Joann Self Selvidge

NaFF Update: The Keepers and Runoff

Ongoing Nashville Film Festival Coverage

Runoff

So far, Runoff is my top pick of the festival. When a family business is being squeezed by a Monsanto-like agri-company, we are left considering our own priorities. Newbie Kimberly Levin makes her narrative debut as both writer and director of this moody drama. Set in rural Kentucky, the natural beauty of country farms is shot through with tension: the buzzing of bees, the low flying crop duster plane (shot beautifully with a single camera), and the movement of insects is an innocuous backdrop for the plot that is drawn taut with drama. Honestly, it’s almost too much: the family business is broke, the bank is foreclosing on the house, the eldest son gets into a college they can’t afford, and the husband gets some disturbing test results from the doctor. Looking back, I think, “Really? Were ALL of those elements necessary?” My fiancé gave it 3 stars; he thought it was ham fisted and the plot quite contrived (and Kentucky-born, he hated the Southern accents). But I got lost in lead actress Joanne Kelly’s flawless performance and was mesmerized by the family’s plight.

Kelly, born and raised in a fishing village in Newfoundland, was made for the role. As Levin said in a Q & A after the screening, Kelly wasn’t shy about shoving her hand into a cow’s udder for a scene, and squaring her body to heft a 50 pound sack of grain was second nature to her. I wonder if there was something else about her upbringing that made her survival instinct so believable. Her character, Betty, has to decide whom she will protect and what she will prioritize as she attempts to save her family from going under. She strikes up a shady deal with local farmer to get cash on DL that could prevent the foreclosure of their house and get her husband medical treatment. It’s obvious from the jump that it’s a bad idea, and no one knows it better than her.

Levin amps up the tension to thriller level with a climax that is almost over the top. Although what you expect to happen doesn’t happen exactly, it felt a tinge forced in my overall riveting experience. Her husband (Neal Huff) and sons (Alex Shaffer and Kivlighan de Montebello) are well cast beside her and give convincing performances, but they dim in Kelly’s background. When she finally decides to go through with the deal, she’s a changed person. In the last scene, she drives back from the deed with an envelope of money on her dashboard. She tucks it into her breast. Her eyes are full of the terror that she has become, and the expansive Kentucky sky looms over her in judgement.

Runoff is a beautiful achievement about a way of American life that is disappearing. I grew up in Connecticut suburbs, not on a farm, but I could relate to a mother with her back against a wall. Its early summer release is upcoming, and let’s hope it screens at the Belcourt. I’d see it again.

The Keepers 

For every kid who’s dreamed of being a zoo keeper, The Keepers has you covered. This documentary by two Memphis filmmakers, Joann Self Selvidge and Sara Kaye Larson, takes the audience through the good, bad, ugly, and bittersweet times in the lives of Memphis Zoo keepers. The eldest of the keepers remarked that as children, zoo keepers have two best friends: animals and books. Keepers are an introverted lot, and their interests vary. The bird keeper, for example, sings gospel songs to the penguins. She needed six years of higher education to get her job, but that didn’t stop one park visitor from remarking to her kids, “See this lady? That’s how you’ll end up if you don’t finish school.” Yeah, zoo keepers get no respect, and the pay is pitiful, especially considering how much they had to learn to get behind zoo gates to begin with.

But the respect they do get is incredible. One keeper reached casually through a cage to scratch a lion’s neck (“I have to keep my nails long to really get in there.”) Another tossed chunks of watermelon into the enormous mouth of hippo. A third found herself covered in baby Komodo dragons that just wanted to say hi. But the giraffe keepers really got the spotlight because of a male who has been living in seclusion in a barn for four years. Young Koffe was banished from the small herd by his alpha father, and though the zoo staff tried many times, they couldn’t get him into a truck to move him to a safer zoo. The keepers watched him languish month after month, and when a law banned transporting adult giraffes, they had to make some decisions. Koffe is allowed in his own pen near the other giraffes, and watching him finally run free will bring a tear to your eye. When the animals suffer, the keepers suffer. When the animals thrive, the keepers thrive.

The filmmakers recorded take after take of intimate moments between human and beast. When one enthusiastic reptile keepers says she has the best job in the whole world, you actually believe her. The Keepers is filled with adorable animal shots of course (one baby red panda feeding from a bottle is particularly disarming), but the real focus is on the people themselves. Here’s where I was just a little let down. The human energy was a bit flat and the keepers ultimately pretty unmemorable. But it might be that my understanding of work documentaries has been warped by The Office and Parks and Rec. I kept waiting for someone to reveal something brazen or too intimate. I wanted the documentarians to get closer to the keepers and get under their skin. A couple days later, I realize that’s not what they were after. Their film is instead true to life with its moments of candor and all its banalities. Overall, I skipped out of the theater.

Next up: Welcome to Leith and Alléluia

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