Film Festival: How do we measure quality of life? | St. Louis Public Radio

Film Festival: How do we measure quality of life?

Nov 4, 2015

This year St. Louis Public Radio is reviewing films from The St. Louis International Film Festival related to prominent issues facing our city.

Yesterday we reviewed films that dealt with crime and crime prevention. Today we’ll provide reviews of select movies that tackle different perspectives on quality of life issues.

It's a broad topic, so it's a big list: "T-Rex," "The Invitation," Good Ol' Boy," "Keeping Rosy," "Unlikely Heroes," "Frame by Frame," "Radical Grace," "Echo Lake," "24/7/365," "Bounce" and "I Can Quit Whenever I Want."

Quality of life describes the general well-being of a person or society, such as St. Louis. Contributing factors are often related to the health care, economic viability and access to amenities as well as pastimes. These movies address the environmental factors that make life a breeze or a full force gale.

Reviews are tailored to the STLPR/NPR fan, pairing each movie and its review to a STLPR/NPR show or podcast. Are you a fan of personal stories from The Moth? Do you prefer the high-quality production of This American Life? Scan our reviews to see which of these movies might be for you.

For a full schedule and tickets, go to

T-Rex (89 min) | Documentary
Directors: Zackary Canepari & Drea Cooper
9:15 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12 | Tivoli Theatre

“How did I get here?,” Claressa Shields asks at the start of "T-Rex." How she navigated the intense poverty of Flint, Mich., to become the first female Olympic boxing gold medalist is an emotionally gripping story from start to finish.

"T-Rex" shows us the complications of young athletes defining their identities. All the while, Ressa, as she's known to family and friends, finds the wherewithal to confront the adults in her life who have varying investments -- financial and psychic -- in her success. Whether she’s confronting her coach about having a boyfriend, who’s charmingly respectful of her boundaries, or convening a family meeting with her mother and stepmother about their jealousies as a barrier to her success, Ressa’s story shows us what determination looks like in the ring and outside of it.

Ressa learned at the age of 11 that excelling in boxing could change her ambitions. She said that before boxing, her goal was to have 10 kids before the age of 26. “Girls get easily pregnant in Flint,” she explained. The filmmakers do a wonderful job of staying out of the way and letting us see Ressa move from passive voice constructions of self to having the wisdom to come into her own. -- Kimberly Springer

For fans of: Fresh Air

The Invitation (90 minutes) | Narrative
Director: Karyn Kusama
9:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8 | Tivoli Theatre

From its opening moments, “The Invitation” is suffused with menace, dread and fear. Dark, lonely roads, a sudden surprise and even swaying palm trees foreshadow the creepiness to come for Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi).

Will and Kira are headed to a lavish dinner party hosted by ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David in the home where Will once lived. It’s the first time Will has seen Eden, many of their friends and his former home since a family tragedy destroyed his marriage and his psyche.

Not surprisingly Will is tense and on edge as his memories come rushing back. He sees Eden’s and David’s actions -- locking the front door, screening a video about a group they’ve joined, playing a revealing party game -- as sinister and threatening while the other guests see Will as an unstable buzzkill.

Although the atmosphere is at times laid on a little too thick, Kusama, a St. Louis native, knows how to build tension and suspense in what is essentially a modern version of a haunted house story in which the ghosts are both imagined and real. -- Susan Hegger

NPR show: The Moth

Good Ol’ Boy (103 min) | Narrative
Director: Frank Lotito
4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14 | Washington U/Brown School of Social Work

Bhaaskar Bhatnagar wants his 10-year-old son to live the American Dream. That’s why he gave him an all-American name -- Smith -- not realizing it’s actually a last name. At the same time, Bhaaskar wants Smith to be the obedient Indian son, who will grow up to be a neurosurgeon and to marry the young girl whose picture is on the family’s living room wall.

It’s a very tall order for Smith, who’s in love with the lovely Amy across the street and whose father Butch gives Smith lessons in how to be an American good ol’ boy.

This sweet, gentle, at times bittersweet comedy is both a coming of age tale as well as a tender story of an immigrant family trying to balance the old and the new. When the Bhatnagars decide to host a barbecue, they grill only vegetables, much to their neighbors’ surprise. And while Smith wants to be Darth Vader for Halloween -- is that a doctor? his father asks -- he winds up as Ganesh in a beautiful homemade costume. Of course, the neighbors think he’s a very odd, four-handed Dumbo.

