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More movie magic courtesy of MIFF

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WATERVILLE - One of the highlights of Maine's cinematic calendar is about to get underway in Waterville.

The Maine International Film Festival is set to take place from July 13 through July 22. The festival - marking its 21st year - will once again feature a vast array of films - nearly 100 in all. Comedies, dramas and documentaries, feature-length films and shorts, movies new and old from all over the world and from right in our backyards here in Maine.

It's a typically outstanding program for what promises to be another dynamite festival, courtesy of the efforts of new festival director Mike Perreault, longtime programming director Ken Eisen and scores of others devoted to bringing the best and brightest to central Maine.

And it’s more than just screenings.

This year, MIFF bestows its coveted Lifetime Achievement Award upon renowned French actress Dominique Sanda. The actress – known in many circles simply as “La Sanda” – is a legend in global cinema, having worked with directorial titans such as Vittorio de Sica, Bernardo Bertolucci, Robert Bresson and John Huston among many others. La Sanda will be on hand for much of the festival, introducing the eight films screening as part of MIFF’s Sanda retrospective. The award will be presented in tandem with the screening of “Garden of the Finzi-Continis” taking place on July 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Waterville Opera House.

There are other phenomenal goings-on as well. There’s the always-engaging MIFFONEDGE, now in its sixth year. The interactive art exhibition exploring the world of film will once again be hosted by the Common Street Arts gallery and will feature talented, innovative artists like Brazilian new media artist duo VJ Suave and Maine’s own Susan Bickford along with other ongoing programming throughout the festival. There’s also the World Filmmakers’ Forum, which will feature creators from Argentina, Brazil and Mexico showing their work and engaging with audiences in a conversation about the creative process throughout the festival.

But of course, the main attractions are the movies.

I spend a lot of time at the movies. And while I embrace the bombast and excess that has come to mark the cinematic summer, there's something wonderful about the idea that scores of great films - films of all shapes and sizes from filmmakers that span the globe - are all going to be assembled and played for Maine audiences over the course of 10 marvelous days.

Trying to describe the entire bill of fare at MIFF would be a fool's errand; there are simply too many excellent offerings to try and fit them all in. Instead, let's take a look at a handful of potentially interesting highlights. This list will be far from comprehensive, but it should provide an informative cross-sectional peek at the wide variety of films assembled by the festival's programming team.

To that end, we'll be taking a look at an offering from every day of the festival. Please note that this list barely scratches the surface: you can get a look at the full schedule at the festival’s newly-renovated website at www.miff.org.

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July 13

“The Bookshop” – 6:30 p.m., Waterville Opera House

This film, based on the book of the same name, serves as the opening offering for this year’s festival. Set in England in 1959, it follows a young widow and her efforts to open a bookshop in her small, conservative coastal town. While she introduces the local populace to challenging works from the likes of Bradbury and Nabokov, some of the powers that be in the village oppose her at every turn, though she also finds unexpected allies amongst the town’s literature lovers. Starring Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Bill Nighy and directed by Isabel Coixet )whose “Learning to Drive” was a top finisher in MIFF Audience Award voting back in 2015), “The Bookshop” was a big winner at the most recent Goya awards (the Spanish equivalent to the Oscars), taking home trophies for Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture. A quiet meditation on small town life, the people who live it and the power of books – a lovely selection for this year’s opener.

(“The Bookshop” will also have a screening on July 14 at 6 p.m. at Railroad Square Cinema 3.)

July 14

“The Reprogramming of Jeremy” – 9:15 p.m., Railroad Square Cinema 2

This world premiere film is based on a play by Maine writer and actor Bobby Kenniston. Kenniston penned the screenplay of this fictional docudrama directed by Gail Wagner. Jeremy is a shy and bullied teen who is struggling with a secret, but when that secret is revealed to the small town in which he lives, the young man is forced to go to a conversion camp in an effort to reprogram and “normalize” him. The film tackles its complex and timely subject matter with empathy and heart; considering the current climate, it’s a story that certainly needs to be told. Starring Sean Wagner, Matthew Furman, Daniel C. Davis and more, it’s a tale that may challenge audiences, but definitely warrants their attention. Kenniston will be on hand to introduce this screening of “The Reprogramming of Jeremy,” giving some insight into the process that went into making this heartfelt and thought-provoking film.

