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Mom vs. Mom: 7 Films to Watch This Week

Two mothers of slain sons, Maryam (Manoor Baloch) and Lea (Dendrie Taylor) face off in Bay Area filmmaker Jeremiah Birnbaum's Torn.

Bay Area-based filmmaker Jeremiah Birnbaum's Torn, which won Best Feature at the Rhode Island International Film Festival and has been slowly and quietly making its way across the US since, can be a bit of a hard sell, but it's a film that deserves an audience.

At its core, it's a story about grief, specifically the grief of a pair of mothers who find out that the accident that killed their sons may have, in fact, been caused by them. It's also a story about the widening divide between Muslim Americans and the people with whom they live side-by-side. In today's media landscape, the film's tale couldn't be more relevant, and for some ways it will probably suffer for that--perhaps as a bit too on-the-nose. Criticisms aside, it's a well-acted, understated and gorgeous first feature with shades of Gus Van Sant's Elephant, which Birnbaum and writer/producer Michael Richter acknowledge as an influence alongside Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, Thomas MacCarthy's The Visitor and Monster's Ball.

Produced for less than half a million dollars, the film, which was shot largely in the Fremont area, certainly doesn't show it, boasting top notch production values and lush (if occasionally overly-instructive) camera work, and the support of some very major cast. Birnbaum was a demanding coach: "I wanted a film that felt raw and emotional," he told me--and he certainly got one. Bigscreen hawks will recognize a familiar face in the father character, played by the always soulful Faran Tahir (Elysium), and the roles of both mothers, played with equal nuance by Pakistani A-lister Mahnoor Baloch, (making her US debut) and Dendrie Taylor ("Sons of Anarchy"). "The actors all believed strongly in the message. We were able to get all of them to take on the project for much less than they normally get paid because of that," Richter told me via email. "In fact, one of our more popular actors fought really hard to get the role (of course we can't tell you which one!)."

Birnbaum and Richter also received some excellent support behind the camera, including that from editor Bruce Cannon (Four Brothers, Poetic Justice), who agreed to take on Torn "because he had not read a script that moved him as much since John Singleton's Boys in the Hood." Both Birnbaum, who runs the SF School of Digital Filmmaking and lives in Marin, and Richter, who lives on the Peninsula, are Bay Area natives, so the area was a natural choice for the film's setting. Richter also cited the strong Muslim and Pakistani community in Fremont and a desire to "see more filmmaking in the Bay Area" as prime motivations behind the film's location work, which includes plenty of recognizable terrain. 

The ripped-from-the-headlines tenor of Torn's main thru-line could have come from any given news item in the last 10 years, but for Richter, the motivation behind the story goes a bit deeper: "My wife was pregnant and I was trying to figure out how do you raise a child in a post 9/11 world. How can you protect your child when anything can happen, anytime, anywhere? It's a parent's worst nightmare. No matter whether you stereotype people or not, everyone will walk into this film with a preconceived notion of who did it. And it is that type of thinking we are trying to fight against." There's a moment near the end of the film where both mothers look into each other's eyes and one says "Do you think we'll ever know what happened?" It's a sad encapsulation of the present, but it tidily sums up the grim ambiguity of our ongoing attempts to understand our neighbors, and ourselves in our unstable landscape. Rotten Tomatoes: 83%. Opera Plaza.

ALSO PLAYING:

Films by Fassbiner - YBCA continues its excellent series of films by the gone-too-soon New German Cinema prime mover with his early work Effi Briest and a rare screening of his first feature film, the nihilistic crime drama Love is Colder than DeathOct 24 & Oct 27, YBCA Screening Room.

Strange Sinema 69: Strange Sex! - Oddball offers another of its *ahem* oddball omnibus evening shows with this showcase of perky (and pervy) gems with eye-popping titles like VD Attack Plan, The Story of Menstruation, Big Babies, plus trailers for blacksploitation classic Black Mama White Mama and more. Oct 24, Oddball Film+Video.

Jack of All Trades: An Evening with James Franco - Palo Alto native and impossible multi-hypenate James Franco will appear at the Castro for a night of… well we don't exactly know what, but it should be interesting. Join the star in advance of Castro's screening of his Cruising tribute, Interior. Leather Bar and find out. Tip: Grab advance ticketsOct 27, Castro.

Trapped in the Closet Sing-Along - R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet video sequence is more entertaining than it probably has any right to be, so it's no surprise it would gel well with Castro's other unduly enjoyable tradition: the sing-along. Oct 25 & 26, Castro. 

The Trials of Muhammad Ali - This SFJFF-screened doc about the G.O.A.T. packs more than enough historical punch to make for a riveting watch, covering not just the legend's career but the political underpinnings of his highly publicized conversation to Islam, the civil rights movement, and his involvement in the black power movement. Rotten Tomatoes: 88%. Opera Plaza.

All Is Lost - J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) breathes surprising life and meaning into this survival-at-sea flick. Deservedly a standout of this year's Mill Valley Film Festival, Lost stars number but one: the unbeatable Robert Redford, acting his butt off in an experiential setting that visits both the dreadful highs of recent blockbuster Gravity and choppy lows of the equally impressive immesion doc Leviathan. Rotten Tomatoes: 94%