The list of honorees at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival reads like a who’s who of awards season contenders, with tributes and spotlights centering on the industry’s most innovative artists on screen and behind the camera: Nicole Kidman will be presented with an award in recognition of her career and her latest film, “Lion”; Ewan McGregor will be honored for his directorial debut, “American Pastoral”; Gael García Bernal will receive the trophy for his provocative turn in Pablo Larraín’s biopic “Neruda”; the cast of Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women,” starring Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning, will be presented with the MVFF Award; director Julie Dash will receive a prize for her newly restored drama “Daughters of the Dust”; and Aaron Eckhart for his supporting work in Ben Younger’s boxing drama, “Bleed for This.”
For Dash, whose landmark indie feature “Daughters of the Dust,” about three generations of Gullah women on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, first screened at Sundance in 1991, the film’s newly restored release print and reissue from Cohen Media Group, means that “a whole new generation of people” will finally get to see it in the way she originally intended.
“I want them to experience it, I want them to have questions about the film,” says Dash, who first attended the Mill Valley fest back in the 1980s. “I had stopped sitting through [the film] years ago, but since this is a restored print it’s different. It’s like coming together with an old friend. To have been [in Mill Valley] when the festival was just beginning, to come back now with a film that’s been restored, re-released and that has new life, new love, and new conversation — this is one of the most important things about any piece of art.”
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Love and the familial unit form the collective whole of both Mills and Kidman’s projects. In Garth Davis’ “Lion,” Kidman stars as an adoptive mother whose Indian-born son goes in search of his biological family, while Mills’ “20th Century Women” was very much fashioned on his own adolescence and his relationship with his mother, whom Mills affectionately describes as a cross between “Humphrey Bogart and Amelia Earhart.”
“The film says so much about the power of mothers be it biological, adoptive,” says Kidman. “You can be a mother in many ways, shapes or forms. And the unconditional love that a mother has was very, very powerful to me. From the minute I read this script it moved me, it grabbed my heart. I think a lot of adoptive mothers would say the love for the biological mother is so strong because you love your child and thus you love whoever made them and brought them into the world.”
In “20th Century Women” Bening plays a 1970s matriarch who doesn’t fit, per Mills, “into a woman’s typical feminist box.”
“I like to take a sort of journalistic approach to my writing, so this film kind of revolves around me and my mom, and what it was like growing up with a woman who had me when she was 40 and who was born in the 1920s and who was very much a fish out of her historical water. My mom was a very iconoclastic, very unique and strong, very unusual woman from her time. So the movie is based on real women who raised me and really taught me everything that I know, including how to be a man.”
The theme of family, in a different sense, runs through “Bleed for This,” in which Eckhart plays veteran trainer Kevin Rooney to Miles Teller’s Vinny Paz, former championship boxer who positions himself for comeback after a devastating car accident.
“I love the idea of getting a second chance,” says Eckhart. “I love the idea of two guys down and out getting together and becoming world champions, and getting back to what got them there — hard work, training, discipline. Vinny and Kevin became brothers in a sense. The great moral of the story is that we get as many second chances as we create for ourselves. If we believe in ourselves and believe in others, we can rise and do great things.”