The first edition of the North Bend Film Festival took place from 23–26 August in North Bend, Washington, the original shooting location for David Lynch’s Twin Peaks television series. The festival’s goals are “to fill the void of programming for the progressive audiences in the Pacific Northwest, and to provide a platform for emerging filmmakers” according to the NBFF website, and the inaugural edition of the fest offered a bevy of intriguing programming, including the four feature films reviewed here.

Single mother Camilla Torres (Monique Gabriela Curnen) and her young son Jamie (Luke Ganalon) move into what they hope is a dream home in the psychological horror film Model Home. Unfortunately for them, their live-in staging abode — in which developers hire low-income families to decorate and take care of model houses in an effort to attract potential buyers — turns into a nightmare. Living in an isolated, deserted area with few others around save a strange RV inhabitant (Jasper Cole) and an overbearing real estate agent (Kathy Baker), Jamie attends to his mentally ill mother, who requires a strict regimen of pills but chooses to ignore that fact as she spirals downward while trying to achieve her vision of the American Dream. As her behavior grows increasingly more dangerous to herself and others, Jamie tries to befriend a dog and live in a world of imagination in the dusty, dry area surrounding their home. Patrick Cunningham, who co-wrote the screenplay with William Day Frank, directs with a lean-and-mean, minimalist hand, adding a touch of the surreal to the proceedings that keeps things feeling slightly off-kilter and consistently unsettling. Curnen and Ganalon are both marvelous, investing their characters with a vulnerability and relatability that makes Camilla’s horrific decline and Jamie’s blend of fragility and bravery all the more compelling.

Dutch Comedy Billy puts a sericomic spin on the horror trope of a ventriloquist battling personalities with his dummy. Director Theo Maassen’s film dispenses with the fear fare angle, focusing instead on the humor and pathos behind this sort of psychological entanglement. Gerard de Groot (Bruno Vanden Broecke) and his dummy Billy become overnight sensations when the latter head butts an overly critical talent show judge on television. Ten years later, the duo is still successfully headlining theaters and appearing on talk shows. Billy runs their lives, though, to the point that Gerard hasn’t been intimate with a woman for that decade. When nurse Merel (Christine de Boer) moves in next door, Billy tries to drive her away with his trademark insulting jokes, while Gerard, insisting sheepishly that he doesn’t throw his voice for Billy’s barbs, begins to have feelings for her. Matters get even more complicated when Gerard decides to strike out on a solo career. Though Billy is chock full of wry, sardonic humor, it is ultimately a heartwarming psychological foray into the triumph of the human spirit. Vanden Broecke is terrific as Gerard, expertly capturing the ventriloquist’s highs, lows, hopes, and bitter disappointments. The rest of the cast is fine, too and Maassen paces the proceedings marvelously.

Model Home

Writer/director Joel Potrykus tackles nineties nostalgia in Relaxer, a dark comedy with an absurdist, existential spin. Abbie (Joshua Burge) is the absolute definition of a couch potato, and his abusive brother Cam (David Dasmalchian) never lets him forget, always coming up with ridiculous challenges that always see Abbie fall short. With Y2K about half a year away, Cam leaves Abbie to his own devices in their rundown apartment as he issues a challenge that the latter must complete the unbeatable final level of Pac-Man without leaving the couch. Determined to realize this task, Abbie is visited by neighbors and friends, including Andre Hyland in a hilarious performance as Abbie’s buddy Dallas. The less learned about Relaxer before seeing it the better, as this genre-bending winner holds a great deal of surprises, constantly keeping viewers wondering what they just saw and what could possibly happen next. Hints of horror, especially the kind that stems from isolation, abound, but soon enough give way to situations that are preposterous and daft. Burge gives off a magnetic, offbeat charm in his performance, investing Abbie with a nerdy, slacker take on the everyman, and giving viewers plenty to root for in this surreal comedy.

This reviewer recommends going into Swiss/German co-production Sarah joue un loup garou (Sarah Plays a Werewolf) with the proper frame of mind, ready for some heavy, somber fare. The film focuses on depressed teenager Sarah (Loane Balthasar) who finds solace through her school drama club. Though she finds some comfort in playing out Juliet’s death scene from Romeo and Juliet along with scenes from other plays, her behavior becomes increasingly harder to deal with for her parents and younger sister. As Sarah continues to alienate herself from her drama classmates, she heads further down a path of despair. This character study of a suicidal teenage girl is a meditation on on that fatal act and how it affects their family and friends. The performances are solid throughout, with Balthasar giving a particularly strong turn. Director and co-writer Katharina Wyss (who shares screenwriting credits with Josa Sesink) has crafted a stark, moving film that is certain to stay with viewers long after its closing credits end.