AFI DOCS Festival Capsule Reviews

The 2021 AFI DOCS film festival offered a wide array of interesting documentaries. Here are capsule reviews of a few of the entries I screened. (Full-length reviews can be found right here.)

The Neutral Ground - CJ Hunt, a comedian and Field Producer for The Daily Show, takes a clear-eyed and often unexpectedly funny look at one of the most controversial topics in America right now: whether Confederate monuments should be removed from public view. He seeks to understand both sides of the issue. The more he digs into the pro-monument side, though, the more he discovers the Big Lies that people tell to justify their beliefs. Among them are that the Civil War wasn't about slavery and that slaves weren't treated that badly. These lies spring up repeatedly. As Hunt's views come into focus, yours will too. The Neutral Ground is thought-provoking, making a solid argument for why the monuments are as detrimental as they are divisive. You'll want to show this smart, stinging documentary to everyone you know who is inexplicably determined to keep those racist statues out in the open.

The Neutral Ground

Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free - Utilizing never-before-seen footage from the making of his classic “Wildflowers” album, this movie paints a vivid portrait of rocker Tom Petty's creative process. After achieving massive success with his band the Heartbreakers, he sought to put out a solo album that had more of a singer/songwriter vibe. (Ironically, most of the Heartbreakers ended up playing on the album anyway.) Producer Rick Rubin and bandmates Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell are interviewed to give perspective on their late friend's approach to music. The biggest joy here comes from seeing Petty in action, experimenting and working to craft a record that truly spoke to his state of mind. This is a must-see for any fan of his work.

Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free

North by Current - By his own admission, director Angelo Madsen Minax's film is more of a meditation than a narrative. That may make it hard to digest for viewers who want a clearly defined story. All others, however, will discover a deeply personal work in which Minax attempts to make sense of his young niece's death and the legal complications it brought. He also deals with his family's religious beliefs and his parents' reaction to his coming out as transgender. There's an aching quality to North by Current that proves touching, even if you don't get every single little detail about the tragedy that profoundly changed these people's lives. This is a documentary about how families work – or sometimes don't work – through trials and tribulations.

North by Current