“Good Ol’ Boy” shines with stellar performances, especially from the young, thoroughly winning Roni Akurati as Smith. Sometimes laugh out loud funny, sometimes sad and melancholic, “Good Ol’ Boy” is always generous of spirit. -- Susan Hegger

NPR show: This American Life

Keeping Rosy (93 min) | Narrative
Director: Steve Reeves
1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7 and 8:15 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8 | Hi-Pointe Backlot

Charlotte (Maxine Peake) is having a really bad day: She's forced to hold a colleagues' new infant on the “bring the baby to the office” visit. Her colleague's husband has made partner at the London media agency she helped build. In fact, she’s being fired. When she thinks her day can’t get anyway worse, by nightfall she has baby named Rosy to take care of and only champagne and sushi in the fridge.

Charlotte faces a decision: keep Rosy and raise her as her own or do something more dire.

This isn’t a commentary on women and “having it all.” Charlotte’s dilemma is one of class mobility. Much of the action takes place in Charlotte's apartment, which has all the trappings of a high end life. But there’s very little substance to it. Her apartment’s view is of a construction pit. She’s seemingly the sole resident in her tower. The construction cranes on the horizon signifying London’s sense of progress merely highlight Charlotte’s desolate interior life.

That is, until she opens herself up to future possibilities outside the city in a new role. Keeping Rosy maintains a steady pace of increasing dread the surer Charlotte becomes in her decision. -- Kimberly Springer

For fans of: Snap Judgment!

Unlikely Heroes (94 min) | Narrative (Switzerland)
Director: Peter Luisi
4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14 | Washington U/Brown School

“Unlikely Heroes” is the rousing, poignant tale of a group of asylum seekers in Switzerland who put on a production of Schiller’s “William Tell” under the direction of a Swiss woman who is herself a little at sea.

Not surprisingly, the movie's plot holds few surprises. We never for a moment doubt that the play will go on and be a success, despite the occasional obstacles in the path. But we are happy to go along on the journey because the characters are so appealing, the cultural details are so telling and Switzerland is so breathtaking.

Along the way to the inevitable conclusion, we can also enjoy a few little ironies: Some Swiss don’t believe the refugees can do justice to the story of William Tell, their national hero -- although Tell stood up to oppression and danger, something the refugees know all too well. And even as they rehearse this classic of Swiss national identity, the cold and frequently unhappy reality of being a refugee in Switzerland impinges. Those doses of reality help keep the movie from becoming too overwhelmingly sentimental.

The movie's message, though serious, is delivered with humor and warmth: The play “William Tell” has a happy ending, but unfortunately, the same can’t be said for all the refugees. -- Susan Hegger

For fans of: Cityscape

Frame by Frame (90 min) | Documentary (Afghanistan/US)
Directors: Alexandria Bombach & Mo Scarpelli
2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7 | Washington U/Brown School

Beautifully shot, wrought and rendered, this documentary does more than apt visual and storytelling justice to the people behind some of the most heart-wrenching and culturally important photography in Afghanistan’s fledgling free press post-Taliban rule. Make room for this one in your SLIFF schedule. The film, co-directed and produced by Mizzou journalism grad Mo Scarpelli and Alexandria Bombach, follows four Afghan photojournalists at various stages of their careers, including 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Massoud Hossaini.

Most interesting, however, is the film’s portrayal of Hossaini’s photographic colleague and wife, Farzana Wahidy, who must conquer extra levels of taboo to photograph and cover the stories of Afghanistan’s women (she’s one of the most kick-ass documentary heroines to grace the screen as of late). A combination of powerful interviews, colorful cinéma vérité and archival footage from the era of Taliban rule in the country drive home just how powerful photography is within a country that is grudgingly coming to accept the presence of a free press. This film also makes the extraordinary point that sometimes the most powerful journalism is not the most utterly objective, but rather that which extends a hand of empathy to those most impacted by it. -- Kelly Moffitt

For fans of: On the Media, BBC World Service

Credit Images from St. Louis International Film Festival

Radical Grace (77 min) | Documentary
Director: Rebecca Parrish
7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 9 | Webster U/Moore Auditorium

After the Vatican censured the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in 2012, it held its first meeting in St. Louis, and the Nuns on the Bus tour has made stops here. “Radical Grace” tells the story of the “assessment” by the Vatican of American nuns by looking at three of them.

Simone Campbell organized Nuns on the Bus; she’s a lawyer and a lobbyist. Jean Hughes works with the poor, including former convicts who are trying to get their lives together on Chicago’s West Side. Chris Schenk wants to “restore” a place at the table of Roman Catholic leadership for women.

