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Life, death and teen angst

Felicia Feaster's AFF picks

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The Visitor Three stars (PG-13) – Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), a 62-year-old professor of global economics at a pastoral Connecticut university, is a man simply going through the motions of living. But things change when he attends a conference in Manhattan, turns the lock in his little-used apartment door and discovers a Syrian, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) illegally subletting his apartment. The two become Walter's friends and a balm for his loneliness. Jenkins gives a refreshingly understated performance and is deeply affecting as an overlooked, unremarkable man who finds purpose by considering lives more grave and embattled than his own.

A plangent ballad of the white guy, Thomas McCarthy's (The Station Agent) charming film is a soulful rendering of the human need for connection. It addresses how that craving can often be expressed by our thirst for the authenticity of the Third World. The Afrobeat music, the handmade jewelry and the drumming that define Tarek's and Zainab's lives represent a connection to tradition and to other people that lonely, widowed Walter has been missing. Sat., April 19, 7:30 p.m. The director will be in attendance for a Q&A.

American Teen Five stars (NR) – The heartbreaking and hilarious documentary comes from Nanette Burstein, the thoroughly original directorial voice behind 2002's doc of playboy producer Robert Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture. Burstein's latest centers on four Warsaw, Ind., teens navigating their senior year tribulations. There's the princess, an archetypal mean girl who appears to torture other girls for fun, but harbors a dark secret; the artsy girl who plummets into a debilitating depression after a breakup; the jock who appears to have it all but whose entire future rides on a basketball game; and the video game-playing nerd with a propensity for self-sabotage. Burstein demonstrates her usual visual acumen and plays with the documentary form with animated fantasy segments to get inside the teenagers' heads and render the world from their points of view – an approach that undoubtedly helped her earn a directing award at Sundance. Fri., April 11, 7:30 p.m.

'Bama Girl Three stars (NR) – Conspiracy theorists will have plenty to chew on in director Rachel Goslins' doc about the University of Alabama's homecoming queen racket. The notion of intrigue amid a glorified beauty contest seems like Movie of the Week fare, but the film's undercurrent is dire. Jessica Thomas has her heart set on breaking through the color barrier as a black candidate for homecoming queen in a lily-white competition. But there's a secret society of fraternity members known only as "The Machine" that controls the contest's outcome. Goslins sees larger issues at play than just a fluffy popularity contest, such as how the same white men who determine the homecoming queen go on to control Alabama politics. Wed., April 16, 7:15 p.m.

At the Death House Door Three stars (NR) – In a culture that often appears to take death lightly, Peter Gilbert's and Steven James' thoughtful documentary examines the death penalty's myriad ramifications. The film centers on Carroll Pickett, the chaplain and advisor for 15 years to inmates executed in Huntsville, Texas. The gruesome job of seeing 95 inmates put to death inspired Pickett to speak out against capital punishment. At the Death House Door is a portrait of both one man's intimate relationship with death and of others touched by their proximity to it, including the guard who was so disturbed by what he saw as a witness to executions he had to leave the prison system, and the sister of an executed man who, as two Chicago Tribune reporters discover, was probably innocent. Sat., April 12, 5:15 p.m. and Tues., April 15, 4:30 p.m.


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