'Spinning Plates'
'Spinning Plates'

Today's Sonoma Film Festival theme: subjects once considered taboo explored on film.

First up, "A Teacher," a brisk 75-minute first film written and directed by Hannah Fidell, well-received at Sundance, about a high school teacher's reckless affair with one of her AP English students -- he's in it for playful and casual sex, while she becomes obsessed and self-destructive. I see it in one of the festival's jerry-rigged screening rooms, in the charming 1916 Craftsman bungalow that houses the Sonoma Valley Woman's Club, with tables and chairs.

Alas, there's a serious light leak from the back of the house -- a velvet curtain has been hung that only screens half of the glass doors at the back of the room. It's worst during dark scenes, and, hey, there are lots of dark scenes in a movie that features people sneaking around to have sex. Just to improve things, they're re-surfacing the parking lot next door, with loud equipment that often seems to threaten to enter the room.  The cherry on the sundae is that only one of the speakers seems to be working. If I was the director (happily not in attendance), I'd slit my wrists.

Free glasses of Storm pinot noir are being handed out at the 12:15 screening of "Spinning Plates," in honor of the opening 9-minute short "Storm," about South African winemaker Ernst Storm, now of Santa Barbara County, and his philosophies of terroir --  charming and slight, perfect to be viewed, say, in his on-site tasting room. I'm a sucker for a good restaurant documentary, and "Spinning Plates" is one. (Clip below.)

It tells the stories of three seemingly wildly different American restaurants and owners: Grant Achatz's Alinea, in Chicago, world-famous home of molecular gastronomy and $210-$265 tasting menus; the 150-year-old home-cooking restaurant Breitbach's Country Dining, anchor of Balltown, Iowa, whose Mother's Day buffet runs $13.95; and a young, inexpensive Mexican family-run place in Tucson, La Cocina de Gabby.  Director Joseph Levy skillfully assembles his footage to emphasize the similarities rather than difficulties: family feeling, restaurants as communities, overcoming adversity.  The epilogue for two of the three places is upbeat, but the writing is on the wall for the third, alas -- and the date of November 2011 quoted makes the film seem slightly out of date.  

What I really want right now is a plate of Breitbach's fried chicken and mashed potatoes,m followed by a slice of their raspberry pie, but instead I trot off to another temporary screening room in the glamorous MacArthur Place hotel and spa, to see "Laurence Anyways," with Melvil Poupaud and Suzanne Clement in Xavier Dolan's 168-minute examination of the ten-year on-and-off relationship of a couple's struggles when the male partner announces that he wants to become the woman he always has felt he is -- which is news to his girlfriend. I find the shooting style over-the-top and occasionally pretentious; I feel I can see Clement acting, and the usually dependable Poupaud seems singularly unconvincing and uncommitted as a transgendered female (not to mention oddly badly dressed). I'm then confounded by the last scene of the movie, a flashback to their first meeting, which is totally believable and quite moving.