Three of our writers attended the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. Here’s what they liked.
Another Tribeca Film Festival came and went, with an edition bigger and more overwhelming than ever. It’s easy to lose your way in this massive festival, bookended with star-studded talks and events, and tough to find the good films out of dozens unless you’re willing to see anything and everything that comes your way. Admittedly, we weren’t able to catch dozens each. But call it luck; we still saw a number of notable films to remember the 2017 edition of this young festival by.
Here are our best of the fest, from the three writers who attended:
There hasn’t been another breakout like Quinn Shephard out of this year’s Tribeca, who at 22, wrote-directed-produced and edited Blame, in which she also stars. Shephard plays Abigail, a troubled teen, who returns to her high-school after a mental-health-related hiatus and rebuilds her confidence when she grabs the substitute drama teacher’s (Chris Messina) attention and gets cast as Abigail in the school’s staging of The Crucible. This is a dark, sharply crafted and ultimately touching drama on teenage angst, as well as female camaraderie and rivalry, written with the kind of artistic maturity it takes many filmmakers years to acquire and hone. It’s baffling that Blame still lacks distribution. After Before I Fall’s promising Box Office (another female-centric high-school film), here is hoping that a smart distributor grabs Blame and knows just what to do with it.
If you have seen After Tiller, a documentary on third-trimester abortions that Lana Wilson co-directed with Martha Shane, then you are already familiar with Wilson’s perceptive eye and aptitude of extracting humanistic stories buried within inconceivably tough circumstances. With The Departure, she finds a similarly challenging story in Japan and makes a lyrical statement on the meaning of life. Wilson follows a former punk named Nemoto, who now lives as a Buddhist and helps suicidal people grow out of their depression. But he finds he is not exempt from what his patients struggle with, as the lines between his personal life and his patients’ troubles blur. The Departure is a moving, philosophical exercise on understanding and cherishing life by confronting the finiteness of it.
Keep The Change
Rachel Israel’s Keep the Change might just be the most heartwarming film that came out of this year’s Tribeca. Charting the unlikely romantic encounters and relationship of a couple that meets in a support group, Keep the Change honors the almost-extinct traditions of urban romantic comedies while putting its own stamp on them. The film features a cast of non-professional actors with autism and establishes its own breezy tone and buoyant humor early on. And it never betrays this beat, even when the going gets tough for its lead characters, who navigate their own set of everyday challenges in New York City’s rough environs that gradually soften with a touch of optimism.
No Man’s Land
Remember the bizarre, 41-day occupation of the Oregon Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016? If you are fuzzy on what exactly happened during the standoff between authorities and protestors, David Byars No Man’s Land has some answers for you. The film is already impressive on the grounds that Byar was able to gain the trust of the protestors and to obtain unlimited access to the story. But more notable is the way he dismantles the inner-workings of the increasingly dramatic events while methodically placing them into a fully-formed and studied context. Throughout No Man’s Land, he makes the fly-on-the-wall viewer fully feel the peril and the underlying, aggressive masculinity that surrounds it all.
A smart, modern-day dramedy on love, sex, and marriage for mature audiences? What a novel concept on screen these days. Thankfully, writer-director Azazel Jacobs’ The Lovers, coming to theaters in just a couple of days, is exactly that. Following a long-term, unhappily married couple (Debra Winger and Tracy Letts) that are both involved with other people through serious relationships, The Lovers takes apart the many complexities of passion and lust, and the shapes they morph into through the mundane routines of parenthood and an aging marriage. The Lovers is both a tragedy and a satirical comedy, with an absolutely provocative kicker.
Zoey Deutch’s star has been on the constant rise ever since Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, and Flower will only add to the young actor’s fame. Here, Deutch plays Erica, a happy-go-lucky, witty but troubled high-school student, who rakes in cash by performing sexual acts on older men and then using their indecency against them. Yes, it is an icky concept, but Max Winkler’s film is not a “teenage girl and her sexual liberation” film despite what the on-paper description might seem like. When an unstable stepbrother enters Erica’s life through the marriage of her mother (played by the inimitable Kathryn Hahn), Erica’s life takes an unexpected, and even dangerous turn. Flower is a dark comedy with touches of Bonnie and Clyde towards the end and definitely deserves your consideration.
What if 21 Jump Street and Breaking Bad had a kid? Pablo Schreiber is the head honcho dealer in a small town whose blue collar high school students peddle just to get out of their trailers. Eliza Taylor plays his undercover nemesis. The ensuing cat-and-mouse between the two creates unbelievable tension out of familiar drug drama. A great young cast, steady pacing, and dusty aesthetic unafraid to show the drug trade in all its unflattering practicalities make Thumper a must-see thriller.
What do you know about Somalia besides its coastal pirates? Anything? Nothing? Assuming the latter is most likely, Dabka adapts the premiere source of Western Somali insight into a biopic of the freelance journalist ballsy and stupid enough to travel there unprepared. Evan Peters and Barkhad Abdi strike up a potent bromance while they navigate the politics of piracy conversations and try to make anyone outside of Somalia care about Somalia. The film’s full of smug moxie and has the substance to back it up. Animated sequences and self-referential voiceover are two of the riskiest choices a director can make, and Dabka pulls them both off with panache.
