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Overlooked 'Delta' Shines
in Seattle Film Festival

June 10, 1997
in the 23rd annual Seattle Film Festival, there was one film that narrowly edged out every other as the best new movie: Ira Sachs' The Delta. Among the films that didn't make my cut are Julio Medem's earth (a fine Spanish fantasy hampered only by an excess of false endings) and Jan Svankmajer's Conspirators of Pleasure (a barely describable helping of Czech surrealism). I don't have room to describe all the pictures I saw at the festival -- to express how much I enjoyed Temptress Moon and Irma Vep , for example, or how much I hated Between Marx and a Naked Woman and One Summer in La Goulette, or how Lilies had merit but couldn't quite make the transition from stage to screen. Among all these partial failures, The Delta deserves special praise.

A superficially simple story of Lincoln (Shayne Gray), a Memphis teenager caught between heterosexual and homosexual identities, and Minh (Thang Chan), the half-black, half-Vietnamese man with whom he has a brief affair, The Delta features a depth of character and sense of place that is almost never seen in American cinema, independent or mainstream. It is a coming-of-age movie in which no one really comes of age; a brilliantly acted movie with a cast of nonactors; a film that depicts interlocking cultural worlds with none of the P.C. superficiality of John Sayles' wildly overpraised Lone Star . The only movie I've seen that's remotely like it is John Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, which similarly plays with narrative conventions and mixes naturalism with suspense.

Why was "The Delta" so good? It was not just the breaking of generic conventions. Mere deviation from formula does not guarantee a good film. Diane Bertrand's A Saturday on Earth, for example, takes an admirably fresh approach to narrative: showing events out of order, mixing in documentary-style scenes, spending long periods with minor characters. But I never cared about the characters or the story, and soon grew bored as the pieces of the puzzle fell all too predictably into place. Too many films in this year's festival failed to match the richness and depth of The Delta.

--   Jesse Walker


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