Unlocking Cages
at SF Film Festival

Unlocking the Cage, The Return, Goat - Capsule Reviews

If a chimpanzee could testify in court on his own behalf, what would he or she say?

poster-300x245That’s the question that Unlocking the Cage tries to answer. Attorney and non-human rights advocate Steven Wise is the unlikely star of the latest documentary from Oscar winners D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

As we learn in the film, Wise was once ridiculed in the press and by some of his colleagues but in the 21st Century he’s taken seriously. In the long-term, Wise wants to see non-human rights extended to certain animals scientifically proven to have great intelligence including various primates, elephants, dolphins and whales. His more immediate concern which forms the basis of the dramatic arc, is relocating several chimpanzees to a sanctuary.


The graying and genial Wise is a true believer in his cause. He’s also shown to have a sense of humor about himself and his quixotic quest. Wise and his team of articulate, telegenic women strategize, mapping out their legal campaign with military precision. As with any great drama, there are small victories, then setbacks, all leading to a strong finish. The story is a natural for Pennebacker and Hegedus who once again deliver something that’s entertaining with a strong point of view.


Freeing caged humans is the subject of The Return. Implementation of the 2012 reform of California’s draconian Three Strikes Law has returned prisoners, many serving life sentences for minor offenses, back to the community. thereturn-kennethDirected by Kelly Duane de la Veg and Katie Galloway, it’s a moving documentary which focuses on former “lifers” trying to adjust to the outside world. It’s no coincidence that the two main subjects are African American men, incarcerated in disproportionate numbers.

After the euphoria of reuniting with family members after their long absence, both of them struggle. One succumbs to the pressure and relapses into old habits while the other becomes a model employee. But, even the one who fails in the short-term is only a danger to himself.  The film also shows the benefits of transitional help. It’s a sad story that offers some hope.


Moving from the least privileged members of society to the most, Goat (2016) was a late entry to the festival. In keeping with the theme of this post, this fictional film is based on Brad Land’s memoir (adapted by David Gordon Green) about life in a fraternity’s “Animal House.” Ben Schnetzer gives a nuanced performance as the fraternity pledge with a lot to prove. Nick Jonas is his older brother Brett who’s established at the house and worried that his younger brother doesn’t fit in. James Franco makes a surprise appearance as an alum of the frat who can’t get enough of the controlled violence. It’s a disturbing film ably directed by festival guest Andrew Neel.