Spring in New York is a promising season. It’s a great time for the Tribeca Festival, which runs June 8-19 and features its focus on the trademark community and a comprehensive menu. Like visitors to a botanical garden, Tribeca’s audience seems as interested in roaming the groves of conventional movies (not to mention immersive installations, TV series and scripted podcasts) as they are savoring the little movies that flourish next door.
This year’s opening night movie, “Halftime,” a Netflix documentary that chronicles a busy year in the life of Jennifer Lopez, falls into the first category, with exclusive access and the whiff of celebrity gossip and prestige. But the highlights among this year’s world and international premieres are the more homemade productions. If “Halftime” is the show’s gold lamé dress, most of her wardrobe is casual.
It could be that the modest scale of some of these films was motivated by pandemic protocols, which favor lean casts and isolated locations. But never discard old budget constraints. And anyway, independent cinema has always had a knack for making hay while the sun shines, and while it rains, too.
BJ Novak’s directorial debut “Vengeance” is a project that was shaken by Covid-19 early on: Blumhouse suspended production in March 2020 while the crew was filming in Albuquerque, NM Debuting now as the centerpiece of Tribeca , the smart thriller is about to be a crowd pleaser.
Novak stars as Ben, a Manhattan journalist and serial boyfriend who flies to Nowheresville, Texas, for the funeral of a woman he was seeing. Just an adventure, Abilene meant little to him. But at his grieving relatives, a fire group who become convinced that Abilene’s death was a murder, Ben smells fodder for a Great American Podcast and begins recording their cases. Come for the artistic dark comedy; stay for the scathing parable about the egoists who suck up stories from the suffering of a small town.
Crouching is the name of the game in “We Might as Well Be Dead”. The German story unfolds within a private complex that serves as a refuge from unspoken dystopian woes. We meet Anna (Ioana Iacob, prickly and agitated), one of the enclave’s only Jewish residents, in the midst of a crisis: her daughter Iris (Pola Geiger) has locked herself in the bathroom in a fit of agoraphobic superstition, a taboo that could get them. the boot. A standout debut from director Natalia Sinelnikova, the deadpan comedy feels like a cousin to the works of Yorgos Lanthimos, an absurdity equally mindful of how confinement breeds fear and fear breeds barbarism.
The image of a woman spiraling alone also appears in “Good Girl Jane,” a US Narrative Competition entry written and directed by Sarah Elizabeth Mintz. The coming-of-age story follows a teenage outcast (Rain Spencer) in 2000s Los Angeles who sinks into drug abuse after falling in love with a local drug dealer. Mintz combines long, sumptuous takes with torrid raw emotion, and like the best debauched child-crazed dramas – “Thirteen” springs to mind – the project is a sleight of hand, teasing happiness before drowning you in dread.
Another world premiere driving a bulldozer for prosaic images of young love is the quirky animated musical “My Love Affair With Marriage”. Latvian screenwriter and director Signe Baumane, who financed the feature in part through Kickstarter, builds an impressionistic world of line-drawn characters that skip diorama backdrops in search of true romance. Audacity and pedagogy mingle in this curious Soviet tale, and if its stuffing sometimes sticks out at the seams, it’s just an excess of imagination.
Documentaries in Tribeca are often strong, and in a sea of engaging world premieres, a trio shines as timely and enriching chronicles of paradigm shifts: “Sophia,” “Battleground” and “My Name Is Andrea.” Each is overseen by experienced filmmakers: Crystal Moselle (“The Wolfpack”) co-directed “Sophia” with Jon Kasbe; Cynthia Lowen (“Netizens”) directed “Battleground”; and “My Name Is Andrea” is a work by narrative and non-fiction director Pratibha Parmar.
Moselle and Kasbe’s absorbing exercise in vérité centers on inventor David Hanson and his robotic creation Sophia. Over the course of several years, we have watched this gentle Dr. Frankenstein juggling work goals and the demands of home life as his brown-eyed humanoid evolves. A more dogmatic crew takes the stage in “Battleground,” which follows a cavalcade of anti-abortion activists. Lowen places his ideas in context (especially charged in light of new threats to Roe v. Wade) and uses tactful editing to cast certain moments under a cloak of irony, urgency, or alarm.
“My name is Andrea” flips through several earlier chapters in the history books to sketch an abstract portrait of public intellectual Andrea Dworkin. Parmar makes use of routine archival footage, but also mounts dramatic reenactments of key events in Dworkin’s life; Ashley Judd, Amandla Stenberg and Soko are among the artists who perform versions of the icon turned fire. These scenes blend with the narration of her writings to create a poignant palimpsest of identity.
Echoes often occur by chance at film festivals, and I discovered an intriguing one between Sarah Adina Smith’s age-old comedy “The Drop” and Michelle Garza Cervera’s allegorical horror exercise “Huesera.” Both deal with the pangs of motherhood and share a harrowing accident scenario: a woman letting a baby slip out of her hands. (To prevent a heart attack, little ones are fine.)
The title of Smith’s movie puts all the cards on the table. Follow Lex (the superb Anna Konkle of “Pen15”) as she attends a wedding in a tropical destination. She and her husband, Mani (Jermaine Fowler), are trying to conceive, and upon arriving on the island, a friend gives Lex their baby daughter. No shock in what happens next – but the real juice flows in the days following the cataclysm, as Lex and Mani’s trust breaks down and viewers silently judge Lex’s maternal instincts.
Perhaps my favorite of all the Tribeca selections I tried was the Mexican “Huesera” knockout. Full of forebodings and heavy with threats, the story follows furniture maker Valeria (Natalia Solián, a terrifying talent) as she prepares for the birth of her first child. But hidden forces are at play. Amid the construction of cribs, doctor’s appointments and family celebrations, Valeria hallucinates a bony demon that seeks to infiltrate her home and poison her body and mind.
The quintessential horror stories fuse with elements of Catholic spirituality and Mexican folklore. The most exciting setting features a purgative ritual that Cervera performs with a dance choreographer’s sense of movement and a Gothic artist’s eye for composition. But even as Valeria drifts away from loved ones and the sequels devolve into phantasmagoria, Cervera never loses sight of the central themes. Spinning on an axis of anxiety, “Huesera” raises the provocative idea that motherhood can seem like a curse that takes away sacred stability and autonomy. It’s not easy, the film – like many great works of vision, scale be damned – is almost an exorcism in itself, laying bare fuss and banalities to expose raw truths.