Three to see at LFF if you like... comedies

Leigh Singer recommends three hot tickets at this year’s BFI London Film Festival: a film by an established director, a great debut, and a wild card.

Leigh Singer

The new film from an established director…

Don’t Think Twice

Don't Think Twice (2016)

Don't Think Twice (2016)

What’s it about?

Tight-knit New York improv troupe The Commune’s rising reputation is threatened when one of their number – showboating Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) – wins a role on a hit TV sketch show. This is one “Yes – and…” (improv’s basic affirmation rule) that’s hard to reconcile with the professional jealousies and personal insecurities his departure exposes.

Who made it?

Writer-director-star Mike Birbiglia is no seasoned, veteran filmmaker, but he’s an increasingly regular on-screen presence in film comedy (Trainwreck, Hot Pursuit) and his debut comedy Sleepwalk with Me (2012) – co-directed with Seth Barrish – won a Sundance award and excellent reviews. It’s a reaction that this solo sophomore effort has easily matched.

What’s special about it?

Don’t Think Twice became a sleeper indie hit in the US this summer and a real word-of-mouth favourite on social media. Yet there are no outrageous gross-out scenes primed to go viral, and even its most familiar faces (Key and Peele’s Keegan-Michael Key or Community’s Gillian Jacobs) aren’t yet household names.

What it has in abundance is warmth, charm and an astute understanding of the sacrifices involved in pursuing your passion, particularly in ensemble endeavours. Teamwork is absolutely crucial, but does that mean you shouldn’t grab your own shot in the spotlight? And do you know when, if ever, to quit? Birbiglia and his very funny cohorts know that there aren’t one-size-fits-all answers to these conundrums, but they make you really feel its well-delineated characters’ struggles. It’s group therapy of the most assured, enjoyable kind – a commune that’s glad to welcome in its audience too.

The breakthrough…

Barakah Meets Barakah

Barakah Meets Barakah (2016)

Barakah Meets Barakah (2016)

What’s it about?

Humble Saudi municipal civil servant Barakah meets rebellious, wealthy Bibi, a famous video blogger and star attraction for a Jeddah boutique, at a photoshoot. Despite very different backgrounds, there’s a connection – although one that will be hard to develop amid the country’s restrictive laws on unchaperoned meetings and public physical contact…

Who made it?

It’s the first feature for Jeddah native Mahmoud Sabbagh, who studied for a masters degree in documentary filmmaking at New York’s Columbia University. Despite the absence of any filmmaking infrastructure back home, he endeavoured to make his film in, and about, his own city. The result premiered at 2016’s Berlinale.

What’s special about it?

Few films offer something never shown before, but a Saudi Arabian romantic comedy is surely one of them. Despite the kingdom’s traditionally hardline, prohibitive social and cultural stance, increasing freedom of expression through cinema is gradually taking shape (you might also remember Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda from LFF 2012) and Sabbagh adroitly takes advantage of this.

It’s a careful balancing act, especially in a romcom, given that public shows of affection between the sexes is still taboo. But just as many artists turn restrictions to their advantage, Sabbagh builds such constraints into his tale, offering subtle but firm criticism on the barriers to romantic relationships. It’s a positive, progressive national vision, buoyantly performed by its two leads, Hisham Fageeh, a Saudi comedian whose 2013 video ‘No Woman, No Drive’ (modelled after Bob Marley’s standard) was a viral hit, and newcomer Fatima Al Banawi as our feisty and thoroughly modern heroine.

The wild card…

Houston, We Have a Problem!

Houston, We Have a Problem! (2016)

Houston, We Have a Problem! (2016)

What’s it about?

A film for anyone whose school history books neglected to detail the clandestine 1960s Yugoslav space programme, which General Tito sold to President Kennedy and an American government desperate to keep up with the Russians, only to find they’d been sold a dud. Which is pretty much everyone.

Who made it?

Another feature debut, this time from Slovenian director/co-writer Žiga Virc. There’s a reason that this episode in history may have passed you by, and Virc apparently likes to call his film “docu-fiction”, which, without giving away too much, hopefully offers clues to his strategy here.

What’s special about it?

To say that Houston, We Have a Problem! is in the grand tradition of Orson Welles’s 1973 visual conjuring trick F for Fake is some claim, but it’s one that Virc’s film fully justifies. With brilliant sleight-of-hand use of archive footage and audio, canny present-day follow-ups and even the presence of media philosopher Slavoj Žižek talking us through the process, this is remarkably assured storycrafting and an ingenious prism through which to examine the creation of myths around national identity, not least for a first-time filmmaker.

It’s a film that ideally you should know as little about going in as possible, but trust that your faith will be rewarded. And it’s also worth remembering Žižek’s parting observation: “Even if everything is a fake, the fake tells us so much about the society in which we live.”

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