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What To Watch At The 30th Annual Heartland Film Festival

The international film festival premieres this week. Here are eight flicks to add to your watch list.

THE HEARTLAND FILM Festival kicks off October 7 for 11 days of live/streaming events and, as is my tradition, I tried to get my eyes on as many of the films as possible in order to offer some useful entry points for potential attendees (that’s you).

As in past years, the offerings for the 30th anniversary are a mix of films set for theatrical release, flicks that will eventually show up in your Netflix/Amazon/whatever queue, and movies that will likely disappear without a trace. And merit isn’t always a determining factor as to which of these categories they will fall.

Among the fiction films that I can recommend are two features that are diametrically different in their impact. 

Richard Jenkins and Stephen Yeun on set of "The Humans."

Richard Jenkins and Stephen Yuen star in The Humans. Adapted and directed by Stephen Karam.Photo courtesy Heartland Film/A24

First, a richly cinematic version of the 2016 Tony Award–winning play The Humans, adapted and directed by its playwright, Stephen Karam. It centers on an apartment-warming Thanksgiving dinner for a family facing—and not facing—myriad problems. Its spot-on cast imports Jayne Houdyshell from the stage production and adds Beanie Feldstein, Stephen Yeun, June Squibb, Richard Jenkins, and Amy Schumer (yes, that Amy Schumer). The building itself, with its paint-buckled walls, mysterious noises, and problematic electricity, also functions as a character. There are moments of joy in it, but be warned: The Humans is a contemporary cousin of such downer masterpieces as Long Day’s Journey into Night and Death of a Salesmen. I suspect, after watching it, you will feel seen. I wept. 

If you prefer your films lively, sweet, and borderline Hallmark-y, if you are perusing the Heartland schedule for a good date-night film, or if you need some balance to your psyche after viewing The Humans, enter the candy-coated world of Americanish.

Here, two Brooklyn sisters and their new-to-NY cousin (Aizzah Fatima, Salena Qureshi, and Shenaz Treasury) attempt to reach their career and romance goals while dealing with pressure from the family’s tradition-minded Pakistani matriarch (Lillete Dubey). Director Iman Zawahry elevates the familiar plotting by drawing playful, detailed, and appealing performances from the lead and supporting casts, creating a film that offers smiles rather than surprises.

On the documentary front, anyone who loves the music of the ’70s, whether they lived through that era or not, should take great pleasure in Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres. It not only serves as a window into the music world during that impactful time (complete with appearances by—and stories about—Elton John, Marvin Gaye, Quincy Jones, and more), it also tells a moving story of the man himself and his challenges connecting to his Chinese immigrant parents. 

The Neutral Ground may not be the best title for a documentary about Confederate monuments (the title is explained in the film), but it’s a film well worth prioritizing not just for its content, but also for its approach. Filmmaker CJ Hunt went into the project thinking he would do a Daily Show–style short, getting some laughs at the expense of defenders of these relics. As he dove in, though, he found a richer story. What resulted is a film where we watch the filmmaker being educated regarding the Lost Cause campaign to recast Southern American history.

I’m well aware that Heartland has, over the years, expanded its repertoire well beyond its origins, where family friends film dominated and even cursing was controversial. I was nonetheless surprised to find a film in the mix this round that included a gay man interviewing his parents about their sex life, a scientific study of masturbation, and data analytics direct from PornHub. A Sexplanation includes all that and more in a playful documentary that doesn’t avert its eyes from the hangups that typify sex education in America. I encourage those made uncomfortable by this paragraph to check it out.

Juila Child laughing, leaning over a table with baking tools in front of her.

Julia Child leaning over a table in the film Julia.Photo courtesy Heartland Film/Sony Pictures Classic

Among those films I either didn’t have access to or didn’t get to, I’m looking forward to catching the latest from Wes Anderson, The French Dispatch, featuring familiar faces Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, and Luke Wilson. There’s Spencer, the royal biopic that I hope will cleanse the palate of those who witnessed the recent, awful “Diana: The Musical” on Netflix. And it would be tough to resist festival opening nighter Julia, centering on the legendary chef Julia Child’s 12-year adventure trying to get her landmark French cookbook published.  

Of course, there’s a lot more to screen at home or in person.

For more details and a complete schedule, click here.


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