In choosing what to talk about from the movies I had the privilege of seeing at the Atlanta Film Festival 365, I started with Duncan Jones' "Moon" because it was just much easier to wrap my mind and words around.
Sunday afternoon, however, I saw Tupelo, Miss., native Tina Mabry's feature film, "Mississippi Damned," and what I got was something a lot more challenging and - in it's own very stark way - extremely satisfying.
Drawing on her own knowledge of Mississippi life to tackle a rather seriously depressing true story, Mabry uses a lot of what in Tyler Perry's movies gets called "drama" to tell her tale, but doesn't settle for any of the easy humor and sweetness that make his movies go down so smoothly. By instead simply telling the stories of a (sometimes too large to follow) clan of friends and family in somewhat-rural Mississippi, Mabry has instead managed to make an American horror movie of sorts, one that uses the demons of real life rather than imaginary monsters to cut extremely deep.
But before I get into all that, a word or two about what the movie is about is in order, since almost no one in the world has had the pleasure yet of seeing it. Mabry's movie opens in the mid-1980s with a scene most Southerners know well: the Saturday night card game. The bawdy jokes and bonhomie can hardly mask the pain that clearly lurks just below the surface, but it's a genuine moment of bliss that perfectly sets up all the trauma that's to come.
At the heart of Mabry's story are the fortunes of three siblings (I think - the relations in "Mississippi Damned" are all so believably entangled that it's hard to be sure), all of whom in varying ways bear the lingering scars of their upbringing surrounded by abuse - verbal, sexual and otherwise - as they try to break free of the downward spiral that seems to be their fate. Sammy Stone (Malcolm David Kelly and then Malcolm Goodwin) is an exceptionally talented high school basketball player who dreams of playing in the NBA. Kari Peterson (Kylee Russell and then Tessa Thompson) is an equally talented pianist who is waiting to hear if she has been accepted to NYU. And Leigh (Chasity Kershal Hammitte) has a seemingly simpler aspiration - to move to Memphis and live with her girlfriend, Paula - which will be very hard to attain.
From the outset, Mabry never flinches from showing the odds stacked against them, and in that comes the only real fault I could find with her movie. As we very quickly learn about all the baggage their parents and other relations are dealing with - in short order, there's murder, cancer, horrible abuse of all kinds and much more - it can be numbing, but thankfully it's leavened not with sweetness but instead with just exceptional acting from even the most minor players on this stage but especially from its stars.
The kids, and even more so the older actors who play them as young adults, just perfectly capture the mix of despair and just-out-of-reach hope that drives their lives. And among the adults who should be their role models, Mabry has put together a stable of actors that make up easily the best ensemble I've seen this year (and last year it was another black drama of sorts, "Cadillac Records," that had my best ensemble cast of 2008, so read into that whatever you want to.) Many of the cast members and Mabry herself, second from right in the middle row, are in the photo at the top of this post.
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "24" fans will recognize D.B. Woodside, who plays an serially unemployed man who still somehow thinks he's better than the wife he treats like garbage, but it's the unknown (at least to me) women who are the movie's real emotional core. As they deal with all the vagaries of life, it's their bond that sustains the movie and offers any real hope the kids will have.
And if all this sounds extremely bleak, it is, but there is at least the glimmer of that hope still standing in one of the kids' stories (you'll have to see the movie to find out which one), and it delivers an emotional reward that's much needed by the end of Mabry's flick.
Congratulations to her for winning the Narrative Breakthrough award from the jury of the Atlanta Film Festival 365. The top award went to Scott Teems' "That Evening Sun," which I didn't get to see because "Mississippi Damned" ran into it, but the breakthrough award is certainly a fitting one for Tina Mabry. She's a talented filmmaker who will hopefully get to make more movies very soon, and if you get a chance to see this one (it's showing again Thursday at the Atlanta fest) certainly do so, but be ready for a searing vision of American life that will leave you scarred for quite a while afterward but also, I think, very satisfied by the experience. Here's hoping "Mississippi Damned" eventually gets a proper theatrical release. Peace out.