Best of Spring

The Exceptionally Varied Gems of This Year’s Tribeca Film Festival

Our critics recommend the documentaries, genre pieces, and literary studies to seek out at the sprawling-as-usual fest

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For nearly as long as it’s been around, the conventional wisdom concerning the Tribeca Film Festival — which kicks off Wednesday night and runs through April 29 — has been some variation on a lack of identity. The New York Film Festival, later in the year, is the venerable platform for established masters and fall prestige pictures; New Directors/New Films, barely over when Tribeca begins, is the place to catch the next rising star. But Tribeca, we’re told, is the work in progress, where they’re still throwing things at the wall to see what sticks.

Over the past few years, however, a shift has occurred. Tribeca’s documentary slate has become reliably and inarguably excellent — perhaps the best annual program of new nonfiction filmmaking on this coast. (Doc alums include Taxi to the Dark Side, Jesus Camp, and Jiro Dreams of Sushi.) The “Viewpoints” section continues to spotlight fresh voices and untold stories. (Recent selections there include City of Ghosts, My Friend Dahmer, and The Wolfpack.) And thanks to the splashy reception of features like Always Shine, Blame, and The Boy Downstairs, Tribeca has proved itself to be among the friendliest festivals to female filmmakers — 46 percent of this year’s features are directed by women.

The programmers still have their blinds spots. The pop-culture documentaries that fill key slots seem to have been chosen less for quality than for how well they’ll pair with big post-movie concert events. Moreover, when you come across a narrative title that you’ve never heard of, with a bunch of famous actors in the cast — well, there’s probably a reason. That said, there is, as ever, plenty to seek out at this year’s fest. Here are a few selections worth your time, presented in alphabetical order. For information on screening schedules, click on the titles below. —Jason Bailey

Blowin’ Up

“It’s called blowin’ up when you leave a pimp,” explains former sex worker Kandie, and it’s easier said than done: “You can’t just walk away. There is no walking away.” This insightful and informative documentary from director Stephanie Wang-Breal intertwines two strands: women like Kandie, telling their simple yet devastating stories, intercut with fly-on-the-wall footage of the human trafficking intervention court in Queens, where sex workers are brought — not to be charged and sentenced, but to receive help and forgiveness. Wang-Breal exhibits a Wiseman-esque institutional curiosity, fascinated by the process of this court and the people who spend their days there. She’s also interested in the exploitation of these young women (all of them Asian American or African American) and in the question of why police so often opt for quick arrests of workers, rather than an actual investigation of their exploiters. The characters are riveting and the photography is casually stylish, but the real highlight is the urgency of the work Wang-Breal captures. —J.B.

Charm City

Between Theo Anthony’s Rat Film (2016) and Marilyn Ness’s Charm City, Baltimore has emerged as a fertile subject for documentarians. Although conventional (talking-head interviews and contextual title cards pepper the film), Ness’s latest effectively charts the impact of violence on poor black neighborhoods within the city over the course of three years, from early 2015 to late 2017. A few principle players anchor the doc: city councilman Brandon Scott; Clayton “Mr. C” Guyton, a local leader and founder of a community center, seen conducting impromptu curbside meetings; and Alex Long, a youth coordinator and a kind of apprentice to Mr. C, who’s helping to keep his street free of gangs and drug dealers. It all adds up to an even-handed issue film featuring those who are working to change the face of one of the U.S.’s most violent cities. —Tanner Tafelski

Diane

Following a handful of documentaries on cinema (A Letter to Elia, Hitchcock/Truffaut), Kent Jones — a critic and the current director for the New York Film Festival — has now made his first narrative feature. Aside from a few flat moments of tepid acting (namely, from Jake Lacy), Diane is a strong work and one of the peaks of this year’s Tribeca slate. Diane (Mary Kay Place), the heroine, is under immense pressure. She tries to care for her resistant, erratic, drug-addicted son (Lacy). When not tending to him, she visits her dying cousin in the hospital. Diane is a haunting film about impending mortality. Its rigorous control is exemplified by its polished dialogue; the warm, earthy hues of western Massachusetts, captured by DP Wyatt Garfield; and the gentle, rhythmic editing, punctuated with lyrical shots of cars (taken from the perspective of the windshield) driving along curvaceous roads. —T.T.

