Free State Film Festival kicks off today in Lawrence — here’s what to see

After several years as the Free State Festival, this year’s event returns to the Free State Film Festival moniker and restores film as the center of its programming. The theme of activism might not be be explicit, but whether it’s direct, as in the film Dolores — about labor and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta — or indirect, via the band Chicano Batman (whose new album is called Freedom Is Free) it’s definitely palpable.

“Could there be a better anthem for the the festival?” Marlo Angell, director of digital media for the Lawrence Arts Center and the festival’s film curator, says of Freedom Is Free. “I’m excited about this opportunity to go back to basics this year. Simplicity breeds freedom and opportunity — and here at the festival, we really do think freedom is free!”

Additional programming sees the return of comic Barry Crimmins, with his one-man show, Atlas’s Knees, which explores how the role of an activist affects the individual; a live podcast by the Lawrence Public Library’s Book Squad about book-to-movie adaptions; cocktail hours with discussions about the themes of the films; as well as standup by KU alum Nikki Glaser, star of Comedy Central’s Not Safe. Here’s what to see.

Whose Streets?

7 p.m. Tuesday, June 27

Liberty Hall

This documentary looks at the events in Ferguson in the wake of Michael Brown’s slaying, as told through the words of those there on the front lines of the struggle. It captures “the full sound and fury of a community pushed past its breaking point,” according to Variety’s Dennis Harvey.

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An Evening With Nikki Glaser

7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 28

Lawrence Arts Center (Main Stage)

Nikki Glaser’s standup is smart and funny, and she has a delivery that seems off-the-cuff while being sharp and incisive. Anyone who saw Not Safe, her sex-themed show on Comedy Central, knows that she can tackle awkward subjects with charm and verve, which is a hallmark of her act. She’s a KU grad, and this marks a welcome return to Lawrence.

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Dolores

6 p.m. Thursday, June 29

Lawrence Arts Center (Main Stage)

The story of civil- and workers’-rights activist Dolores Huerta is a strong portrayal of a woman who stood with Cesar Chavez as his equal. Somehow, however, Huerta has been relegated to secondhand status — and sometimes outright ignored — when the story of the National Farmworkers Association, and its strike in the 1960s, is told. It’s an unflinching look that acknowledges the toll Huerta’s activism took on her as well as on her family.

Chicano Batman

8:30 p.m. Thursday, June 29

Lawrence Arts Center (Main Stage)

The soaring, funky strains of Chicano Batman could easily be the soundtrack to Dolores, with the band tracing as its influences everything from Chicano soul to Funkadelic rhythms. Its latest album, Freedom Is Free, is groovy as hell, but just as political. As Chris Engalls notes in his review of the album for Popmatters, “Chicano Batman is a band that makes you dance, makes you long for days gone by, but reminds you that the world can be a dark place and that art can make you think, speak out, and ultimately enact change.”

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Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World

6 p.m. Friday, June 30

Lawrence Arts Center (Main Stage)

Tackling the music of Link Wray (whose iconic single gives the documentary its name), the Band’s Robbie Robertson, metal drummer Randy Castillo and bluesman Charley Patton all in one documentary is a bit of a difficult task. Using musicians’ Native American heritage as the connecting thread of Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana’s film is what makes Rumble the musical accompaniment to their look at Native Americans in film, Reel Injun.

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Barry Crimmins: Atlas’s Knees

9:30 p.m. Friday, June 30 

Lawrence Arts Center (Main Stage)

Barry Crimmins’ appearance at the 2015 Free State Festival, in conjunction with Bobcat Goldthwait’s documentary, Call Me Lucky, began a love affair between the comic and Lawrence. It was solidified when Crimmins shot his 2016 special, Whatever Threatens You, at the Lawrence Arts Center. Since then, he’s in near-constant social media contact with the town’s denizens. His new one-man show will appear in Lawrence in advance of its staging at August’s Edinburgh Festival, which describes it as “an emotional, intellectual journey that has audiences sobbing with both laughter and, well, sobbing.”

My Life as a Zucchini

11 a.m. Saturday, July 1

Lawrence Arts Center (Main Stage)

A kids’ movie whose trailer features the line “We’re all the same: There’s no one left to love us” doesn’t sound like ideal Saturday morning entertainment, but the inclusion of Nick Offerman and Amy Sedaris as voice talent gives us hope that there’s some levity to a film whose plot can be summarized in one very depressing sentence: “After the death of his mother, 9-year-old Zucchini moves into a group foster home.”

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LPL BookSquad LIVE Podcast: Adaptations

1 p.m. Saturday, July 1

Lawrence Arts Center (Black Box)

The directors of festival films Lane 1974 and The Scent of Rain and Lightning, as well as author Nancy Pickard, join hosts Polli Kenn and Kate Gramlich to talk about the challenges of adapting books to film in a live recording of the Lawrence Public Library’s BookSquad podcast. Described as “94 percent bookish banter, 6 percent shenanigans,” the show might change its usual formula a bit with the promise of inspired cocktails and library giveaways.

Lane 1974

3 p.m. Saturday, July 1

Lawrence Arts Center (Main Stage)

S.J. Chiro’s debut feature is a sepia-tinted tale of a 13-year-old girl growing up at the tale end of the hippie movement, and the coming-of-age dramas is almost gutting in the way in which Sophia Mitri Schloss (as the titular Lane) evokes the lack of power and agency in her life. The cinematic vistas on hand here are like a counterpoint to the strange lack of freedom Lane has. She’s in a culture supposedly bound by no rules, but her mother’s views are almost as rigidly authoritarian as those against which she rebels.

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The Scent of Rain and Lightning

7 p.m. Saturday, July 1

Lawrence Arts Center (Main Stage)

Maika Monroe continues her streak of excellent roles in an adaptation of Nancy Pickard’s novel of the same name. The Scent of Rain and Lightning has maybe the best use of recurrent flashbacks in ages; the film is essentially telling two stories concurrently, with the search in the modern day revealing the events of the past. The performances are intense but veiled, and very few of the characters are quite who they appear to be. 

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The Tree

3 p.m. Sunday, July 2

Lawrence Arts Center (Main Stage)

As Dorothy Thorp, an 88-year-old woman taking a journey to visit her “oldest and dearest friend,” actress Joicie Appell is amazing. She displays determination, sadness and strength, and illuminates the screen with her performance. The film is inspired by a true story from director Stephen Wallace Pruitt’s mother, and while some of the performances are a bit amateurish, the way Appell’s character delivers her inspirational messages with conviction and love keeps the film from becoming cloying or preachy. It’s a tearjerker, for sure, but one that earns your response.

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Short Film Program

6 p.m. Sunday, July 2

Lawrence Arts Center (Main Stage)

Eight short films, some of which feel essential right now.

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In addition to this, there’s a series of cocktail meet-ups and discussions around the topics being explored by the festival, and all of those can be found at the Free State Festival website. (And I will be appearing as part of the Caffeine and Cinema panel at Decade on Sunday, July 2.)

Categories: Movies