(“The Reprogramming of Jeremy” will also have a screening on July 21 at 12:30 p.m. at Railroad Square Cinema 1.)

July 15

“Pick of the Litter” – 6:30 p.m., Railroad Square Cinema 1

Are you in the market for an adorable documentary? Then this one is definitely for you! “Pick of the Litter” tells the story of one litter of puppies as they make their way toward an end goal of becoming certified guide dogs for the blind. Cameras follow these pups for a full two years as they train to do some of the greatest work any canine can do. Along the way, we also meet a number of the people who have dedicated their lives to helping train these dogs for this incredibly important job. And here’s the thing – not every dog is going to have what it takes, as audiences will soon see as they embark on this remarkable journey. Only the best of the best will make the cut – the pick of the litter, if you will. Directed and produced by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy Jr., “The Pick of the Litter” offers a look at some canine companions who might well change some lives.

(“Pick of the Litter” will also have a screening on July 20 at 3:30 p.m. at Railroad Square Cinema 1.)

July 16

“Bears of Durango” & “David of the Kingdom” – 3:15 p.m., Railroad Square Cinema 2

This documentary double feature offers some unique insight into the natural world and some of the people dedicated to experiencing it. “Bears of Durango” – directed by Dusty Hulet - is the longer of the two, clocking in at just over an hour. It takes us along with a group of biologists dedicated to determining just how mankind’s spread is impacting the lives of bears. It’s a close look at the intersection between humans and bears in Durango, Colorado as mankind expands its range and bears must adapt as they lose some of their traditional sources of food. “David of the Kingdom” is a 22-minute short doc directed by Brian Paccione and Woodrow Travers; it tells the story of David, a unique figure living in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, as he holds forth on his predilection for solitude.

(“Bears of Durango” & “David of the Kingdom” will also have a screening on July 19 at 6:15 p.m. at Railroad Square Cinema 2.)

July 17

“I Am Not a Witch” – 9:15 p.m., Railroad Square Cinema 2

This narrative feature from first-time Zambian female filmmaker Rungano Nyoni promises to be unlike anything you’ve seen before. An eight-year-old girl named Shula mysteriously appears alone and unannounced in a rural Zambian village. A seemingly minor incident quickly escalates, leading to a witch trial that results in a guilty verdict for Shula and a sentence to life imprisonment in a government-run witch camp. She is tethered to a long ribbon and told if she ever attempts to flee, she will suffer dire consequences. Gradually, she adjusts, but when a new threat looms, she’s left to decide whether to resign herself to this bleak life or risk everything for a chance to be free once more. With this story that is part fairytale, part satire, Nyoni – who wrote and directed the film – announces herself as a creator to watch.

(“I Am Not a Witch” will also have a screening on July 19 at 3:15 p.m. at Railroad Square Cinema 2.)

July 18

“Puzzle” – 6 p.m., Railroad Square Cinema 3

This one seems like it might be just the right sort of quirky. Kelly Macdonald stars as Agnes, a suburban mother who feels utterly taken for granted. But her life changes when she discovers a heretofore unknown talent – it turns out that she’s good at solving jigsaw puzzles. Like, REALLY good at it. Her aptitude unlocks a real passion, which draws her into a world she never imagined existed – one where there are people who appreciate her and her talents. Longtime producer Marc Turtletaub makes his directorial debut with this one from a script by Owen Moverman and Natalia Smirnoff. Again, it might not sound like the stuff of compelling cinema, but there’s something about this one that feels intriguing – it sounds like a film where all the pieces will fit together to provide an unexpected picture.