Brendan Muldowney’s Pilgrimage makes religious films adventurous again. Irish monks (including Tom Holland and Jon Bernthal) go on a cross-island quest to restore a Christian artifact to the pope. The film has a nuanced faith offset by brutal fight scenes and lingering, all-encompassing nature photography. Religion is a spotlight in a forest, lighting the path of pagans and barbarians. The film’s directed with a breakneck desperation that comes from shooting a period piece in the time it took to shoot all of Game of Thrones‘ “Battle of the Bastards.”
Did you enjoy the politics and poetry of Moonlight but felt like it needed to be brighter, poppier, and more raucous? Musical Saturday Church tells the story of a gender dysphoric teen through songs that are scrappy, elegant, and brimming with emotion. But it’s not all rose petals and pop ballads. The NYC realism highlighting the abuse young queer people can face is often so tough as to break your heart. It’s a stunning debut from writer/director Damon Cardasis and an even more impressive showcase for star Luka Kain’s musical and dramatic talents.
Love After Love
Rarely have I watched a movie, hated it with an intense malevolence for every person involved and, then, only then, found myself blinking through tears. Russell Harbaugh sets his debut feature, Love after Love, in the familiarly wooded world of Woody Allen’s more melancholy work (Indoors, September): everyone is either in the academic or publishing and on their second marriage. ‘70s jazz dominates. Big daddy is on the respirator, conveniently front-seat to a middle-age marriage hitting the rocks. (the latter helmed by a Chris O’Dowd whose resemblance to Shia Labeouf gives gleefully strange levity to even the most morbid scenes.) In juxtaposing these living room dramas, Harbaugh comes upon some genius: fucking can sound incredibly like dying. All that panting. But it’s Andie MacDowell’s read of the suffering widow that dropped my heart in a cool pool of water: her eyes carry their daggers on the hip like old cutlasses, making meat out of the expected agonized silences. The slow and intense walk to devastation has its press talking comps to Kenneth Lonergan’s Oscar-approved latest, but Harbaugh doesn’t have the patience to erect that movie’s style of copious bullshit. Love after Love slow-burns like life.
My Friend Dahmer
Much like Shakespeare, the drama of My Friend Dahmer happens offstage. In fact, it happens after the credits roll: Marc Meyers’ third movie ends right after Jeff Dahmer, soon after taking to calling himself Jeffrey, picks up the fellow who would be his first victim. Are characters innocent until they begin cannibalizing company? My Friend Dahmer poses a lot of interesting questions about storytelling and refuses to offer any cheap answers: do we sympathize with the serial killer as a moodily rejected teenager, played with convincing aplomb by Austin & Ally star Ross Lynch? An adaptation of John Backderf’s comic book of the same name, Meyers’ refusal to weigh heavy-handed moral judgment put me in mind of Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, also a ‘70s-set comic book adapt. Freaky times. Meyers’ Dahmer has, for instance, a particular and creepy attachment to dissecting animals but so did, I recently learned, a young David Lynch. As My Friend Dahmer slowly steers its protagonist toward his historical fate, the result is crushing.
Rock n’ Roll
To some, anything more meta than Deadpool is tantamount to a self-indulgent crime against humanity. Guillaume Canet’s Rock n’ Roll is probably not for you. Canet and real-life wife Marion Cotillard take center stage in a farcical comedy about aging and being hip: celebrities are people, after all, and I imagine even John Krasinski probably wishes he was a cooler dude too. The movie’s smarts are in its title: rock n’ roll, for Canet, isn’t playing Stairway to Heaven, it’s looking like Jimmy Page. The two, are, after all only tangentially connected and Canet uses the tropes of face to explore and explode the image of cool that clings to every leather jacket. In one of the movie’s most visceral set-ups, Canet leaves his family to become a bodybuilder which is one hell of a mid-life crisis to watch. But it’s funny too, watching French people lost their shit will never not set me in stitches. For fans of Adaptation and I’m Still Here who felt both were great but too dreadfully serious. It’s just life, after all.
The romantic comedy is so divorced from the reality of things that Ryan Gosling’s charade as a jazz man felt like the most convincing thing about La La Land. Which is why Josephine Decker and Zefrey Throwell’s move to document their last relationship, with each other, is instantly the most real thing you’ll ever see this side of Star Wars. Remember that bit in (500) Days of Summer where it’s like, this was real, man? Imagine if it actually was. Like JGL and Zooey Deschanel, Decker and Throwell (both indie directors in the New York scene; Decker is, however, more famous) have a brief fling and then spend the rest of the movie reflecting on it. A document of its times, Flames works as a brilliant time capsule of the Obama era: we walk in on staged protests of late capitalism as often as lovemaking. The couple takes a trip to the Maldives and is surprised they didn’t realize they were in the middle of a revolution. Ditto their titular flames: we are told that we were witnessing a life-changing romance more than we are shown one. Which is truer than either Decker or Throwell could have imagined; love is, after all, spoken of more grandly than felt.