The 15th annual Tribeca Film Festival kicked off last night in New York with the world premiere of the Met Gala documentary The First Monday in May, and will continue through Sunday the 24th with a large and diverse slate of narrative and non-fiction films from around the world. Established in 2002 to help bring focus and funds back to lower Manhattan, the festival has struggled a bit to establish its particular identity in the crowded film-fest world. But they’ve always got some strong selections, particularly in the documentary realm; your film editor had a chance to check some of their titles in advance, so here are a few worth keeping an eye out for this week (and in the weeks and months to come).
Roger Ross Williams’ documentary account of an autistic boy who learns to communicate via Disney movies sounds like the worst kind of studio infomerical — a non-fiction equivalent to Saving Mr. Banks — but it’s a lovely, moving film. It tells two stories: how his parents used those cartoons, which he’d obsessively viewed and memorized, to bring him out of his shell; and where they’ve left him at his moment of transition into adulthood and independence. “The real world is not a Disney script,” his therapist explains, and Williams gives a sense of the struggle — progress in the macro, momentary micro meltdowns. It’s a rich and emotional story, warm and kind and often overwhelming.
Director David Feige ventures into one of the most difficult and emotional criminal justice issues of our time, the registration and restriction of sex offenders, and comes up with an eye-opening and powerful piece of work. He initially focuses on Ron Book, a multimillionaire lobbyist whose daughter’s sexual abuse at the hands of the family nanny prompted a crusade against sexual predators, and that focus is indicative of the film’s complexity; you feel so intensely for him, and his passion is so understandable, and yet his approach to this issue is, at the end of the day, wildly off-base. This becomes clear as Feige tells complementary and equally nuanced stories of survivors and perpetrators, most of them falling well outside the broad brush of these laws. This is an issue fraught with emotion yet beset by contradictions; Feige’s thought-provoking film is properly complicated and illuminating.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
The visual inventiveness and dry wit that have made Taika Waititi’s previous efforts such a treat comes to full flower in this story of a young man and his foster father’s months-long trek into the New Zealand bush, chaptered up like a boys’ adventure book, playing out like a cross between First Blood and Goonies (with, by the end, a dash of Thelma and Louise thrown in). Julian Dennison is gregarious and charismatic as the kid, and Sam Neill is flat-out wonderful as his reluctant guardian, a bottomless well of withering stares and uproarious exasperation. It’s a gentle movie, but with a bittersweet edge – and it’s funny as hell to boot.
The story – as told in the press notes, to be clear, and not in the film – is that self-styled actor, promoter, and connector Arthur Martinez hired indie filmmakers Nathan Silver and Mike Ott to come to Denver and make a film about him. But what exactly that film is becomes an open question; what initially seems to be a documentary portrait, with oddball pals in scenes of found peculiarity, shifts with first acknowledgment and then awareness of the cinematic frame, peeling back layers of art and artifice, becoming a hybrid of fiction and documentary (or, at least, documentary-style fiction). Fascinatingly, the film keeps working its way around to the very questions we’re asking of it, and bouncing up against its own boundaries in ways that are either reflective or indulgent, or maybe both.
Jon Greenhalgh’s documentary opens with cheery home movies of the picturesque Foxcatcher Farm Pennsylvania, taken by the family of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz – and then hard cuts to the police standoff at the mansion of the estate’s owner, millionaire John DuPont, after he murdered Schultz in 1996. It was a story told, of course, in Bennett Miller’s 2014 Oscar nominee, but it’s bizarre and rich enough to warrant this nonfiction treatment – particularly since DuPont’s life was so well documented. The archival materials are voluminous, but beyond the fascination of comparison, they also allow director Greenhalgh to meticulously explain how this man was so humored and indulged in all aspects of his life – his thrown “Masters” wrestling matches, his position as a reserve police officer, his bizarre hunting habits – that he came to a live in a reality of his own creation, which gave way to paranoia, abuse, mind games, and ultimately murder. The tense, nerve-racking score and our own knowledge of the outcome gives the events a sense of doomed inevitability, to say nothing of exhaustion over the many red flags that should’ve warned his enablers that DuPont was a ticking time bomb.
