Film festival all about aging features ‘Code of the Freaks’ and a Bay Area nonagenarian

Salome Chasnoff’s ‘Code of the Freaks’ details how Tinsel Town generally forces disabled characters into one of three categories.

Code of the Freaks. Credit: Legacy Film Festival

Like most of us, I’m getting a little bit older each day — which may explain (or not!) why the Legacy Film Festival on Aging (streaming online from Monday, May 24, through Monday, May 31) caught my eye this year. As my aching bones creep inexorably toward their seventh decade, will the festival’s offerings help me prepare for my golden years?

That’s probably an unfair expectation, but there’s definitely much to be learned from the festival’s offerings — especially director Salome Chasnoff’s Code of the Freaks. Featuring excerpts from dozens of films interspersed with commentary from experts in the field, it’s a thought-provoking examination of Hollywood’s depictions of the disabled over the last century.

Chasnoff details how Tinsel Town generally forces disabled characters into three categories: those who are cured (usually by divine intervention, Shirley Temple, or a combination of the two), those who are institutionalized for their own good (e.g., Sling Blade), and those who die to end their suffering or to allow others to live. After seeing Code of the Freaks, I’m not going to look at David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) and Andrew Nicol’s Gattaca (1998) — two films I’ve enjoyed and admired for a long time — in quite the same way.

Perhaps surprisingly, the film reserves some of its kindest words for another old favorite, Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Despite its melodramatic trappings, Freaks features a cast of disabled actors whose characters contrast positively with the film’s deeply unpleasant “normies.”


Bellbird. Credit: Legacy Film Festival

Bellbird is a lovely New Zealand drama about a lugubrious dairy farmer (Marshall Napier), who’s deciding whether to retire and sell his farm to a conglomerate or keep it in the family. His son (Cohen Holloway) isn’t exactly the farming type — he’d rather sort donations at the local charity shop than help Bessie give birth — but dad won’t give up without a fight. A feature length adaptation of writer-director Hamish Bennett’s shorts The Dump (2011) and Ross & Beth (2014), Bellbird is a charming tale of father-son re-engagement set amidst gorgeous North Island landscapes.

Two shorts from Berkeley-based filmmaker Elizabeth Sher are also on offer via the festival — Edith Hillinger: Collaging Cultures and Weezie Mott: Still Cookin’, made in partnership with Maggie Simpson Adams. The former is about a Berkeley artist, the latter a 99-year old Alamedan who offers cooking classes in her home. Mott is an engaging screen presence, and her food looks delicious!

Finally, the story of one of the Bay Area’s most famous and well-respected nonagenarians, Betty Reid Soskin, is told in No Time to Waste: The Urgent Mission of Betty Reid Soskin — and if you missed the outstanding retirement community documentary Some Kind of Heaven earlier this year, the festival provides another opportunity to see it.

Take Out Girl. Credit: 1091 Films

I intended to cover the recently released Take Out Girl last week, but ran out of space. Though burdened by a fairly predictable plot and a narrative coincidence that defies belief, it’s definitely worth a rental.

Hedy Wong stars as Tera, a young Chinese-American woman helping her mother run the family restaurant in an insalubrious part of Los Angeles. When an opportunity arises to make some easy money — and lighten the load carried by her exhausted, physically ailing mom — Tera grabs it and soon finds herself delivering more than wontons and chow mein.

Directed by Hisonni Johnson (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Wong), Take Out Girl benefits from an excellent cast (with particular kudos to Ski Carr as Lalo, a tough guy whose secret you’ll probably guess by the film’s halfway point) and a finale that gamely attempts to scale Shakespearian heights of tragedy.