When it launched back in 1999, most people would not have guessed the Waterfront Film Festival would have survived more than a few years. Without a doubt, it was ambitious: Who starts a film festival in Saugatuck, a town without a single movie theater?
It was also an often surprising weekend, in which you might find yourself getting on a shuttle and sitting next to the guy who starred in the movie you just watched, or going in to a screening of a film you'd never heard of and discovering the proverbial "next big thing."
For many years, Waterfront premiered future Oscar winners like March of the Penguins and Born Into Brothels and Oscar nominees like Winged Migration and The Story of the Weeping Camel. There were also plenty of sleeper hits to discover like Grizzly Man, Napoleon Dynamite, and Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle.
As the 16th festival kicks off Thursday night, Waterfront is in the process of redefining itself. Last year, the festival moved from Saugatuck to South Haven, and the organizers have discussed possibly moving again next year.
As for the movies, some longtime Waterfront attendees have grumbled that the lineups in recent years haven't been as exciting as they once were. We'll see if that changes this year. After screening a few of the films, I can safely say the schedule looks like a mixed bag.
On one hand, you have entries like Being Awesome, exactly the kind of film that's been over-represented at Waterfront recently: the talky, overly earnest low-budget drama, in which disillusioned thirty-somethings spend a lot of time whining about how much they hate their lives.
The acting is OK and the filmmaking is solid, but you could hang out at TGIFriday's or Applebee's and eavesdrop on the same sorts of conversations for free.
At least The Odd Way Home sends its troubled hero and heroine on a picturesque road trip. Rumer Willis, who looks and sounds uncannily like her mom Demi Moore, gives a vivid performance as Maya, an edgy young woman trying to reunite an autistic young man, played by Chris Marquette, with his long-lost father.
Along the way, she encounters her own long-lost parent, a self-pitying mom, played by Veronica Cartwright. Although the screenplay is sometimes a bit overwrought, The Odd Way Home benefits from a terrific, understated performance by Brendan Sexton III as Maya's former flame and Matt Wilson's lovely cinematography.
The best of the films that were made available for preview was Arlo & Julie, director Steve Mims' endearingly nutty comedy about a couple trying to figure out their relationship status while solving a peculiar mystery: Someone has been mailing them pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on a daily basis.
But putting together the puzzle is only the beginning. It's sweet and offbeat, and let's hope there are more hidden gems like Arlo & Julie on the Waterfront slate this weekend.