AFF ’28: ‘Ragged Heart’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Every art form has the ability to connect with others. Whether it is through music, painting, or movies, these mediums can help us cope with numerous things. In Ragged Heart, we follow a washed-up musician on a journey to complete the last song his estranged daughter wrote before her tragic death. He hopes by getting the song recorded, he might redeem himself as a father and her spirit might find peace. The father-daughter connection may be strained and her father might not have been the paternal figure she needed, but he still made an impact on her. Director Evan McNary, shows the grieving process through one’s connectivity to music and it’s lovely.

McNary wastes no time in getting into the story, as we witness a devastating moment between father and daughter. Even though they were never that close, she still wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps as an artist. They shared a bond no one could really understand, even if they were miles apart. The opening scene is powerful and very effective. The daughter’s death lingers throughout the entire film, as her father attempts to make things right between them. The connectivity to music and the creativity in trying to lay her spirit to rest through song is special.

The important takeaway from Ragged Heart is that it dives into Athens, Georgia and highlights the local talent. While watching the film you can feel the warmth radiating off the screen because of how connected everyone was to each other. From local artists on the soundtrack, to deep, open conversations about grief, it is one of the most grounded films at the festival. It is important to have these conversations on screen and to show that everyone grieves differently. A father’s love for his daughter no matter how broken the relationship, will always be there. We understand the pain and wanting to bring the person back anyway we can. What McNary does is let those difficult conversations breathe; he makes sure the honesty shared in those conversations is felt.

Ragged Heart explores grief through music and examines the lengths a father would go to, to bring his daughter back one last time. The music that is sprinkled throughout this film adds so much depth to the story and these local artists should be recognized for their lyrics. Those who have a creative mind will always function in a different way and connect with others on a spiritual level. That connectivity is something special and only those who appreciate and respect art forms can understand how grief can be translated. More importantly, when a father and daughter share that kind of bond, it’s very special to see on screen because that relationship is rarely painted in a positive light.

AFF ’28: ‘Acid Test’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

No matter the year, we can all agree that high school can be rough, especially senior year. There can be so much pressure put on an eighteen-year-old without their parents even realizing it. As someone who has struggled with attempting to be the perfect daughter, Acid Test really struck a chord with me. It’s set in 1992, against the backdrop of the presidential election between Bush Sr., Clinton, and Perot. We have a young Latina teen named Jenny (Juliana DeStefano) in her senior year trying her best to get into Harvard — this was never a choice; more like an obligation to get in because of her father. Writer-director Jenny Waldo adds so much depth to this story by exploring the mind of a young teenage girl becoming an adult.

At 18, we barely know what we want to do, let alone know who we want to be. The second we become legal there’s even more pressure to make the right decisions. But as we get older, what even are the right decisions? We normally are conditioned to follow the plan put in place by our parents, but we are lost in a system that inevitably works against freedom of expression. So when we stray far from the that path, in an act of rebellion, it’s seen as losing oneself, instead of discovering your true identity. In Acid Test, one night changes everything for Jenny, like a switch was flipped. On a night out with her best friend, she discovers ‘Riot Grrrl’, an aggressive feminist punk subgenre of music, and she impulsively drops acid.

Now, drugs are never the answer, but we all have our vices. Sometimes we need a break from reality because there is so much pressure. We see that Jenny is looking outside of herself in that moment and she feels at peace. So that peacefulness is now tied to the Riot Grrrl’s and the punk scene. Afterwards, when she comes down from her high, all she wants is to feel that again. So she attempts to reach that level of peace by fighting against the patriarchal system holding her back, including speaking out against her father. Jenny does many things that alarm her parents because she isn’t this perfect girl they made up in their heads. Once that glass shatters, parents don’t realize how much harm they’ve actually done.

Acid Test shows the complexity in exploring one’s identity in the early stages of adulthood. Jenny Waldo incorporated as many aspects as she could, to show how many components factor into making a life-changing decision. Even when deciding who you want to be. There are questions that we ask ourselves when we reach a certain milestone and it sends us spiralling out of control. It doesn’t matter the age, the question of, ‘Who am I?’ will always affect us. No one should ever stay the same; we evolve and grow as individuals within a year. Waldo’s film is a perfect example of exploring that pressure in identifying who you are, when you still have your whole life ahead of you.

AFF ’28: ‘Cram’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

We have all attempted to pull an all-nighter while trying to finish a paper or study for our finals. Writer-director Abie Sidell, places you in the mind of a student trying to get through the night. We see that Marc (John DiMino) is desperate to finish his finale paper and he’s spending his night at the library. After dozing off, Marc awakens to discover that his paper vanished. He goes searching through the stacks of books in the library, to see if he finds anyone lurking. Turns out, Marc is not alone in this library, and he is scared to be in there. As he tries to leave, the library has other plans for him. The score that accompanies this descent into madness really adds so much to the movie and keeps you engaged.

