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Growing Newport Beach Film Festival keeps a focus on the neighborhood

The Newport Beach Film Festival is growing, but it still has a neighborhood focus

If Alexa Polar makes it in Hollywood, she may have a local barbershop to thank for it.

The director, whose musical "Speakeasy to Me" will premiere at this year's Newport Beach Film Festival, sought an interior setting that would evoke the furtive watering holes of the Al Capone era. She found it at Hawleywood's, a Costa Mesa barber shop whose back room — concealed, in classic speak-easy fashion, behind a bookcase — features a bar, a miniature stage and decor and magazines intended for the 18-and-older crowd.

"When you go in, it's for men only," said Polar, a Westminster resident. "It's a barbershop, and then there's a bookcase, and you pull on one of the shelves and it opens. And there's literally an area for, like, a man cave."

Polar, who began "Speakeasy to Me" while studying film at Orange Coast College, rented out the space for a day and set to work creating a period piece. With cinematographer Robin Pabello, she blacked out the walls and ceiling and hung a sparkly curtain. The stage played host to a flapper dance number, the small bar a meeting between the film's romantic leads.

When Polar's film screens during the festival's OCC Shorts program on April 26, Hawleywood's co-owner Kathy Dang plans to attend, along with other barbershop staff. That's partly because "Speakeasy to Me" isn't the only entry at this year's festival to feature Hawleywood's; fellow OCC filmmaker Matthew Guastella spotlighted the shop as part of his short documentary, "Barbershop Traditions Today."

"We always support the Newport Beach Film Festival," Dang said. "It's right in our stomping grounds."

The Newport festival, now in its 16th year, is not just a local phenomenon. Filmmakers and attendees come from all over. Still, however many travelers the annual event lures, it amounts to one thing for many locals: the neighborhood film festival. And part of the excitement is seeing themselves and their region on the big screen.

The husband-and-wife team of Ravi Kapoor and Meera Simhan shot parts of their teen comedy "Miss India America" at Irvine High School and other area locations. For Simhan, who acts in the film and co-wrote the screenplay, shooting at the school signified a homecoming: She graduated from Irvine High years ago, and the film's opening scene depicts a commencement on the same field where she walked.

Kapoor, a first-time feature director, said he aimed to capture the region's look and ambience — however ephemeral — with the look of the film.

"I think there's definitely a sense of space and sunniness and brightness to Orange County," he said. "That's what I always feel with Orange County. Orange County is a mixed area, but there's just this sense of clean, open spaces and clarity. So we were trying to find that even in the color palettes of the film — that clarity and sunshine."

Jason Blalock, whose documentary "Sawdust and Sand: The Art of Douglas Miller" will appear on a short-film program, tracked a Laguna Beach artist who has photographed his city's residents for more than four decades. A Laguna Beach native who now lives in Oakland, Blalock received the inspiration for "Sawdust" when he spotted himself in a photo that Miller had taken years ago — and that one of Blalock's friends had posted on Facebook.

Blalock contacted Miller and visited Laguna four times to follow the artist on his camera rounds. When the Laguna Art Museum hosted a preview screening of "Sawdust" in December, Blalock saw the extent of Miller's local following: About 300 spectators packed the room.

"He's a hero to many, evidently," Blalock said.

The festival also features films with wider ambitions. This year's kickoff selection is "The Water Diviner," Russell Crowe's directorial debut, about the massacre of Australian troops in Gallipoli during World War I. (The film opens Friday.)

"It's a festival that's growing year after year," said Sophie Nicolaou, vice president of communications at Main Street Films, whose drama "LaMotta: The Bronx Bull" will screen at Newport this year.

The festival, which runs from April 23 to 30, operates at seven Orange County venues, including the Orange County Museum of Art and the private Sage Hill School. As in past years, the schedule will include a Disney rarities program on April 26; a centennial tribute to Orson Welles, who was born in 1915, is planned for the same day.

In addition to OCC, the festival taps the local film-school community with programs from UCLA, USC, UCI, the Orange County School of the Arts and others.

"It's something that the entire community can participate in," said Gregg Schwenk, the festival's CEO. "It truly has something for everyone. If someone has an interest or has always wondered what a film festival experience is like, Newport is an excellent place to try that out and see what everyone's talking about."

michael.miller@latimes.com

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Newport Beach Film Festival

Where: Lido Live, 3459 Via Lido, Newport Beach; Starlight Triangle Square Cinemas, 1870 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa; Island Cinemas, 327 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach; Edwards Big Newport 6, 300 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach; Regency South Coast Village, 1561 W. Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana; Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach; the Studio at Sage Hill, 20402 Newport Coast Drive, Newport Beach

When: Thursday to April 30

Cost: Most screenings $14, with additional charge for some events; visit website for individual prices.

Info: (949) 253-2880, http://www.newportbeachfilmfest.com

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