Duck Butter

Alia Shawkat (who co-wrote) co-stars in this shambling — in the best way — story of two girls who meet at a club, have great sex, and hit upon the notion of just spending the next 24 hours together, indulging in hourly intercourse while speeding right past the getting-to-know-you stages of the relationship. In the words of Sergio (Laia Costa), new paramour to Shawkat’s Naima: “We can fucking skip time!” The genius of co-writer/director Miguel Arteta’s latest is its recognition of the way the singular intensity of the flush of first love (and lust) might make this sound like a good idea, and how such idealization might ultimately prove regrettable. In scope, it’s a modest movie (and purposefully so), but the relationships and impulses it portrays are anything but minor. —J.B.

The Feeling of Being Watched

Director/journalist Assia Boundaoui turns exhaustive research into an art form in her scintillating doc. She and her relatives, as well as other members of a tight-knit Muslim-American neighborhood in suburban Illinois, are frequently menaced by the FBI — with impromptu house visits and mysterious parked cars on their block. Fed up, she takes on the agency directly, digging up heavily redacted files — spanning more than two decades — that gradually reveal the FBI’s attempt to uncover terrorist activity within local Muslim-led charity organizations. (Though this probe proved unsuccessful, several of Boundaoui’s relatives were compelled to plead guilty to white-collar crimes and serve jail time; many continue to be harassed despite being cleared.) Boundaoui’s exposé of her own near-Sisyphean quest for justice is a searing snapshot of an ongoing battle with seemingly no end in sight. —Sam Weisberg

General Magic

One of the whispered-about legends of Silicon Valley, General Magic was an early-Nineties spinoff of Apple tasked with developing what was, essentially, the technology (as well as the aesthetics and the ethos) of the smartphone. General Magic captures the company’s hype-filled rise and very quick fall — the latter a matter of timing, as the concept was introduced when the supporting technology and customer interest simply weren’t there yet. Directors Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude stylishly combine previously unseen documentary footage from the company’s idealistic early days with archival clips and interviews both old and new. It’s all informative, but the biggest kick is giggling at the key players’ startlingly accurate predictions of the kind of world we’re now living in. —J.B.

Jellyfish

Her name is Liv Hill, and, holy shit, you’ll want to remember it. She’s in every single scene of James Gardner’s wrenching British drama, carrying this entire tricky movie on her shoulders, and she never falters. It’s a land mine of a role: a fifteen-year-old girl who, over the course of its ninety-odd minutes, is pushed past her considerably high breaking point. She’s failing in school, has a terrible part-time gig that she supplements with dispiriting tasks (e.g. back-alley hand jobs), and is taking care of what are essentially three children: her sister, her brother, and her mother, who is perpetually “not feeling well.” It sounds like pretty miserable viewing, and it’s often tough to watch. But Hill is a surefire dynamo, wresting control of the screen; her work is fierce, bitter, funny, and heartbreaking. —J.B. 

Little Woods

Nia DaCosta’s absorbing debut is laced with urgent dread, experienced by characters you care deeply about. Tessa Thompson and Lily James both give breathtaking performances as two estranged, troubled sisters — one of them adopted — who, following their mother’s death, tangle with foreclosing bankers, relentless parole officers, unkind healthcare professionals, and vicious drug dealers. Ollie (Thompson) desperately reenters the Oxycontin peddling trade, a week shy of completing her parole, to help save her mother’s house and pay for an abortion for Deb (James). DaCosta proves a wizard of suspense, particularly in a sequence where Ollie breaks into a towed-away RV to steal back drugs and cash. And the crisp dialogue between these vulnerable but shrewd sisters consistently simmers with equal parts resentment and love. —S.W.

Mary Shelley

Haifaa Al-Mansour’s origin story of the Frankenstein author is a good twenty minutes too long and spends far too much of its third act verbalizing its themes. Those complaints aside, this is a welcome showcase for the considerable talents of Elle Fanning, who deftly shades the trials and tribulations of the young writer and her complicated relationship with Percy Shelley (played by Douglas Booth as a good-time guy who is not to be trusted). Fanning and Booth’s chemistry is blindingly intense, and Diary of a Teenage Girl’s Bel Powley is delicately eccentric as Mary’s half sister. Through it all, Al-Mansour sharply captures this makeshift family’s wild swings from revelry to desperation to inspiration. —J.B.

