Director: Alex Thompson
Cast: Namir Smallwood, Sidney Flanigan, Michael Potts, Max Lipchitz, David Cromer, Cheryl Lynn Bruce
Synopsis: When a motivated resident doctor transfers to a rural hospital for a fresh start, his demons follow him as he becomes consumed with the case of a young asthma patient.
Thoughts: I was knocked out by writer/director Alex Thompson’s 2019 first feature Saint Frances (find it, watch it, you’re welcome), and eagerly put his follow-up Rounding on my shortlist as a must-see at Tribeca. Curious to see how the director would pivot from the hazy comedic wit of his golden-tinged debut to Rounding’s darker edges, I wasn’t disappointed in this story of a young resident trying to make a difference but quickly losing his balance when faced with a series of challenging setbacks in his personal life and professional career. Namir Smallwood (who I had the great fortune to see onstage when he acted locally in MN) is a captivating screen presence as doctor in training James, drawing you right into this demanding world of rapid decisions and necessary knee-jerk judgments. Rising star Sidney Flanigan is his patient suffering from an unknown ailment, maybe at the hands of her mother or perhaps being mishandled by the care team assigned to her. Either way, James is determined to prioritize her health but finds dead ends where there should be easy paths to transparent care. Though it begins to lose some steam after a gripping opening stretch, the strength of Thompson’s sophomore film rests with Smallwood selling us on James having a commitment to care and not an already troubled mind careening out of control. It’s the outside forces that conspire against him (and his patient) where the absolute horror of Rounding finds its best angles.
Director: Peter Hengl
Cast: Pia Hierzegger, Nina Katlein, Michael Pink, Alexander Sladek
Synopsis: Overweight and insecure, Simi spends Easter weekend with her famous nutritionist aunt. The hope is that it’ll help her get on a healthier track, but as the aunt’s family’s icy dynamics and an increasingly malevolent atmosphere leave Simi feeling uneasy, weight isn’t the only thing she’s about to lose.
Thoughts: Looking over the calendar, the most widely celebrated holidays have some horror films to coincide with the festivities. The one that doesn’t always get its fair due is Easter, and while we wait for the inevitable evil Easter Bunny creature feature, why not try out this Austrian entry from writer/director Peter Hengl? It’s often hopping good and a nice treat for those starved to get their fill of creepy psychological dread. In Family Dinner, teenager Simi has made the surprising choice to spend the holiday away from her immediate family and opted to travel to the country home of her aunt, uncle, and cousin. She does have an ulterior motive, though. Hoping to ask her aunt Claudia, a famous health guru, to coach her on how to lose weight, when she finally musters the courage up, her aunt begrudgingly agrees with the caveat that she follows her strict rules. What the rules are, and the punishment for breaking them makes Hengl’s nervy nail-biter suspenseful and entertaining. I loved the performance of Pia Hierzegger as Simi’s aunt, applying the needed layers to give Claudia a daring depth. It isn’t hard to squint your eyes and see what’s being served up in Family Dinner, but it’s so filling and just the right temperature for its genre that you are more than eager to wolf it down.
Employee of the Month (L’Employée du mois)
Director: Véronique Jadin
Cast: Jasmina Douieb, Laetitia Mampaka, Alex Vizorek, Peter Van Den Begin, Laurence Bibot
Synopsis: In this mischievous dark comedy, an employee at a cleaning products company accidentally commits a messily bloody crime – and must figure out how to cover her tracks with the help of her young trainee.
Thoughts: As far as ludicrous black comedies go, Employee of the Month is one of the more markedly silly and unbelievable but is saved by the committed performances and peppy direction. It’s not destined to be an unheralded classic, but for 78 fast-moving minutes, it manages to get the job done. As Inès, star Jasmina Douieb earns high marks for making it through the melee that transpires after her mild-mannered corporate flunky inadvertently offs her dunderhead boss while attempting to ask for her first raise. It’s one of those situations that could be fixed with a simple phone call to the police. However, a desperate panic causes supposedly sane people to act crazy and cover up their crimes, creating a domino effect that ropes others in. It’s all absurd, but Douieb and Laetitia Mampaka, as the new trainee dragged into the chaos, wring out a few sizable laughs from Véronique Jadin (who also directed) and Nina Vanspranghe’s screenplay. It’s fun for a bit but can’t sustain its premise.