It is hard to always focus on writing a paper and majority of the time procrastination gets the best of us. What is really enjoyable about Cram is that Sidell shows procrastination and anxiety in many forms throughout the film. Not only do we directly see Marc being distracted but it goes so much farther than that. We see him spiralling into different scenarios instead of writing his paper. He even tries Adderall for the first time, which also causes him to hallucinate, distracting him even more. What Sidell really taps into is every college students worst nightmare; the anxiety that stays with you forever after college.

Marc is a complex character with his own demons and it is shown in the alternate universe Sidell creates. Once we get to the core of Marc, there is one scene that directly impacts his mental state, and it has stayed with me. When Marc has an open conversation with a wounded version of himself, that’s where it really affected me. There will always be that voice in your head, but to actually physically see it, struggling in front of you, it makes an impact. Of course, all this is up to interpretation, but that one scene was executed so well. The conversation of stress and anxiety surrounding college students should really be addressed because it does affect many of us.

Cram starts out as an upbeat, late night study session, but turns into a college student’s worst nightmare. Sidell nailed the anticipation in each scene, leading up to some obscure moments shared with Marc. The supernatural elements were integrated nicely and the red lighting was a nice touch. This movie showed procrastination at its finest, while symbolically showing the mental state of the student in those moments. It also has great pacing and some great song choices, to really get into the mindset of a college student. It’s bold, fun, and very engaging.

AFF ’28: ‘Disfluency’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Before diving into Disfluency, there needs to be a disclaimer because of the subject matter. Even though the trauma Jane endures is not explicitly seen, the emotional depth of the pain is felt. After failing her final college class, Jane (Libe Barer) returns home to her family’s lake house, and comes to terms with the confusing trauma that derailed her senior year. The film begins with the night of her traumatic event blending with the anxiety of returning to class and not being able to focus. The title of this film works into the language used and how we end up silencing ourselves when it can get difficult to articulate our pain.

This is the definition of disfluency: interruptions in the regular flow of speech, such as using uh and um, pausing silently, repeating words, or interrupting oneself to correct something said previously. When watching this, we hear Jane – who is studying to become a speech therapist – struggle with speaking when having panic attacks, due to the flashbacks she has of that night. Writer-director Anna Baumgarten fully explores the mental state of someone who has suffered trauma. She shows Jane struggling with panic attacks, anxiety, and responding with empty words, in order to make everyone think that she is fine.

There are heartbreaking moments in this film that truly show how incredible of a young actor Libe Barer is. It’s really interesting watch her get into this mindset and have you resonate with Jane’s pain. In each moment of panic, or anxiety, Barer takes you on the journey with her. This also plays to the strength of Baumgarten, who let those moments breathe, and she held the frame on Jane to show her processing everything in her own time. The structure of this film works extremely well in order to execute this story to make an impact on audiences. Each moment with Jane is filled with subtle piece of dialogue that reflect her trauma and how much she has changed because of it.

Disfluency is a tough watch but it is important to go on this emotional journey with Jane. Baumgarten’s script is emotional, open-minded, and effective. She knew exactly what she needed to show in order for the viewer to understand the trauma without actually showing it to the full extent. Instead of using blunt visuals, the aftermath of Jane’s relationships with others and her social anxiety in certain situations, made her mental state known. It is a very unique and progressive way to address trauma and mental illness. This is probably my favourite film to come out of the Austin Film Festival so far.

AFF ’28: ‘Addict Named Hal’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Life can be extremely difficult to navigate. Almost everyone has something they turn to for stress relief. There can be natural ways and there can be addictive ways to calm the mind. At one point or another, we have all tried something on the scale of vices, but if one has an addictive personality it can spiral out of control. The film Addict Named Hal explores the everyday struggles, joys, and horrors of getting clean. Amy (Natalie L’Amoreaux) was sent unwillingly to a recovery house by her mom. There, she meets Hal (Ray Roberts II), a recently incarcerated heroin addict.

What director Lane Michael Stanley does well is establish how the recovery house functions right from the beginning. We meet Rich (Donato De Luca), who is in recovery and head of household. He is the paternal figure in the home and he has been trying to do the right thing, in order to keep contact with his daughter. Rich is possibly my favourite character in this movie because of how centered he is with his recovery process and how he helps others on his journey. Even though his past life wasn’t the best, and he knows others shouldn’t take any advice from him, he is still there to help others through their own process.

It is always difficult to watch films that handle the subject matter of addiction. What Stanley does is focus in on one night. One night that changes the lives of everyone because all it takes is one decision to alter the course. The build up to that one night, explores Hal and Amy’s relationship. What happens when addicts have conversations with one another about their life, their hardships, and their downfall? The issue I had with this film it that Amy was too young to even be in a relationship with Hal. I can understand why they wanted a younger girl to be put in that position, in order to see the full extent of what drugs can do to someone, but it could have been executed differently, without the relationship being a factor.

Addict Named Hal has a different approach to the subject matter and highlights the pain one goes through in recovery. What this film also addresses is the change in perspective when viewing an addict. For those who are sober around addicts, you can tell the difference of which version of the person is standing in front of you. Once that realization hits, it’s like a punch in the gut because it feels like you do not know them anymore. It’s a difficult watch at times but it’s important to see the shift in perspective and in wanting to actually get help.