Amid all the end of year awards hullabaloo, this feature will be devoted to some underrated or overlooked debut gems that have received distribution in English-language territories in 2015, primarily in North America and/or the UK. Technically, these films all had their world premiere in 2014, but their English distribution only took place this year. I’m focusing on directorial feature debuts, so a few of these filmmakers do have a number of shorts and TV work in their background.
Anyway, on with the gems!
Fidelio: Alice’s Journey (Lucie Borleteau, France)
A collaborator of Claire Denis, Lucie Borleteau makes a memorable, sexy and intimate debut with Fidelio: Alice’s Journey, which, to be extremely reductive, could be described as if Denis made an Emmannuelle film set at sea. Greek-born French star Ariane Labed (Alps, Attenberg, The Lobster, and the upcoming Assassin’s Creed) shines as the eponymous Alice, an experienced mechanic in a seemingly loving relationship with Scandinavian Felix (Anders Danielsen Lie, of Oslo, August 31st fame), whose fidelity and notions of sexuality are tested by the presence of an old flame (Melvil Poupard) aboard the freighter of her latest assignment. Exploring sexism alongside sexuality, this is one of the few notable films of late where love-making sequences are used to convey actual character insight. This went under the radar in the UK in October; hopefully a US release next year might raise its profile.
I Believe in Unicorns (Leah Meyerhoff, USA)
Do not let the title fool you. Despite connotations of whimsy in its naming, and the presence of a couple of stop-motion animation interludes, I Believe in Unicorns is far darker than it may initially seem; a deliberately upsetting and sexually frank production. Largely shot on 16mm, Leah Meyerhoff’s film is almost like a riff on Terrence Malick’s Badlands by way of Terry Gilliam’s Tideland, in that it sees an impressionable teenage girl swept up in a dangerous relationship with a rebellious older boy, all while various escapes into her imagination betray the truth of their heated but abusive road trip. If there’s any justice in the American film landscape, stunning lead Natalia Dyer will be one of the next big things.
Second Coming (Debbie Tucker Green, UK)
Currently without US distribution and barely released in the UK (despite the presence of Idris Elba as one of its co-leads), Second Coming, the theatrical film debut of playwright Debbie Tucker Green, is one of the more subtle British social dramas of late. This is all while featuring quite a high-concept premise: Jax (Nadine Marshall) hasn’t let husband Mark (Elba) touch her for a long time (nor been unfaithful), yet she becomes inexplicably pregnant. The couple have a son already, JJ (Kai Francis Lewis), who was also something of a miracle himself, being the only child brought to delivery after numerous failed pregnancies. Though there is a spiritual undercurrent to the film, most of its power lies in its naturalistic look at a London family struggling to simply get by. In contrast to some of his more showy, exuberant roles of late, Second Coming also acts as a reminder of Elba’s skill with quieter, more tender characters than those found in Luther or Pacific Rim.
Theeb (Naji Abu Nowar, United Arab Emirates/Qatar/Jordan/UK)
The directorial debut of Jordan-based filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar, Theeb features echoes of both Rudyard Kipling adventure tales and some of Hollywood’s more pessimistic classic Westerns. This is a film with many a thrilling narrative jolt, so without giving too much away, it’s best just to say that it’s a coming-of-age tale framed within an Arab Western, with a 1916 setting that offers a very different perspective on the era of T.E. Lawrence; there’s a richness to both its character work and the historical implications of every setting those players find themselves in.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.