Butterfly in the Sky
Director: Bradford Thomason, Brett Whitcomb
Cast: LeVar Burton, Twila C. Liggett, Larry Lancit, Cecily Lancit, Dean Parisot
Synopsis: For over 25 years, Reading Rainbow set the standard for literary children’s television. Thanks to its uncondescending approach, plus its immersive documentary-style adventures, LeVar Burton and the Reading Rainbow creative team instilled a love of reading in millions of children.
Thoughts: Did I spend most of this joyful documentary about the creation and lasting legacy of Reading Rainbow with tears welling up in my eyes? You bet your butterfly I did. As any child of the ’80s will attest, this television show produced for PBS between 1983 and 2006 had a massive impact on their daily lives growing up, not just on fostering their early interest in reading but in expanding their view of diversity and the world around them. Revisiting the genesis of the show (of which I was previously unfamiliar) as an adult and seeing how it came to be was fascinating. I especially enjoyed learning more about host LeVar Burton and how his casting helped to steer the show in the direction we all remember. During his lengthy interview segments, Burton is candid about his feedback to producers; we see how he grew as a contributor over time. Directors Bradford Thomason & Brett Whitcomb don’t fill Butterfly in the Sky with a tremendous amount of flash but keep the content, creators, and other interviews the central focus throughout.
Billion Dollar Babies: The True Story of the Cabbage Patch Kids
Director: Andrew Jenks
Synopsis: This is the unbelievable, but true story of the kids who stole America’s heart…the Cabbage Patch Kids and how they set the wheels in motion for modern-day Black Friday. Before Cabbage Patch Kids no one left a K-Mart with a bloody nose, nor could we have imagined a world where police would need to be called in to break up fights over dolls.
Thoughts: I know it’s probably very wrong, but I love watching the old footage of suburban moms breaking down the barricades of K·B Toys in a clamor for the newest batch of Cabbage Patch Kids. There’s just something so out of whack watching people buying toys for children acting like complete maniacs that I can’t help but be amused. The desire to see more of this footage was just a tiny reason why I knew that I had to get a look at Billion Dollar Babies: The True Story of the Cabbage Patch Kids, but it represents a fraction of the complete story being told by director Andrew Jenks. The actual stuffing of the work is discovering more about creator Xavier Roberts and how he turned a fledgling business of handmade dolls into the multi-billion-dollar consumer mayhem it became. Always sounding like he’s on the verge of laughing with us, narrator Neil Patrick Harris walks the viewer through the early days of Roberts’s business and even tangents into the claims that he stole the idea from a neighboring folk artist. Worthy of the exploration, the film doesn’t seem to pass judgment significantly either way, but it’s hard to deny the similarities between the two products. Through interviews with distributors, employees, and famous faces, we get an idea of the dolls’ impact, so if you weren’t there, you feel like you can understand the zeal of the hype. The only person not included is Roberts, who notoriously shirks the public eye. Like the dolls themselves, this doc is pretty soft stuff but fairly cozy all the same.
A Wounded Fawn
Director: Travis Stevens
Cast: Josh Ruben, Sarah Lind, Malin Barr, Katie Kuang, Laksmi Hedemark, Tanya Everett, Marshall Taylor Thurman, Leandro Taub, Neal Mayer
Synopsis: It’s the perfect plan: A serial killer brings an unsuspecting new victim on a weekend getaway to add another body to his ever-growing count. She’s buying into his faux charms, and he’s eagerly lusting for blood. What could possibly go wrong?
Thoughts: I need to tread extremely lightly with A Wounded Fawn because the set-up is devilishly devious. Revealing too much about what director Travis Stevens has in store for the viewer would spoil the clever effort that has gone into its creation, and these are the types of forward-momentum horror we should be demanding more of. Does it all work or even add up to perfect logic by the end? No. Well, I’m not sure, actually. I need to think about it some more. I just knew that by the time the credits were rolling, I was impressed with what Stevens could pull off. The briefest bit I can tell you is that a very bad man (Josh Ruben) lures women to his remote house as part of a loftier master plan. So far, he’s gotten away with the perfect crimes, but he’s brought home the wrong woman this time. A woman that isn’t content to merely turn the tables on her tormentor. Ok… that’s enough. No more. Buckle up for a wild ride because once Stevens has wound up the action in A Wounded Fawn and the last act gets underway, there’s no stopping it. It may not be for everyone, but it will please the genre fans begging for rarities like this.
