Originally entitled Buhl (2010), Jaffe Zinn's debut feature experienced identity issues when its French distributor Rezo Films expressed apprehensions that Buhl would be—as Zinn explained to Melissa Davlin of the Magic Valley Times-News—"something that would be hard to pronounce or hard to remember on an international scale." So his film was re-titled Magic Valley (2010)—"interesting," Zinn explained in an early interview for Mademoiselle Robot, "because it is misleading." Facebook / Twitter.
Whether Zinn's earlier award-winning short Bliss (2003) was named after another torporous small town in southern Idaho or was a wry spit in the eye of that ol' blissmongerer Joseph Campbell, I'm not quite sure; but, it suggests that Buhl followed suit not only as nomenclature but as a film as specific to place as to state of mind. What can you say about growing up in Idaho when fagbashing is a spectator sport? And when suicide by exacto knife becomes a party option after graduation? By local focus, Zinn captures a universal implication that violence and/or death can result from adolescent frustration and boredom.
Magic Valley—whose tagline is "One day. Several lives. One secret."—debuted in the Viewpoints sidebar at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, which profiled a category of filmmakers with distinctive perspectives from their own regions (Magic Valley was chosen for "its unique Western sentiment"). Tribeca programmer Genna Terranova synopsized: "TJ Waggs [Kyle Gallner], a high school student living in the small town of Buhl, Idaho, carries the burden of a terrible secret on his shoulders. And he's not the only one having an off-day: A local fish farmer [Brad William Henke] confronts a selfish neighbor that has carelessly poisoned his crop, the shifty county sheriff [Scott Glenn] neglects his duties and uses his patrol car for his own personal gain, and a mom [Alison Elliot] is too busy fussing over the family dog to notice her missing daughter. To make matters worse, two preschoolers playing in the fields have chosen an unusual playmate—one who is the common thread linking all these characters together.
"Writer-director Jaffe Zinn's atmospheric vision is a ruminative look at a bored and numbed town on the verge of a wake-up call. His keen voice also speaks profoundly to the disconnection of community and the decline of morale in a struggling recession-worn American society. Paced and shot with restrained elegance, highlighting a standout performance by rising talent Kyle Gallner, Zinn's Magic Valley strives to capture who and where we are before the next defining moment happens."
Zinn confirmed in his director's statement for the film's press kit that he "wanted to make a movie examining the daily lives of people unknowingly in the midst of a tragedy, and what it means to be unaware of what is just around the corner."
Reviews from Tribeca were solid. At Variety, Ronnie Scheib praised Zinn and cinematographer Sean Kirby (Zoo, The Tillman Story) for infusing "each widescreen vignette with a palpable sense of portent, as if each bore the oddly intense coloration of memory." (A sampling of Kirby's intense lensing can be seen at the film reel offered at his site.) At The Atlantic, Benjamin Mercer found Magic Valley to be a "pleasant surprise" and qualified: "The basic structure of the Buhl, Idaho–set film might seem familiar to anyone who's seen more than a handful of American independents over the last decade or so: discrete storylines, their relationships to one another revealed gradually, converge around a single tragedy. But the tale is exceedingly well told, with a slow build that doesn't feel strained, and evocative photography by Sean Kirby. And the cast, anchored by Kyle Gallner and Scott Glenn, doesn't sound a false note."
At Film Stage, despite some reservations, Nick Newman concluded that Magic Valley "stands out among much of its indie brethren in its ability to avoid the cliches of a story like this, while not being afraid to take its time to ... actually establish some mood. It's a clever little movie." By year's end Newman included Magic Valley as one of the Top 10 Directorial Debuts of 2011, reiterating: "What a shame that this never found distribution. Jaffe Zinn's first outing as a director is a delicate, moody anti-mystery that takes conventions of the 'murdered teen' story and spins them on their head. Thanks to quiet language and contemplative direction, this ranks as one of the best independent films I saw in 2011." At Culture Blues, Jeff Hart appreciated the "understated performances from actors whose characters actually resemble human beings, slowly building a sense of place and community, eventually delivering a tragedy made all the more painful by the fact that we knew it was coming." At The New York Post, V.A. Musetto dubbed Magic Valley the "sleeper hit" of the festival and described it as "an American film with European sensibilities." Finally, at Backslash Reviews, Alan Zilberman praised that—for a slice-of-life drama—"Zinn does not shy away from the darker dimensions of his character's lives. No apologies are made for them, and Zinn instead tries to do them justice with an unflinching eye. Repeated images become a evocative metaphor for their desperation, and as the characters converge on a single event, Zinn hints a shared disposition led to tragedy."
IndieWIRE interviewed Zinn at Tribeca, where he told them that ideas usually come to him in the form of very specific images. "With Magic Valley, there were two images that sparked the idea: a pond full of dead golden trout and the image of two young boys finding a body in a field." Although he didn't want to go into much detail with regard to those images, he knew "that they were connected thematically by the idea of suffocation." On the Internet, perhaps the most widely-circulated video interview at Tribeca was with Zinn and actor Matthew Gray Gubler, who played Mok, "a metalhead fishmonger", due no doubt to Gubler's immense fanbase.
From Tribeca, Magic Valley had its international premiere at the Rome Film Festival, where Jordan Mintzer from The Hollywood Reporter was less impressed, conceding that Magic Valley was "exquisitely shot" and "aesthetically impressive" but "dramatically underwhelming." His main complaint lay with Gallner's "opaque" performance, though he favored Henke as "especially convincing as an earnest farmhand whose bad day is about to get much worse."
Magic Valley then had its Nordic premiere at the Stockholm Film Festival, where the programmers noted: "Perhaps Zinn is able to shoulder Gus Van Sant's cape as the foremost chronicler of Idaho life?" At Stockholm, Zinn granted a personable video interview. By way of Poland, Magic Valley found its way to the Dubai International Film Festival where Shariq Madani wrote at We Are the Movies: "Magic Valley is about the distractions and pass-times people indulge in when faced with an everyday mundane life. It also shows how each generation has its own innocent and naive fascination with violence. This film is a very confident and promising debut by the director."
Magic Valley's international festival pedigree confirms it as a wise choice for SVFF's opening night selection and it promises to bring a spectacular dimension necessary to any fledgling festival. Zinn is expected to attend, along with actor Scott Glenn, himself a 32-year Blaine County, Idaho resident. Glenn spoke to Tony Evans at the Idaho Mountain Express about his involvement with the film, and likewise conducted a video interview.
The multi-talented Zinn is likewise an illustrator and painter (certain illustrative techniques are apparent in his short films), as well as one half of the indie pop duo Folded Light (along with Bethany Toews).