Sunday, June 13, 2010

Martha Stephens' PASSENGER PIGEONS makes NY debut at BAMcinemaFEST

A little film likely to get lost in the shuffle, even at  independent-minded festivals such as the ongoing BAMcinemaFEST (where it makes its NYC debut tomorrow) or at SXSW (where it premiered this past March), PASSENGER PIGEONS deserves recognition -- and a viewing -- from cineasts who want a movie that's timely without a smack-you-in-the-puss agenda. This leisurely narrative film is written by, directed by and features (within a nicely chosen and talented acting ensemble) West Virginia native Martha Stephens, for whom TrustMovies would use the usual term "triple threat," except that Ms Stephens -- even while juggling all three roles -- is such a quiet presence that "threat" seems a particularly inappropriate term.

Her movie (that's the director acting the role of "Robin," at left) takes place in the coal mining country of Kentucky, where an "accident" has recently ended the life of someone who might have been the film's protagonist. Instead, he leaves behind a wife, son and brother (shown just below), whom we come to know rather well, as we also do a waitress and her boyfriend (two photos below), who himself works in the mine (the town's only industry), which has his girlfriend plenty scared. There is also an old man about to retire from his mining-company job, his young replacement learning the ropes, and one of the company's managers (three photos below).  Finally there's an outsider -- a young woman, played by the writer/director, who is part of a group protesting the mining company and its threat to the environment -- and the older man she meets in a restaurant who takes a shine to her, as she does to him and, it turns out, his family (shown at bottom).

The plot, such as it is, simply weaves along, inter-cutting scenes of these four groups, dealing with what has just happened and will probably continue to happen. All the characters we meet seem both real and decent -- even the old mining company man, when we get to know him, quietly begins to break our heart. In fact, as the film reaches its climax (though you can hardly call it that), the sadness that has been building up throughout for each set of characters suddenly starts to overflow -- without a hint of undue pushing or any event taking place that is not ordinary and every-day.

This is quite an achievement on the part of Ms Stephens, who makes our relatively lengthy journey (the film lasts 107 minutes) a satisfying one. Best of all, I think, is the manner in which the filmmaker manages not to do the expected. She does not demonize the mining company, but rather shows us its results: how the company hurts everyone it comes into contact with, while providing them their only means of making a living, and how the workers know this and do their best to somehow get around it. Stephens offers us the kind of reality that is not easily changed or overcome, and she makes us understand it from various perspectives. Most of us viewers will already know the bigger picture, but we will not have seen the local one as we do here: the movie puts you firmly into the economy of this small town.

The film's beautiful widescreen/hi-def cinematography, by Greg Hudgins, is filled with nature and faces, and the soundtrack is good, too -- with ambient sounds surrounding our characters most of the time -- and only occasionally comes off too heavy, as when traffic drowns out some of the dialog between uncle and nephew.  Passenger Pigeons shows once at BAMcinemaFEST later today, Sunday, June 13, at 5:45 pm.  I don't believe it has US distribution as yet, but I hope it will see further screenings or perhaps streaming, a DVD release and/or showings on cable channels.  For more information on this film or to purchase tickets, click here.

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