2018

Overview: Tribeca Film Festival 2018

As a first-time attendee of the Tribeca Film Festival this year, I was struck by its sprawl, both geographic and curatorial. For 10 days, the festival takes over a wide swathe of lower Manhattan, and  scurrying from one location to the next for screenings and events — while often striking up impromptu conversations with fellow festival-goers on the train or on the street — is one of the delights of the experience. The scale of its program, on the other hand, is a whole other matter. This year’s festival consisted of over 90 features, which included titles that had already played at other festivals, as well as a vast number of Tribeca World Premieres. Add to these the shorts, TV shows, VR exhibits, special events and talks that make up the festival’s program, and you have a sense of its embarrassment of riches. The con is that this often leads to a somewhat uneven selection of films (as well as crippling FOMO amongst attendees); the pro is that there’s something for everyone at the Tribeca Film Festival. The best way to tackle the slate is to follow your instincts (instead of buzz and brand names), which paid off pretty well for me.

You can read reviews of my Tribeca favorites TullyThe Feeling of Being WatchedDisobedience and Lemonade at Vague Visages, and here are some thoughts on a few other films from this year’s festival that I found notable.

Sundance Favorites

Two acclaimed films from this year’s Sundance Film Festival made their way to Tribeca; both explore the coming-of-age of young LGBTQ characters, although in markedly different ways. Jeremiah Zagar’s We the Animals, an intimate and ethereal adaptation of Justin Torres’ same-named autobiographical novel, opens with the uncontainable energy of childhood: young protagonist Jonah and his two brothers are introduced in rapid snatches of image, light and crescendoing sound, while a whispered voice-over offers the bare bones of exposition. Jonah and his brothers live in poverty in rural upstate New York; their Puerto Rican father and white, Brooklynite mother met and married in high school and now swing erratically between tender and violent. Zagar sustains the sensory ebullience of the opening all through the film, which unfolds more like a dream than a narrative. A swim lesson reminiscent of Moonlight in its lyricism (although different in tone) clues viewers into the contemplative, artistic Jonah’s dawning realization that he is different from his siblings and perhaps inadequate for his father’s hypermasculine ideals; his longing glances at a lanky teenaged neighbour, who invites the boys into his basement to watch porn, make Jonah’s queerness slowly but surely apparent. As We the Animals hurtles from one vignette to the next, switching between Zak Mulligan’s mesmerizing cinematography and Mark Samsonovich’s hand-drawn animation, it thrillingly documents Jonah’s gradual awakening to his own self.

*

Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post — which won the U.S. Dramatic Jury Prize at Sundance, picks up where We the Animals ends, in a sense: the film documents the aftermath of its protagonist’s initial coming-out and coming-of-age. When Cam (a remarkably restrained Chloë Grace Moretz) is caught having sex with a female friend after her high school prom, she is shipped off to a gay conversion camp called “God’s Promise,” which boasts an unprecedented success rate in ridding teens of their same-sex attraction (or “SSA,” as the camp’s members usually refer to it in an ominous whisper). Despite this disturbing premise, what follows is a (relatively) warm and witty teen-movie peopled with interesting young characters; or, described inversely, it’s like a darker and sadder version of Lady Bird. Between weird psychoanalytic and religious sessions with the camp’s steely director (Jennifer Ehle) and her “ex-gay” brother (John Gallagher), Cam bonds and smokes weed with the no-fucks-giving and casually diverse Jane (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck). If the movie feels occasionally flat and lacking drama, it would seem to be by design. The film’s portrayal of gay-conversion therapy, inspired by the experiences of real-life survivors, avoids sensationalism or caricature; instead, it drives home the insidious and psychologically destructive nature of the practice, which is often disguised by the purported good intentions of its purveyors. Akhavan’s point is encapsulated by a conversation Cam has with a social services worker towards the end, after one of the boys at the camp tries to injure himself in the film’s one horrifically dramatic moment. The official’s questions focus on the most obvious indicators of abuse — deprivation, constrainment, physical punishment. Struggling to explain the precise nature of violence she experiences at the institution, Cam asks him, “Doesn’t teaching people to hate themselves count as abuse?”

