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Van Jones looks to pass bipartisan prison reform legislation in "The First Step."

Some of this year’s film festivals are still virtual, but the Lone Star Film Festival, having gone that route last year, is back to holding in-person screenings this year. That’s great to see, though they’ve left their customary location at the AMC Palace in favor of the Cultural District (the Modern Art Museum) and the Stockyards (Cowtown Downtown). I do hope they can return to downtown Fort Worth in the near future.

The festival began with The First Step, about CNN anchor Van Jones, who famously (or infamously, per your political persuasion) called Donald Trump’s presidential victory a “whitelash.” Three years later, he found himself wooing political conservatives and Trump himself to pass the First Step Act, to reduce America’s prison overpopulation through reforming prisons and sentencing. Brandon Kramer’s documentary is unfortunately dated because it was made before the murder of George Floyd and the Jan. 6 riot. It would be nice to see what happens to Jones’ belief in centrism and reaching out to white Republicans through that.

Jeffery Robinson (left) conducts interviews on the street in “Who We Are.”

Also on the race-relations front is Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, another documentary. This one focuses on Jeffery Robinson, the civil rights lawyer who puts together a PowerPoint presentation à la An Inconvenient Truth to detail the ways in which our country’s colonists baked slavery and racism into the fabric of their government and economy. He has plenty to say about the Texas legislators who want to keep this history out of schools. I must say he didn’t say much that I didn’t already know, although I knew it because I learned it in school. One thing that was new to me: Aetna was around during slavery, and it insured slaves, paying their masters if the slaves died. Makes me glad my insurance isn’t with them. I wonder how well this film’s going to play with the people (like those legislators) who need to see it most.

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One more documentary, Mark Birnbaum’s Proof is about Byrd Williams IV, but the film conked out before it hit the hour mark because the makers wanted to show a special print to the Fort Worth crowd, and their changes wound up fouling up the sound. Before that happened, it had some good stuff about the photographer’s processes and his investigation into his family’s past — his mother told him that his older brother Ted had committed suicide, but only decades later did he learn that this was a lie, and that Ted was running a gang stealing motorcycles in Connecticut when he initiated a shootout with police and got killed.

Nicole Rodenburg and Colin Froeber bring Charles Dickens to schoolkids in “Glob Lessons.”

The fiction films started with Glob Lessons, a charming debut from director/co-writer Nicole Rodenburg. She and co-writer Colin Froeber star in this comedy as two 30-something actors driving between Wisconsin and Idaho putting on kids’ versions of Robin Hood and A Christmas Carol at libraries and schools during the dead of winter. The film was apparently based on Froeber’s real-life experiences working a similar job, and the dinkiness of the locations makes for a horribly familiar backdrop for two platonic friends trying to cope while hiding their secrets from each other.

Beanie Feldstein and Steven Yeun find their new apartment isn’t so welcoming in “The Humans.”

Given LSFF’s low budget this year, I’m impressed that they managed to snag something as star-studded as The Humans, which made ripples at Toronto this past September. Beanie Feldstein plays a grad student who buys a large but run-down Manhattan apartment with her boyfriend (Steven Yeun) and invites her sister (Amy Schumer), parents (Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell), and aged grandma (June Squibb) there for Thanksgiving. Steven Karam’s adaptation of his own stage play starts out as domestic comedy and never quite crosses the line into haunted-house movie when light bulbs start blowing out and everyone hears weird noises. Ultimately, I think he’s a bit too claustrophobic and oppressive for their own sake, but the movie does work up some lathery dread in spots, helped by Nico Muhly’s score. This film opens at Grand Berry Theatre over Thanksgiving, appropriately enough.

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