Nicole Kidman was there. Beth Grant and Famke Janssen and Carrie Preston were there, as were Lizzy Caplan, Eddie George and Martin Starr. But this year's Nashville Film Festival was stolen by an unlikely star: Wayne White, the artist, designer and puppeteer who left Middle Tennessee three decades ago to break ground on MTV and in Pee Wee Herman's rarefied playhouse. The subject of a documentary, Beauty Is Embarrassing, that had overflow audiences sitting in the aisles, White was received like a conquering hero by the city's arts community — never more so than when his Sunday-afternoon screening turned into an impromptu reunion of Mrs. Cabobble's Caboose, the WDCN-Channel 8 show that gave White his break back in the early 1980s. Nashville graphic designer turned filmmaker Elvis Wilson summed up the opening-night crowd's euphoric mood: "I wanna go make some art!"
Evidently lots of people felt the same impulse, as some 11 features at NaFF 2012 came from local filmmakers or had significant local ties. That set the festival off to a blockbuster start, as the opening night reframed as a celebration of Tennessee talent smashed previous attendance records by 57 percent. By the time the 43rd annual NaFF comes to a finish with Thursday's closing-night party — not to mention the simultaneous 9 p.m. screening of the Mumford and Sons/Old Crow Medicine Show concert doc Big Easy Express, free to the city outdoors at Centennial Park — organizers estimate it's on track to top last year's 25,000-plus attendance.
White wasn't the only native Tennessean with reason to celebrate. Bolstered by a canny viral-video campaign, sharp use of social media and a hot-button premise — a "found footage" account of a black fraternity's hazing ritual gone lethally awry — first-time director jeff obafemi carr rode his tense drama He Ain't Heavy to some of the festival's biggest crowds and a top prize, the Tennessee Spirit Award for best feature. It provided one of the festival's first official sell-outs, as did Deja Brandeis' Hell or High Water: The Story of the Nashville Rollergirls, whose premiere saw a phalanx of skating Rollergirls spill from a bus and careen down the NaFF's red carpet into the Green Hills lobby. Only an idiot would have stopped them to ask for tickets.
Somewhere, between the huddled conversations over shrimp-topped grit cakes in the VIP tent and the free deluxe ice cream Jeni's was handing out on the back landing, people found time to watch movies. The festival's top honor, the Grand Jury Prize, went to the most affecting American feature we saw in competition: Matthew Gordon's The Dynamiter, a plaintive, lyrical Mississippi-shot drama about an abandoned kid struggling to care for his little brother that also won the festival's Best Actor award for its remarkable young lead, William Ruffin. Former Arrested Development star Alia Shawkat won the Best Actress prize for Preston's antic sex comedy That's What She Said; we confess we walked out of its packed screening, in part so we wouldn't have to shout to our hard-of-hearing companion, "SHE SAID, 'MY PUSSY TASTES LIKE PINEAPPLE!' "
Salaam Dunk, director David Fine's portrait of the American University of Iraq's women's basketball team, claimed the Grand Jury Prize for documentary filmmaking, while Under African Skies, Joe Berlinger's absorbing chronicle of the controversial making of Paul Simon's Graceland, took the NaFF's Gibson Impact of Music Award for the fest's best music doc. (The runner-up, Butch Walker: Out of Focus, might have beaten Simon for attendance: It sold out early on Walker's strength as a club draw.) The Slovenian film A Trip (Izlet) racked up impressive awards for actor, actress and ensemble in the New Directors slot, along with the Grand Jury Prize overall in the section.
Still to be decided at press time were the audience awards for feature, documentary and the popular "Graveyard Shift" block devoted to genre movies (a weak year, alas). Likely contenders would have to include He Ain't Heavy, the Rollergirls doc, the romantic comedy QWERTY (whose makers loved their Nashville stay), the French sensation The Intouchables, the absurdist Greek crowd favorite Attenberg, the fond biographical portrait Carol Channing: Larger Than Life, and Mark Kendall's La Camioneta: The Journey of One American School Bus, which follows the titular vehicle as it changes hands en route to Guatemala. Not to mention Beauty Is Embarrassing, on its way to filling yet another hastily added show 4:30 p.m. on the NaFF's last day.
The festival concludes Thursday with a visit from "The Rainbow Connection" songwriter Paul Williams, the well-received Israeli-Palestinian doc 5 Broken Cameras, added screenings of festival winners (including He Ain't Heavy at 5:30 p.m.), and the closing-night attraction Big Easy Express. The Brooklyn Brothers play the closing-night party, with a special guest. If you go, look for NaFF artistic director Brian Owens and new executive director Ted Crockett. They'll be the ones who won't be able to buy their own drinks.