Jono McLeod's “My Old School,” a Premieres documentary about Scotland’s most infamous imposter, tells its juicy tale in a way that steps away from the typical sullen true crime storytelling. In this case, it’s a group of students from the same school, regaling about their enigmatic classmate named Brandon Lee (yes, also the name of the star from “The Crow”). In lighthearted talking-head interviews, they recall different episodes with this student who kind of showed up out of nowhere, was incredibly smart, and also looked much older than his peers. There are a lot of wild stories about and around Brandon, and that’s before the overall reveal that he was only pretending to be 16.
McLeod recreates this experience like an inside joke, one that doesn’t translate until one knows why these high school stories are particularly significant on a national and psychological scale. For the first act, even though it has smiley and welcoming faces with old buddies sharing the camera and debating about high school memories, it doesn't draw us in. These interviews are contrasted with Alan Cumming doing a lip-sync to the words stated by Brandon himself, who did not want to be on camera. Using Cumming like this turns out to be one of the documentary’s more quirky but hollow approaches.
The visual approach to the story is a bit overzealous, though. A lot of documentaries use animation to fill in the visual gap for storytelling, and yet animation here just adds to the more schmaltzy, cutesy nature this story has for looking back at one’s youth. It's also strange, almost counterproductive to have the interviews then spliced with animation segments that reenact what was said, or have a voice from each form overlapping (McLeod uses a separate voice cast). It’s meant to keep the affair light and fun, to turn their years into an MTV-ready animation show like "Daria," but instead it's distracting.
McLeod has a deeper sentimentality for this story that comes through in the second half of the documentary, when it’s more about getting into why Brandon Lee did what he did, and his former classmates facing it. In these passages, “My Old School” allows for some of Brandon's real flaws to come through without the film trying to push them one way or another. It helps get the story of Brandon across, but the overwrought nostalgia of “My Old School” doesn’t make the overall presentation more interesting.
Director Rachel Lears last went to Sundance with “Knock Down the House,” about four candidates who ran historic elections, including that of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her latest film “To the End” is like a sequel, giving us some insight into the new representative’s time in office: the video calls that she rolls her eyes at, the realizations she’s had about Washington, D.C., and more. But the focus here is more about the Green New Deal, a vital change to infrastructure in America that could help fight against global warming and save American economy as the clock ticks. “To the End” shows the momentum of Ocasio-Cortez’s youthful spirit, this time spread out in groups that are creating awareness, marching across the country, and not usually given the amount of on-camera love that Lears provides here.
“To the End” is more all-hands-on-deck than “Knock Down the House,” and it wants to offer less of a cohesive narrative as it follows these different leading activists, like Rhiana Gunn-Wright, Alexandra Rojas of Justice Democrats, and Varshini Prakash of Sunrise Movement. Lears’ film gives them exposure that the media did not, like when Green New Deal activists blocked all the entrances to the White House, hoping to get Joe Biden’s attention. She has great access, and it’s more about the broader sense of the fight, and of showing what attitude, determination, and courage fuels them. It’s inspiring to see, and "To the End" is set to ignite more Americans to take action. One setback is that it doesn’t feel to offer too clear a sense of what’s in the Green New Deal; instead it's about what a positive future these leaders could bring, especially if Congress gets their act together, and gets behind them.
Isabel Castro's documentary “Mija” tells the story of two Mexican-American young women who have the opportunity to dream, something that their parents do not have. Doris Muñoz is in the middle of working in the music industry, working as a manager for a popular pop star named Cuco. She can help her family with that money, and that adds to the pressure from how she’s the only one in her family with papers (they have been waiting for green cards for years). Her brother Jose was deported, and so we follow Doris as she brings Thanksgiving to him. Doris says she feels "survivor's guilt."
Covid strikes early into the timeline of “Mija,” and another major shift happens when Doris and Cuco part ways. The pressure on Doris becomes even more evident by what she now can’t provide. But as she hustles to find someone new to manage she comes across Jacks Haupt, a rising singer from Dallas with a similar background, who also has parents that she loves but also that need her support. Castro’s camera, sometimes dreamy, sometimes raw, films Jacks as she works on new material in Los Angeles, taking a chance on her passion.
“Mija” might be in the festival's NEXT category, which usually favors something more experimental or overtly stylized, but it could have fit well into the ruminative US Documentary category this year. The film doesn’t challenge form too much, aside from pull off a certain narrative ease—there are a few moments in which the camera coverage and editing could have you think that sequences were scripted, or that Castro knew certain conversations were going to happen in advance. But the deepest beauty of this movie is in its developing family story, in the grounded, hard-earned victories against a harrowing immigration system.
Ondi Timoner's “Last Flight Home,” screened as part of the festival’s non-competition Premieres category, is an example of how lucky we can be when a celebrated documentarian makes a home movie. Ondi Timoner sets up cameras at her parents' home and films the emotional journey of her family coming to terms with her ailing father Eli's wish to terminate his own life, which in the state of California is possible with a lot of evaluations and paperwork. Eli is tended to by his wife, children, grandchildren, and many more. With a few words but just as many lovely sentiments about seeing them again, Eli says goodbye to other loved ones, one video call after another.
While the documentary is about the 15 emotional days leading up to his death, "Last Flight Home" also looks to the past, to celebrate Eli Timoner as a progressive and a father and husband who founded the successful regional airline Air Florida. He had a stroke in the early 1980s, leading to discrimination at the workplace that caused him to leave, which ingrained a shame that he carried to his death bed in his living room. Among the events of catharsis that naturally unfold for everyone in the room, tears chief among them, Eli poignantly faces these regrets with the help of his Rabbi daughter, Rachel.
The modern events in "Last Flight Home" make the experience of dying as plain as a Sunday morning; as we can see she did with her family, Timoner makes us face it. She puts you in the room with it, you watch her and her siblings calculate the medicine that will end Eli's life. It's a family affair, built from their power, but relatable however incredibly sad. “Last Flight Home” is a loving tribute and immersive documentation of these last days, from the Timoner family to yours.