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Abbreviated San Francisco International Film Festival kicks off Wednesday

The 67th San Francisco International Film Festival begins Wednesday night, presenting a smaller program than in years past that will continue through Sunday.

The 2024 edition of the festival features a pair of guaranteed crowd-pleasers. Fremont native Sean Wang presents his Sundance Film Festival award-winner "Dìdi (弟弟)" -- a coming-of-age dramedy set in summer 2008, a pivotal time for 13-year-old Taiwanese American skateboarder Chris, played by Izaac Wang in a career-making performance. Meanwhile Josh Margolin's charmer "Thelma" stars 94-year-old June Squibb as a senior citizen getting medieval on the jerk who scammed her.   

June Squibb in "Thelma" San Francisco International Film Festival

Sandwiched between SFFILM's smaller but still stellar batch of offerings -- this year's program runs for five days, not 11 -- are searing dramas, thought-provoking documentaries and even a romantic dramedy with two impossibly beautiful people snuggling. 

The venerable festival, like many in the nation, is facing challenges in the wake of the pandemic and the shuttering of key venues. The Bay Area has been hit hard by closures. Regardless of size, the festival, running April 24- 28 with an encore program of highlights May 2-4 at the Roxie, remains special.  

There's not a bad film in the bunch, many with Bay Area ties.   

For opening night, programmers again selected a work from an East Bay filmmaker. Last year, Oakland's Peter Nicks brought "Stephen Curry: Underrated" to Oakland's Grand Lake Theatre. This year, it's Fremont native Wang's turn to shine. Many fell in love with "Dìdi" at its Sundance Film Festival premiere. It's easy to see why it's so adored. 

The movie touches on all-too relatable, growing-pain moments: awkward attempts at trying to impress someone you're crushing hard on, hanging out with your bros and getting into trouble. But its best sequences pertain to the brittle, tension-filled relationship between Chris and his exhausted mom (Joan Chen, who will be honored on April 25 with SFFILM's Persistence of Vision award). Frequently at each other's throats, they learn to better understand and appreciate each other over time. 

"Dìdi" screens in two San Francisco locations opening night: 7 p.m. April 24 at the Premier Theater, 1 Letterman Drive, in the Presidio, and at 8 p.m. at the Marina Theatre, 2149 Chestnut St. Both are at rush. There are still tickets available for an encore at 8:30 p.m. May 4 at the Roxie; for tickets, visit The film opens July 26 in area theaters. 

Some of SFFILM's best selections this year are documentaries. Here's a ranking of favorites. 


Former Oakland resident Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie direct an explosive, award-winning (at Sundance) account of horrific abuses Catholic priests and nuns perpetrated upon young Canadian indigenous students at a boarding school. NoiseCat's family's legacy of pain is woven into the account of the Williams Lake First Nation investigation into misconduct at St. Joseph's Mission residential school. While "Sugarcane" journeys to the darkest of places, its subjects' trauma is treated with care and respect. A closing sequence accentuates the sensitivity, as NoiseCat and Kassie turn their cameras to an exterior shot rather than a wrenching conversation taking place. (4:15 p.m. April 28, Premier Theater; NoiseCat and Kassie plan to attend) 

"Black Box Diaries"

The film covers Japanese journalist Shiori Ito's eight-year ordeal to attain justice after she was sexually assaulted by a veteran journalist with close associations to the prime minister; the case fueled needed changes in archaic judicial and societal structures. In telling the story of her fraught, harrowing uphill climb to hold the journalist accountable, Ito turns the camera onto herself, resulting in a candid portrait of a determined reporter and how the system continued to fail her. "Black Box Diaries" is about a courageous woman who put herself into the line of cruel public opinion to prevent others from enduring the hell she did. (6 p.m. April 26 at Marina Theatre and 2:15 p.m. April 27 at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; Ito is slated to attend both) 

"Counted Out"

