The Wisconsin Film Festival is a little transgressive this year. Yes, some of the films explore unusual and provocative topics -- from R100, an S&M comedy that features a man's battle against a society of dominatrices, to Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus, a documentary about a theater group that risks imprisonment for their subversive work -- but this is be expected at a festival screening nearly 150 films from around the world. The transgression I'm talking about is more akin to cutting class in high school.
During the first 24 hours of the fest, many guests seemed to be taking a break from their everyday responsibilities, and the freedom made a few of them downright giddy. On Friday morning, fancy coffee drinks and long lines filled Sundance Cinemas.
With lots of sensible shoes and weather-appropriate jackets, the crowd didn't look like a bunch of rebels, but they seemed ready to let the good times roll and even make a little mischief. One woman at my favorite screening so far, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, announced to the crowd that she had an extra ticket to The Amazing Catfish for anyone interested. A man who wanted it asked if he could take her popcorn, too. The festival volunteer who introduced Stand Clear boldly acknowledged the "playing hooky" phenomenon, too.
Though Stand Clear isn't a particularly comic film, the full house took every possible opportunity to laugh during the screening. The volunteer's remark made them applause, as did the bouncy, Wisconsin Film Fest-themed campfire song that preceded the film. They even chuckled at the clever name of one of Stand Clear's production companies: M ss ng P eces, and when the film's angsty teen character, Carla (Azul Zorrilla), pointed out that "some teachers are stupid."
That last bit of laughter was a bit surprising for a college town like Madison, but Carla's point was a good one, given the context: Her brother, Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez), has autism, and one of his teachers has discouraged him from choosing a "difficult" subject for his science project because she's afraid he'll fail. Ricky says the teacher's actions are proof that she thinks he's stupid. His mother says the teacher knows what's best for him, and that he should listen to her. Carla, meanwhile, calls B.S.
Before long, Ricky does something much riskier than take on a challenging school assignment: Instead of going home with his sister after class, he wanders away from their home in Rockaway Beach, a run-down neighborhood on the outskirts of Queens. With just an iPod, a backpack and a few quarters in hand, he boards a subway car and leaves the small world he knows. His mother, Mariana (Andrea Suarez Paz), fears the worst as she tries to find him, avoiding the police for as long as possible because she's concerned they'll realize she's an undocumented immigrant. Days go by, and Hurricane Sandy brews. Mariana starts to lose hope, but she continues her search, discovering a few unexpected pleasures as the pain and anxiety grow.
Mesmerized and sometimes confused, Ricky immerses himself in the sights and sounds of the subway-riding experience. A man and a young girl discuss the impending storm in sign language. Three teenagers perform a captivating dance between the seats. Ricky starts talking to the people around him, something he rarely does. He helps a kid with one arm zip up his hoodie. Noticing that Ricky is alone and hungry, a homeless man offers him a banana.
For most of the film, it's unclear if Ricky doesn't know his way home, or if he simply wants to be somewhere else, where he's free to choose his own path. I won't tell you the answer, but I will tell you that the trip toward it is charming, gripping and at times heartbreaking.
Stand Clear screens again Sunday, April 6, at the UW Union South Marquee.