Rivertown U.S.A.

THE MPLS./ST. PAUL International Film Festival is offering more than 90 features from 40 countries this year, but even its domestic product feels foreign--especially in the context of our town's narrow screening environment. Put another way: As not one of Rivertown's 16 U.S. titles is owned by a key indie distributor (e.g. Miramax, Fine Line, Sony), only the Samuel Goldwyn Co.'s Hard Eight has odds of playing at the Landmark chain's Uptown citadel, and whether the others will get released here at all is a crapshoot. Obviously, this reflects Rivertown's integrity as a local institution, as well as the mini-majors' distinctly coastal phobia about displaying their merchandise anywhere but the artsyplex. Still, one might wonder, while en route to one of the fest's American movies: Why won't this play anywhere else?

In the case of Jeff Lipsky's Childhood's End (7:15 p.m. Thursday, Nicholson Hall), it might be because the film is just too damn good. Set in Minneapolis, it's a teen sex melodrama like no other, portraying a handful of intimately connected high-school grads as they work, fuck, make friends, and defy their mothers. In fact, one of them even works on fucking his friend's mother, who also happens to be his own mother's friend. This Mrs. Robinson (Cameron Foord) leads the graduate, Greg (Sam Trammell), on a series of unusually ordinary trysts; one post-coital scene in which she casually squeezes the zits on the kid's neck, while a hard white light reveals such blemishes as her stretch marks and his shriveled dick, says everything about this film's rare frankness.

In a more familiarly toned teen-pic, Greg would easily hold the center (he's a wunderkind photo editor and the hub of his circle). But Lipsky audaciously cedes his film to the older woman's lesbian daughter (Colleen Werthmann) and her new lover, Rebecca (Heather Gottlieb)--a shy and heretofore straight girl who'd previously admitted her attraction to Greg. Nothing is categorically fixed in Childhood's End. Individual scenes evolve unpredictably and with tremendous daring, as when the image of Greg reading Rebecca's love letter segues into her rambling confession to the camera, or when the girls' tentative first clinch becomes a matter-of-factly explicit sex scene over the course of one shot lasting almost five minutes. Perhaps owing to his long tenure as an exec at October Films, Lipsky, 41, knows that great cinema always tests the bounds of a distributor's nerve; this one he's releasing himself.

While Childhood's End is the smartest Amerindie I've seen in months, another Rivertown offering, Lena's Dreams (5:30 p.m. Monday, Bell Auditorium), is among the liveliest. And since the dreams of the title involve becoming a successful stage actor, it should have particular import in our hamlet. Lena (Marlene Forte), a part-time waitress and professional auditioner off-Broadway, promised herself at age 25 that she'd quit acting if she wasn't a star by age 30. Now 32, she's still giving her all at various humiliating casting sessions, like one in which a white-guy director says she's not ethnic enough to play a nanny, and too Cuban-American to play the nanny's boss. The considerable fun of this realistic story comes in watching Lena colorfully tell off this racist creep, as well as her lazy agent, her eyesore boyfriend, and the dingbat telephone operator who takes the messages of her countless rejections.

With its handheld, zoom-heavy camerawork and improv-style 16mm street scenes, Lena's Dreams is more convincingly realist than anything since Girls Town. And writer-directors Heather Johnston and Gordon Eriksen hang this aesthetic on a similarly gritty conundrum: What to do when following your dream feels as much like selling out as not following your dream? As Lena deliberates taking a part opposite Andy Garcia in the epic Castro, the eyesore offers her a role in a domestic production that seems no less formulaic.

Speaking of convention, George B. (9:30 p.m. Friday, Bell Auditorium) appeared at this year's Sundance as the prototypical indie-behind-the-curve, being about how dumb guys have all the luck, both good and bad. Or maybe the film is a warning not to give or take a handjob on the first date, as the titular manchild (David Morse), a polite janitor who'd look right at home on Forrest Gump's favorite bench, meets a golddigging and promiscuous gal (Nina Siemaszko) in the ladies' room, enjoys a moment of bliss under her firm guidance, and spends the rest of the movie trying to keep calm until he finally gets the gumption to pull a knife on the bitch. This quirk-heavy pseudo-Sling Blade may not make it to Lagoon, but it's definitely cable-ready. CP

The Mpls./St. Paul International Film Festival runs through Sunday, April 27. For schedule info, call U Film Society at 627-4430; for more festival reviews, see Film Clips, p. 49.

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