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Worth a smile
Newport takes pride in its independents

Now in its fifth year, the Newport International Film Festival, which took place June 4 through 9, has kept a grip on its A-list of national sponsors: Vanity Fair, the New York Times, Mercedes-Benz. But donations fell after September 11. Fewer free tickets to movies or mansion parties floated about this year, and the sit-down clam-and-lobster feast of prior closing nights became a stand-up affair of chicken and shrimp pieces on a stick.

Fortunately, Newport 2002 stayed generous where it mattered, offering lodging for more filmmakers than ever before, including novice directors, who showed their shorts in five special programs. As always, the fest was a brilliant spot to discover feature documentaries, its selection more thoughtful than the publicized pickings at Sundance. Among the shiniest non-fictions were two Massachusetts works: Maiís America, by Framinghamís Marlo Poras, and the jury prizewinner for Best Documentary, My Father, the Genius, by JPís Lucia Small.

Of the fiction features, I enjoyed Don Boydís My Kingdom, a baroque, Liverpool-set modern-day King Lear starring Richard Harris as a white-maned gang leader with tarts for daughters, and Gabrielle Muccinoís The Last Kiss, a smart, modish Italian comedy about the pangs of unrequited love and the pains of adultery that should hit US theaters flying. I sampled American indies with buzz: Dylan Kiddís Roger Dodger, Best Film at the Tribeca Film Festival, and Gary Winickís Tadpole, a favorite at Sundance. What a contrast! Roger Dodger is edgy and cool, a discovery; Tadpole is lame, tame, sit-com dreck.

Back to the Hub, and Maiís America. Somehow this remarkable documentary, which showed at the New England Film Festival, went unsung by the local press, though it won the Audience Award at South by Southwest and is playing at this yearís P-Town Film Fest and on PBSís POV in August. Iím here to proclaim it among the best local films of the new century, this heartbreaking tale of one year in the life of a Vietnamese exchange student in America. Poras discovered Mai in Communist Hanoi and followed this effervescent, winningly optimistic girl back to the USA, where, expecting paradise, she got bogged down in rural Mississippi with a white-trash, TV-glued family of depressives. Thank Buddha for her surprise friends, a left-liberal history teacher and this Bible Belt townís sole giddy transvestite.

Roger Dodger? Think sex, lies, and videotape for dialogue this brittle and witty about goings-on under the sheets. Roger, played with rakish command by Campbell Scott, is a self-proclaimed master of seduction, proudly from Mars and putting it to impressed Manhattan-based Venusians, including his boss (Isabella Rossellini). But is he last monthís flavor? Are his lines getting old hat and grossing women out? Much of Roger Dodger is a fantastic night on the town where he plays city rat to his country-mouse nephew from Ohio (Jesse Eisenberg). As heís trying to get the 16-year-old laid, they run into two alluring chicks (Jennifer Beals, Elizabeth Berkeley) in a nightclub. What ensues is first-order screwball comedy, with a Cassavetes sour twist.

Tadpole, which opens July 26 in Boston, cost Miramax millions to buy at Sundance, despite its muddy, uncinematic DVD look. And do we really care that the preppy teen lead (boring Aaron Stanford) is pining for his 40ish stepmom (Sigourney Weaver)? The kidís supposed to be sensitive because he quotes Voltaire. I didnít buy it, or his seduction by a 40ish masseuse (Bebe Neuwirth), or much else in a script of laugh-track one-liners. For this indifferently made film, Winick was crowned Sundanceís Best Director.

Finally, the most sensitive, personal evocation Iíve seen of September 11: Kevin Breslinís nine-minute A Smile Gone, But Where?, a world premiere at Newport, a docudrama starring Jimmy Breslin that re-creates the columnistís experience of passing a smiling woman on the street for months and months before that fateful day, after which he no longer saw her. Is this alluring stranger alive or dead? Breslinís anguished waiting is that of everyone in America.

RUNAWAY, a film by Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini thatíll be playing this weekend (June 21 through 23) at the Museum of Fine Arts, is a gripping feminist-humanist documentary filmed in a shelter in Tehran, where girls abused by their families and by brutal life on the streets are placed by the Police Unit for Combatting Social Corruption. The runaways meet with their all-female social workers, interact with their peers, and, ultimately, reunite with their malfunctioning families. Some tales of woe could happen anywhere. Others are specific to Iranís ultra-religious society, like the relief of reunited fathers who exclaim, "Thank God, my daughter is still intact."

Issue Date: June 20 - 27, 2002
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