All Man: The International Male Story
Director: Bryan Darling, Jesse Finley Reed
Synopsis: A nostalgic and colorful peek behind the pages and personalities of International Male, one of the most ubiquitous and sought-after mail-order catalogs of the ’80s and ’90s.
Thoughts: I came into All Man: The International Male Story expecting a bit of a naughty documentary that would feed into the cheeky charms for which its subject came to be known. The International Male catalog began as an easy way for men to shop for trendy clothes without being close to one of the major markets. You could peruse the pages to find hot new looks or pick out garments you would have been embarrassed to buy in a brick-and-mortar store. Those articles of clothing would be their vast array of underwear, and it was based on these pages the catalog started earning a reputation for its models that would put it at the center of gay culture. Subscriptions to the catalog peaked when the publishers got wise about what people wanted to see, so advertising clothing specifically often became secondary (and, in some cases, optional). As fun as it was to peek back at what was perking people’s interests 40 years ago, I’m not sure there was enough content provided by directors Bryan Darling & Jesse Finley Reed to complete a full-feature documentary. While there are attempts to tie the catalog to cultural touchstones of the era, the alignment doesn’t always ring true. Ultimately, it serves its purpose as titillating content, but you won’t be watching this one to learn anything new.
Attachment (Natten Har Øjne)
Director: Gabriel Bier Gislason
Cast: Josephine Park, Ellie Kendrick, Sofie Gråbøl, David Dencik
Synopsis: Maja and Leah’s new relationship is interrupted when mysterious things start happening in their London flat. It seems that Leah’s disapproving mother, who lives downstairs, is using Jewish folklore to come between them.
Thoughts: One of the best titles I’ve seen at Tribeca this year is Attachment, a supremely spooky horror film that whips up a dynamite concoction of Jewish folklore, paranoia, and possession. Directed by Gabriel Bier Gislason, the film constantly changes shape and form to keep the audience on their toes and the hairs on the back of the neck adequately raised. Studying abroad in Denmark, Londoner Leah (Ellie Kendrick) falls for Maja (Josephine Park), a former actress now doing crummy gigs to pay the rent. The women become inseparable, and when the day comes for Leah to head home, the parting is truly sweet sorrow…until a medical ailment keeps Leah in Denmark and delays her return home long enough for Maja to decide long distance won’t do. She’s coming to London with her girlfriend. That’s great for the two of them but not for Leah’s ultra-Orthodox mother (Sofie Gråbøl), who lives in the downstairs flat of their shared home. A period of adjustment is difficult as both women vie to care for Leah, who remains strangely unwell. Trying to understand Leah’s faith more, Maja ventures into the community to learn more and realizes it’s her mother (or something conjured by her mother) keeping Leah sick. Trapped in a home where danger could come from any nook or cranny, how can Maja fight back against a power she doesn’t understand? The performances from Park and Gråbøl are excellent, and I appreciated that Gislason’s script is more intricate than making sparring partners out of women. There’s more to the entire film than meets the eye, making Attachment an excellent film to latch onto.
A Love Song
Director: Max Walker-Silverman
Cast: Dale Dickey, Wes Studi, Michelle Wilson, Benja K. Thomas, Marty Grace Dennis, John Way
Synopsis: An unconventional romance set against a timeless Colorado landscape, this tender heartbreaker of a directorial debut packs decades of memories, longing, and nostalgia into a fateful campsite reunion between two could-be lovers.