(“Puzzle” will also have a screening on July 14 at 3:30 p.m. at Railroad Square Cinema 1.)

July 19

“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” – 9:15 p.m., Railroad Square Cinema 2

This film also addresses the swirling controversy surrounding conversion therapy. In “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” the titular character – played by the talented Chloe Grace Moretz – is sent to a gay conversion therapy center following a same-sex dalliance on prom night. While there, she finds a support system that allows her to push back against the overbearing, punishing surroundings of the center and stay true to who she really is. Directed by Desiree Akhavan, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is based on Emily M. Danforth’s 2012 novel of the same name, adapted to the screen by Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele. It’s a movie of its time, featuring first-rate performances from Moretz, Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck and a story that is terrible, funny and terribly funny; it’s an effort to shine a light on a particularly bleak aspect of LGBTQ life and the horrible absurdity that sometimes comes with simply trying to live it.

(“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” will also have a screening on July 17 at 6:30 p.m. at Railroad Square Cinema 1.)

July 20

“Blaze” – 6:30 p.m., Waterville Opera House

This film is a chance to see Ethan Hawke – known primarily as an actor – put his auteur side on display. “Blaze” features Hawke behind the camera in more ways than one; not only did he direct the film, but he also adapted the screenplay from Sybil Rosen’s memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley.” Blaze Foley was a seemingly typical country-blues musician who died young, but in the years after his death, some of his songs found their way into the repertoires of some of country music’s biggest names. “Blaze” tells his story, following him through his ups and downs both professionally and personally. Ben Dickey plays Blaze, while Alia Shawkat plays Sybil. Hawke’s affinity for music and musicians make him an ideal figure to helm this sort of project; while Blaze Foley seems an unlikely recipient of the biopic treatment, expect this one to feature compelling characters and some foot-stompingly good tunes.

(“Blaze” will also have a screening on July 15 at 9:30 p.m. at Railroad Square Cinema 1.)

July 21

“Madeline’s Madeline” – 6:15 p.m., Railroad Square Cinema 2

A critical darling at Sundance, “Madeline’s Madeline” looks like it might be one of the more interesting narrative features to pop up at MIFF this year. The titular Madeline – played by Helena Howard in what is by all accounts a masterful debut – is a teenager who, despite still living at home, has become an integral part of an ambitious and prestigious experimental theater troupe in New York. The director (Molly Parker) is pushing Madeline to incorporate the girl’s fraught relationship with her mother (played by creative legend Miranda July) into the troupe’s collaborative art. As the lines between performance and reality blur and fade, the action leaves the stage and enters their lives. Rosalyn Decker directs this fascinating film from a screenplay she co-wrote with Donna di Novelli; “Madeline’s Madeline” promises to be an enthralling and challenging cinematic experience in all the best ways.

(“Madeline’s Madeline” will also have a screening on July 19 at 9:30 p.m. at Railroad Square Cinema 1.)

July 22

“Support the Girls” – 7 p.m., Waterville Opera House

The 21st annual Maine International Film Festival closes with this quirky comedy about what it means to have dreams in today’s world. Regina Hall stars as Lisa, the general manager of Double Whammies, an off-brand Hooters knockoff – a “sports bar with curves.” It’s not the life she imagined for herself, but she has come to love the place and her girls – played by notables like Haley Lou Richardson, A.J. Michalka, Brooklyn Decker and others. However, her optimistic outlook takes a big hit when one single day sees everything coming apart at the seams. Written and directed by Andrew Bujalski, “Support the Girls” sounds like a subversion of T&A tropes – funny and broad, yet shot through with undercurrents of quiet feminism and thoughtful reflection on the state of society. Hall is a brilliantly gifted performer, well-deserving of this chance to shoulder this kind of comedic load. Expect loads of laughs followed by a surprising amount of cultural contemplation – a great way to say so long to another magnificent MIFF.

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