Dispatch: First Full Screening Days at 59th Chicago Int’l Film Festival Offer Chicago-Made Family Dramas, Powerful Docs on Legacy, and a Swimmer’s Record-Making Journey

In its first two full days of screenings, the 59th Chicago International Film Festival presents a strong variety of films, from locally made family dramas to harrowing, insightful documentaries about families across the country and around the world. Film critics Steve Prokopy and Lisa Trifone offer their takes on just a few of the many films available on Thursday, October 12, and Friday, October 13.

For a full list of film screenings and the latest on the festival schedule and ticketing availability, visit the event website.

All Happy Families

The second feature film from writer/director Haroula Rose (Once Upon a River), All Happy Families takes its title from the well-known Leo Tolstoy quote: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." In other words, the drama is in the dysfunction, and Rose and co-writer Coburn Goss find plenty of it (and plenty of laughs, too) in this warm and authentic story of two adult sons, one a more successful actor than the other, and their old-fashioned parents juggling their own late-in-life transitions. Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother) stars as Graham, a struggling actor and writer who's taken on the old family two-flat (the film is proudly set in Chicago), trying to rent out one apartment while he lives in the other. It's his older brother, Will (Rob Huebel), who owns the place, having bought it with proceeds from his fancy LA television series role. Their parents (Becky Ann Baker and John Ashton) have decamped to the suburbs; she's newly retired from her longtime office job and he's having a hard time picking up enough hours at the hardware store to make up the difference.

Like her debut feature film, Rose excels in All Happy Families at allowing her characters to live their lives, processing the highs and lows, the struggles and the wins in equal measure. Radnor is endearing as ever as an earnest but frustrated artist who's got a glimmer of happiness in the latest potential tenant (Chandra Russell), an old friend he's delighted to be reunited with. Will is home under the guise of family business, but there's more to his LA exile, we soon learn. It's timely, and reasonably unspooled. Perhaps the most moving thread of this family tapestry is a small but powerful subplot about Will's daughter, who's recently come out as such (rather than his son). Witnessing this strained but solid family dynamic respond to this unexpected, new information resonates beautifully, likely because it's so relatable. (Lisa Trifone)

All Happy Families screens Thursday, Oct. 12, at 6pm and Friday, Oct. 13, at 5:45pm; filmmaker Haroula Rose is scheduled to attend both screenings.

Eric LaRue

With his feature-film directing debut, actor Michael Shannon deals with the aftermath of a tragedy and how those who survived struggle to move on, assuming that’s even possible. Adapted from Brett Neveu’s 2002 play (which debuted at Shannon’s own A Red Orchard Theatre) and scripted by the playwright, Eric LaRue follows Janice LaRue (Judy Greer, as intense as I’ve ever seen her) as the mother of a teen son who murdered three of his peers in a small town high school. Even when people are being kind and blameless to her, the sense of failure as a mother is overwhelming, and she seeks some sort of relief. Her floundering husband Ron (Alexander Skarsgård) turns to a cult-like church group (led by a vaguely sinister Tracy Letts) for comfort and ends up becoming unexpectedly attracted to a coworker in the group (Alison Pill), while Janice seeks guidance from an ineffective pastor from another church (Paul Sparks), who seems hellbent on bringing together Janice and the mothers of the three boys her son killed.

Comparisons with the vastly superior 2021 feature Mass (also by an actor-turned-director, Fran Kranz) are inevitable, but that isn’t really the problem with Eric LaRue. In its examination of guilt, grief, and forgiveness, Shannon’s movie feels like well-trod territory. Perhaps 20 years ago, when the play was new, these themes surrounding mass shootings were still raw and untested in popular storytelling, but today the emotions on display here seem unfocused and vague, when details would seem more impactful. Even the scene where most of the mothers come together (the other women are masterfully played by Shannon’s wife Kate Arrington and Sparks’ wife Annie Parisse, giving us a breathtaking portrait of barely contained rage) doesn’t quite gel because it's underwritten. In fact, there are no flaws in the performances at all, and Shannon clearly knows how to direct actors. Still, with such emotionally weighty subject matter, one would expect to feel devastated by the film’s attempt to put faces behind the tragedy. Instead, I felt sad for these characters but never the sense of true outrage that I do when these events occur in real life. (Steve Prokopy)

Eric LaRue screens Friday, Oct. 13, 6:30pm at Music Box Theatre. Director Michael Shannon is scheduled to attend.

Four Daughters

It's difficult to know exactly how to characterize a film as innovative, gripping and ultimately unforgettable as Four Daughters. It is essentially a documentary, but it is a creation so wholly unique, it—and I do not use this cliché lightly—defies the genre. Filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania guides us through the harrowing journey of Olfa, a mother to four daughters in Tunisia who, we soon discover, has been to hell and back with these four young women. At the jump, Ben Hania clarifies how she's going to tell this story: wherever possible, Olfa and her two now-teenage daughters, Eya and Tayssir, will share their experiences in their own words—and reenact it, too. Actors (Nour Karoui and Ichrak Matar) will stand in for her older daughters, Rahma and Ghofrane, while Hind Sabri, another actor, is on hand to stand in for Olfa in the moments that are too difficult for her to relive. It's understandable to be skeptical of this arrangement; it is entirely unwarranted.