Netizens

Cynthia Lowen, who produced the disturbing 2011 doc Bully, scores another infuriating triumph with her directorial debut, Netizens, which follows three victims of online sexual harassment and defamation. Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist blogger who critiqued depraved depictions of female characters in video games, still gets bombarded with rape and death threats from armies of self-righteous male gamers. Carrie Goldberg, now a formidable internet-privacy and anti-revenge porn attorney, was herself stalked for months by a vengeful ex-lover. And Tina Reine struggles to find legitimate employment due to an ex’s discriminatory online screed, which, she discovers, is protected by First Amendment laws. Some scenes are almost too wrenching to bear, particularly when the women read aloud various violent texts and tweets from their tormentors. But all three are as optimistic and humorous as they are erudite; the movie ends on an unexpectedly hopeful note. —S.W.

Nico, 1988

It seems awfully ironic that an artist as canonically underground as Nico should receive so conventional a treatment in a biopic. But as traditional narratives about creators go, this one is not half bad. Shot in full frame and lightly incorporating archival footage, Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Nico, 1988 follows the afflicted singer (played by Trine Dyrholm, who doesn’t quite look like the waifish Nico but definitely approximates her husky voice) during the last two years of her life. That was well after her integral role in the Velvet Underground, and after her decade-long relationship with Philippe Garrel. Nicchiarelli captures Nico, initially still hooked on heroin, touring Europe with a ragtag band (she gives one electrifying performance in Communist Czechoslovakia) and tending to her troubled, suicidal child, Ari (the son of Alain Delon, who, to this day, denies paternity). Adding to the singer’s mythology and allure, the film portrays Nico sticking to her melancholic music even while the rest of the world seems to have turned away. —T.T.

No Greater Law

At long last, here is a documentary about religious fanatics that, while certainly critical, doesn’t treat any of its subjects with a trace of condescension. Tom Dumican’s No Greater Law registers like a riff on Inherit the Wind; this time, it’s religious doctrine versus life-or-death health risks, rather than mere scientific theory. In a small Idaho town, a prominent Followers of Christ pastor and his congregation are unwaveringly anti-medicine, relying on ointment healing for their fatally sick children, whose maladies could easily be cured. Detractors of the faith and a determined sheriff take the matter to the state senate but find that the majority of local politicos are in favor of vast protections for the Followers, even going so far as to exempt their dead from autopsies. The film is a must-see for anyone concerned with First Amendment and child-abuse laws; it’s also the most thoroughly engrossing doc of its kind since Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Brother’s Keeper. —S.W.

Roll Red Roll

The chilling audio that opens this gripping documentary captures a cacophony of thin, giggling voices: “What did they do to that girl?” “She is so raped right now.” “This is the funniest thing ever.” That “funniest thing” was the 2012 rape of a sixteen-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio, an act perpetrated and observed by several members of the town’s beloved high school football team. The story of athlete entitlement (enabled and facilitated by coaches, school administrators, and “fans”) is as old as time; what was new in the Steubenville case was the social media element, in which tweets and pictures laid intentions bare and served as documentation (along with sickening text messages and cellphone photos) of the crime. The only real strike against this well-constructed, compelling picture is that it could stand to be longer; director Nancy Schwartzman occasionally sacrifices depth for brevity, only scratching the surface of small-town sports culture and groupthink. But there’s much to chew on, particularly the tough observations that accompany long-overdue shifts in cultural attitudes, best exemplified by the craggy Steubenville antique dealer who explains: “I’m not condoning it, I’m just saying things have changed a lot in forty years.” Exactly. —J.B.

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda 

Member of pioneering electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra, composer of film scores (Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Gohatto) and sixteen solo albums, cancer survivor, and prominent environmental activist: Ryuichi Sakamoto contains multitudes. Although director Stephen Nomura Schible touches lightly upon these facets of Sakamoto’s life, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda is mainly a portrait of an artist at work on his latest (and perhaps greatest) album, 2017’s async. And yet, by showing the different sides of Sakamoto, Schible enables the viewer to see how they influence this personal album. Schible frequently captures the articulate Sakamoto explaining his artistic and philosophical principles while also using an assortment of instruments (cymbals, pianos) and found objects (rain-pelted windows, jars, and buckets) scattered around his neatly cluttered Manhattan apartment for potential sounds on the record. —T.T.

