FILM

What We Talk About When We Talk About the Tribeca Film Fest

Ghosts, refugees, teen angst, nudists, the intrusiveness of documentaries, and more are on the docket.

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It’s time for Tribeca again—already. Our own downtown fest of raw movieness, a deft New Yawk self handy, and the premier egghead meta-Sundance all at once, the event can be counted upon to aggregate indies and dependies that might well find happy audiences without necessarily rating very high on the art-film barometer of the uptown-y New York Film Festival.

Nothing’s new, except everything. The grab-bag mandate still rules, with a nicely quixotic helping of global plates, such as Silvia Brunelli’s Blessed Boys, in which two serious-bromance Neapolitan buddies (Francesco Pellegrino and Vincenzo Antonucci) party and struggle with family issues, the matter of their unrequited gay bond overshadowed by a little sister’s exploited transformation by her mother into a miracle-working living saint, prayed to by the neighborhood. The English title shifts the focus away from her trauma (the original title, La Santa Piccola, translates to The Holy Child), perhaps in hopes of hitting on the Call Me By Your Name market share, but, in any case, nothing in the story is as focused as Brunelli’s eagle-eyed portraiture of Naples’ down-and-dirty textures.

Danish director Annette K. Oleson’s A Matter of Trust (the accurate English title would be No One Knows the Day, after a recent Danish pop song—who’s responsible for these lame English retitlings?) is better, a five-strand Raymond Carver-esque narrative weave writhing with ethical compromise. A mother and an abused young daughter hiding out on a deserted beach, a doctor on assignment during a flight to repatriate Afghan refugees, a bullied gay high schooler picked up by a teacher, an adulterer plagued by the meddlesome owner of the Airbnb he rents for a tryst, a young couple coming apart at a funeral—each story is unresolved in its way, which can be either frustrating or fascinating. But the rhythms are right, and the granular performances—particularly Trine Dyrholm as the vexed doctor and Danish icon Jakob Cedergren as the sexual schemer—are immediate and convincing.

The Austrian film Family Dinner (the Austrian title of which is Family Dinner) isn’t as fortunate, but being one of the new breed of hyper-elliptical quasi-horror thingies, it doesn’t quite need to be. Even without director Peter Hengl’s visual portentousness, the scenario comes loaded: An obese teen (Nina Katlein) decides to spend Easter with her skinny nutritionist/author aunt (Pia Hierzegger), and finds the family—rangy shirtless Dad, doted-upon psycho son—to be deranged, or something worse. The folk-horror landing seems perfectly senseless, and the characters are paper-thin (sorry), but cinematographer Gabriel Krajanek has a serious relationship with landscape and low light that gives the goings-on a sepulchral aura. Michelle Garza Cevera’s Huesera has more on its table, maybe too much: It’s a Mexican creep-fable about an expectant mother (Natalia Solián) plagued by a suicide’s ghost, familial persecution, witchy rituals, and emotional instability, not to mention her yen for her old party-girl lover and her lurking desire to dump this whole hetero-motherhood thing. Ultimately less a horror film than a frayed-subjectivity study of autonomy loss—Rosemary’s Baby without the Devil—Cevera’s film feels anti-procreation in the end, an odd stance that may not have been the intended takeaway.

Natalia Sinelnikova’s inventive We Might As Well Be Dead is built entirely on metaphor, a German mini-dystopia in the form of a rigorously “curated” apartment complex, where applicants beg not to have to live “out there,” and where conformity is heavily monitored by the denizens themselves, a satiric take on modern co-op boards and on orderly German group-think. The only authority is Anna (Ioana Iacob), a gung-ho administrator/super whose lofty slot in the fluid hierarchy of the building is jeopardized by her daughter’s mental breakdown (she’s locked herself in the bathroom), and by her own foreignness (Iacob is Romanian, and the character speaks Yiddish at home). A dog’s disappearance is the first domino, and the incremental portrait of solipsistic social cannibalism is a tad simple, even as it suggests Iron Curtain–era self-policing and the Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”

A pleasantly scabrous, if familiar, Euro scald wearing its cynicism like a party hat, John Michael McDonagh’s The Forgiven takes on Lawrence Osborne’s acclaimed novel of Ugly Westerners run amok in North Africa. Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain are miserable, soused elites on their reluctant way through the Moroccan desert to a decadent gay friend’s gated chateau when they run over a Muslim teen in the dark. They don’t cover up the incident, exactly, but the local culture decides to exact its price out of these privileged bigots anyway, in a rather blunt and old-fashioned culture-clash scenario that roasts selfish white people so hard the upshot feels cartoonish. Except, of course, for Fiennes, whose vivid presence almost saves the day.

