We are in the heart of the Fall film festival season, the middle of October, the beginning of the end for clinging onto the last straws of warmish weather, and here I am, back at the Chicago International Film Festival. It is my first time attending the fest in full since 2019, before, you know, some things changed. Now, four years (!!!) later, I am back and ready to embrace the chaos, load up on caffeine, see some films, and talk about it. Let’s not waste any time.
Opening night is always its own special thing. This year, it was at the city’s infamous Music Box Theatre, a place I’m sure you’ll be seeing me talk about a lot over the course of the next week. It truly is a movie mecca and not only my favorite theater but my favorite place. To kick off the fest, they threw a block party out front, blocking off the street, lining the block with vendors welcoming people into the scene with art, coffee, beer, memorabilia, and smiles.
Our opening night film was We Grown Now by young Chicago director Minhal Baig. Immediately there was a charged energy in the building because of the specifically local nature of the film. Set in the Cabrini-Green projects of Chicago in 1992, premiering the festival with this story was a compelling choice. You could feel the attachment to the material in the air, and I soon realized that with the film being shot in the city and predominantly with local cast & crew members, many of their friends and family were in attendance filling out the 700-seat auditorium, making their presence known. The audience was diverse, joyous, and celebratory.
This is Baig’s third film. From the opening minutes, it is clear she is a special filmmaker and a remarkable visual storyteller. Her camerawork is so strong in some ways it might be the main character, guiding you through the film and showing you the perfect lens into this world. We see it through the eyes of two young boys, Malik (Blake Cameron James) and Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez). For me, movies like this can be a struggle if I’m not sold on the performances of its child actors. Such is not the case here, these two are really outstanding. From the outset, I was thinking about the film in relation to one of the great Spike Lee’s absolute best, Crooklyn (1994). Spike also told that period piece through the eyes of children in the city (early 1970s Brooklyn, in that case), while giving incredible weight to the lives of their parents, played memorably by Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo. Baig uses the same general approach here, and we get a career-best performance from Jurnee Smollett playing Malik’s mom. She is balancing being a good parent with trying to advance at her place of employment to provide for her family, as relatable a story as any. Her emotional arc combined with Malik discovering how to move about in the world and break free of the limitations imparted on him by their economic reality are the driving forces of the film. People are going to fall in love with these characters and really connect with their story. It has been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, but no release date has been set yet. Keep an eye out!
The following night was certainly a comedown from the highs of that opener, as my attempt at securing a rush ticket for Justine Trier’s widely acclaimed Anatomy of a Fall was unsuccessful. Alas, traveling home in shame, I queued up Chloe Domont’s newly released Fair Play on Netflix as a consolation prize. A real winner, I would recommend!
Rallying the morale, we rolled into night three to see Anh Hung Tran’s The Taste of Things. This was my first viewing at the festival’s new central location, the repurposed ArcLight, now AMC NEWCITY 14. Tran was in person to present the film as well, starring everyone’s favorite, Juliette Binoche. Foodies will savor the experience, never before have I seen food preparation presented in such natural detail. Tran takes the viewer on a deeply emotional journey with Binoche’s Eugenie and Patrick d’Assumçao’s Grimaud, bonded by their shared passion for the truly exquisite dish. It is a very slow-moving story, but when the credits rolled I realized I was more invested in the characters’ arcs than I had thought as it was meandering along. The ending hits and is especially satisfying, though you will want to quickly get out and find your own perfect meal, if not prepare it yourself. The film is France’s submission for Best International Feature at the Oscars and is slated to be released in the US by IFC Films in February.
Looking ahead, we’ve got a great slate of films to dive into, and I can’t wait to share more impressions, along with a couple of full reviews as well! Stay tuned into the site for all things cinema, for all things Chicago.