Together in the Dark: The New York Film Festival Invites Us to Connect

Community takes center stage in the city’s most important film festival


You’re on your own. That’s what they want you to believe. If the past year or so has made anything clear — or at least clearer than usual — it is that the norms and social contracts that we once imagined constrained the darkest urges of the powerful were mere illusions. They can do pretty much whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want. And such seismic events exploding across the cultural landscape don’t just affect the work that must be done; they also color our perceptions of the work that has been done. To wit: As always, this year’s New York Film Festival presents an assortment of world premieres and festival standouts from Cannes, Sundance, and elsewhere. That means some of these movies were finished practically yesterday, while some were wrapped just about a year ago. And yet the impulse to tease out themes, to find some unifying theory behind it all, is as powerful as ever — perhaps even more so.

Last year, many of the works at NYFF seemed obsessed with the ideas of time and memory — historical, personal, and cinematic. A few months later, Cannes offered up a number of films focused on lost children — young souls cast adrift, looking for their place in the world. Some of those Cannes titles have now made it to New York, but looking over this lineup, I sense a new idea emerging, a related one: the concept of community, of finding your people, the radical notion that maybe, despite what the assholes say, we’re not each alone.

The most vivid example can be found in Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck, the fest’s Centerpiece gala this year. Based on Brian Selznick’s acclaimed novel, it follows two deaf children in different years — one in 1927, the other in 1977 — as both travel to New York City in search of their roots and find themselves at the American Museum of Natural History. The film jumps styles — not just in Haynes’s camerawork and editing, which hop between silent-era expressionism and handheld Seventies grit, but also in Carter Burwell’s city symphony–like score, which seems to borrow from the whole history of twentieth-century music. Like its characters, the movie feels like it’s constantly searching — for an emotional resolution, for answers to its narrative mysteries, for a style to call its own. (It even borrows from Haynes’s previous work, including a doll sequence that recalls his epochal underground sensation Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.) By the end, I felt like I was watching not just a coming-of-age tale based on a children’s book, but an intimate, staggering apologia for the director’s whole eclectic career.

Similarly, in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, a trio of young kids living in a cheap motel complex in Orlando find one another when the grown-ups around them — burdened by the oppression of dead-end lives — leave them to their own devices. With previous titles like TangerineStarlet, and Take Out, Baker has built his career around shoestring projects that immerse us in small subcultures. Here, he may have found his ideal subject. These kids hover between a natural innocence and a disturbingly adult attitude toward the world, as they sow ceaseless chaos around them. Through their actions, Baker shows us the power of childhood as both a creative and a destructive force. As in Wonderstruck, the characters’ lack of equilibrium informs the style of the picture, which is less a narrative than a series of loosely collected incidents — some funny, some creepy, some heartbreaking. One pointedly dreamlike episode right at the end shows us both the wonder that these children, living in the shadow of Disney’s Magic Kingdom, have missed out on, as well as the sense of togetherness they’ve achieved on their own.

Chloé Zhao’s mesmerizing drama The Rider portrays a different kind of belonging. Zhao shot her film among real Sioux cowboys in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and her protagonist, a young star on the rodeo circuit (real-life rodeo cowboy Brady Jandreau, playing a variation on himself), is grappling with the aftermath of a career- and nearly life-ending fall. His health precarious, this young man can’t come to terms with the fact that he might never ride again. Through ethereal imagery, often shot at magic hour, Zhao makes it clear that Brady faces more than the loss of a career or a hobby; this is an existential event, completely undoing his very sense of self.

But what’s maybe most remarkable is Zhao’s portrayal of the people around Brady, many also essentially playing themselves — including his hard-ass dad, his autistic sister, and his best friend, Lane Scott, a rider whose own injuries have left him mostly immobile and unable to speak. Once again, a sense of togetherness shines through, but this time we realize that the universe of The Rider — one of poverty, love, anger, regret, and an uncommon connection to the land and the animals upon it — is, also, slowly dying.