Thoughts: If we lived in a perfect world, a performance like the one Dale Dickey gives in A Love Song would get express train-ed right to the Best Actress race at the Oscars. It’s so deeply felt and expertly delivered that it deserves the kind of wide recognition this prestigious honor can bestow, winner or not. Now, A Love Song is undeniably too small of a movie to climb up this great hill to Oscar glory (sad but true), so you’ll have to take my word that if you are a fan of salt-of-the-earth acting that is free from any artifice or guile, then you need to check this one out pronto. Chances are, you already have because A Love Song is targeted at a specific audience that longs for the same peaceful ambiance Dickey’s solemn character has come to an empty campsite near a body of water in the Colorado Mountains to find. She’s arrived with a small trailer and settled in…but for what? We’re not sure, and writer/director Max Walker-Silverman isn’t going to tell us. So much of A Love Song is just observing daily life – and it’s often rapturously engaging. The beautiful cinematography and score complement the sublime performances (the film also features Wes Studi and Michelle Wilson). Still, it’s Dickey’s show to pull the final curtain on in a breathtaking bit of natural wonder.
The Wild One
Director: Tessa Louise-Salomé
Cast: Jack Garfein, Willem Dafoe, Peter Bogdanovich, Irène Jacob, Boby Sotto, Dick Guttman, Blanche Baker, Patricia Bosworth, Foster Hirsch, Geoffrey Horne, Kate Rennebohm
Synopsis: Jack Garfein — Holocaust survivor, theater and film director, key figure in the formation of the Actors Studio — vividly, animatedly, passionately recalls a life where historical tragedy and personal art formed a unique, driving, uncompromising vision.
Thoughts: In director Tessa Louise-Salomé’s documentary on Jack Garfein, viewers can open up a new chapter of Hollywood history they likely had never known about. I shamefully didn’t know Garfein’s name before starting this well-made and beautifully told doc. Still, I’m so grateful to have works like this that serve as important reminders about the pivotal contributors to the industry. More than just filling essential gaps in the timeline of Hollywood and dropping fancy names of celebrities, The Wild One illustrates Garefin’s life from his birth in Czechoslovakia to his survival in the concentration camps during World War II. After moving to New York, he created his own theater company and eventually joined the Actors Studio, where he taught many legendary names. Giving James Dean his first acting role and collaborating with Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg, Garfein directed for the stage and screen, married Carroll Baker, and was vigilant in his advocacy for minority rights. This was a man before his time that flew in the face of toeing the line in his business. How wonderful that Louise-Salomé was able to interview him and make him such an integral part of The Wild One before his passing in 2019 at 89. An essential documentary for film fans.
Director: Kathryn Ferguson
Synopsis: Over the course of just six years, Sinead O’Connor went from an international superstar to a pariah. Nothing Compares tells the story of O’Connor’s life as a musician, mother, and iconoclast in her own words.
Thoughts: When I hear the name Sinead O’Connor two images pop into my brain, and I’m sure it’s the same two that are in yours. The first is her iconic look from her video for her cover of the Prince track ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ from 1990, and the second is of her appearance in a 1992 episode of Saturday Night Live where she ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II live on the air. Both cemented O’Connor in the history books but for very different reasons. Kathryn Ferguson’s documentary Nothing Compares (which will debut on Showtime later this year) is a robust and transparent look at O’Connor’s life. While it details her upbringing in some scope, the work focuses on her dramatic career ascent in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Through the documentary, audiences are exposed to the full strength of O’Connor’s talent and how her emotions (unbridled at times) made her such a creative force of nature. She refused to be put into a box long before it was fashionable to go against the grain, so most of the world used her SNL appearance to write her off completely, silencing a rising voice before it could be fully developed. O’Connor’s career never fully recovered, and though she’s continued to release music over the ensuing years, her reputation of erratic behavior has followed her. Ferguson keeps the lens trained in a non-judgmental space, letting O’Connor’s voice do most of the reflection on her time in the spotlight. It’s a raw look at her life and career and well worth the time spent.
Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying
Director: Parker Seaman
Cast: Devin Das, Parker Seaman, Wes Schlagenhauf, Aparna Nancherla, D’Arcy Carden, Mark Duplass
Synopsis: An irreverent and eccentric road trip comedy that celebrates DIY filmmaking and bromances, Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying follows two filmmakers who set out to make their masterpiece while on a journey toward an estranged, purportedly languishing friend.