Sausalito's Vicki Abeles addresses the nation's deep-seated reluctance, even fear, of math, then shows why overcoming it will lead to better lives. The eye-opening documentary travels from Alameda to New York and other locales as it shows that math needn't be a daunting subject. It checks in with award-winning Wall Street Journal reporter Julia Angwin, who maintains that newsrooms, as well as students, need to better grasp the numbers game to keep public and private entities accountable. Abeles talks to innovators and educators, including late civil rights activist Bob Moses, about formulating a better path for all, particularly those who have been told they simply don't have the head for numbers. (5 p.m. April 28, Marina Theatre; Abeles, editor-co-producer Amy Ferraris and film subjects Glenn Rodriguez and Rebecca Galicia will attend) 

"The Cats of Gokogu Shrine"

Cat daddies (and mommies) will purr over this meditative, measuredly paced documentary about the scrappy but adorable felines congregating around a Shinto shrine in Ushimado, Japan. Those looking strictly for shots of cute kitties at play should be prepared: Director Kazuhiro Soda is equally interested with the town's residents. As we discover, not everyone is enamored with the four-legged furry friends that use residential yards as restrooms. Soda's observations are languid, unhurried, insightful and, at moments, moving. (2:45 p.m. April 27 at Marina Theatre, at rush; and 7:15 p.m. April 28 at BAMPFA) 

"Eternal You"

Directors Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck don't wade into the head-swirling ethical debate about the varied usages of artificial intelligence, they plunge full force into it like cliff divers. The result is a provocative, at times shocking, and unsettling overview of surging startup businesses that use technology to unite people with loved ones who are dead. Some connections come in the form of email exchanges, others through high-tech means. As Block and Riesewieck engage with various innovators and their grieving clients, one of "Eternal You's" most uncomfortable-making segments shows a South Korean mother paying a virtual reality visit to her dead child. It rips your heart out. (3 p.m. April 26, Premier Theater; Block is slated to attend) 

Other movies that were not screened but have piqued interest include: 

"Sing Sing"

Director Greg Kwedar's hailed drama (it earned raves at its Toronto International Film Festival debut and at South by Southwest) is about participants of a theater program in prison. It stars Oscar-nominated Colman Domingo (who showcased his acting chops in the Bay Area at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and other spots, and met his husband in Berkeley) and Sean San Jose, artistic director of San Francisco's Magic Theatre. (8:30 p.m. April 25, Premier Theater; Kwedar, San Jose and producer Monique Walton will attend)  


Nicholas Ma's family-friendly film is about a young girl captivated by her botany class and her experiments. It's part of the Sloan Science in Cinema Initiative, which bolsters up-and-coming filmmakers whose work accentuates science. "Mabel" screens at 5 p.m. April 27 at the Vogue Theatre, 3290 Sacramento St. Other Sloan films include the world premiere of Tania Hermida's "On the Invention of the Species" (7:30 p.m. April 27, Vogue) and director-writer Chiwetel Ejifor's "Rob Peace," a biopic on the late biology scholar and teacher. (7 p.m. April 27, Premier Theater; the screening includes a tribute to Ejiofor)  

In addition, the festival bestows its Mel Novikoff Award, in honor of film exhibitors, to the Bay Area's Gary Meyer, one of the most influential forces in the region. An event at noon April 27 at the Premier Theatre includes a conversation with IndieWire editor Anne Thompson and a screening of features selected by Meyer: 1960's "Macario" and the Jessica Yu short "Sour Death Balls."  

This year's Persistence of Vision award goes to Jonathan Grimonprez. His latest feature-- "Soundtrack to a Coup d'Etat," a documentary that connects jazz music to the assassination of Congo leader Patrice Lumumba--screens at 6:30 p.m. April 25 at BAMPFA and includes a conversation with Fumi Okiji, an assistant professor of rhetoric at UC Berkeley. 

Romantic dramedy fans will want to pucker up for Michael Showalter's funny, sexy and poignant "The Idea of You." Anne Hathaway steals hearts as a SoCal owner of a small art gallery who stumbles into a relationship with the lead singer (Nicholas Galitzine) of a boy band after she runs into him at the Coachella festival. The two stars have great chemistry, and this enjoyable romp, based on a popular novel, touches on themes of ageism, social media cruelty and sexism. Yet it never loses its focus, that it's first and foremost a sizzlin' romance. The 8:15 p.m. April 27 screening at the Marina Theatre is at rush. But those who can't nab a ticket can check it out beginning May 2 on Amazon Prime. 

For tickets, a full lineup and special events, visit the SFIFF website.

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