A movie-crazy Latvian entry, Viesturs Kairiss’s January was my favorite import, a larky, Academy-ratio delve into the January 1991 fight against occupying late-Soviet forces, as seen through the angsty-but-ready-to-rock POV of a film student (Kārlis Arnolds Avots) besotted by Herzog, Jarmusch, and Bergman and abandoned by his first girlfriend. Parties, punk records, first sex, shooting rooftop music videos, getting high, diving into newly forged war zones—it’s a struggling-teen movie with lots of adult ambition and no whining. Depending on what camera the characters are using, Kairiss sometimes shoots them in 8mm and analog video, giving the film a meta-edge that feels both resonant and graceful.

 

The fest’s rambling battery of documentaries goes predictably everywhere, from countless refugee-and-marginalized experiences to the Chelsea Hotel to a Florida nudist resort—Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan’s Naked Gardens is a purely voyeuristic hangout with an array of, ahem, unglamorous nudists, an ordeal by potbelly that is inevitably surreal. (A Christmas party in which a naked middle-aged “elf” hands out presents to clothed children is a moment even Werner Herzog might find excessive.) Being nude doesn’t necessarily make you interesting, though, just as being a resident of the Chelsea, seen in Maya Duverdier and Amélie van Elmbt’s Dreaming Walls, doesn’t make you Patti Smith. The hotel is undergoing renovations that will price its longtime tenants out, so the film mourns the demise of an already over-romanticized history, splitting time between sweet old fogeys in their tchotchke-cluttered flats and diving into the archives, a little too interested in where Janis Joplin might’ve put her toothbrush.

Fringe celebrity profiles are thick on the ground: eccentric director and acting teacher Jack Garfein, in Tessa Louise-Salomé’s The Wild One; arch-feminist Andrea Dworkin, in Pratibha Parmar’s reenactment-poisoned My Name Is Andrea; and, most happily, glam rocker Marc Bolan in Ethan Silverman’s Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex, which turns the eponymous 2020 covers album into an occasion to tell Bolan’s too-short story, and to wonder who exactly this guy was. (In his copious TV and concert appearances, Bolan (1947–1977) was never not affecting a spacey rock star persona.) The old-school book geeks have it best with Lizzie Gottlieb’s Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb. You think, really, “adventures” might be pushing it, but damn if the doc, tracing the half-century history between the famed biographer and famed book editor (and directed by the latter’s daughter), doesn’t suckle the nascent English major in all of us—there’s even an extended colloquium on the use of the semicolon.

Still, Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall’s Subject might be the most inspired movie on the docket: a documentary about the impact of documentary-making on the lives of the films’ subjects. We should be shocked that no one’s broached this territory before. The filmmakers go back to the real people from Hoop Dreams, Capturing the Friedmans, Winter on Fire, The Wolfpack, etc., and ask the unaskable: What are the ethical contingencies when you decide to turn someone’s life into a film? Who’s responsible for the film’s often unpredictable impact on those lives? They get so many answers that the question remains a Gordian knot—Jesse Friedman, for instance, says that Andrew Jarecki’s 2003 doc saved his life, while his mom Elaine feels used and abused by it. Going deep into modern doc history—from Harlan County USA (1976) to The Act of Killing (2012)—the movie opens a hefty can of modern media worms, right in the middle of the new Golden Age of nonfiction filmmaking.