Thoughts: “Meta” doesn’t even begin to describe what’s going on in Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying. Turning not just the COVID-19 movie on its ear but flipping the buddy-road-trip-comedy while they’re at it, Devin Das, Parker Seaman, and Wes Schlagenhauf play fictionalized versions of themselves that aren’t quite what they seem. In the film, as in real life, the trio are commercial directors finalizing their latest project. As the pandemic hits, production has halted, and Wes has returned home while Parker and Devin stay in Los Angeles. Then Wes calls to break the bad news. He’s contracted COVID-19 and is dying…or at least he thinks he is. Instead of feeding into their friend’s obvious hypochondria, they (somewhat insultingly) bypass his feelings and decide to visit him. Ever the filmmakers, and encouraged by Mark Duplass of all people (see, just like I said, meta), they plan to kill two birds with one road trip and film their adventure cross-country to see their friend. What follows is primarily silly stuff involving bro humor and occasional on-the-nose life observance. The apparent genuine chemistry shared by the friends and their understanding of film from a directorial standpoint helps to keep this one from feeling like an inside joke caught on home video and fashioned into a full-length feature.
The Year Between
Director: Alex Heller
Cast: Alex Heller, J. Smith-Cameron, Steve Buscemi, Waltrudis Buck, Wyatt Oleff, Emily Robinson, Kyanna Simone, Rajeev Jacob
Synopsis: Forced to return home from college after her erratic behavior alienates everyone around her, Clemence begrudgingly begins a new chapter in the suburbs, hell-bent on defying her mom, dad, younger siblings, therapist—and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
Thoughts: The Year Between represents a successful film that could quickly have gone in the other direction. That’s because it’s exceedingly hard to get behind a leading role that’s completely insufferable. It takes no small amount of talent to change how an audience sees that character and actively change the narrative. Yet that’s exactly what Alex Heller has done as Clemence in her feature film debut, a semi-autobiographical look at family through a breakdown, the build-up, and all the mess in between. Of course, it helps that Heller writes, directs, and stars in the piece so she has some control over how Clemence comes across, but as the film opens and for much of its run time, she’s making it hard to side with as she acts like a bowling ball knocking down the pins of the lives in anyone she encounters. That includes her parents (the well-cast J. Smith-Cameron, and Steve Buscemi), sister (Emily Robinson), and brother (Wyatt Oleff), who do what they can to ease her transition back from college into finding a stable life. The Year Between is simple but observant, strong-willed but sensitive to those showing up to lend support because that’s all they are equipped to give. I don’t know the extent to which this piece is autobiographical for Heller, but its stark sincerity is a refreshing change of pace to brutal honesty – and yes, there is a difference.
Director: Lee Sunday Evans
Cast: Marsha Stephanie Blake, Michael Braun, Kathleen Chalfant, Hannah Cheek, Michael Chernus, Michael Bryan French, Mick Hilgers, Linda Powell, Kristin Villanueva, BD Wong
Synopsis: After mistakenly registering to vote, a Filipina immigrant faces deportation and permanent separation from her American husband and newborn child. Using actual transcripts from the court hearing, The Courtroom is a dramatic reenactment of one woman’s harrowing experience with the US legal system.
Thoughts: For full disclosure, I started The Courtroom three times before I could truly get into its unique structure. You must be ready to sit down and pay attention to this film because its format and intention are just as important as the message it is trying to send about our country’s broken justice system. To help you out a bit, and what I wish I knew before, is that while The Courtroom is taken exactly from court transcripts from a case that made its way through the legal system (the actors were even required to properly place “uh” and “um” if they appeared), the characters are not always played by actors of the same race, age, or gender as those that initially said it. Aside from Kristin Villanueva as Elizabeth Keathley, a Filipina woman living with her American husband and newborn in the US, faced with deportation for mistakenly registering to vote even though she received mail requesting her to do so, you may have a black woman (Linda Powell) playing a white attorney or another black woman (Marsha Stephanie Blake) playing a white district court judge. This keeps Arian Moayed’s screenplay (originating as a stage play consistently performed across the country) elegant and symbolic of all Americans speaking as one, in a way. Director Lee Sunday Evans maintains a firm grip on the film, even in showing its theatricality by immediately revealing the actors entering the set on a soundstage. Your blood will boil appropriately at one of the best films available at Tribeca this year.