Screech for America: Intellectual Property?s Masterson takes on McCarthyism.
Screech for America: Intellectual Property?s Masterson takes on McCarthyism.

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This year the DC Independent Film Festival is sticking to one venue—the University of the District of Columbia—but otherwise it’s not straying far from its usual formula: a long list of features, animated films, documentaries, shorts, and student works—more than 100 films total. The biggest change in the DCIFF’s ninth year might be its play at hipness: The fest now has its own MySpace page, where you can find screening info, watch trailers, and, well, become its friend. (And discover that it’s single and doesn’t want children. Seriously.)

Though the DCIFF’s youngster-baiting may be a tad goofy, the festival itself looks to be overwhelmingly solemn, with a helping of horror on the side. At least two ace thrillers are in the mix. One, the somewhat playfully titled Baby Blues (March 3 at 9:45 p.m.), presents a case of postpartum depression that makes the case for celibacy. A mother of three (Colleen Porch) is bored with her rural life and afraid that her youth and prettiness are going the way of the family budget. But this isn’t a mere midlife crisis—mom starts to neglect the kids, and when her truck-driver husband (Joel Bryant) heads out on a trip, she needs more than mother’s little helper to get by. Directors Lars Jacobson and Amardeep Kaleka shadow every creaky crevice of the family’s old farmhouse and guide Porch through a truly frightening, Shining-esque performance. (Her delivery of a weather forecast to a mirror is especially chilling.)

Intellectual Property (March 4 at 6:55 p.m.) suggests that too much alone time isn’t the best thing for one’s mental health, either. Director Nicholas Peterson’s feature debut follows a young inventor, Paul (Malcolm in the Middle’s Christopher Masterson), as he attempts to live independently after winning a big prize—and suffering a betrayal or two. Set during the McCarthy era, with shots awash in darkness and red, Intellectual Property focuses on Paul’s paranoia about spies who he’s convinced want to steal his world-changing idea. The film’s overly obvious beginning is forgivable as the tension increases and Paul goes further off the rails. Masterson, donning shirt-sleeves and thick-rimmed glasses, successfully shapes his character into a “he was always so quiet” guy, allowing a scary disposition to beam through the nerdiness.

The shorts program has a few scares as well, including Richard Gale’s Criticized (March 6 at 8:45 p.m.), about the bloody ­consequences of a movie critic’s pan of a film, and David Alcalde’s Happy Birthday 2 You (March 10 at 9:35 p.m.), which focuses on a social worker’s investigation into an alleged case of child abuse. Both films owe a gory debt to the Saw franchise, but on the plus side, neither film brings in a menacing puppet.

Like every indie fest, the DCIFF includes a healthy share of films that emphasize politics, race, gender, and activism—it breaks the films into themes such as “Inside Politics” and “Going Green” and dedicates evenings to African-American filmmakers, International Women’s Day, Jewish films, and more. Among the political features is Al Qarem (March 4 at 4:45 p.m.), about a New Yorknbased Afghani family before and after 9/11. Writer-director Affandy Yacoob stars as Qarem, an Americanized 20-something whose biggest pre-9/11 problems are staying out later than his father would like and turning a blind eye to the petty crimes committed by his friend Nasir (Khurrum Qureshi). Politics permeate Qarem’s household, but he doesn’t engage in what he sees as pointless debates between his dad and uncle about whether it was right to leave their troubled country. Qarem’s attitude begins to change, though, after the planes hit the twin towers and he begins to experience racism firsthand. Based on true post-9/11 hate crimes, Al Qarem is a sometimes heavy-handed but largely effective portrait of what it’s like to suddenly and wrongly be seen as the enemy. Yacoob does a fine, thoughtful job as the flummoxed main character, whose transformation from apathetic to angry is both sympathetic and frightening.