manner to match, the old man seems makes bitterness and disappointment into an art form. After Dan's mother died, there is little left for his father to live for, except to pile rocks into a stone fence, and complain about his no good son.

The summer looks grim indeed, until one night when Dan is awakened by some crashing and banging outside in the barn. He stumbles, quite literally, upon a beautiful young woman, with glowing eyes and a magical stone that seems to give her supernatural powers. The mystery deepens when Dan discovers she and her companion, who looks an awful lot like Nick Cave, are hiding out at an abandoned farmhouse, desperately scrounging scrap metal from the surrounding countryside to repair their spaceship.

Yes, Virginia, they are beings from another planet, cosmic invaders.

Hippies from out of town

Determined to help them, Dan tries to pass off the stranded aliens as visiting hippies (Jimi Hendrix and his daughter Janis Joplin). But his efforts have unexpected results, and soon enough the entire town is paying extremely close attention to Mr. Hendrix and his lovely daughter. Summer of the Flying Saucer is a curious mixture of a movie that combines elements of classic science fiction, star-crossed romance, and a dash of Irish familial drama, that could very well have been taken from John Ford's The Quiet Man.

Interspersed into the mix are a few scenes that are truly hilarious in their pure oddness, such as alien Jimi Hendrix dancing the space disco in the local pub after a few too many Guinesses. In the end, it is the relationship between father and son that comes to the fore. Danny and his "da" come to mutual understanding and sense of compassion by helping their new alien friends take to the skies once more. It's a sweet conclusion to a charming film that spikes its lessons in cooperation with an occasional gonzo scene. But what else would you expect from an Irish hippy science fiction romance?

More good film bets

There are a number of other fine offerings in Reel 2 Real this year, including John Walker's docudrama Passage that retraces the steps of John Rae, who discovered the truth behind the grim tales of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition.

Another exceptional offering from the National Film Board is Daniel Janke's animated film How People Got Fire that uses a combination of elegant charcoal drawings and rotoscoped animation to recreate Kitty Smith's oral story from the Tlingit Nation in Canada's Yukon Territory. In Grandma K's house, things are not quite what they seem, another older world has a way of slipping in sideways. Books have a mind of their own, and stories that need telling come flying out of nowhere. As a young girl listen and learns, the ordinary reality of dirty slush and yellow school buses falls away into the mythic world of Crow and Chicken Hawk.

A summing up of the intricacies between mother and daughter is beautifully achieved in Peg Campbell's short film Your Mother Should Know. This isn't the typical treacle about mother love, but an accurate portrait of the push-me-pull-you dance that almost all women have their own mother, and with their kids. Patterns break and reassemble, and form anew. This is a deeply personal film that layers poetic images, with the ordinary realities of birthday parties, morning commutes, the endless rush of to-ing and fro-ing that comprises so much of parenting. Your Mother Should Know occasions a type of pause, a moment to step back and think, "Oh, this is it. This is life." In all its miraculous mundanity.

Reel 2 Real is also an excellent opportunity for parents and children to watch films and talk about them. Certainly, many of the films have subtitles, but this can provide an interesting opportunity for a running translation for younger viewers. I remember being taken, against my will, to foreign films as a youngster, and protesting vociferously the entire time. Afterwards, I usually had to eat my words and admit, grudgingly, that it had been worth it.

The one thing that these surprisingly sophisticated films that make clear is that for all the variance between families around the world, the similarities outweigh the differences.

Parents and kids worldwide share the common experience of love and frustration with each other.

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