Somewhere in the mountains of the Eastern Sierra Nevada, off Route 395 near Yosemite National Park, is the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival.
You get there by driving five hours northeast from Los Angeles, through towns with names like Lone Pine, Big Pine and Independence. Through Mono County, by Devil’s Postpile and Convict’s Lake, the highway stretches out into such a yawningly wide expanse that it’s a surprise when you exit into Mammoth Lakes, pop. 8,000, all outdoor sports shops and diners filled with starving snowboarders even into late May. There’s something of Park City here—another mining town-turned-ski resort, where “mountain casual” is the de facto dress code—but scaled down to a fifth; less traffic, less noise, and driving anywhere feels superfluous.
In its second year, the trim Mammoth Lakes Film Festival carries the heft of a more mature entity. The twin engines behind its existence and burgeoning clout are director Shira Dubrovner and programmer Paul Sbrizzi (though dedicated support comes from right-hand woman Juliana Olinka-Jones). Dubrovner’s background includes producing film in L.A. and theater up north; she manages to convey both calm and whirring energy at once. Sbrizzi’s a programming mainstay at festivals like Slamdance and Los Angeles Film Festival, and as MLFF’s sole programmer, his curation bears traces of those fests’ edgy indie ethos.
It’s an exquisitely tight selection of films—just 50 in all, from all over the world—pared down with obvious care. For an indicator of the fest’s ambitions to become a “destination,” take the astonishing range of its narrative feature competition: All seven films were first features, but that was about the only thing that connected them. While crowd-pleasing comedy Buddymoon earned its director Alex Simmons and irrepressible star Flula Borg an Audience Award, Polish moviemaker Kuba Czekaj’s Venice-developed Baby Bump continued its circuit streak of delighting and repulsing viewers with mischievously icky imagery. The internationally produced, Rinko Kikuchi-starring Last Summer was all understated polish. Then there was Dutch Kaweh Modiri’s Bodkin Ras, whose edge-of-the-world setting of Forres, Scotland, and its inhabitants, hauntingly blended nonfiction and narrative lines. With arthouse Brazilian psycho-thriller All the Colors of the Night and American black comedies MAD and On the Rocks rounding out the selection, “something for everyone” feels like an understatement. (In other categories, docs were equally diverse, while shorts proved to be the heart of the fest with a high-energy encore screening anchoring the last day in good cheer.)
You meet everyone at the festival over your stay, from guests of honor like this year’s Joe Dante and actor Robert Picardo (in town for a screening of their classic sci-fi romp Innerspace), to filmmaker alumni from last year’s edition, revisiting just for the heck of it. It’s a “for the heck of it” type of crowd. You hear about nocturnal filmmaker jaunts out to the nearby natural hot springs that carry on until four in the morning, and you feel a little jealous.
So you drive out there yourself on a drizzly Sunday afternoon, low-slung clouds casting everything in a Tolkienesque light. Amongst other, scattered options, you find Pulkey’s Pool sitting matter-of-factly in the ground, the size of a large Jacuzzi, fed by a stream running from the mountains. The friendly strangers in the pool make room for you and pass around some kind of home-brewed liquid in a flask, and the boiling water warms your skin in the rain, and you entertain thoughts of staying there forever. And weeks later, when you’re back in L.A., you wish you had. MM
The second Mammoth Lakes Film Festival ran May 25-29, 2016.