It would be a fool's errand indeed to seek a common denominator among nearly 100 films. But in a random sampling of features, short subjects and documentaries accepted into this year's Ashland Independent Film Festival, themes of personal identity, cultural differences and human commonality come up big.

It would be a fool's errand indeed to seek a common denominator among nearly 100 films. But in a random sampling of features, short subjects and documentaries accepted into this year's Ashland Independent Film Festival, themes of personal identity, cultural differences and human commonality come up big.

"Mamitas," Nicholas Ozeki's 105-minute feature, is a coming-of-age story set in the Mexican-American community of the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. High school senior Jordin plays bad-ass with his homies, but studious, independent Felipa, a New York City transplant, sees through and challenges him. Jordin struggles with alienation in school, cares for his injured grandfather, clashes with his closed-off father.

As Jordin searches for the truth about himself and his family, it turns out he might know his mother, who died when he was born, even less than he thought he did. That outer quest soon merges with the inner search for authentic self-hood, which in turn plays into his relationship with Felipa.

"Mamitas" is not the gritty, urban, East L.A.-style drama you may have expected, but it's intelligently built and skillfully told. Several of the characters are straight from Central Casting, but there is a sweetness to the story and an innocence to the attractive young leading actors that carries the day.

Like Jordin, Daud, the central character of Joel Fendelman's "David," an 80-minute feature, is on a quest for identity. The 11-year-old son of the imam of a Brooklyn mosque, Daud by chance becomes friends with a group of orthodox Jewish boys.

Splitting time between mosque and yeshiva, Daud, or David, as we might expect, becomes more confused than ever.

And we realize that both cultures in his world are engaged in the same enterprise: transmitting an ancient culture to a new generation in a new land in the wake of a diaspora.

As the David narrative plays out, Daud's sister, in a subplot, chafes at her traditional father's authority. A brilliant student, she's accepted into Stanford, but her father says she can't leave home.

Like "Mamitas," "David" has a sweetness of plot and theme. There are no heavies here; even those whose actions are "wrong" are seen sympathetically. In the (smart and unsentimental) end, it's clear we're not in Hollywood anymore.

Ah, what fools these mortals be when a way of believing clashes with a way of being. "Love Free or Die," Macky Alston's 83-minute documentary about the first openly gay bishop in all Christendom, is by turns revealing, moving and maddening.

The story of Anglican Bishop Gene Robinson is no doubt riveting if you're a Christian, especially if you're an Episcopalian and/or gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. If you're none of the above, you might find yourself wondering what all the fuss is about.

Alston's camera tracks Robinson to London, where the congregation's ruling body, the Episcopal Communion, treats him like a terrorist with plague. Conservative churchmen claim piously that "it isn't about the homosexuality." What, then? A lonely voice of reason and weary outrage is Barbara Harris, the church's first woman bishop, who says to the church's (male) establishment: "Get real. Gimme a break."

Later, the U.S. Episcopal convention votes to allow gay bishops and sanction gay marriages where they're legal. The spectacle of fear and hatred couched in terms of what "God wants" in the second decade of the 21st century is at times hard to watch. But the humanity and courage of some of the subjects is moving.

The film does run on, and there's a lot of preaching to the choir. After all, if you're watching this, you probably don't need to be persuaded. But the picture catches a venerable institution in a moment of transition and will someday play like some of the great civil rights footage from a half-century ago: Now what was all the fuss about again?

As an indie film lover, I find that some of my favorite moments often pop up in quirky little shorts. Take "The Maker," an animated short from Australia. Welcome to a fantastic world (never explained and not needing to be) where a bunny-like puppet creature works furiously against the sands of time to create and animate a replica of himself. The slick graphics and frenzied pace are sheer fun for six minutes, then culminate in an epiphany that's in the existential lineage of "Our Town" and the Pythagoreans.

Speaking of possible worlds, do cars, iPhones and fast food prove the superior intellect of a certain species, or is there more to it? The dialectics of the line-drawn, five-minute "Song of the Spindle" were inspired by the discovery of the spindle neuron — previously known to exist only in humans and great apes — in the brain of the sperm whale. And one such cetacean has an idea for a certain large-brained, featherless biped that is ruining the planet: Try to sing more.

Not everybody tries to be all profound. "A Morning Stroll" is Grant Orchard's 2011 Academy Award-nominated take on a man out for a walk in the big city meeting a chicken. Orchard runs the chance encounter through two time warps, beginning with a stick-figure man and a stick-figure chicken in black-and-white 1959, then running them through the same encounter in fleshed-out color and stereo in 2009. In 2059 a zombie-survivor in a dystopian wasteland doesn't see the ending coming. You won't either.

Speaking of fooling around with time, there's "Time Freak," Andrew Bowler's 11-minute, live-action number about a guy who invents a time machine. Really, dude! But instead of ancient Rome or Elizabethan England, he keeps hitting the re-set button to yesterday (speaking of the Pythagoreans) — over and over and over and "… See, if you're obsessive enough you can't let things go. So you get stuck trying to fix them. And fix them and fix them and fix them and "…

"Bear," an 11-minute romp from Australian Nash Edgerton, is about what happens when a well-meaning but not overly bright guy has a half-baked plan to surprise his girlfriend for her birthday. It's a startling tale built around highly visual surprises. It won't make you think deeply. The main elements are the stuff of childish tales. But it will inspire laughs and groans. Sometimes, just when things seem to be going bad, they get much, much worse.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at