Big Crowds at Locarno Fest; 'Short Term 12' Earns Standing Ovation

Brie Larson in "Short Term 12"

Actress Jacqueline Bisset received a lifetime achievement honor, as the 66-year-old event saw its biggest crowds so far this year.

LOCARNO, Switzerland -- The middle weekend of the 66th Locarno Film Festival saw the biggest crowds yet in the Piazza Grande, and an unusually strong reaction to one of the films in competition, Short Term 12.

After getting off to a rainy start Wednesday and Thursday, the weather has been picture perfect at the lakeside Swiss festival. That, combined with a compelling Piazza Grande double header, drew a almost full crowd in the 8,000-seat outdoor venue for Rawson Marshall Thurber’s drug-smuggling comedy We’re the Millers, followed by The Keeper of Lost Causes, a dark mystery-thriller from Denmark’s Mikkel Norgaard.

Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis, the film's stars, did not come to Locarno for the European premiere, but Thurber, who was in town, said they were sorry not to make the trip and that they asked for a photo to commemorate the occasion. Thurber took one -- comically asking those in the massive crowd to “move in closer” so he could photograph them all -- and then the fest screened a video “post card” from Aniston and Sudeikis recorded for the event.

STORY: Five Things That Set The Locarno Film Fest Apart 

Saturday’s guest of honor was Spanish actress Victoria Abril, best known for her roles in the films of Vicente Aranda and Pedro Almodovar, who was presented with a career honor. A stomach bug limited Abril in Locarno, forcing her to cancel a round-table event with fans and meetings with journalists (she told the Piazza Grande crowds she was confined to her hotel room all day), but she managed to come to the piazza in her weakened state, where she thanked the crowd for their support. She promised to return to the festival in the future to make up for the events she canceled.

On Sunday, Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 -- an in-competition drama about the young staff at a foster care facility -- sparked an unusually passionate response from the near-capacity crowd at the 3,000-seat Fevi venue, Locarno’s second largest screening venue. After the afternoon premiere, the crowd came to its feet and applauded for more than a minute, a rare occurrence from the notably cinephile crowd that frequents Locarno.

The film premiered at South by Southwest in March, where it won the audience award, before appearing in four other festivals. But the Locarno screening was the international premiere for Short Term 12, which goes into wide release stateside August 23. 

In Locarno, competition films never screen in the festival’s signature Piazza Grande venue, but under first-year artistic director Carlo Chatrian, organizers have worked to increase the visibility of competition films by introducing actors from the productions to the piazza crowds the night before their screenings. On Saturday, Short Term 12 star Brie Larson was one of three actresses invited to the piazza’s stage, who in poignantly candid remarks, said she learned a lot about herself during the screening of the film.

“I usually pick roles that are unlike myself, and I thought Short Term 12 would be like that as well,” Larson said. “But in this film, I had to strip everything away, and what was left was myself. I don’t know how many of you are out there but it’s a lot, and I imagine that about one of you even knows who I am. But that’s still more than before this film because at that time I didn’t even know myself.”

Sunday night in the Piazza Grande saw Les Grandes Ondes – a l’Ouest (Longwave), a French-language comedy from Swiss director Lionel Baier, followed by Rich and Famous, the 1981 drama that was the final film by George Cukor, the subject of Locarno's main retrospective this year.

Jacqueline Bisset, Rich and Famous’ protagonist, received the festival’s lifetime achievement prize before the film, as previously announced.

The 66-year-old festival concludes August 17.

Twitter: @EricJLyman