The point of view is clear from the onset as the plain-spoken, plainly dressed nuns eloquently state their vision of grace in set in contrast with the gilded pomp and ritual their church can display. The conflict is also seen as Sister Simone’s group works for Obamacare as the bishops fight against it. Her criticism that right-to-life proponents all too often limit their concern to the right to be born is echoed in another documentary, “The Armor of Light.” (More on that later.)

We know how this comes out. The Vatican finds much to praise in the work of American nuns. The value to watching is in the journey and getting to know three women who strive to bring to action their perhaps radical faith. -- Donna Korando

For fans of: This American Life

Echo Lake (86 min) | Narrative (LOCAL INVOLVEMENT
Directors: Jody McVeigh-Schultz
Friday, Nov. 6 at 9:20pm | Plaza Frontenac Cinema

Do we really need another movie about an unaware man-child who goes to the woods to find himself and gain some new friends along the way? No, but that may be the very point of “Echo Lake,” which chronicles the journey of a 30-year-old functioning alcoholic as he heads to the hills to reassess his life and get in touch with his father’s drinking legacy. There’s even a "man’s best friend" sub-plot for the fido-inclined. The film is unabashedly navel-gazing, which leads this viewer to believe the filmmaker purposefully meant to expose the link between boomers’ over-indulgence with millennial self-indulgence in the most unlikable way. St. Louis native Sam Zvibleman does a believable job as the incorrigible Will, but his performance can’t lift the film away from anything but the unoriginal. --Kelly Moffitt

For fans of: Errrrr....

24/7/365: The Evolution of Emergency Medicine (62 min) | Documentary
Director: Dave Thomas
7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 6 | Saint Louis U/Center for Global Citizenship

To the untrained eye, "24/7/365" is a fascinating, if disjointed and occasionally melodramatic look at the development of modern emergency medicine. But if you watch it with someone who knows the field (my father was an emergency room physician early in his career), its flaws become obvious.

It’s clear that the original mavericks of the emergency departments did advance the field of medical care in significant ways, and that their advancements have probably saved thousands of lives. And it’s certainly true that emergency room physicians are the primary care providers for way too many Americans.

But the documentary wants you to believe that these doctors were the only forces that led to some of the developments the film portrays. You get the sense that the directors were leaving out crucial details, not just for time but because it didn’t fit the overall narrative.

As my mother put it, “It’s the best recruiting tool since [the NBC hit drama] ER” – a statement that carries more than a touch of irony since Anthony Edwards, who played Dr. Mark Greene, is the narrator. It’s important to keep in mind while watching the documentary that the Emergency Medicine Residents Association is a producer of the film. -- Rachel Lippmann

For fans of: The D slot of Morning Edition, Invisibilia

Bounce: How the Ball Taught the World to Play (72 min)| Documentary
Director: Jerome Thelia
2:30 p.m. Nov. 8. | Tivoli Theatre

The man picks up a piece of trash, another, a plastic bag, string. He works them together, forming a ball. That ball goes to a group of boys, who propel it down a dirt road. There is joy; there is play; there is bounce.

From bare feet and a dirt pitch to custom cleats on manicured fields overlooked by luxury boxes, we see balls transcending culture and custom.

There’s gorgeous smile-inducing photography. And the joy of sport. But “Bounce” offers lessons, too. It does not disparage cities that would put resources into multi-million dollar.

However, the value for society is found in pick-up games where the kids learn empathy and working through rules and disagreements, depending on how the balls bounce. -- Donna Korando

For fans of: Radiolab

I Can Quit Whenever I Want | Narrative (Italy)
Director: Sydney Sibilia
6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14 and 7:05 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15 | Tivoli Theatre

Describing "I Can Quit Whenever I Want" sounds like the start to a bad, convoluted joke: a chemist, a mathematician, a cultural anthropologist, a linguist, an economist, and an archaeologist walk into a bar … only the punchline is an incoherent take on "Breaking Bad." While "Breaking Bad" ended up being commentary on the U.S. health-care system, the failed War on Drugs, ego and greed, "I Can Quit…" tries too hard from the start to tell us what the collapse of the Italian higher education system has wrought.

Pietro is a frustrated academic who can’t seem to get a permanent position or grants to sustain his research due to cronyism. Likewise, his band of contemporaries are all over-educated for a tight Italian job market that won’t hire graduates. Taking advantage of the inability of European drug laws to keep up with the manufacture of synthetic street drugs, this overly degreed bunch decide to create their own not-yet-illegal club drug.

The colors in the film are overexposed throughout -- much like the plot itself. Knowing where Pietro and his gang of overeducated drug manufacturers and dealers ends up doesn’t make watching the rise and fall of their enterprise any more suspenseful. -- Kimberly Springer

For fans of: Science Friday