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A Look Back at Tribeca 2022: The Narrative Features

Over the course of its 12-day run from June 8-19, the 2022 edition of New York’s Tribeca Film Festival screened over 110 feature films from 40 different countries, 88 of them world premieres. These are big numbers, to be sure, and that doesn’t include the vast array of short films that were screened, or the retrospective screenings of classic films that included The Godfather,” “Heat,” and Abel Ferrara’s Fun City exploitation classic “Ms .45.” Not counting movies that I had already seen during earlier stops on the festival circuit, such as the lovely Good Luck to You, Leo Grandeand the mostly inexcusable Cha Cha Real Smooth,” I managed to view roughly 50 or so of this year's titles, an array of films from well-known names and newcomers alike covering virtually every imaginable screen genre and perhaps even creating a couple of new ones. Although the lineup may not quite as strong as last year’s—especially regarding the Narrative section, which last year included such knockouts as “The Novice” and “Catch the Fair One”—a good number of the selections still had qualities of note, and some proved to be good enough to make them worth seeking out when they are released. 

"Good Girl Jane"

On the awards side of things, the big winner in the U.S. Narrative Competition was Sarah Elizabeth Mintz’s “Good Girl Jane,” a 2005-set drama about a lonely high school outcast named Jane (Rain Spencer) who falls under the spell of a young man (Patrick Gibson) and quickly falls into his world of sex, drugs and trouble. Although the film (an expansion of Mintz’s short film of the same name) is decently made and contains a good central performance from Spencer, the whole thing may strike viewers as reminiscent of many earlier movies, including “Thirteen” and this year’s controversial Sundance entry “Palm Trees and Power Lines.” Nevertheless, it won the prize for Best U.S. Narrative Film and Spencer received the Best Performance award. 

Best Screenplay went to “Allswell,” a middling drama about a trio of Nuyorican sisters navigating a series of increasingly melodramatic hurdles involving family, motherhood, and careers. The Cinematography award went to Azuli Anderson for “Next Exit,” a futuristic road movie in which life after death has been conclusively proven to exist and two people travel cross-country to end their lives after learning this. A Special Jury Prize was also presented to newcomer actress Liz Carbel Sierra for her electrifying work in “God’s Time,” Daniel Artebi’s darkly comic tale of two friends in addiction recovery who try to prevent the fellow former addict they both are in love with from murdering her ex-boyfriend.

The prize for Best International Narrative feature went to “January,” Viesturs Kairišs’ striking coming-of-age saga set amidst the backdrop of Latvia’s struggle for independence in the early '90s and focusing on a young film school student navigating everything from first love to political upheaval. The Screenplay award went to Martín Boulocq and Rodrigo Hasbun for The Visitor,” a familiar but effective drama about an ex-convict who returns home after serving time in order to reconnect with his young daughter, only to face opposition from his in-laws, who are high-ranking members of the local Evangelical community. Dorota Pomykala won the prize for Best Performance for her performance in “Woman on a Roof” and Jan Mayntz won the Cinematography award for his work on the offbeat “We Might As Well Be Dead.” 

Like a lot of film festivals, Tribeca is in many ways a celebrity-driven affair (it did, after all, kick off with a splashy premiere of the mediocre Jennifer Lopez documentary Halftime,” with Lopez in attendance). Likewise, the presence of such familiar faces as Matt Dillon, Isabella Rossellini, and Anna Gunn no doubt lured some curious viewers into checking out Shoja Azari and Shirin Neshat’s “Land of Dreams.” The near-future-set political satire/drama, about an Iranian-American census department employee who grills citizens about their dreams as part of some mysterious government project, is a listless and largely incomprehensible mess that feels more like Wim Wenders’ last few narrative features rolled into one and without a killer soundtrack to help it seem more palatable.

"Official Competition"

On the other hand, one of the more notable star-driven projects, Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat’s “Official Competition,” proved to be one of the festival’s most unquestioned delights. In this deft satire, a wealthy businessman decides to finance a film in the hopes of bolstering his legacy and hires an acclaimed art-house filmmaker (Penelope Cruz) to adapt a Nobel Prize-winning novel about the fraught relationship between two brothers. The director hits upon the idea of hiring two wildly different actors—one a worldwide movie star (Antonio Banderas), the other an extremely self-serious Method type (Oscar Martínez)—in the hopes that their disparate attitudes towards acting will help inform their performances. A chaotic game of one-upmanship then develops between all three during the bizarre rehearsal period. Sure, pretentious actors and weirdo filmmakers are relatively easy targets but this film manages to score a lot of big laughs along the way, thanks in large part to the performances from the three leads—this is one of Cruz’s best performances (certainly her funniest), and Banderas is hilarious as he deftly mocks his own star persona.

That said, there were a lot of new faces in this year’s lineup on both sides of the camera and their efforts were often ambitious, if not always successful. “88,” a conspiracy thriller from writer/director Eromose, starts off on an intriguing note as the financial consultant to a political super PAC discovers some strange anomalies related to donations, but eventually the film devolves into a confusing and confused mess. That was still preferable to the inexplicable, irritating mess that was “Wes Schlagenhauf is Dying,” a deeply annoying and unfunny comedy in which a pair of hapless filmmakers (Devin Das and Parker Seaman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Seaman also directing) learn that a friend they haven’t seen in years is dying of COVID and decide that making a film chronicling their journey to his presumed deathbed will be just the thing to jump-start their careers. Stupid and mean-spirited in equal measure, this was arguably the worst thing I saw at this year’s festival. Even at a relatively brief 78 minutes, it feels endless.

