By Steve Greene | Criticwire June 14, 2013 at 5:04PM
Film festival synopses can be a blessing and a curse. They're certainly a helpful tool to help pare down the unlimited options at some festivals -- especially those that reach the triple digit mark in a hurry.
This year, at the Seattle International Film Festival, there were plenty of titles that were cause for excitement. Destin Daniel Cretton's "Short Term 12," which wowed audiences at SXSW earlier this year is a strong look at a juvenile short term care facility. Stephen Silha and Eric Slade's "Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton" handles the poet and filmmaker's personal and professional lives with equal grace. "This is Martin Bonner," a Sundance title from Chad Hartigan is a careful examination of two men in various states of societal transition.
And among those titles on the SIFF slate were a pair that took well-trodden sub-genres and infused them with something a little more special. In some cases, synopses can be deceiving. These two merit a closer look.
There's a unique joy that comes from watching a cast that works together so comfortably. The six actors at the heart of "Teddy Bears" have differing pedigrees from TV and film. But all of those sensibilities gel together for a genuine and affecting look at friendship, commitment, and curiosity.
"Teddy Bears," the latest film from writer Thomas Beatty and co-director Rebecca Fishman, operates from a simple premise: Andrew (David Krumholtz) is still coping with the passing of his mother when he invites his close circle of friends up to Joshua Tree for a weekend vacation. Once he, his girlfriend Hannah (Melanie Lynskey) and the other two couples (Jason Ritter and Gillian Jacobs; Zachary Knighton and Ahna O'Reilly) get settled in at their momentary abode, Andrew makes an unusual proposal. In order to better cope with his recent loss, Andrew asks that all three female members carve out some special alone time with him at some point during the weekend. He gives the individual couples the time to talk it over, but the understandable resulting tension seeps into every action for the rest of the film's runtime.
Beatty and Fishman understand the ridiculous nature of Andrew's request, but they also treat him with an empathy that stays right in the emotional buffer between mockery and wholehearted endorsement. There's an edge to Andrew, handled adeptly by Krumholtz, that suggests that he has issues that no woman's touch can magically resolve. But momentary glimpses into Andrew's daydreams show us the delicacy with which he plans to handle his special night, should his friends be so willing. Wisely, the whimsical fantasy aspect isn't overdone, but employed just enough to keep the unexpected alive.
Andrew's declaration of his needs creates the possibility for some uneasy storytelling footing, as his friends try to regain some semblance of normalcy for their vacation weekend. But the performances keep the action tethered in something organic as each character takes their turn being the voice of reason in an uncomfortable situation. Knighton in particular captures the natural incredulity of the whole affair, all while trying to keep the characters around him from straying too far from logical responses. Binding them together is Eric Potter's editing, an ideal visual companion to the acting skill on display. In a film rife with reaction shots and a narrative built on responses to unexpected actions, it's the timing in those cuts that shines through just as bright.
Another strong asset at work here is the way that Beatty, as a writer, unspools how all of these characters' stories are interrelated. There's no giant information dump at the beginning that instantly establishes the framework. Instead, we observe the various combos of the six friends, discussing past feelings, uneasy tensions and genuine concern over others' well-being. Their conversations aren't coy just to withhold information from the audience, but carefully observed with an unspoken understanding that close friends would naturally have when discussing the potential dissolution of the friend group.
This gradual dispensing of character depth also applies to the supporting cast. Dale Dickey continues her streak of playing compelling anti-charmers, while Ned Beatty pops up as the friends' weekend neighbor. A nearly unrecognizable French Stewart (in appearance, voice and demeanor) is Rich, the de facto landlord of the desert house the six are renting. All three are helpful reminders that life and all its consequences still go on outside the friends' bubble of awkwardness.
Even though the friends-who-go-away-to-a-cabin-and-discover-something-about-themselves is bordering on a trope at this point in the American indie landscape, Beatty and Fishman infuse their tale with a sense of camaraderie that elevates each relationship and delivers real emotion when that fabric is challenged. There are no easy answers at the end of the "Teddy Bears" journey, but the palpable sincerity that runs through its story lends a genuine eye to what easily could have devolved into caricature. It doesn't get precious, keeping its off-kilter sensibilities all the way up through the lyrics of its closing song.
There's something inherently fascinating about a figure who chooses to forego the unlimited spoils of world fame, regardless of the reason. In the sporting world, when an athlete is robbed of his or her prime, there's usually an accompanying off-the-field tale that dovetails with that fall from grace. ESPN's "30 for 30" series featured a documentary on Ricky Williams, an NFL running back whose social hurdles and marijuana use led him to a self-imposed exile of sorts. But even though Williams' story happened in the Internet age, the scrutiny that followed boxer Muhammad Ali, even at his peak athletic performance, may never be equaled. Bill Siegel's documentary "The Trials of Muhammad Ali" chronicles the decades surrounding Ali's meteoric ascension, equally drastic fall from public favor and the fights that eventually led him to become a Medal of Freedom recipient in 2005.
Imagine your most defining Ali moment: odds are, it's in here somewhere. Whether it's his triumph over Sonny Liston (when he was still widely known as Cassius Clay), a remark from his public Nation of Islam speaking engagements or a particular quip at a press conference. But for all the familiar Ali touchstones spread throughout the proceedings, there's a real strength in letting them run a few seconds longer. Everyone remembers "I shook up the world!" but far fewer remember the line immediately after that which perfectly encapsulates the fine line between sports and his religious inclinations.
The film's most impressive feat is its balancing of three distinct threads that weave together Ali's struggles. That sports-religion divide is eventually complicated by a legal battle over Ali's refusal to enter the draft during the Vietnam war. Rather than veering too far into any of the three directions, "Trials" sticks to the promise of its title and follows the repeated hurdles, self-inflicted or otherwise, that Ali faced. Siegel takes advantage of Ali's ubiquity during his ascent to power, even using footage from Ali's appearance on "The Jerry Lewis Show" (a brief clip in which the titular host gets awfully prickly). For as loved in some circles as he was, Siegel shows that a certain air of wariness followed him even in the days when he would play croquet and do magic tricks in his front yard.
Siegel's choice of prominent figures' response to Ali's persona and public decisions effectively captures his actions' racial and political ramifications. We see Jackie Robinson, pioneering figure in the athletic world and American society, deliberately refer to the champ as "Cassius." But more than anything, Siegel reinforces, through visuals and testimonials, the idea that Ali was continuously co-opted as a selling point. Whether as an icon of local Louisville civic pride, a banner member for an emerging religious group or as a means to perpetuate the popularity of one of the nation's most popular sports at the time, Ali was a symbol for both his supporters and detractors to use.
Archival Ali, even at half of his charismatic powers, needs little help to hook viewers' interest, but Joshua Abrams' jazzy score (a clear step above standard stock doc music) helps give these tales forward momentum. The closing minutes of the film amps up the pace, racing through the moments after the point in Ali's life where Parkinson's Disease began to take its toll. Even after Ali was vindicated and made his return to the sport he was effectively ousted from, the burdens of being one of the most recognizable faces in the world were still there. The religious elements of Ali's struggles largely dissipated with the Nation of Islam's changing makeup, but most of the stories of "The Trials of Muhammad Ali" make it clear that this was a man who was never afforded the luxury of privacy. Even though this film's epilogue spans decades over a matter of minutes, the idea that some of Ali's struggles never fully resolved is a fitting close to a documentary about a man whose legacy is still being shaped.