SARASOTA — Nearly 400 military personnel, veterans, their families and others filled the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall Friday night for the Sarasota Film Festival’s opening night festivities.
The event featured Oren Moverman’s film, “The Messenger,” a soldier’s’ tale starring Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster. Moverman, Harrelson, Foster and other Hollywood stars attended.
The annual opening gala celebration followed the film.
Harrelson said he was thrilled to return to the festival.
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“The films keep bringing me back,” he said. “The last time I was here this film festival was just a puppy. Now it’s all grown up.”
The actor brought his daughter, Deni, who was all smiles as they walked the red carpet.
As Foster stepped out into the carpet, he noted how excited he was to see the servicemen there.
“It’s such an honor to represent them,” he said. “To represent the men and women who have served in the military.”
In “The Messenger,” Harrelson and Foster are two soldiers serving with the Casualty Notification Office. The film explores their newfound friendship as they deal with the grief of notifying families of the death of their loved ones.
Moverman said he was eager to see how the crowd would react to film.
The crowd seemed to love it. Victor Gonzales, of Bradenton, said it was a good movie. The Army officer said it was a close depiction of what servicemen and family members go through.
“It was very good at showing the other side,” said the 33-year-old. “How it actually affects people.”
The opening night festivities also brought Jena Malone, who also stars in the film. She said she loved the hometown feel of Sarasota and the Van Wezel venue.
Joe Pantoliano, who was honored with a career achievement award at the festival two years ago, was also there. He said he was attracted by one of the film’s many themes of post-war depression — one of the things he tackles in his latest work and directional debut — “No Kidding?!! Me Too.” The film will be screened during the festival.
Film programmer Tom Hall along with president Mark Famiglio kicked off the festival, encouraging everyone to take part in seeing the other 163 films that will be shown.
“The festival is really for the community,” said Hall. “It’s for you.”
For more film festival coverage, visit twitter.com/ bradentonherald and Bradenton.com/filmfestival