Of all the movie shindigs in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Independent Film Festival — aka SF Indiefest — is the funkiest. The vibe is casual, but the energy is high. The program, which commences tonight with the quasi-biblical Arkansas yarn Shotgun Stories, has a lot to do with it, of course, for truly independent movies have a handmade, anything-goes quality. But the real wild card is the audience: hordes of moviegoers in their 20s eager to embrace the unknown, the unheralded and the uncompromising.

The typical Indiefest feature has no stars, which may have hurt its shot at getting into Sundance and certainly doomed its chances for theatrical distribution. But no-name actors aren’t a turnoff for the fest’s fan base, which doesn’t confuse commercial prospects with quality. On the documentary side, the fest favors colorful characters and outrĂ© situations to investigative journalism — hyperrealism over realism — and audiences have long endorsed that emphasis on entertainment.

Based on the chunk of the lineup that I previewed, here are some picks to click.

Local Heroes:
Rhyming is cool, fool, with hip-hop inspiring a wave of talented teens of color to compete in poetry slams. Carl Brown’s 2nd Verse — The Rebirth of Poetry starts out as a profile of several hard-writing Bay Area teenagers, then shifts its focus to the annual throwdown among kids from around the country sponsored by the S.F. organization Youth Speaks. Adults will be gratified to see young people deriving enormous power from words, but the film’s greatest impact will be on middle and high school students.

Free Spirits:
Catch a wave, Brian Wilson said, and you’re sitting on top of the world. Sliding Liberia is a lovely and mesmerizing film, but what is it that Stanford students Britton Caillouette and Nicholai Lidow have made, exactly? Is it a surfing video, an art film, a promotional piece for the Liberian tourist office or a social-issue snapshot? If you guessed (e) all of the above, go to the head of the class.

Exercise Fanatics:
Row Hard No Excuses is a record of two middle-aged underachievers, John Ziegler and Tom Mailhot, racing from the Canary Islands to Barbados in a two-man rowboat. I wish filmmaker Luke Wolbach had kept us confined with his subjects for the duration, as claustrophobic and brutal as that would have been, instead of providing countless cutaways. The film fulfils our vicarious desire to experience isolation and independence in the middle of the Atlantic, but ultimately it doesn’t cut much deeper than a Discovery Channel travelogue.

Mama’s Boys:
If Bryan Friedman’s estranged father was still a corporate lawyer, we’d likely be less than interested in the Canadian filmmaker’s pallid attempt to rebuild their relationship. But Pop is a 59-year-old, world-class bodybuilder in training for the annual competition. Like every other sports movie with at least a semi-sympathetic main character, The Bodybuilder and I keeps us intrigued all the way through the judges’ decision. But it could have been a truly wrenching experience, if the director had been more vulnerable.

Opening Night Fireworks:
Indiefest’s slate of narrative dramas is toplined by Jeff Nichols’s Shotgun Stories, a winningly executed slice of white trash life. A man (now sober and Christian) dies in southeast Arkansas, leaving two sets of sons. These half-brothers have never had any use for each other, and violence is in the air. The plot breaks little new ground, but Nichols’ feel for the landscape, his minimal dialogue and the unhurried pace combine to transport us to a faraway place.

Date Movie:
Oversexed singles are no doubt lining up as we speak for Michael Knowles’s mesmerizing and intimate One Night, which follows the up-and-down romantic entanglements of a dozen-plus exceptionally attractive New Yorkers on a sultry summer night. The film is best appreciated as an actors’ showcase, though the script will play like Dostoyevsky to the twenty-somethings in the crowd.

Beautiful Boys:
Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Last Days) is in his mid-50s, but he remains as obsessed as ever with guileless teenage boys whose goodness and purity cannot survive this world. Paranoid Park is his latest successful foray into fragmented cinema, and it is filled with sensual pleasures such as Christopher Doyle’s fluid cinematography. The amorphous story revolves around a skateboarder who may have been involved in a crime, and who realizes that adulthood is closer than he thought.

This is a random sample of the program, plainly, and your mileage may vary. Another point to consider: Few of the films on display at Indiefest will play again in Bay Area theaters, so avail yourself of the opportunity.

S.F. Indiefest unspools Thursday, Feb. 7 through Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008 at the Castro, Roxie and Victoria Theatres. For tickets and information visit sfindie.com.

2008 Indiefest Taps Into SF Iconoclasm 15 April,2014KQED Arts

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