May 7, 2018

Film & Television

Tribeca Film Festival: highlights

By Shane Danielsen


Films made by and focusing on women stand out in 2018

Established in the wake of 9/11, and intended to help reinvigorate Manhattan’s downtown after the terrorist attacks, the Tribeca Film Festival has long searched for a workable identity. (Or, some less forgiving souls would say, a reason to exist, located as it is in a city not exactly short of similar events.) While in New York last week, I was surprised to find that it was on, so scarcely does it register outside its hometown, and so made time to catch a few sessions. I’m very glad, now, that I did.

After directing two well-regarded shorts, Scottish actress Karen Gillan (best known as Doctor Who’s Amy Pond, but more recently seen as Nebula in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies) world-premiered her feature debut, a black comedy titled The Party’s Just Beginning. Set in her native Inverness, she plays Liusaidh, who, reeling after the suicide of her best friend, lurches into a succession of drunken, self-abnegating one-night stands, somewhat in the manner of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s superb TV series Fleabag. And as with that show, the underlying question here is an existential one: not how should I live, but why?

As an actress, Gillan can be frustrating. She speaks in a rapid monotone, like a highlands Aubrey Plaza, racing through and sometimes underselling her best lines. But her affect works to this story’s advantage, communicating the locked-down, resentful nature of a badly wounded soul. The script (which she wrote) occasionally over-reaches: there seems too much going on, too many targets being aimed at. (One whole story strand, involving her character’s parents, is never successfully integrated; another, involving a relationship with a man in similar distress, fizzles out to nothing.) Yet just when you feel your patience faltering, she snaps it back with something visually arresting or emotionally harrowing, or both; the scene that marks her character’s nadir is simultaneously dreamlike and horrifying. She’s a raw talent, but a talent nonetheless.

Leave it to the Canadians, meanwhile, to make a charming sex-comedy. Despite an almost comically terrible English-language title (why not stick with the French original: Charlotte a du fun?), Sophie Lorain’s Slut in a Good Way proved both funny and beguiling, and attested yet again to the vitality of the Québécois industry. Heartbroken by her boyfriend’s admission that he’s gay, the eponymous Charlotte and her girlfriends Mégane and Aube stumble drunkenly one afternoon into their local Toy Depot, and discover that it’s a veritable cornucopia of hot, young, seemingly available guys. They quickly land jobs (it’s the holiday season), and Charlotte, by no means shy about her enjoyment of sex, begins working her way through her co-workers, bedding one and then another … and belatedly dealing with the consequences.

Shot in luminous monochrome, and bolstered by some terrific performances (in particular from Romane Denis as Mégane, a sloganeering feminist with a delighted, unashamedly carnal grin), the film proved refreshingly free of a tone common to many recent studies of female sexuality. Call it Judd Apatow-ism: a heroine’s third-act realisation that the life she’s living is selfish and mistaken, and only a swift detour into monogamy, matrimony and motherhood can make matters right. (This stern insistence on heteronormative domesticity made Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck – which Apatow directed and produced – so infuriating to sit through, and it recurs with depressing consistency across the rest of the filmmaker’s output, from The 40-Year-Old Virgin to Knocked Up.)

Charlotte acts impulsively, and often against her own best interests, but the film – written, directed and produced by women – never for a moment descends into tut-tutting moralism. She’s not scolded for wanting to live as she wants, since the various men she encounters make the prospect of a relationship seem more like a compromise than an achievement. (In this sense, it resembles Claire Denis’ excellent 2017 comedy Let the Sunshine In.) Nevertheless, in the end all three friends find love, each on their own, very different terms. No one is punished; none is condemned. The film even ends, charmingly, with a dance number. Turns out you can have your cake and fuck it too.

Richer and altogether more mysterious was a US indie, Jeremiah Zagar’s We the Animals, cleverly adapted from Justin Torres’ acclaimed novel of the same name. Hailed as this year’s Moonlight, it’s not quite at the level of that masterpiece, but it’s an accomplished example of lyrical realism. In sketching the lives of three brothers, half-feral and intensely, viscerally physical, it even follows a similar trajectory, as the youngest, Jonah, comes to understand both his artistic inclinations and his nascent homosexuality.

There are traces of Terrence Malick in the film’s DNA: impressionistic montages of fleeting moments, a slight over-reliance on magic-hour lighting. And some of its more outré devices don’t work: its detours into crudely animated sequences, for example – supposedly replicating its young protagonist’s sketches (and, by extension, his interior life) – feel clumsy and distracting. But there are wonders, too. Since events are depicted strictly from the kids’ point of view, we share their enthrallment with the fragments of the adult world we glimpse – as when the three boys stand in a doorway, watching in rapt fascination as their parents slow dance in the living room, oblivious to their presence.

Finally there was Diane, the fiction feature debut of critic and New York Film Festival director Kent Jones. (By way of disclosure: I’ve known Jones for over a decade; we’re friendly, but not close.) Long associated with Martin Scorsese – who executive-produced this film – he’s made a number of strong, cinephilic documentaries, notably 2015’s Hitchcock/Truffaut. I don’t know what I was expecting from him as a storyteller, but a low-key meditation on family and mortality set in rural Massachusetts sure as hell wasn’t it.

The titular Diane (Mary Kay Place) is a widow whose life consists mostly of service, pulling shifts in soup kitchens and visiting ailing friends. Her son Brian is addicted to opioids. Her beloved cousin Donna – whose partner Diane ran off with, years earlier – is dying of cancer. Tormented by her helplessness, unable either to save her boy or to make amends for her betrayal, Diane takes solace in her extended family, in raucous, affectionate get-togethers at one or another’s home, in someone’s kitchen. But then Donna dies, and at once the invisible cord binding Diane’s relations seems to snap. Suddenly those beloved aunts and uncles begin to vanish, like snow melting in springtime, and we skip forward a few years to find Diane alone, with the end of her own life coming into view.

If this sounds sombre, let me assure you that it is. But it’s also beautifully told and even profound, moving from tender realism (I was reminded, in the hospital scenes, of Maurice Pialat’s great The Mouth Agape) into something else altogether: a daring vision of cosmic time, the vast, unfathomable cycles of life and death. Its final moments, in particular, are breathtaking, offering an intimation of transcendence that, even in so resolutely humanist a film, can only be construed as a kind of grace.

In a Q&A after the film, Jones said the story sprung from memories of his own family, and the vast array of aunts and uncles and great-aunts that populated his childhood in western Massachusetts. “I was trying,” he said, “to capture the feeling of being there with them, sitting around those kitchen tables, listening to them speak. And then, that moment when they all began disappearing from my life.” With its elegant, unfussy compositions, its quiet insistence on the dignity of apparently unremarkable lives, he fully honours the memory of his dead. The film wound up taking three awards at the festival – for Best Narrative Feature, Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography (for the talented Wyatt Garfield) – and deserved only a better, higher-profile event in which to premiere. Cannes begins next week. Diane should have been there.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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