Period Dramas

 I have a weakness for prissy, pretentious period dramas, so I was eager to preview Mary Shelley and The Seagull — two of the higher profile films at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Mary Shelley, a biopic of the eponymous author of Frankenstein, was an enormous letdown, with Saudi Arabian director Haifaa al-Mansour reducing the radically unconventional life of her literary heroine to a prudish and saccharine melodrama. For one, the film is horribly miscast: Elle Fanning is far too icy and prim to do justice to Mary’s rich, macabre imagination; Douglas Booth makes for a vapid Percy Shelley, reciting impassioned and supposedly impromptu verses as if he were reading a teleprompter; and the kohl-eyed Tom Sturridge turns Lord Byron into a less-funny version of Jack Sparrow, hamming it far too hard in his attempt to channel the poet’s megalomaniacal eccentricity. In addition to its technical flaws (which include remarkably unsubtle dialogue for a film about writers), Mary Shelley also draws a glib and somewhat problematic relation between Mary’s unhappy love life and her writing; the film would have you believe that she wrote Frankenstein in a single, pale-faced (and dissolve-heavy) sitting, motivated by the monstrous betrayals of her husband. While it is neither inaccurate nor wrong to assume that the writer’s personal life bled definitively into her work, al-Mansour’s insistence on centering her entire life-story around her relationship with Percy does a disservice to Mary’s innate talent and creativity.

*

Also concerned with artistic pursuits and romantic alliances, Michael Mayer’s The Seagull turned out to be a much better-crafted option for my period drama itch — despite, of course, the invariable difficulties of translating Chekhov to the screen. A sinuous and slimmed-down adaptation, The Seagull occasionally struggles with the play’s bevy of characters and its fine tonal balance, but renders it thoroughly cinematic: the upstate New York setting, standing in for rural Russia, is captured in luscious and saturated colours, while remarkably fluid camerawork — which often zooms or dollies in towards characters — injects the film with a sense of dynamism. As opposed to Mary Shelley, the performances in The Seagull are note-perfect and elevate the film to an altogether different register. Annette Bening is (obviously) a highlight as the vain actress and matriarch Irina, flitting seamlessly from majestic to pathetic in her cruelty towards her son Konstantin (Billy Howle) and envy towards the ingenue Nina (a sparkling, freckle-faced Saoirse Ronan). Reminiscent of his turn as Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011), Corey Stoll offers another ingenious riff on the asshole-writer template with his charismatic rendition of Boris Trigorin. But it is Elisabeth Moss’ lovesick, alcoholic Masha who steals the show, expertly delivering the film’s sharpest lines (“A lot of women drink. Just not as openly as I do.”) even as she sobs and drinks her way through most of its runtime.

Prizewinner

I saw Kent Jones’ Diane — winner of the Tribeca jury’s awards for Best Narrative Feature, Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography — on the last day of the festival, and it made for a brilliant and beautiful end to a celebratory week of cinema. Jones is well-known in the New York community as the director of the New York Film Festival, and his expertise as a film connoisseur is evident in his narrative feature debut. There’s nothing amateurish about this film; it reveals the eye of someone who has studied cinematic form in great detail. But there’s nothing jaded about Diane either. It’s startlingly fresh and original, and it undermined my expectations at every turn.

Structured as an intimate and meditative character-study, the film centers on the 70-year-old Diane (Mary Kay Place) who spends much of her time driving back and forth between the various people in her life — her neighbour, whose husband just underwent surgery, her cousin (who is dying of cervical cancer), her best friend (with whom she volunteers at a soup kitchen) and her son (who aggressively rebuffs her attempts to help him out of his long-standing drug addiction). Diane rarely appears at home until the latter half of the film; her life is busy and full, indicating both her giving personality and the nagging existential unease in her soul, which she tries to soothe by keeping herself occupied with other people’s lives. These vignettes of her peripatetic interactions with family and friends — most of whom are aged — lack narrative thrust or structure, but are full of warm and watchable banter. Jones does something rare in American cinema: he treats old people just as people, with neither condescension nor ridicule, allowing them to laugh and fight, make mistakes and have fun.

Eventually, as time passes and people begin to pass away, more layers emerge. Diane’s son beats his addiction and becomes an almost dogmatic church-goer, much to his mother’s annoyance while her increased solitude is constantly invaded by a prevailing guilt from the past. Slowly, subtly and elliptically, Diane morphs into a poignant meditation on time — how it heals certain wounds and opens other afresh, and the ways in which it accumulates and constantly changes the shape of one’s life. Mary Kay Place anchors these abstract turns with her masterful performance: tender, tortured and always tinged with humor. 

Devika Girish (@devikagirgayi) is as a freelance film critic. She writes for Film Comment, Village Voice, Reverse Shot and MUBI’s Notebook, among others. She grew up in India, studied film and critical theory at Brown University and will soon start a Master’s in Specialized Journalism at the University of Southern California.

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