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Lucid Streaming: A Wisconsin Film Festival memoir

As this year’s rescheduled virtual fest approaches, Edwanike Harbour goes down memory lane with some favorite entries that are available on streaming services.

It’s hard to believe it’s been over a year since the last Wisconsin Film Festival switched over to a primarily virtual format after the pandemic swept down on us. We were certainly missing that early spring buzz in March when we would typically get to pore over the hard copy of the Wisconsin Film Festival guide and carefully underline or highlight our choices, building a screening itinerary. But fret not. The festival goes on. Many of us have had our first look at the 2021 fest and made our selections. Ideally, next year we’ll have returned to some form of normalcy and reconvene in person to share in our die-hard love of cinema the way it was meant to be consumed.

For this month’s edition of Lucid Streaming, I wanted to take a look at a few entries from the Wisconsin Film Fests of yore. If I didn’t pick your favorite, keep in mind that at this juncture there are more than two decades to choose from, and we can only use so much bandwidth. Specifically, I wanted to focus on three films that had a significant impact on me from the 2010s, even though there are obviously so many every year.

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Streaming for free on Tubi, the slow burn of 2015’s Uncle John is still seared in my mind these six years later. This was also the year that the festival after-party had shifted to the Edgewater Hotel, where I remember seeing John Ashton (who plays the titular character) regaling other guests with riveting stories at the hotel bar. While I didn’t want to orbit him as he was already surrounded by people, they appeared to be amazed as he was holding court.

Uncle John is a man who has been deeply wounded, as deep as the lines on his face are written from carrying some unknown sense of pain and agony. While the viewer will plainly see John is carrying a secret relatively early on, his origin story takes place drip by drip. Co-written by Erik Crary and Steven Piet, the film bounces back and forth between what appears to be the idyllic life of a rural Wisconsin man and his young nephew Ben (SNL’s Alex Moffat), who lives in Chicago and works for a motion graphics firm. On a whim, Ben tells his gorgeous new co-worker Katelyn (Jenna Lyng Adams) about the best donuts she’ll ever eat, and they just happen to be two and half hours north in rural Wisconsin. Their two paths finally merge when Ben and Katelyn surprise his uncle with this impromptu visit, and John has to navigate a complicated situation in addition to protecting them from the consequences of decisions he made long ago.

This entry is also salient for me as it was actually filmed up in ol’ Lodi. In fact, depending on the route taken to head up to the bluffs or Devil’s Lake, many of those country roads in the film are easily recognizable. Ben is also so relatable as a person who has left a tiny Wisconsin town and is trying to figure out his life in a larger city that is and isn’t so far away at the same time. In just a couple hours, the rural roads of Wisconsin can be easily ditched for the center of the Chicago loop, and it can feel like a different planet. Crary and Piet do such an excellent job of making everything fit so seamlessly while building a nerve-wracking amount of tension. Ashton captures the delicate parts of Uncle John as well as the shatteringly violent parts of him in a way that makes one wonder why he hasn’t played more of these types of characters (rather than the cops or detectives he’s known for).

Next is the 2018 Danish film, The Guilty (Den skyldige), directed by Gustav Möller. Streaming on Hulu, this is a tense crime-thriller somewhat akin to Steven Knight’s Locke (with Tom Hardy), in that the entire film takes place primarily in one location. Jakob Cedergren stars as Asger Holm, a former beat cop who has been assigned to dispatch. From his simple demeanor, it’s easy to see how displeased he is with this assignment as he fields calls from drunks and other people for non-emergency issues. He then receives a call from a reporter who has some questions about a case that he is reluctant to discuss over the phone, which indicates this pending investigation is related to his placement in dispatch.

Asger is eventually contacted by a clearly frightened woman named Iben, who can’t go into full detail about her situation, but is in dire need of help. As Asger is a bit of a pariah on the force, some of his co-workers are not very accommodating when he tries to get them to help figure out where this caller might be located. Relying on his fine-honed police instincts and desire to do the right thing, Asger believes he has discerned what is happening. As he digs deeper for clues, he realizes he is on the precipice of a much more insidious event.

Unfolding in real time, this gripping police drama builds a nightmarish tension all the way to its epic conclusion. While it’s best not to reveal more about the plot as it would take away from the satisfying viewing experience, Cedergren gives a tight, brilliant performance, and Oskar Skriver’s sound editing is just the chef’s kiss on this masterpiece of story and pacing.

By now, familiar readers of this column may have gathered that I gravitate toward more intense viewing experiences. If a capsule review presents something that I feel will get under my skin, I will most likely try to attend. However, I do enjoy a little levity now and then. On this note, I would strongly recommend 2018’s Hearts Beat Loud, directed by Brett Haley, which is also currently streaming on Hulu.

Nick Offerman has made numerous appearances in Madison over the last few years, and we are all the better for it. From his surly breakout performance as Ron Swanson on Parks And Recreation to his turn as Frank Fisher in Hearts Beat Loud, Offerman has solidified himself as a stellar performer on screen and stage.

In the film, Fisher owns Red Hook Records, a middling record store on the edges of Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn, where he smokes cigarettes and ignores his customers. He is also raising a smart young daughter Sam (a radiant Kiersey Clemons) as a single dad. Sam is on her way to UCLA to study medicine, and now Frank has to figure out how to pay her tuition on his limited income.

Like any middle-aged dad who happens to own a record store, Frank has jam sessions with Sam when they tool around and just make some noise. It’s nothing too serious until one day, while interrupting her study session, Frank realizes that she has been working on some lyrics and a melody that absolutely slaps, as the kids say. A few chords and tracks later, they have laid down one of the best indie pop songs of the decade. Frank now wants to pursue his rock ‘n’ roll dreams with Sam, but she is more practical and has her eyes set on her future at UCLA. Amidst all this, she has met girlfriend Rose (the bohemian Sasha Lane) and feels torn about whether or not to leave Red Hook at all or go to school across the country to start anew.

In considering Offerman’s appearances over the years, the 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival was a special one, as he was on site for screenings of The Hero, Infinity Baby, and My Life As A Zucchini (one of my personal favorites). While he did not make it the following year for Hearts Beat Loud, director Brett Haley shared in the momentous occasion during the Q&A afterward. I remember bopping in my seat to the title track of the film, hoping I could stream or download it once I got home. I ended up closing out the festival in 2018 with Haley’s movie feeling inspired. That is really the feeling I come away with each and every spring with the fest, and I cannot wait to experience it all over again this year and in the future (in person).

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