Last year, Indy Film Fest was just weeks away from launching an ambitious slate of international features and shorts when … well, you know, happened.

Fest officials scrambled as venues shut down, including their home at Newfields, and filmmakers were unable to travel to participate. They quickly planned for a makeup festival in July — because surely everything would be OK by then, right?

“Oh, those silly people in March 2020!” said Rebecca Berfanger, President of the festival’s board of directors.

The revised summer fest became a virtual event with some in-person screenings at Tibbs Drive-In. Organizers felt it was successful enough to employ a similar format for 2021, the 18th year. Fans can watch most films anytime using the online portal along with filmmaker Q&As and other events, with special events at Tibbs.

One big change is the festival will now last three weeks instead of 10 days, though some films will only be available during the first week.

“We’re taking some of our lessons learned from last year’s experience and applying them to this year,” Berfanger said. One thing they wanted to do is return to their traditional springtime slot — but that also meant three fewer months to plan.

This year’s opening night film is a high-profile win: “The Dry” starring Eric Bana, an Australian crime thriller Berfanger compares to previous fest entries Hell or High Water and Wind River, both of which went on to critical and commercial acclaim.

However, the primary goal of the fest remains to bring films to Indiana audiences they wouldn’t normally be able to see. Even with the advent of streaming services and VOD, small independent filmmakers still need festivals to get their movies seen.

“There’s a wealth of stories in the Midwest. Stories of nuance and complexity. Stories that often go untold or pushed aside” said Marquise Mays, the director of The Heartland, which he describes as a love letter reflecting the complicated relationship between Black kids and his city of Milwaukee. 

“Festivals like the Indy Film Fest not only prove that there’s a market in investing into Midwest filmmaking, but that there’s a deep value and appreciation for independent moviemaking.”

The festival will include a few holdovers scheduled to play in 2020, but it’s mostly a new slate. Berfanger reports no dip in submissions from filmmakers this year. So the passion to make movies hasn’t waned with pandemic, nor the desire to see them.

Lloyd’s festival picks:

With more than a hundred features and shorts to choose from, it’s impossible to make a definitive list of picks. But here are a few:

The Dry — The opening night film starring Eric Bana will play one night only at Tibbs Drive-In. Based on the global bestseller, a federal agent’s homecoming leads to a deeply personal murder investigation that reopens old wounds and threatens to unravel the tight-knit small town. 

Hell Is Empty —   This Indiana-made psychological thriller short will play on a double bill after “The Dry.” A self-styled messiah initiates a teenage runaway into his cult of sister-wives. Her rebellious nature upends the community, triggering a bloody uprising against the patriarch.

POC-POV —   This block of short films focuses on films made by Black directors or directly about the Black experience. In a time of historic shift in thinking about racial injustice, filmmakers are stepping up with important, insightful movies to reflect and demand change, and not just in feature-length form.

Welcome to Monterey — This documentary from native Hoosier director Lauren Z. Ray looks at the titular Indiana town in Pulaski County. Her family immigrated there from Alsace, France, in 1845 and has lived there ever since. Beset by economic stagnation and closed storefronts, the film follows the townsfolk as they prepare for their annual Labor Day celebration, capturing the people’s passions and doubt about whether this town has a future in today’s world.

The Heartland — Highlighting both the joys and trials of growing up Black in the Midwest, three Black Milwaukee residents confront and reconcile the unrequited love between them and their city. Separated into three chapters, the film explores the childhood experience for Black kids. From the moments when they lost their innocence to the outward expression that defined their voices, Black kids in this city proclaim that Milwaukee will forever be theirs.

The Catch — Writer/Director Matthew Ya-Hsiung Balzer’s feature debut is set in a rural coastal Maine fishing community fighting to hold tight to its traditions as the world shifts around it. A woman returns to her estranged family just as her father is fighting off an attempt to corporatize the local harbor. Meanwhile, her ex-boyfriend plans to hijack local drug runners, but the robbery at sea goes awry. “The Catch” is based on true crime reporting and personal stories heard on lobster boats and in small towns across New England.

Swan Song — An aging hairdresser escapes his nursing home and embarks on an odyssey across his small town to style a dead woman's hair for her funeral, rediscovering his sparkle along the way. Accompanied by “Workhorse Queen.” 

Workhorse Queen — By day, Ed Popil worked as a telemarketer in Rochester, New York for 18 years. By night, he transformed into drag queen Mrs. Kasha Davis, a 1960’s era housewife trying to liberate herself from domestic toil through performing at night in secret – an homage to Ed’s mother.

First Date — Conned into buying a shady ’65 Chrysler, Mike’s first date with the girl-next-door, Kelsey, implodes as he finds himself targeted by criminals, cops, and a crazy cat lady. A night fueled by desire, bullets, and burning rubber makes any other first date seem like a walk in the park. This screening will be paired with Hoosier Lens Shorts.

Small Time —  It can be brutal enough just growing up a girl. Then add poverty, addiction, and God to the mix. Armed with a gun and a prayer, Emma and her cat bravely go where too many girls have gone before.

Anniversary Party —  On the eve of their 25th wedding anniversary a couple decides to try peyote together. Time is skewed, twisted deeds go down, chaos reigns.

Holler —  Have you ever been curious about life as a metal scrapper? Ruth and her brother will show you what it’s like. Life is hard, opportunities are rare, and their mother is in prison. Ruth wants to escape and go to college. A rust belt cousin to “Hillbilly Elegy.”   

Lloyd is editor and publisher of Film Yap and film critic for WISH-TV’s 'Indy Style.' Sign up for the Yap newsletter at filmyap.substack.com.