24 August, 2013

Sidewalk Film Festival kicks off with "Lil Bub & Friendz" (***)

A throng of film fans and cat ladies gathers outside Birmingham's famed Alabama Theatre.

Though my father hails from Alabama, my time spent in the Yellowhammer State consists mostly of quick hours passing though or day-trips for weddings, funerals and hikes. It doesn't make any sense, however, to cover Georgia's film festival circuit so thoroughly but ignore a colorful and highly revered festival in our neighboring state—and at that, only two hours away! I've glanced at the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival (now more commonly abbreviated to the Sidewalk Film Festival) in years past, but this is the first time I've ever paid it much attention.

Now in its 15th year, Sidewalk is a well-oiled machine that spans across Birmingham's large and heavily masoned downtown. Six main venues, ranging from the beautiful Alabama Theatre and smaller theaters like the Carver to First Church Birmingham and the Alabama School of Fine Arts. Panel discussions, 'Sidetalks' and parties also bring in the crowds, but the main attraction is a strong lineup.

Featuring many familiar titles from the year's earlier festivals —Sundance, SXSW, Atlanta, Tribeca—the fest also showcases many strong features and documentaries that would simply not show up in Birmingham's cinemas due to limited release platforms. An emphasis on Alabama's independent film industry is also front-and-center, shedding a bright light on local talent.

This year's opening film was "Lil Bub & Friendz," a Tribeca hit that speaks to a specific audience—internet cat video fans. But let's be honest, everyone is at least a little bit of an internet cat video fan, even if you aren't actually a cat fan. By the end of the credit roll, as filmmaker Juliette Eisner and stars Mike Bridavsky and Lil Bub strolled on out, the packed-out audience at the Alabama Theatre was in a transcendent state.

Lil Bub and Mike Bridavsky star in "Lil Bub & Friendz"

How does one review a film like "Lil Bub & Friendz?" First of all, I am both a fan of cats and of internet cat videos. Although, obviously, my attention is lacking in the cat video department since I was unaware of Bub's internet celebrity two weeks ago. Now educated, I walked away a fan—both of Bub and the film—but saw the entire existence of the film as superfluous. Cute, fun, entertaining, but unnecessary. Arguments can be made for and against the necessity of many films, though, so I won't dwell on it.

It is impossible for me to disparage a documentary that both name-drops Sufjan Stevens and includes lines like 'I can't wait 'til I get off work at Arby's. I'm gonna go smoke meth and chill with my lions.' Two-year-old perma-kitten Bub never ceases to cue the oohs and aahs, but plenty of credit has to go towards Mike Bridavsky, her owner and co-star. Bridavsky is every bit as lovable as the so-called cutest cat on earth; his sincerity and transparency are effortlessly captivating.

Scenes with fans in Minneapolis are meant to offer a wider scope on the Bub phenomenon, but only detract from the film's focus. "Lil Bub & Friendz" is barely feature length—and frankly doesn't need to be. A shorter cut would have allowed the film the same sense of enchantment without self-imposing an invisible length-to-triviality ratio.

Regardless of exigency—or the lack of—"Lil Bub & Friendz" is precious.

3 out of 5 stars.

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