“Three Headed Beast,” the debut feature from the duo of Fernando Andres and Tyler Rugh, is an ambitious drama that explores the ostensibly strong bond between a bisexual couple (Jacob Schatz and Dani Hurtado) and how it's affected by the presence of a third party (Cody Shook). The film is, with the exception of a key segment in the middle, told entirely without the use of dialogue, a stylistic gambit that may take some getting used to but proves to be fairly effective. The only problem is that when it switches to conventional dialogue for about 15 minutes, the characters and the film become far less interesting and when it shifts back into silent mode, it's hard to recapture the mood of those early scenes. Although the film is not entirely successful in the end, it's an undeniably unique work that makes me curious to see what the filmmakers will do next.

I also liked “My Love Affair with Marriage,” a largely handmade, adult-oriented animated feature from Signe Baumane. The film follows a girl named Zelma over the course 23 years as she seeks out the kind of perfect love that she has been biologically driven to find since childhood, and discovers that real life has something different in store for her. Funny, moving, and visually stunning throughout, it's easily one of the most distinct animated films I've seen in quite a while and it serves as a needed reminder that animation is an art form that can be used for more than family-oriented narratives. 

"Cherry"

Another exciting discovery was “Cherry,” Sophie Galibert’s charmer about an aimless 25-year-old woman (Alexandria Trewhitt in a wonderful performance) who discovers in the opening moments that she is 11 weeks pregnant and has only a little more than a day to decide what she is going to do. As she visits a number of people in her life to feel out their opinions, without letting on as to what is happening with her (except for when she reveals the pregnancy to the father-to-be in a scene that goes hilariously awry), we also see someone who we first saw as little more than an overgrown kid finally begin to grow up in front of our eyes in ways that are both dramatically convincing and enormously entertaining.

Those looking for blood, guts and/or horror also had plenty to choose from as well. The Austrian entry “Family Dinner” finds overweight 15-year-old Simi (Nina Katlein) off to spend Easter week with her famous nutritionist aunt Claudia (Pia Hierzegger) at the remote farm she shares with her overly friendly fitness freak boyfriend (Michael Pink) and her annoying teen son Filipp (Alexander Sladek). Although initially irritated by her presence, Claudia takes Simi under her wing and has her participate in a pre-Easter fast from which only Filipp is exempt. Although I liked the performances from Katlein and Hierzegger, the film suffers from the fact that it's pretty obvious where writer/director Peter Hengel is heading with the story. When "Family Dinner" finally arrives at its conclusion, the reaction is not so much shock as a general sense of “It’s about time.”

Far more interesting are Alex Thompson’s “Rounding” and Travis Stevens’ “A Wounded Fawn,” two films from up-and-coming directors (Thompson did the lovely and quite different “Saint Frances” and Stevens directed the horror favorites “Girl on the Third Floor” and “Jakob’s Wife”) that prove that they are indeed the real deal. “Rounding” tells the story of James (Namir Smallwood), an ambitious medical resident who, following a tragedy, transfers to a rural hospital in the hopes of getting a fresh start and developing the kind of proper bedside manner he currently lacks. When a young woman (Sidney Flanigan) is repeatedly admitted for seemingly inexplicable lung issues, James becomes convinced that something else is going on and is determined to prove that his suspicions are not just in his head. Although I could have lived without the stuff involving a gradually worsening ankle wound as a physical symbol of James’ inner torment, this is a smartly written and strongly acted story that will keep you in its grip from start to finish.

The far more visceral “A Wounded Fawn” is an oddball horror-comedy hybrid that at times feels like what “The Evil Dead” might have been like if “American Psycho” central character Patrick Bateman had been the one in the cabin instead of the amiable Ash. Josh Ruben stars as Bruce, a seemingly suave art collector who also happens to be a serial killer driven by an inner demon that manifests itself as a giant owl. After an opening sequence in which he slaughters a woman who had the temerity to outbid him for a particular piece, we then seen him heading up to his remote cabin in the woods with his unsuspecting latest victim, Meredith (Sarah Lind). They have hardly arrived when odd things begin to happen, and this is when the film springs a number of surprises I will leave for you to discover. While I was somewhat mixed on Stevens' previous movies, this one is an unqualified success. "A Wounded Fawn" is funny, audacious, and grisly—often at the same time—and culminates in what I assure you is the single most memorable closing credits sequence to come along in a while.

"The Integrity of Joseph Chambers"

However, of all the narrative films that I saw, my favorite was “The Integrity of Joseph Chambers,” the latest collaboration from writer/director Robert Machoian and actor Clayne Crawford. Their previous effort, “The Killing of Two Lovers,” was a bleak but memorable drama of an ordinary guy whose determination to live up to an outdated code of masculinity leads to potentially disastrous consequences. This new film is an expansion on that theme, in which unassuming family man Joseph (Crawford) is determined that the only way to prove himself as a husband, father, and provider is to go out into the nearby woods alone in the hopes of hunting a deer despite having never done so before. Perhaps not surprisingly, things go very wrong, and Joseph is left to deal with the physical, emotional, and ethical consequences of a situation that is entirely of his own doing. Utilizing a spare storytelling approach augmented by intriguing stylistic devices and bolstered by a strong performance by Crawford, the film is a quietly powerful indictment of how even the most benign forms of toxic masculinity can lead to awful results for all involved. As good as “The Killing of Two Lovers” was, this film is even better. It will leave viewers shaken, moved, and eager to see what Machoian and Crawford come up with next. 

Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a contributor to eFilmcritic.com and Magill's Cinema Annual and can be heard weekly on the nationally syndicated "Mancow's Morning Madhouse" radio show.

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