Over the course of the film, Olfa and her daughters recount their lives from Olfa's contentious wedding night to a man (the girls' father) who Olfa didn't love and never wanted to lay with, to the radicalization and disappearance of her two older daughters, young women who had been rebellious, independent spirits ultimately broken by extremism. As the scenes in their lives unfold, Ben Hania creates a full picture of a flawed woman, one who adores her daughters and wants the best for them while also, at times, abusing and vigorously chastising them for their "bad" behavior. When revolution comes to Tunisia, everything changes, and the five women experience that pivotal moment in incredibly harrowing, vastly different ways. Four Daughters is a powerful portrait of womanhood, motherhood and sisterhood on a backdrop of political and religious upheaval that is all too familiar in this region of the world. (Lisa Trifone)

Four Daughters screens Thursday, Oct. 12, at 5pm and Friday, Oct. 13, at 2:30pm.

Nyad

From two of the greatest documentary filmmakers working today, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (Free Solo, The Rescue), the pair make their narrative debut with Nyad, the story of marathon-swimming legend Diana Nyad (Annette Bening). Nyad decided at age 60 that her one failed, epic swimmnig challenge—to traverse the 110 miles from Cuba to Florida—was worth giving another shot. She talks her lifelong best friend Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster) and a crack sailing team (including navigator John Bartlett, played by Rhys Ifans) to go with her on this 30-years-in-the-making adventure that will take her through treacherous seas, shark and jellyfish attacks, and all manner of medical emergencies. During the course of her training and several attempts at the swim, the filmmakers find fascinating ways to turn this story about a particular time in Nyad’s life into something of a biopic, using flashbacks and archival footage of her other marathon swims to show how her father (Johnny Solo) and a lecherous yet influential coach from her youth (Eric T. Miller) shaped her—in both good and bad ways—into becoming the sometimes obnoxiously confident, world-class athlete.

In the end, the film is one of the best sports movies I’ve seen in a very long time, partly because it isn’t really a sports movie; it’s a story about friendship, resilience, and the idea that you’re only as old as you feel (even if, by the end of this swim, Nyad felt completely swollen from being in salt water for two days and nights). Written by Julia Cox and based on Diana’s own written accounts of the experience, Nyad (the person and the film) would only be half as good without Foster, who is an energetic bundle of encouragement and sensibility, making the tough calls to end certain attempts when Nyad thinks she’s ready to keep going, never allowing the goal to take precedence over human life. I also loved that Diana and Bonnie are openly lesbian characters, and no one in the film gives a damn. The way the filmmakers put us in the water with Nyad and allow us to see things the way she does at times (even when she’s hallucinating) makes the experience of watching this movie something unique and somewhat transcendent. Bening seems born to play this role, and she captures Nyad’s stubbornness and determination effortlessly. It’s a wonderfully moving and inspiring piece of storytelling, and for so many reasons, I hope the filmmakers continue down the narrative filmmaking avenue. (Steve Prokopy)

Nyad screens Thursday, Oct. 12, 5:30pm at AMC NEWCITY.

Silver Dollar Road

From Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro) comes Silver Dollar Road ,the seemingly unreal story about one Black family’s fight to maintain control of the North Carolina land that has been in their family since just after slavery was abolished. The many acres turned out to be prime beachfront property, around which many vacation homes (built mostly by white owners) were erected, driving up property taxes and pushing greedy developers to covet the property along Silver Dollar Road. Some members of the family sold a certain coastal portion of the land to developers years ago without the controlling family members’ knowledge, and what results is two older brothers, Melvin Davis, 64, and Licurtis Reels, 53, being arrested for trespassing in 2011 because they refused to leave the homes they’d been born and raised in on that stretch of land. They were eventually thrown in jail while the family worked through the racially motivated red tape and prejudicial justice system, and there they stayed for eight years.

Rather than present us with a dry documentary about property law and generations-old land agreements, Peck fills Silver Dollar Road with beautiful images of the family’s acres, making it abundantly clear why this place was worth saving and keeping control of. We also get a staggering amount of archival photos and footage of life before these troubles, when the area was a safe haven for Black friends and family members. Like any family, this one has turncoats, but most of those who do this family wrong over the decades are white, and the film gives us a unique and very specific way in which racism was normalized in this part of the country. It’s shameful and sure to invoke outrage, as it should. But the way the bulk of this family sticks together as a unified front for a common goal is powerful stuff, even in the worst of times. The movie is a lyrical portrait of the modern south, with a clear understanding of how some things within it never change. In some cases, the racism seems to have become more refined and targeted, making it all the more terrifying. But there is a hope that comes out by the end of this film, and here’s hoping that it's based in reality and not just positive thinking. (Steve Prokopy)

Silver Dollar Road screens Friday, Oct. 13, 5pm at AMC NEWCITY.

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Lisa Trifone