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The vibe may be laid back. But the buzz is full on.

As the Mill Valley Film Festival enters its 38th year, it’s becoming increasingly recognized as an awards season platform.

“We’re Ohio,” says executive director and founder Mark Fishkin, referring to the state’s value in the presidential elections. “Everyone knew how the West Coast and East Coast would vote, but no one knew what would happen in Ohio.”

With its swollen ranks of Academy members, the conclusion that the Bay Area matters hardly comes as a shocker. But what is surprising is its skill at showcasing winners well before Oscar nominees are even announced. Since 2008 alone, MVFF has screened five of the seven best picture winners including “12 Years a Slave,” “Argo,” “The Artist,” “The King’s Speech” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Best pics are not the only spillovers from Marin County to Hollywood. MVFF awardees Eddie Redmayne for “The Theory of Everything,” Jared Leto for “Dallas Buyers Club” and Helen Mirren for “The Queen” were also later crowned with Oscars.

This year, actor-writer-comedian Sarah Silverman places her hat in the ring with “I Smile Back” as a self-destructive suburban wife and mother, a role that ignited sparks at its Sundance premiere.

“When they got the funds to actually make the movie I was terrified,” Silverman says. “To them I was like, ‘Yay! We’re doin’ it!’ But inside I thought ‘I can’t do this! This is a disaster! I’m going to ruin it.’ Then I realized that’s Laney’s exact emotional state. This woman is pretending she’s OK, but inside is in a state of panic. And I thought, ‘Oh wait, I can do this.’”

For this deep-diving career pivot, the fest is honoring Silverman with an MVFF Award in its Spotlight program.
Silverman credits co-writers Amy Koppelman and Paige Dylan and director Adam Salky with helping her strip down her standard comedic bag of tricks to avoid “transcending” the character. She says that process left her, instead, “with little more than the objective truth of this person.”

What audiences come away thinking about her character, says Silverman, who has publicly discussed her own struggles with depression, “and whether they have empathy or sympathy for her or total disgust or disdain, depends entirely (on) the prism of one’s own experience.”

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