L.A. Film Festival: The diversity dilemma, plus nine movies to see

Many film festival programmers will tell you that their primary goal is to find the best films they can, and all other considerations are of secondary importance. On at least one front, however, the Los Angeles Film Festival has become a notable exception to the rule.

Since it came under the direction of Stephanie Allain in 2014, the L.A. film festival has made the cause of diversity not just incidental but integral to its mission. Its program is designed not just to spotlight noteworthy independent films and new voices, but also to push back against the chronic underrepresentation of women and people of color working within the ranks of the industry.

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The festival’s 2016 edition will unspool 42 world premieres, of which 43% are directed by women and 38% by people of color. These are estimable numbers, and it’s hard to study them without imagining what, say, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences might look like with similarly improved demographics. With Hollywood slowly beginning to confront its own representational blind spots, prompted in part by the furor over #OscarsSoWhite, the L.A. film festival deserves credit for spearheading a conversation before it became fashionable to do so.

The pursuit of diversity has given the organization something that it has at times struggled to locate: a clear sense of mission and purpose. A commitment to highlighting unique, below-the-radar talent — and a de-emphasis on big names and movie stars — may be laudable for its own sake. But it has allowed the L.A. film festival to avoid the competitive title-hunting fray dominated by bigger-ticket events like Sundance, Cannes, Telluride and Toronto.

Still, as is clear to anyone who has spent any length of time covering the business and ethics of Hollywood, diversity is also a tricky proposition — one that can sometimes become a vague, well-meaning watchword rather than a signifier of genuine progress. Diversity brings its own share of complications into the mix, including the question of whether promoting inclusiveness necessarily means compromising on quality.

It shouldn’t, of course. Two of this year’s honorees — Spirit of Independence Award recipient Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) and guest director Ryan Coogler (“Creed”) — are a happy reminder that diversity and excellence not only can coexist, but also actively nurture each other. At the same time, given how uneven the playing field remains for filmmakers who don’t fit the usual straight-white-male parameters, it’s worth remembering that excellence can be found and nurtured, but it cannot be willed into existence. A festival of discovery is worthwhile only to the extent that its movies are, in fact, worth discovering.

Which may be a roundabout way of approaching the question by which every festival ultimately lives or dies: How are the movies? As noted before, I’ve seen a handful, and my appetite is whetted for more. Here are nine films that are worth checking out as the festival gets underway (listed in alphabetical order):

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FOR THE RECORD

June 1, 2:32 p.m.: An earlier version of this article indicated there were 10 recommended films at the Los Angeles Film Festival. There are nine.

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“Blood Stripe.” A strong performance by Kate Nowlin as a U.S. Marine returning from her latest tour of duty in Afghanistan fuels this study of post-traumatic stress disorder, though the strength of actor Remy Auberjonois’ tense and troubling directing debut lies in its rejection of easy diagnoses.

“Desierto.” You’ve seen more nuanced treatises on illegal immigration, but Jonás Cuarón’s thriller, which premiered at Toronto and will serve as the L.A. film festival’s closing-night offering, is a harrowingly visceral experience, centered around a cat-and-mouse game between a well-matched Gael Garcia Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.

“The House on Coco Road.” Damani Baker offers a moving personal and historical account of how he and his family were caught up in the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada. The result is a fascinating and under-reported chapter in the never-ending struggle for justice on behalf of black men and women worldwide, as well as a scalding appraisal of Reagan-era racial attitudes at home and abroad.

“Jackson.” Following three very different women positioned at the ideological crossroads of Mississippi’s last remaining abortion clinic, Maisie Crow’s film represents a strong and scrupulously even-handed addition to the annals of documentaries on this most divisive of subjects, including “12th & Delaware,” “After Tiller” and the recent “Trapped.”

“Jean of the Joneses.” A low-key highlight of the recent South by Southwest Film Festival now making its L.A. premiere, Stella Meghie’s appealing debut feature focuses on three generations of Jamaican American women, including the endearingly indecisive young New York writer (an excellent Taylour Paige) who gives the movie its title.

“Life, Animated.” This captivating and emotional documentary from Roger Ross Williams (“God Loves Uganda”) follows an autistic young man and the crucial role that Disney movies have played in his development. Anyone who has ever found repeat viewings of “The Little Mermaid” not just entertaining but vitally therapeutic will surely relate.

“Play the Devil.” A familiar coming-out, coming-of-age narrative gets an unexpected jolt in the hands of writer-director Maria Govan. Focusing on an economically poor yet culturally rich milieu, she makes the most of her vibrant Trinidad and Tobago setting and an excellent cast led by the charismatic young British actor Petrice Jones.

“Political Animals.” The political has rarely seemed more personal than in Jonah Markowitz and Tracy Wares’ talky-in-a-very-good-way portrait of four lesbian politicians — Sheila Kuehl, Jackie Goldberg, Carole Migden and Christine Kehoe — who were fighting for their LGBT constituents long before the marriage-equality debate came to the fore. The movie leaves you admiring its subjects for their resilience and, no less importantly, their rhetorical force.

“Tracktown.” Although not without its familiar indie quirks, Jeremy Teicher and Alexi Pappas’ charming dramedy nails its chosen milieu with uncanny accuracy, stemming in no small part from the casting of Pappas, a real-life Olympic runner, as an intensely focused track star forced to take a day off. The movie offers a sly reminder — and an instructive one, for Angeleno audiences — that sometimes hitting your stride means slowing down.

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L.A. Film Festival 2016 puts the focus on diversity

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