In Northwest Arkansas, We Visit a Film Festival Celebrating Women and Diversity

By  · Published on May 7th, 2015

Bentonville Film Festival

Bentonville, Arkansas doesn’t have a movie theater, but it does have a film festival. The Northwest Arkansas town is now home to the newly minted Bentonville Film Festival, founded by Geena Davis (and a bevy of corporate sponsors, Bentonville is, after all, a Walmart town) in order to champion women and diversity in film. Bentonville doesn’t have a movie theater, but the BFF has managed to successfully pop up a wide range of options for movie viewing, from a hotel ballroom to a church to a college classroom. That can-do spirit is reflective of the BFF as a whole, which, despite big corporate backing, appears to be wholly invested in its mission and retaining its small town roots.

The five-day-long festival kicked off on Tuesday night, boasting a program that includes sixty films, a hefty number of panels, and a bonafide desire to champion both women and diversity in the film world. The BFF makes its focus clear from the moment you walk into a BFF theater (well, pop-up theater), and the festival’s pre-show bumpers are all about championing and supporting both women and minorities in the entertainment industry. From a spot for to corporate packages from Kraft, Coke, and Walmart, the BFF’s core mission is readily apparent and clearly influenced every single programming pick. Wednesday’s screenings included Fan Girl, Freedom, and Now Add Honey, an assortment of narrative features that speak to the mission of the BFF in varying ways – and with varying levels of success.

Mad Men star Kiernan Shipka toplines Paul Jarrett’s Fan Girl (no, it’s not based on the book of the same name by Rainbow Rowell, a question that seems to keep popping up) as Telulah Farrow, a pop punk-obsessed teen who is trying to balance her love of music with her desire to be a filmmaker (teens! they love things!). Penned by Gina O’Brien, Fan Girl follows Telulah as she attempts to cobble together a very important film project – a fake trailer, and then a very real short film – while obsessively freaking out over her favorite band All Time Low (played in the film by, yup, All Time Low), dealing with cool teen stuff (lots of social media), and good old high school politics.

The film is Jarrett’s first feature, and although he’s assembled a strong cast – Shipka is joined by Moonrise Kingdom star Kara Hayward, who plays her best pal, along with Meg Ryan as her mom and hilarious standout Joshua Boone as a smitten classmate – the film lacks a certain snap. The film comes with a solid narrative conceit to drive it (Telulah needs to complete her film), but it frequently meanders into underdeveloped and often unwelcome subplots (there’s a whole bit about Ryan’s character going on an accidental date with an old friend, and long section about a bad spray tan that temporarily fells Telulah) that detract from its numerous charms.

Shipka is excellent as the world-wise Telulah, and despite the film’s modern trappings – again, lots of chatter about social media – its off-kilter humor and colorful supporting characters lend it a timeless feel. Telulah is a strong, bright, funny, and unabashedly feminist character, and her profound sense of both herself and her own ambitions are remarkable at any age. Fan Girl might be in need of a generous snipping and a nice tightening up, but it’s still a charmer and one worthy of its own fans.

Here’s something you might want to know about Peter CousensFreedom: it’s a musical. Kind of. The Cuba Gooding Jr.-starring historical drama is about the Underground Railroad and the forced passage of slaves from Africa to America, but it’s also the kind of film where characters burst into over-produced song (no dance, however) at mostly inopportune times. Gooding stars in the film as Samuel Woodward, a Virginia slave who attempts to sneak his family – mother, son, wife – out of their forced servitude with the help of the Underground Railroad. As Samuel and his family make their way North to freedom, they’re forced to deal with ruthless bounty hunters, a vicious plantation owner, and plenty of other dangers.

Although the family has more than enough to contend with on their journey, what with the escaping slavery and everything, Cousens’ film attempts to splice their story with an earlier tale of tragedy: the forced passage of Samuel’s great-grandfather from Gambia to South Carolina as a young boy. Their stories may parallel in some ways – there’s a strong and admirable message of hope in Freedom — but the film, penned by Timothy A. Chey, is somewhat bizarrely concerned with linking up Samuel’s story not with his own kin, but with that of the captain of the slave ship his great-grandfather traveled to America in.

Sound strange yet? It gets weirder: the captain is actually John Newton (Bernhard Forcher), who went on to pen “Amazing Grace.” There’s that music! Samuel’s great-grandfather may be traveling to America to be a slave, but Newton is a free man grappling with his complicity in the act, which Freedom seems to want to turn into similar struggles. They’re not. Newton’s problems never carry any weight, and his late-breaking turn towards God – and a love of freedom and the kind of spirit that allows him to pen his famous song – can only ever feel weak and out of place, because it does nothing to save Samuel’s own family. It’s hard to feel any kind of message of hope when a film wraps up with a child sold into slavery, an act already heinous enough, but one made still worse by the knowledge that his family will be trapped for at least four more generations. No amount of peppy (and mostly unexpected) singing can save that.

At least there’s Now Add Honey to lift the mood. Wayne Hope’s zippy and frisky family-friendly story looks and feels a bit like a Disney Channel original – don’t scoff, the Disney Channel did give us the first two High School Musical films – but one that’s more than willing to dive into super serious topics, from infidelity to child exploitation. Lucy Fry stars as the eponymous Honey, a teen starlet who is attempting to transition from a kid-appealing movie series (Monkey Girl, it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like) to the world of sexy pop music. Although she talks with a horrific Valley Girl accent, that’s only because she’s been away from her native Australia for too long, and when her clawing stage mother Beth (Portia de Rossi) brings her back to Oz to release a new single away from the reach of her oppressive producer, the infantilized poplet appears to be, like, totally stoked.

That doesn’t last. Beth isn’t just a terrifying momager, she’s also a pill-popper, and when she’s arrested and thrown into rehab, the rest of her and Honey’s mostly normal – okay, adorably wacky – family are forced to step in to care for her in the interim. Too bad they’ve all got their own issues to work through, including Aunt Caroline (Robyn Butler) and her crumbling marriage and Aunt Katie (Lucy Durack) and her impending nuptials. There are plenty more problems to add to that pile, but part of the pleasure of Now Add Honey is watching the entire Halloway clan go through a wide range of issues in a minimum of time, eventually pulling through in an amusing fashion. It’s a good pick for the whole family, and its dizzy charm is so far a highlight of the fest. Here’s to many more.