The Sunscreen Film Festival begins its 14th journey around the sun Thursday (April 25), and while it’s not Sundance, Tribeca or even Boca Raton, its reputation has grown exponentially since its early days on a shoestring.
Says festival director Chris Eaton: “One filmmaker told me last year ‘This is the best-run festival I’ve been to. And that includes everything in New York City.’ So I think the word’s getting around. We’re probably better known nationally than we are locally, in some ways.”
To that last point: Sunscreen is the most ambitious celebration of film in Pinellas County, and arguably in the entire bay area; over four days, this year Eaton and company are screening 130 films, including comedies, dramas, thrillers, documentaries, foreign films and more.
A good percentage of the screenings at the AMC Sundial theaters are of curated blocks of short films. “People like shorts,” Eaton says, “and there’s no place to see them in a curated fashion.”
Sunscreen is a celebration of independent films – by its very nature it’s not The Avengers and it’s not the Oscars. George Clooney’s probably not going to show up any time soon to walk the opening-night red carpet.
“With the growth of the streaming services like Amazon, Hulu and Netflix, films are getting a wider exposure,” Eaton explains. “Independent just means a lower budget; and it doesn’t have big studio backing. They’re usually labors of love and passion, and people sacrifice everything to make this art.”
In other words, pure filmmaking.
“With independent films, you don’t have the big names, because they don’t have the budget to go out and hire the big name actors. So when you see big names in an independent film, they’re usually working for scale. They’re just doing it because they love it.”
In a nutshell, Sunscreen is (in Eaton’s words) a “film festival for filmmakers.” More than 60 writers, producers and directors are expected for four days of professional-level workshops, panel discussions – and parties.
“The creative energy in downtown St. Pete is electric because you’ve got all those people,” says Eaton.
With its growing reputation as a “City of the Arts,” St. Petersburg can add “world-class film festival” to its list of menu items.
“The last couple years I’ve really tried to give St. Pete ownership, and really bring in local support,” Eaton adds. “This year we’ve included a lot of nonprofit organizations, so they can drive out the messaging to their people. But also, we’re bringing in films they’re interested in.”
Among the highlights
Mother’s Little Helpers: The opening night film had its world premiere at SXSW in Austin last month. Directed by Kestrin Pantera, who also co-stars, it’s a dark comedy about three estranged adult siblings who return home – reluctantly – upon hearing the news that their compulsively-lying ex-hippie mother has a terminal illness. Pantera, along with cast members Melanie Hutsell (a former Saturday Night Live cast member, 1991-94), Sam Littlefield and Milana Vaynrub, will attend the screening and take part in an audience Q&A afterwards.
The Ukraine-born Vaynrub has perhaps the most recognizable resume, having played a character called Sloane Sandberg in eight Season One episodes of the TV series This is Us. She’s also the “AT&T Girl” of TV commercial fame.
According to Pantera, Mother’s Little Helpers was inspired by real events in her life – and in the lives of her co-stars. “I’m always the one who’ll be laughing at the baby’s funeral, inappropriately,” she said during a SWSW interview. “And for me, that’s what this movie represented. As humans, we only have a certain threshold for tragedy, and at a certain point we just go insane and it becomes hysterical.”
Although the story came from Pantera, most of the dialogue in the film was improvised by the main cast; in the end, they were all given screenwriting credit. “I realized that it happens to everyone,” the writer/director explained. “Most of us are never going to be James Bond international spy double-agenting, but most of us will experience – pretty much best-case scenario – the death of a flawed parent.
“It was something we all wanted to talk about, and bring to the table that sense of connection that comes with it.”
Screening at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 25 at AMC Sundial, 151 2nd Ave N.
Tomorrow: Director Martha Pinson’s drama was named Best Narrative Feature at three prestigious American festivals: SCAD Savannah, Napa Valley, and Seneca. Executive produced by Martin Scorsese, for whom Pinson worked as script supervisor on many films, the British-made drama stars Stephen Fry, Stuart Brennan, Sebastian Street, Game of Thrones’ Paul Kaye and singer Joss Stone; it’s about soldiers in the Afghanistan war returning to “normal” lives with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Pinson will conduct a Q&A after the 7 p.m. screening Friday, April 26 at AMC Sundial, 151 2nd Ave N.
Ghost Light: Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) is a bad summer-stock actor in a dysfunctional troupe of amateur Shakespeareans; disregarding the (many) superstitions of theater, he brings on the curse of MacBeth – a.k.a. The Scottish Play – and hell reigns down on his less-than merry band of miscreants. The venerable Carol Kane is also part of the troupe in this dark comedy/horror adventure. The film’s tag line is brilliant: “All’s well that ends well … but not for everyone.”
Screening at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 27 at AMC Sundial, 151 2nd Ave N.
The Garden Left Behind: Winner of the Audience Award last month at SXSW, this drams from writer/director Flavio Alves traces the relationship between Tina, a young Trans woman, and Eliana, her grandmother, as they navigate Tina’s transition and struggle to build a life for themselves as undocumented immigrants in New York City. Starring Carlie Guevara, Michael Madsen and Ed Asner.
Alves and producer Roy Wol will speak following the 6 p.m. screening Sunday, April 28 at AMC Sundial, 151 2nd Ave N.