 

The homegrown fiction indies at hand don’t offer as much brain candy, in my randomized sampling. Shoja Azari and Shirin Neshat’s Land of Dreams is something of a puzzler, but not in a good way: Semi-adapted from a screenplay by the late Jean-Claude Carrière, the dead-unfunny futurist satire follows Sheila Vand’s census taker—she inquires about people’s dreams, then reenacts them in Farsi-language art pieces—as she wanders in a very un-American America, which includes a Persian fortress in the Arizona desert, Matt Dillon as a good-ole-boy cop of some obscure variety, evangelical craziness, Isabella Rossellini Zooming in from somewhere, and so on. Travis Stevens’s A Wounded Fawn makes nominally more sense, though of a particularly noxious and silly sort, following a charming, fine-art-loving serial killer (Josh Ruben) who finally gets his comeuppance, as the ghosts of his alluring victims attack and become the Furies, or something. Written and directed by men, the film reaches for folk-horror imagery and anti-toxic-masculinity bona fides, but the cheese factor is high, and only the rather Diana Riggs-ish Sarah Lind, as the latest victim, suggests a tether to reality.

Alex Heller’s debut The Year Between is a particularly troublesome launch into the indie atmosphere: a seriocomic saturation in the life of a catastrophically bipolar college student, played by Heller herself, who is, in real life, a comic, and bipolar as well. There’s little room to doubt the film, then, except, as it strains for laughs with arguably the most abrasive and hateable heroine of any American film of the new century, you start to doubt its sincerity even as you admire its willingness to rankle. Heller, perhaps surprisingly, completely buys into cliches about mental illness—that it can be funny, that the afflicted character is the bravest, cleverest character around, with a high-powered bullshit detector, a knack for one-liners, and a nihilistic zest for confrontation—and at the same time never shies away from disaster and discomfort. (Her fuck-this-crap diatribes sometimes sound just like a restless teen who’s heard too much Sex Pistols.) Left with two-dimensional sidecar roles—the film is annoyingly narcissistic—are J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi as the frazzled parents, never as fraught with worry as you think they’d be, given the situation.

Better, and certainly less ambiguous in its thrust, is Fernando Andrés and Tyler Rugh’s Three Headed Beast, an ingenious micro-movie about three bi Gen-Z Texans (Jacob Schatz, Dani Hurtado, and Cody Shook) vexed by their devoted entanglement in open relationships. The virtual-age DIY-ness of it is the ironic everything: Andrés and Rugh craft their lyrical fever-dreamlet with almost no dialogue (excepting a 12-minute set piece of expository dialogue over a backyard dinner, smack at the film’s center), just bodies and actions and texts and radio voices; even the TikTok-y vertical-frame camera view is used expressively, combining three parallel skinny-movies in triplicate split-screen. The effect can sometimes feel like one long song montage, but it’s a master class in making something deft and eloquent from nothing much—that is, from the diddley squat of phone-life.

Max Walker-Silverman’s debut, A Love Song, is also an exercise in minimalist material—hanging out on a remote Western campsite beside a lake full of crawdads with Dale Dickey’s Faye as she sits outside her trailer waiting for a man from her long-lost youth to arrive. Faye has random visitors as she waits, and the waiting is sad, with Dickey’s extraordinary Dorothea Lange face as the film’s primary topography. (The implication I got was that she was a refugee from Nomadland-style itinerancy.) But eventually, the man shows up: Wes Studi, as an ordinary modern man (not a Rez icon), and the two awkwardly try to find a common ground for their autumnal, widowed moment, out there in the middle of nowhere. It’s a mournful movie that doesn’t say a lot, so restrained it actually feels starved for feeling, but at least Walker-Silverman is respectful, even with his ironic title—though it’s easy to prefer the resonance of the lovely working title, So This Is What the Songs Are All About.

Also a two-hander, Mali Elfman’s Next Exit works hard to fill out its margins, with a road trip scenario in which two fast-talking, mismatched trip-mates—a bitter, suicidal nowhere girl (Katie Parker) and a jovial Indian-Brit man (Rahul Kohli)—head cross-country to their deaths. The context is near-future parapsychological: The existence of ghosts has been scientifically proven, and so these two losers have signed on to a West Coast experiment to essentially shuffle off their mortal coil and move on to the next world. The journey has a certain ratio of settle-your-shit road-movie cliche clutter, but Elfman—a veteran producer, and yes, one of “those” Elfmans—knows how to juice her actors, and an extended roadhouse sequence and game of Never Have I Ever turn the tables and give the film surprising gravity. As witty and glib as it can sometimes be, Next Exit rolls in the shadow of its likable characters’ death wish, in a bleak American landscape where, suddenly, checking out is an acceptable option for everyone.  ❖

2022 Tribeca Festival
June 8–19

Highlights