One of my favorite films being screened at this year’s Sarasota Film Festival is “The Jonestown Defense.” Shot entirely on location in Sarasota, the film is a visual rush, especially for locals. But the emotionally-charged subject matter is even more captivating than its exotic locale.
In the opening scene, the camera captures a stunning sunrise in which an alligator, an owl and an armadillo are basking. Suddenly, a disoriented man in a suit and tie is seen stumbling through the woods. Clearly, something’s wrong.
As the film flashes back, we recognize the same man in an office engaged in a frenzied one-on-one, mini-basketball game. We soon learn that his name is Chris (Dennis Ostermaier) and his world is falling apart. His company is being bought out by a large corporation, which requires him to fire his employees. Recently separated from his wife and discovering that his son doesn’t much care about being around him, Chris is holed-up in a beachfront hotel (Lido Beach Resort).
Overwhelmed by depression, Chris unexpectedly jumps into the pool, fully clothed. Paul (Michael Michaelessi), also a guest at the hotel, dives in and rescues him — on a multitude of levels. His old friend, Frank (Robert Stevens), whose company is swallowing up Chris’, teams up with the two on a journey of self-loathing and, eventually, self-discovery.
“The Jonestown Defense” is a slang term used in the business world. When one harms their own company in order to stave off a predator, they’re committing a kind of corporate suicide (think: Kool-Aid). In his desperation Chris resorts to such measures, which fuels his downward spiral.
Director Greg Takoudes attended the Sarasota Film Festival three years ago, promoting his critically acclaimed, “Up With Me.” He was so impressed with Sarasota that he put his next project (“The Limit of Wooded Country”) on hold to make “The Jonestown Defense.” It’s just another glowing affirmation that Sarasota is a great place to make wonderful films.
Aside from telling a poignant and timely story, “The Jonestown Defense” soars due to creative casting. Amy Seimetz (“Tiny Furniture”) is amazing in a small part, portraying a sleazy magician who gives Chris a one-night stand. Ostermaier, Stevens and Michaelessi are a perfect triumvirate, playing off one another like old pros. Perhaps the fact that in real life they’ve been pals for 15 years has some bearing on that accomplishment.
There’s just something so cool about watching a movie chock-full of familiar sights. The I-can-really-relate-to-this-film factor goes through the roof. Shots of St. Armands Circle, Lido Beach, the Ringling Museum and Sarasota’s downtown skyline all provide an up-close and personal relationship to this compelling film. Best of all, Takoudes’ camera caught a short ride down St. Judes Drive, on Longboat Key, with my house up there on the big screen. Talk about personal.
Screening times for “The Jonestown Defense” are 6:30 p.m. Friday, April 15 and 2:45 p.m. Saturday, April 16. There will be a Q&A after each screening with the director and cast members in house.