I just returned from the 22nd annual Newport Beach Film Festival, where I program short films. (The short explanation of what that entails is that I watch a lot of short films during the year, narrow down the choices with the other programmers, and build 90-minute blocks; then we contact filmmakers, facilitate their experience at the festival, introduce our blocks of films, and host the question-and-answer time at the end of the screening.) It was great to be back, after last year’s all-virtual festival, in person and talking to filmmakers.
One of the filmmakers whom my brother and I met early on in the week was Brian Lucke Anderson, who directed a film called East of Middle West(2021), written by Mokotsi Rukundo, and starring Carson MacCormac, both of whom we also met. It is a movie that easily could have traded in common tropes and cliches, but the arc of the narrative keeps it from falling into some of those traps. It is a common device for a character to do something evil or criminal, or make a mistake that carries unavoidable consequences. Many times, the person tries to escape from those consequences, and often finds him- or herself changed, as he or she comes to terms with what needs to happen.
East of Middle West begins that way, and before its particular and surprising twist, we think it’s going to end that way as well, with Chris (MacCormac) having come to terms with what he’s done, and taking responsibility for it. The film asks questions about whether people can change, and the possibility of forgiveness.
In that way, it made me think of Mass, which asks similar questions. But these two films actually run in opposite directions. Mass is about an intentional act, with which the parents of the perpetrator and the victims have to reckon. The forgiveness in that film is anything but cheap and superficial. In East of Middle West, the central action is an accident, but forgiveness seems, finally, unachievable, partly because of Denny’s (Joris Jarsky) own guilt, for which he is unable to find expiation.
In Mass, the question of whether and how a person changes is not centered in those directly involved in the tragedy, because of their deaths, but in those left behind. In East of Middle West, it is the main actors themselves who must deal with whether they and others can change. The characters often appear to have changed, but it is mostly an illusion. Bill (Scott McCord) and Amy (Sophie Hoyt) are the opposite sides of a refusal to change, Bill for the worse and Amy for the better. Denny wonders whether people can change, not only in their own lives, but from generation to generation. Chris does change, genuinely it seems.
But in this world, and in the world of East of Middle West, change isn’t always enough. Forgiveness doesn’t always come from one person to another, even when change does. At the end of the movie, it is that with which we are left to wrestle.
East of Middle West will be available to screen online (and in person) from several upcoming film festivals. Find tickets here.