My Blind Brother
Last year, Nick Kroll made a bit of a leap following the end of his sketch comedy series — bypassing the kind of broad comedy vehicles you might expect and going instead for low-key indie dramedy with his Adult Beginners. His latest is in much the same mold, as he plays the sighted (and overlooked) brother and caretaker of a blind athlete and humanitarian (Adam Scott) whose long-stifled resentment comes to the surface when they both fall for the same girl (Jenny Slate). Kroll continues to find new, subtle notes to play, discovering the key to his character in his guilt and vulnerability, while Slate gives her leading lady turn just a dash of darkness and self-loathing. (Zoe Kazan, in a bit of a switch, plays her wacky friend — the kind of role you might expect Slate to take — and just about steals the picture.) And Scott, in perhaps the trickiest role of all, isn’t afraid to make the title character insufferable, yet untouchable.
The Last Laugh
More and more of the conversation about contemporary humor and satire has concerned limits – what’s outside of them, and who has the right to challenge those norms. Ferne Pearlstein’s documentary approaches the topic from a point of specificity, examining how comedians from the 1940s forward have approached that most taboo of topics: the Holocaust. But it’s also a starting point for bigger questions of humor as protest, mining tragedy for laughs, and gallows humor for not only satirists but survivors. That’s a lot of ground to cover, and the end product is a little scattershot. But it’s always compelling, and Mel Brooks’ comments on Life Is Beautiful are worth the price of admission alone.
Like the recent Hello, My Name Is Doris, Lorene Scafaria’s comedy/drama about a young woman and her very involved senior mom could’ve gone for cheap shots and broad caricature (and Susan Sarandon’s accent certainly flirts with it). But like Doris, this is a film with tremendous affection for its protagonist, for her openness and curiosity, as she cruises around Los Angeles leaving endless voicemails for her daughters and playing her bits of her favorite Beyoncé song. Scafaria doesn’t just like this character – she understands her, and wants her to find peace and happiness, particularly if it involves the gentle ex-cop who takes a liking to her (a wonderful J.K. Simmons, working a Sam Elliott vibe). Casting Sarandon and Rose Byrne as mother and daughter is genius – they bounce off each other beautifully – and it’s a joy to see Sarandon playing an honest-to-God leading role with this kind of gusto.
This Independent Focus production from director Sonia Kennebeck is a gripping indictment of America’s increasing reliance on drone warfare, told from the perspectives of a trio of former intelligence agents and analysts who’ve seen the toll taken by this “video game” war, both to civilians and to their own. One tries to come to terms with her PTSD by speaking out, yet finds herself doubting and second-guessing herself; another, a high-clearance intelligence officer, finds himself investigated for espionage; the third, racked with guilt, goes to Afghanistan on a humanitarian mission and seeks out the survivors of a drone strike that killed 23 members of an unarmed family caravan, including women and children. As the pilots and analysts controlling that drone squint and try to determine if the “children” in the group are “teenagers or toddlers,” the sense of sheer insanity is overwhelming – particularly when Kennebeck closes her film with an overhead image, aping the drone POV, of an American city street. Scary, potent, powerful stuff.
My Scientology Movie
When satirist and documentarian Louis Theroux announces on Twitter that his new documentary will tackle the Church of Scientology, he gets one particularly prescient @-reply: “They’re probably filming you already.” When Theroux is unsurprisingly unable to get bigwigs like David Miscavige to sit for interviews, he arrives on an ingenious workaround: “We can’t get the real Miscavige, but we can create our own Miscavige.” And thus, with departed CoS members acting as advisors, he sets about making a dramatization, with actors playing key figures like Miscavige and celebrity spokesman Tom Cruise – and sure enough, as predicted, his shoots and sessions are being disrupted by camera-wielding Scientologists, determined to make a counter-documentary. It’s a funhouse arrangement of mirrors and cameras, yet between the oddball set pieces and documentary muckraking, Theroux is slyly exploring the psychopathy at the heart of this organization – and one that may still lurk in those who’ve left it.