In many of these films, communities just kind of happen: Kids find each other, families come together, and shared interests and worries yoke disparate individuals to one another, creating new emotional ecosystems. The love stories, too, are built on communion, and sometimes they reach beyond the lovers themselves. In Luca Guadagnino’s rapturous Call Me by Your Name, archaeology grad student Armie Hammer and sensitive teen Timothée Chalamet fall for each other in the elegant Italian countryside. Contrary to what has come to be (sadly) expected from LGBT film stories, however, and despite the fact that it’s set in 1983, Guadagnino’s work doesn’t center on repressed feelings, or homophobia, or even secrecy. The two find their feelings hard to hide, and as their situation comes to the attention of their friends and family, they discover a kind of acceptance, even something approaching solidarity. Writing admiringly about the film in the Voice recently, Alex Frank noted that it “takes place in its own isolated fantasia, a fabulous Italian utopia filled with peach trees, red wine, and fish so big that it takes two hands to carry them into the kitchen.” Maybe it’s a dream, but sometimes dreams can help us build new worlds.

So can nightmares. Robin Campillo’s gripping drama BPM (Beats per Minute) offers another perspective on being gay in the 1980s, thrusting us into the inner workings of the Paris branch of ACT UP at the height of the AIDS crisis. We see the weekly meetings, the attempts at direct action, the infighting over strategy and tactics, plus various interpersonal dramas. The story eventually settles on one relationship, between newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and vocal, lively activist Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). The former’s awakening — going from novice to fully engaged activist, and from shy, hunky wallflower to lover and caretaker — is a poignant reminder of how, in the darkest of times, finding one’s tribe and sense of purpose can make all the difference.

But what if your tribe is toxic? That’s the anger that animates Travis Wilkerson’s incredible personal documentary Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, in which the filmmaker examines a true-life tragedy: the time his great-grandfather shot and killed a black man and got away with it. Through home movies, documentary footage, photographs, interviews, narration, and text, Wilkerson presents his journey: He attempts to learn more about the shooting, which happened in a small Alabama town in 1946, but finds almost no information. Even more disturbingly, he finds very little record of his great-grandfather’s victim, a man named Bill Spann — not even a grave. The film thus becomes a meditation on family and belonging, but from a disturbing perspective: Wilkerson has a lifetime of memories and records from his own family — movies, pictures, interviews, living members — but it’s as if Bill Spann and his bloodline have been wiped off the face of the earth. The director finds no solutions, offering just an unresolved, unforgettable look at a land haunted by horror, hate, and slaughter.

Back at Sundance, I found some intriguing echoes between Wilkerson’s film — at the time partly a performance piece that the director presented live — and Dee Rees’s Mudbound, an adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel about two families — one white, one black — working the same land in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s. Mudbound, too, explores the pressures of class and race on its characters, but it goes further, showing how evil and extremism can creep into the beliefs even of those who think of themselves as enlightened and good. The movies will, I suspect, have differing popular fates. Wilkerson’s work is firmly in the essay-film tradition, and as such will get limited exposure. Rees’s was picked up by Netflix and is gearing up for an awards season run. Still, I’m glad we’ll likely be hearing more about Mudbound in the months to come. It’s exceptional.

Even the best-intentioned communities can fail. Ruben Östlund’s The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, follows the chief curator (Claes Bang) of a contemporary art museum in Sweden as he oversees the installation of a conceptual project that envisions a square in the courtyard of the museum that will serve as “a sanctuary of trust and caring,” one where “we all share equal rights and obligations.” The film asks the central question: Can altruism, equality, and fairness be achieved by unforced, democratic consensus? (Not for nothing is the square placed exactly where the statue of a monarch once stood.) Then it complicates its inquiry by giving us a variety of scenarios, some gut-bustingly hilarious, that demonstrate just how petty, manipulative, weak, and cruel humans can be.

Östlund has an uncanny understanding of group behavior and how it can shift suddenly. The Square’s most striking set piece involves a museum gala that is interrupted by a man pretending to be an ape. His “performance” evolves from a series of impressive and comical physical feats to displays of outright aggression and, finally, his brutal, single-handed subjugation of the room. The refined crowd regards him first with acclaim, then with bemusement, panic, and eventually abject terror. It’s as insane, unlikely, and surreal a scene as you’ll ever see in a theater. And then afterward, you’ll go home, turn on the news, and realize that you’re living right in the middle of it.