Closing Night Film Ends a Festive Santa Barbara Film Festival

Heather Graham and cast of "Chosen Family" at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on February 17, 2024 (Photo: Fritz Olenberger)

Chosen Family, written and directed by Heather Graham, closed the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) at a busy Arlington Theatre on Saturday night.

The brief evening ceremonies started with former SBIFF Board Chair, Jeff Barbakow, presenting an award to outgoing Chair, Lynda Weinman, thanking her for commitment, including funding the restoration of the Riviera theater. 

Roger Durling, Lynda Weinman, and Jeff Barbakow at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on February 17, 2024 (Photo: Fritz Olenberger)

Executive Director, Roger Durling, offered a simple expression of celebration and gratitude for the completion of another festival while noting that attendance and the number of filmmakers coming to town was substantially up over last year.  Claudia Puig, Programming Director who radiates positive energy, introduced Heather Graham and her entourage, noting that the film was a world premiere.

The film itself was what you might expect from Graham. It was a light, frothy rom-com set in a yoga milieu.  It was uneven but had some good moments and its tone was upbeat.  Programming opening and closing night films are a difficult prospect for all festivals.  It’s hard to find a film that “represents” a festival and some, including Sundance, have moved away from that kind of spotlight.

From my experience, this year’s festival was best in recent years, including prior to the pandemic.  Most importantly, for me, there were many more Q&A’s with filmmakers and documentary subjects.  It’s the Q&As, hearing the thoughts and ideas of the filmmakers, that distinguishes a film festival from just going to the movies.  Every year, there are a few documentaries that highlight unsung but heroic humans overcoming obstacles and doing extraordinary things. 

Roger Durling at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on February 17, 2024 (Photo: Fritz Olenberger)

This year, that included girls in a rough Bronx high school competing on a wrestling team, Special Olympians competing in Dubai and forging lives afterward, a cave diver exploring the depths of our oceans and trans-Mexicans prevailing over the brutality they faced to become activist role models.  They were all in town sharing their experiences.

The programming was especially strong this year with the programmers (Claudia Puig, Ernie Quiroz, Natalie Gee, and Stewart Short) wrangling some of the most interesting films available in the fall, including several that played at the Toronto International Film Festival, a major industry market.  The films ranged widely in subject matter and filmmaking styles from local shorts to international features.  For film nerds, there were a lot of treats. 

I particularly appreciated the opportunity to hear from Tarsem Singh, a prominent auteur who started in music videos and whose previous films pioneered a lush visual style, who brought a bracing, if imperfect, new film to town.  Interesting and ambitious is often better than perfect.

Lastly, the tributes were packed compared to previous years, with many selling out.  The awardees were also good picks, having large bodies of work and who had not been to SBIFF recently.

There was more energy all around this year.  Perhaps, post-pandemic, we’re in the mood for connection with others and both reflection on and escape from our circumstance.  SBIFF succeeded in offering cinematic adventure that fulfilled those needs.     

Mahil Senathirajah

Written by Mahil Senathirajah

Mahil Senathirajah is an independent film consultant and contributing writer to

What do you think?


0 Comments deleted by Administrator

Leave a Review or Comment

Santa Barbara International Film Festival Women’s Panel Highlights

President’s Day Fun Facts