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The Atlanta Film Festival, Part One
Jeffrey Schecter and Josh Wade find themselves trying to write a fake play in “Farm Girl in New York.”

This year’s Atlanta Film Festival is in full swing. It kicked off last Thursday with a gala opening night screening of “The Lena Baker Story” and will wrap up on Saturday with a screening of “The Visitor.” Crammed in between are film industry workshops, appearances by filmmakers and actors, and best of all, loads of independent and foreign films. Here are some of the high points among the films I’ve seen so far.

‘Farm Girl in New York’
Best friends Sam (Jeffrey Schecter) and Matt (Josh Wade) flee their hick hometown for New York City, where they plan to meet lots of beautiful women. After months of striking out, Sam, Matt, and their new friend Alan (J. Robert Spencer, who also directs) hold auditions to cast women in a play that doesn’t exist. The plan works all too well, and the boys find themselves trying to actually write and stage a play. Luckily, legitimate actress and love interest Mary (Allison Munn) is around to inspire them. It’s shot on digital video and a little rough around the edges, but the comedic timing and slapstick attitude are thoroughly hilarious. A comedy with no ulterior motives.

‘Let Them Chirp Awhile’
Twentysomething Bobby (Justin Rice) can’t finish his screenplay, his friend Scott (Brendan Sexton) isn’t happy with his fiancé Michelle (Pepper Binkley), and their mutual friend Hart (Zach Galligan) is a successful playwright but a shallow person. Lives intertwine and the witty dialogue flows. This is a great, naturalistic New York movie that lovingly mocks young artists in search of both themselves and the key to making great art. Rice has a Woody Allen-esque quality minus the annoying verbal tics. It’s also the first feature film from writer/director Jonathan Blitstein, who shows as much promise as any new director at the festival.

‘Roman de gare’ (‘Crossing Tracks’)
It’s entirely possible that when it comes to making movies, the French know everything and we know nothing. This riveting thriller from legendary writer/director Claude Lelouche creates a bona fide mystery and keeps us guessing for a solid ninety minutes, which is something most Hollywood directors only wish they could pull off. I refuse to tell you any more, because I don’t want to spoil a second of it. If this one hits an art house anywhere in North Georgia, allez!

‘The Cake Eaters’
Mary Stuart Masterson, whom we have known for years as an actress (“Fried Green Tomatoes,” “Benny & Joon”), directs one of the most mature, accomplished debut films I’ve ever seen. The photography, editing and overall tone are so controlled it’s hard to believe she hasn’t been doing this for years.

The story is built around a teenage girl, Georgia (Kristen Stewart), with an incurable neurological disorder who knows her time is limited. Georgia meets and quickly begins an affair with Beagle (Aaron Stanford), whose mother has recently died from a degenerative disease.

Meanwhile, Beagle, his father (Bruce Dern), and his brother (Jayce Bartok, who wrote the script) grapple with their loss and try to reconnect with each other.

This content could easily drift into melodrama, but it never does. The storytelling is restrained and understated, much like last year’s “Away From Her.” The difference is, we do not pity these characters, we love them and want to fight for them. The only tragedy is that we cannot enter their world and do so.

Stewart is outstanding. She finds the inner strength of a character whose body is slowly failing her yet refuses to go gently into the inevitable good night. It’s also nice to see Dern playing someone other than the village kook. His character is not only sane, but complex and sympathetic.

“The Cake Eaters” finds the beauty in imperfect relationships. It’s the kind of movie that makes us tear up, smile (often at the same time) and leave feeling triumphant. The film has been making the festival rounds for months now and seems destined to skip wide release and go to DVD. Be on the lookout for it.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.