Erin Petersen

Milwaukee Film Fest opens with gala at Discovery World

By - Sep 25th, 2009 07:00 am
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Opening night of the Milwaukee Film Festival

All photos by Brian Jacobson

The Oriental Theatre was packed and humming with anticipation for the opening night of the Milwaukee Film Festival and the premiere of Racing DreamsMilwaukee Film’s Executive Director Jonathan Jackson opened the evening with a few thoughtful words about the future of Milwaukee Film, along with some remarks from Racing Dreams‘ Executive Producer Jack Turner and MFF board member Chris Abele.

Mayor Tom Barrett made a quick visit, sticking around onstage just long enough to show appreciation for the MFF and to make light of his recent State Fair scuffle, sending waves of laughter and applause through the crowd.

The film, Racing Dreams, opened with several shots of fast-track kart racing — loud, high-speed (about 80 mph) and crazy dangerous. Immediately, we meet three tenacious Nascar hopefuls, 11-year-old Annabeth, Josh (12) and Brandon (13). It’s easy to see why these three were chosen as the subjects of the film; they are all extremely charismatic and each has a unique motivation.

There’s Brandon, a precocious and short-tempered young man growing up in North Carolina. With both parents out of the picture, Brandon lives with his grandparents , who try their best to keep him on the right path. Despite his tough exterior, his troubled family history is written all over his face and somehow, racing is the only thing that seems to make sense for him. He’s a promising young driver, but his short fuse and the high-cost of racing may derail his dreams of becoming a professional driver.

view from terrace of Discovery World, site of the opening galaAnnabeth is (it seems) the only girl in the WKA. Undeterred, she’s a witty and outgoing girl who is more than happy to show the boys that she can play at their game. At age 11, she is incredibly mature and aware of her special position as a girl in the sphere of competitive racing, but she knows that she has to work extra hard to prove herself.

Throughout the course of the film, Annabeth transitions into the first stages of womanhood and finds herself conflicted, longing for a normal adolescence.

Josh is a straight-A student whose bedroom is literally bursting at its seams with trophies. For a 12-year-old youth, he’s  articulate and highly professional when he’s on the track. Taking cues from his Nascar idols, Josh makes it a point to thank his sponsors after each win — that’s where the money comes from, after all, and his family has more than $100K invested in kart racing. He trains intensively, practices good sportsmanship and takes first place in nearly every race. In a word, he’s driven.

In between the races as the ‘tweens vie for position, we see that Racing Dreams is, more than anything, a coming-of-age tale with Annabeth, Josh and Brandon at the center. In between grueling practices and weekends on the road, the youngsters attempt to navigate the awkward transition into adulthood and simultaneously try to marry their aspirations with their desire to also be regular kids.

Beyond that, the financial strain it puts on the families can be the deciding factor in whether these kids continue on or have to curb their hobby. Yet, it was refreshing to see the unconditional support that each child received from their parents and families. For the most part, these were all blue-collar parents who just wanted their kids to enjoy opportunities that they never had, and I think that that was one of the most touching aspects of this story.

In the end, Racing Dreams is a truly heartwarming story, packed with humor and the sort of genuine human drama that makes a film memorable.

After the film, I high-tailed it down to Discovery World for the Opening Night Gala for three floors of star-studded entertainment. The crowd was an eclectic mix of Milwaukee’s best movers and shakers, from local media to film buffs, directors, musicians, photographers and, of course, Marshall Curry and the Racing Dreams cast — all of whom were mobbed for the majority of the evening. Stamm Media provided a variety of whimsical light displays to set the mood, as well as interactive media to help engage partygoers into the MFF program.

In the third-floor Pilot Room, guests mingled, nibbled on delectable eats from Bartolotta Catering and watched film clips on the big screen while enjoying a breathtaking view of the city.

As promised, it was a thrilling start to what will be a thrilling festival. Cheers to you, Milwaukee Film — I can’t wait to see what’s next.


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