The 26th Philadelphia Film Festival opens Thursday with I, Tonya, a biopic centered on the notorious figure skater who threw a monkey wrench into her career with … a monkey wrench. Or something like it.
Harding won infamy for her assault on rival Nancy Kerrigan, but the movie isn't about that incident. It's a darkly comic and, at the same time, empathetic look at Harding (Margot Robbie) and her hardscrabble origins, putting the story in a socioeconomic context — something of a theme with the festival this year.
"I think that's absolutely the case," said executive director J. Andrew Greenblatt. "I, Tonya could have been a salacious film, but it's very much grounded in reality. You look at her home life, the husband who allegedly abused her, the mother who allegedly subjected her to mental abuse, you get past the obvious and down to something deeper, and you see that at the festival this year."
He cited the festival's closing-night feature: Screening on Oct. 29, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the story of a blue-collar woman (Frances McDormand) who shames local law enforcement (Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell) into concentrating on the neglected case of her slain daughter.
And there is The Florida Project, screening Oct. 21, an Oscar-buzz feature about life in a Florida motel where transient families and single mothers eke out a living on the margins of society and in the shadow of Disneyland. It's directed by Sean Baker, who directed the iPhone-shot Tangerine and who uses a cast of mostly amateur actors, plus Willem Dafoe.
Baker is one of this year's festival guests, the biggest of whom is Bruce Willis, who will receive the festival's Lumiere Award from last year's winner, M. Night Shyamalan, on Oct. 23 at a fund-raising dinner.
Other notables include Philly-born actor and director Mark Webber, who'll be bringing his movie Flesh and Blood, screening Oct. 21. It's his semiautobiographical meta-movie, mixing fact and fiction, about an ex-con (Webber) returning to his old neighborhood, reintegrating with his friends and family, including his activist mother (played by Webber's real-life mother, homeless advocate and former Green Party vice presidential candidate Cheri Honkala), and costarring Pitman, N.J.'s Madeline Brewer (The Handmaid's Tale).
Another actor directing a feature is Greta Gerwig, whose movie Lady Bird (screening Oct. 22) is loosely based on her own upbringing in Sacramento. The film stars Saoirse Ronan as an awkward teen dreaming of life in the big city.
Festival guests will also include Vladimir de Fontenay, director of Mobile Homes, (screening Oct. 27 and 29), a movie with echoes of The Florida Project. Imogene Poots stars as a young mother who moves with her 8-year-old child through a series of small-town motels, trying to make a living, often dangerously, via the underground economy.
You can find similar themes in Most Beautiful Island (Oct. 22 and 23), the story of a South American immigrant who arrives in New York City, working odd jobs, before an opportunity for quick cash leads to potentially dire consequences. The film won the top prize at this year's South by Southwest Film Festival.
That film headlines the American Independent Section, and, as usual, the festival includes programs aimed at exposing audiences to challenging work from independent voices here at home and around the globe — there are sections on Spanish and Latin American cinema, New French films, a World Narratives program with titles from China, Iceland, South Africa, Norway, Australia, Israel, and many others.
Greenblatt said the documentaries in the festival are typically strong. Local filmmaker Jason Kohn directed Love Means Zero (Oct. 21 and 29), a penetrating look at the controversial career of infamous tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, who worked with Andre Agassi. It's included in the Greater Philadelphia program, which also offers Alaska is a Drag (Oct. 25 and 28) a drama about a drag queen in small-town Alaska played by Philadelphia native Martin L. Washington Jr.
"I think people will be stunned by what they see at the festival this year," Greenblatt said. "The festival can be daunting. There are dozens and dozens of features and 20 or 30 short films. I would just read the festival guide like a book, and if something strikes you as interesting or intriguing, you should absolutely go see it. The movies will challenge people, but it's a challenge that comes with a big payoff."