Big Ideas

This Year's Must-See Films at the Aspen Ideas Festival

These six movies thoughtfully analyze big issues on the big screen.

By Laura Thielen and George Eldred June 20, 2018

Laura Dern and Isabelle Nélisse, The Tale, HBO Films. 

Filmmakers can bring a unique angle to the issues of our time. In telling stories, they humanize important topics and help us thoughtfully engage with them. As part of the Aspen Ideas Festival (June 21–30), the Aspen Institute will present nightly screenings of six documentaries and three features probing salient subjects. They range from the spark of innovation and a treasure trove of family memories to more sobering considerations including mass incarceration, climate change, sexual abuse, and cauterizing dogmas.

Many of these offerings eschew the macro approach, with its experts' and bird’s-eye-view abstractions. Instead, these films zero in on the everyday, letting the impact play out in real human terms across the lives of young people and, in some cases, the larger family. The effect can be provocative. While we haven’t seen them all, we’ve seen most. Here are a few to consider:

Science Fair, National Geographic Documentary Films. 

Science Fair
Thursday, June 21
Think science is for nerds? Think again. STEM is hot, and the nine young inventors profiled in Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster’s joyful and beguiling Science Fair are some of coolest kids around. Every year the roster of seven million high school aspirants winnows down to about 1,700 students from 78 countries selected to compete in the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). Their assignment: to create a research project that will change the world or, perhaps, some corner of it. Delving into medicine, aeronautics, the environment, risky behavior, and myriad other fields, these adolescent scientists flat-out inspire in their geeky quest to make a difference.

Adapting Spellbound’s emotionally involving model (yes, you’ll be rooting for your favorites), Science Fair introduces us to an array of contestants as they journey from classroom to regionals to the big moment, ISEF. This is the teen brain on competitive steroids: earnest, creative, goofy, anxious, all the while imagining a better future. As one young woman observes upon entering the convention, “It smells like teen stress.”

From the South Dakota contestant who finds an unlikely sponsor in her school’s football coach to a super mentor at a Long Island school to a rural Brazilian team undaunted by their odds, Science Fair provides important backstory about the role schools and educators can play—or not—in fostering potential. But the true heroes of this paean to thinking outside the box are the kids themselves: undaunted, enthusiastic, and committed. Winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s inaugural Festival Favorite Film Award, this National Geographic release is a smart entertainment choice for anyone with imagination, ages 10 and up.

Watch the trailer.  

The Sentence, HBO Films. 

The Sentence
Plays Wednesday, June 27
In 2007, Cindy Shank, a happily married mother of two girls with a third on the way, was arrested on charges related to crimes actually committed by a long-dead former boyfriend. Though uninvolved in his drug dealing, Cindy fell afoul of the “girlfriend problem” in anti-crime law—anyone having knowledge of a crime can be considered a conspirator by simply not going to the police. So, although no charges were filed against her at the time of her ex’s crimes, and despite her having lived a law-abiding life, in 2008 Cindy was sentenced to the mandatory minimum: 15 years in federal prison.

Through the years of his sister’s incarceration, filmmaker Rudy Valdez tried to bridge Cindy’s absence from their family by shooting home movies, capturing moments of her daughters’ daily lives, milestone school events, holiday get-togethers, long road trips for prison visits, and conversations with parents, siblings, and the three girls. Valdez forgoes the customary issue-doc format of talking heads presenting big-picture perspectives and background facts. Instead he has fashioned a touchingly personal story of his family’s ordeal. 

The Sentence provides an indelible and deeply moving testimony to the devastating effect mandatory drug sentencing laws continue to have on families. Receiving a tear-filled standing ovation at its Sundance premiere, the film won Sundance’s Audience Award for US Documentary. 

Watch the trailer

Forrest Goodluck, Sasha Lane, and Chloë Grace Moretz, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, FilmRise. 

The Tale
Saturday, June 23
Drawing on her own childhood experience, documentary filmmaker Jennifer Fox creates a powerful narrative exploration of sexual abuse, family, and memory’s power to mask trauma and elide truth. Laura Dern stars. Watch the trailer

Anote's Ark
Sunday, June 24
Among those threatened by climate change is the tiny Pacific island nation of Kiribati. Matthieu Rytz’s film follows two of Kiribati’s citizens—the country's president, Anote Tong, and Sermary, a young mother of six—as they face an ominous future of rising seas. Watch the trailer.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Tuesday, June 26
Desiree Akhavan’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner follows a teen lesbian shipped off to a gay conversion therapy center by conservative guardians. Chloë Grace Moretz stars in this tale of self-discovery adapted from Emily Danforth’s acclaimed YA novel

Of Fathers and Sons
Friday, June 29 
Sundance Grand Prize documentary winner Talal Derki examines religious fundamentalism in this portrait of a Syrian family whose Islamic militant patriarch spends his time away from the civil war indoctrinating his many sons in the ways of Jihad. Watch the trailer.

All screenings begin at 7:30 pm at Paepcke Auditorium and will be followed by a conversation with the filmmakers and experts. Tickets available though Aspen Show Tickets at the Wheeler Opera House. A full list of ticketed public events can be found here



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