The Seagull

Annette Bening has played so many high-intensity mothers by now, you’d think she’d have exhausted her resources. But she’s a firecracker in Michael Mayer’s spirited adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, as the aging, boastful actress Irina. At the opening night of her aspiring playwright son Konstantin’s portentous show, she snorts and jeers, and later calls him a “nonentity.” Prone to moping spells, Konstantin has inherited all of his mother’s solipsism but none of her brio, and his leading lady and love interest Nina (Saoirse Ronan) is fast losing interest. Irina has her vulnerable side, too; like everyone else here, she pines for the unavailable. Mayer doesn’t turn anyone into a pitiable sort, and he’s tuned into the absurd futility as well as the pain of unrequited love. Elisabeth Moss stands out as a sardonic, black cloak–clad spinster, and the gifted Ronan plays the decidedly untalented Nina with astonishing conviction. —S.W.

The Serengeti Rules

A school of bass fish are removed from an Oklahoma stream and, a week later, armies of minnows — normally devoured by the bass — have taken over the pond. In Mukkaw Bay, Washington, the starfish are separated from the mussels, who then overtake the tide pool. Is this an example of harmless prey finally reigning over the predators — a triumphant mutiny in a staunch and unfair food chain? Hardly. As Nicolas Brown’s exhilarating doc The Serengeti Rules proves, predators like starfish and bass are essential for the survival of ecosystems; when lesser animals prevail, overpopulation can kill plant life and, in turn, whole species. The movie tracks the globe-trotting, eye-opening journeys of five scientists profiled in Sean B. Carroll’s book of the same name. The photography is startling and gorgeous, and even the toughest naysayers will be hard-pressed not to admit that certain animals are essential for the protection of forests, oceans, and even endangered species. —S.W.

Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie

It would be easy to imagine (and, frankly, to make) a didactic anti-Barbie documentary, so entwined is the fifty-year-old-plus fashion doll in our ongoing conversations about gender roles, body image, and white supremacy. And director Andrea Nevins wants to have those conversations, but she doesn’t want to stop there. She runs through Tiny Shoulders’ history of the doll with an astute understanding of how its swings in popularity have reflected the moods of American culture. Running parallel to this look-back lesson is a survey of the development, production, and rollout of “Project Dawn” — a risky initiative to redesign the notoriously unrealistic Barbie body. It’s a tricky balance that Nevins handles ingeniously, focusing on the women who now run the company and their conscious efforts to change the brand and its perception. The result is a thoughtful, nuanced portrait of (for better or worse) an American icon. —J.B.

United Skates

Directors Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown helm this affectionate tribute to roller-rink culture and, more specifically, the African-American skate community, which gathers on “adult nights” (coded language, we’re told, for “black night”) that prove to be raucous celebrations of skating, dancing, and style. But this is a culture that’s disappearing, with skating rinks closing across the country, thanks to declining interest and increasing land values. So the mostly joyful picture is permeated by a sense of decline — that it’s documenting a phenomenon that may not be with us much longer. As such, it’s full of fascinating stories and inside-baseball jargon (“slippery wheels,” “JB style,” throws, snapping, slow-walking), all of which is wittily assembled to capture the movement and athleticism on the floor. Charming, informative, and a little heartbreaking. —J.B.

We the Animals

This adaptation of Justin Torres’s novel about the troubles of a Puerto Rican family in upstate New York is energized by a raucous, youthful vigor right from the jump. Director Jeremiah Zagar supplements the tale’s keenly observed around-the-house storytelling with tiny, vivid moments: the sound of parents fighting on the other side of a door; the sight of children bouncing off the walls when left to their own devices; the way things just happen to you when you’re a kid, because your parents haven’t invited you into the discussion. It’s an expressionistic film, but one in which that approach makes narrative sense — this is, after all, a story told from the perspective of a youngest child who often has to piece things together on his own. Zagar has a gift for capturing a character’s essence in an image or two, via simple compositions occasionally augmented by spellbinding snatches of animation. And he imbues the entire enterprise with a fascinating feeling of maybe-memory. It’s either set in the past, or in a place where time stopped, and both approaches play. —J.B.

Woman Walks Ahead

Director Susanna White tells the true story of the late-nineteenth-century portrait artist Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), who travels from New York to Dakota to paint Lakota chief Sitting Bull and winds up in the middle of the treaty dispute that would ultimately take the tribe’s land, and most of their lives. Steven Knight’s script veers dangerously close to white-savior territory, but the complexity of the native characters is commendable, and the performances are first-rate. Chastain is spirited (if outfitted with a peculiar accent), Sam Rockwell makes an outstanding grizzled cowboy, and Michael Greyeyes honors both the humanity and the iconic status of Sitting Bull. His Big Speech is definitely a Big Speech, but it’s delivered so well that the predictability is forgivable. Same goes for the film surrounding it. —J.B.

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