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Montreal World Film Festival, 1998

     My schedule allowed me only four days at the 22nd Montreal World Film Festival in early September. That was enough to grasp that this was a vintage year. Among the admirable selections were several sexually gutsy French films, Too Much (Too Little) Love, about a 17-year-old androgynous girl who stirs up the life of a screenwriter by coming on to each of his family, and Beware of My Love, concerning the misguided passion of a mid-40s professional woman (the wonderful Nathalie Baye) for a pickup who turns out to be a violent psychotic.

     The Gypsies of Svinia was a potent muckraking documentary from the National Film Board about the hideous living conditions of gypsies in post-Communist Eastern Europe. Also, I watched four new Russian features, and all were fascinating. Four for four! A pre-Crash New New Wave?

     The American film in Official Competition was our very own Southie, fresh from selling out its showings at the Nantucket Film Festival and winning a jury prize at the Seattle Film Festival. However, this indie tale--of alcohol-ravaged families and mobster violence among the Irish-American townies of today's South Boston-- has yet to lure a distributor. Those in Montreal from the movie were jittery about that unhappy fact, including director John Shea, co-screenwriter Jimmy Cummings, and Southie's star, ex-New Kid on the Block Donnie Wahlberg.

     What's unfair? Southie was shot locally before Good Will Hunting, but there wasn't the post-production studio money to finish it for several years.

     Southie's problems? Clumsiness in the editing and some of the acting, and a too-familiar narrative. What's honorable about it? A feel for daily life in South Boston, and a compassion for its often beaten-down people. To me, those are missing elements in the facile "Love Southie, But Get Out of It" vantage of Good Will Hunting. Wahlberg and Cummings (the scenarist acts in the movie) are bonafide Southie, and in that unmistakeable way that eluded Cambridge buddie boys, Matt and Ben.

     "Boston is one of the most difficult places to pretend to be from, both for attitude and accent," Southie's director, Shea, observed at a press conference. "I'm from Springfield, just several hours away, and I wouldn't attempt the accent."

     Cummings talked to me in a hotel lobby, and told me the intense tale of his South Boston youth. His father, a linotype operator who was let go by the Globe, took to the bottle and was killed by an equally inebriated driver. Cummings moved to New York at 19, met black people for the first time, did bit acting and built tanning parlors. He moved back here at 2l to wire The Garage near Harvard. "It was the first time in my life that I was in Cambridge. I was horrified."

     He worked five years co-writing the Southie script with David McLaughlin. Shea loved it, wanted to direct. and became a third hand in screenplay polishes. Cummings told me: "Hollywood offered me $250,000 to buy away the script. I turned it down, because I had to do the film myself. Do you know how much money I've made off of the movie? NONE!"

     (This is not a rich LA type talking: he could use the cash. He paid his own way to Montreal.)

     After the press conference...what the hell? I had my photograph taken shaking the hand of Ex-Kid Donnie.

     Wahlberg had approached me, worried that I'd been offended at his testy answer to a question I'd asked. Not at all. I was impressed at how articulate he is. My query: was he dismayed that their film came out after three other made-in-Boston works, also The North End and Next Stop Wonderland?

     "That's pretty ignorant," Wahlberg had replied. "Are there too many films from New York? Does The Bronx Tale have anything to do with Goodfellas? Why not many stories from Boston? Good Will Hunting was a wonderful film, but it's a 'fish out of water' story of guys from Southie at MIT and Harvard. But if you want to see what makes a character like the one played by Matt Damon, what makes his life so difficult, see Southie."

(September, 1998)


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