Film: Week 2 at SIFF

Matt Smith takes us back to 1966, plus tips for week two.

You can’t go home again—only Matt Smith did. Twice. Raised in the old Catholic enclave on the east side of Capitol Hill, the veteran actor and monologist first performed his embellished memoir My Last Year With the Nuns in 1997. Now it’s a movie, he explains in Cafe Victrola, a few blocks from his childhood home. After nearly a decade on Bainbridge, he says, he moved back to the ’hood to care for his 92-year-old mother—“back to the house I grew up in. It’s been a trip.”

Nuns is also a time trip for the audience, since Smith recounts his experiences as a 13-year-old in 1966–67, his final year of parochial school at St. Joseph’s before departing for the somewhat broader world of Seattle Prep. The piece was inspired by the 25th reunion of his eighth-grade class, after which Smith interviewed his old buddies (and various parents), then reworked their anecdotes and adventures into a first-person account. His recollection isn’t meant to be truthful, he explains, but true to the time. (Also, names have been changed; so when you hear “David Shields,” it’s not the local writer David Shields.) Nuns has been restaged and revised since ’97, says Smith, but it stays focused on a clannish, insular culture and the kids it shaped. “People think of Seattle as a tolerant, liberal place,” says Smith, “because no one’s from here.”

Natives with long memories will know what he means. The ’60s were different: Republican local government, conservative police force, and a much stricter sense of neighborhood boundaries—the Scandinavians in Ballard, the Italians in Garlic Gulch, the blacks in the Rainier Valley. That segregation would ease with the influx of newcomers later attracted by Boeing, Starbucks, Microsoft, and so forth. For Smith and his pals, “The next corner was kind of a different neighborhood.” They mingled only with their own Catholic kind and fought with outsiders. From the parish comes “parochial,” a word that Smith and director Bret Fetzer (who also staged the original monologue) often invoke as we talk.

With maps and graphics added to the show, plus some snappy editing, Smith’s recollections become a torrent: adventures in the Interlaken Ravine and Volunteer Park; smoking in the newspaper delivery boys’ shack; sassing back to the nuns; stealing from the collection plate, etc. The point isn’t that Smith and his young cohort are delinquents; rather, they’re typical of the time—using all the casual ethnic slurs of the day. Back then, the Madison Valley was simply Coon Hollow, a term few would think to question. Today, nearly 50 years after the events (and confabulations) in question, East Capitol Hill has been transformed. All those big houses—built for Catholic families that could number past a dozen kids—are now overpriced trophy homes with one or two children in them.

Smith says he both does and doesn’t recognize his old stomping grounds. A postscript to the film shows him going off to college, where, he says, “Very few of my friends could tell you where they came from, in a village kind of way. I knew exactly where I grew up.”

Smith and Fetzer will appear at both SIFF screenings this week (the first is sold out): Egyptian, 6:30 p.m. Wed. & 11 a.m. Mon.

Also shot in Seattle, though based on a Connecticut music writer’s romantic travails, Lucky Them stars Toni Collette as a journalist searching for her old boyfriend, presumed a suicide in Snoqualmie Falls. She needs the scoop to keep her job, and her quest teams her with a rich, oddball documentary filmmaker (Thomas Haden Church) with designs on her. It’s formulaic, with an A-list cameo at the end, but local director Megan Griffiths (Eden, The Off Hours) again shows a nice command of actors and a genuine feel for Seattle’s back-alley textures. Also, when our heroine does her research, it’s good to see her leafing through old copies of The Rocket. (Renton: 7 p.m. Thurs. Egyptian: 9:15 p.m. Fri.)

From Mongolia, Remote Control hasn’t got much plot, but I like it as a possible remake. A teenage peasant camps atop a half-built tower in booming Ulan Bator, spying on a lovely, lonely woman who’s being neglected by her artist boyfriend. With binoculars and universal remote (to control her big-screen TV), Tsogoo endeavors to cheer her up—and maybe win her love. A more benign version of Rear Window, the film is really about Mongolia’s wrenching cultural shift—as if someone suddenly changed the channel from the 14th to the 21st century. (SIFF Cinema Uptown: 6 p.m. Thurs. & 3 p.m. Sat.)

Directed by Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy & Lucy), the highly anticipated Night Moves stars Jesse Eisenberg, Peter Sarsgaard, and Dakota Fanning as three eco-terrorists determined to bomb an Oregon dam. No thriller, the movie turns out to be a slow and deeply undercharacterized study in alienation. You find yourself rooting for the dam, hoping they’ll blow themselves up instead. (Lincoln Square: 7 p.m. Fri. SIFF Cinema Uptown: noon Mon.)

For me, the week’s clear winner is the abortion comedy—there, I said it—Obvious Child, starring Jenny Slate as a knocked-up young woman unprepared for motherhood yet willing, as a stand-up comic, to joke about her condition. Writer/director Gillian Robespierre strikes exactly the right tone with Donna and her Brooklyn cohort, all of them still striving to achieve viable personhood. When Donna finally confesses her condition to Mom, the latter blurts out, “Thank God! I thought you were moving to Los Angeles!” (SIFF Cinema Uptown: 4:30 p.m. Wed. The film opens June 20 at the Guild 45th.)

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