Sherrybaby drinks in Stockholm’s warm glow

Drugs film Sherrybaby and its lead actress Maggie Gyllenhaal scoop the gongs at the Stockholm Film Festival. But for Eddie de Oliveira, New York school drama Half Nelson stole the show.

The 17th Stockholm Film Festival ended explosively with its closing night film, The Last King of Scotland, based on Giles Foden’s 1998 novel.

A partly-factual account of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s brutal regime, the story is told through the perspective of his fictional personal doctor, Dr. James Garrigan (British flavour-of-the-month James McAvoy).

Although not a reliable recounting of events, it is engrossing, pacey and led by a tour-de-force performance from American actor Forest Whitaker as the deluded, charismatic Amin. The festival jury awarded Briton Anthony Dod Mantle the Best Cinematography award.

The Bronze Horse for Best Film went to Sherrybaby, an American indie starring Maggie Gyllenhaal (sister of Brokeback Mountain star Jake) as a young woman adjusting to life on the outside after a jail sentence for her drug offences.

The film details her struggle to walk the line and avoid the temptation of drugs whilst trying to reacquaint herself with her young daughter.

Gyllenhaal, who won the Best Actress award, proves once again that she is one of the brightest young talents in American cinema, but the script only just skims the surface of its complex characters. The comparable Half Nelson is a more accomplished and engaging piece, whose actor Ryan Gosling received the Best Actor accolade.

This remarkable debut from American director Ryan Fleck tells the story of Dan Dunne (Gosling), an inspirational, young history teacher at an inner-city high school in New York. Dunne succeeds in bringing a turgid syllabus to life through natural charm and an intelligent, accessible explanation of what history is.

There is no mistaking Dunne’s remarkable rapport with the kids; he warms to one bright spark in particular, a 13-year-old girl named Drey (Shareeka Epps). Their friendship starts with the unlikeliest of beginnings when she finds Dunne passed out in a school toilet, high on crack. Filled with self-loathing and a profound sense of hopelessness, he is determined not to let Drey make the same mistakes.

Half Nelson manages to be humorous, intelligent, moving and challenging without ever judging its flawed hero, or patronising its young supporting characters. One of Fleck’s skills is his ability to craft excellent performances from both lead and minor actors.

“I give actors a lot of freedom to try new things, and I think they appreciate that,” he explains. “Ryan and Shareeka have definitely developed a close friendship, which you can see on camera.”

Already the recipient of numerous festival awards, Fleck is definitely a director to watch. Stockholm was the final port-of-call on a European tour of film festivals, and he has been intrigued at the differences in audience responses on this side of the Atlantic.

“I feel like this is specifically an American film, but at its core the movie is about friendship, and audiences are responding well.”

Stockholm’s audience certainly responded warmly – Half Nelson was a sell-out success and will be released in Sweden next year.

The best thing about a festival, of course, is discovering films that are unaccompanied by great fanfare or publicity. Stockholm prides itself on such films, and it is a fertile atmosphere for new and exciting talent. This has been a particularly strong year for independent American cinema, which is thriving with brave, unflinching portrayals of sensitive subjects.

Documentary feature TV Junkie is a remarkable piece of work which makes Trainspotting look pleasant. Its two directors have edited over 3,000 hours of home movie footage filmed by former US TV journalist Rick Kirkham. In graphic and uncomfortably captivating detail, TV Junkie shows how Kirkham’s crack addiction adversely affects his marriage, career and relationship with his two young sons.

Kirkham’s obsession with filming everything in his life may seem insanely narcissistic, but it has made for a devastating and fascinating film about the dangers of excess.

At the other end of the cinematic scale, geeky comedy The Sasquatch Dumpling Gang is an absolute delight from beginning to end. Although its harebrained adventure story, about a group of teens who believe they have found the sasquatch in their hometown, is perhaps aimed at a younger audience, the humour is broad enough to appeal to all ages. The characterisation of the affable teenagers is bang on the nail, led by Peter Pan star Jeremy Sumpter as geek-in-chief Gavin Gore.

Tense drama Day Night Day Night is simple and utterly alluring. It follows a young American suicide bomber as she prepares to detonate a nail bomb in downtown New York, but this isn’t a film about politics, race or religion. It is about a person’s last day on earth, and her absolute determination to achieve some kind of martyrdom.

Given the strength of the American contingent, it is no surprise that the Audience Award – voted for by filmgoers – went to Little Miss Sunshine, a low-budget American hit both at home and in the UK.

The Stockholm Film Festival continues to grow in size and reputation. Little wonder with a programme as strong and diverse as this year’s. Although prize-giving is by its very nature invidious and controversial, it is the commitment to innovation and new talent that makes the Stockholm Film Festival such a treat.

Top 10

1. Half Nelson – a New York teacher with a drug habit finds a powerful, unlikely friend in a 13-year-old girl

2. Buenos Aires 1977 – the harrowing true story of an escape from a torture prison in military junta-era Argentina

3. Your Life In 65 Minutes – 3 20somethings face up to death in this funny, clever and charming Spanish drama, accompanied by a great soundtrack

4.The Sasquatch Dumpling Gang – goofy, sharply-observed comedy from the makers of Napoleon Dynamite

5. Day Night Day Night– the captivating and tragic 24 hours leading up to a terror attack in Times Square

6. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints – compelling true story of growing up in 80s New York, starring Robert Downey Jr. and a top-form Chazz Palminteri

7. Off the Black – Nick Nolte at his very best as a crumbling alcoholic in search of a son

8. Wild Tigers I Have Known – a beautiful, surreal coming-of-age tale about a smalltown boy’s burgeoning sexuality

9. Awesome I F***in’ Shot That – Beastie Boys’ groundbreaking concert movie

10. TV Junkie – video diary of one man’s descent into professional and personal chaos at the hands of crack cocaine

Eddie de Oliveira