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A Look Back at Tribeca 2021: The Narrative Features

(L-R) "The Novice," "Clean," "Catch the Fair One," "Queen of Glory"

After having to take a year off, much like the rest of us, New York’s Tribeca Film Festival has just wrapped up its long-awaited return. This year’s festival presented more than 120 feature films over the course of 12 days, covering everything from big-ticket items like the Opening Night presentation of “In the Heights” to a number of intriguing debut films and spanning practically every possible genre—possibly even inventing a couple of new ones along the way. Including a couple of titles that I happened to catch at earlier festivals this year, I saw approximately half of this year’s offerings and over the course of these two dispatches, I have attempted to touch base with pretty much everything that I saw—the good, the bad and the weird. Rather than try to whip it all into one enormously unwieldy article, I've split it into two separate dispatches, one focusing on the narrative features, and the other on the equally expansive selection of documentaries. I may not have cared for everything, but even a number of the lesser works often had elements of interest to them that might inspire some of you to keep an eye out for them.

By the way, if you are wondering why this dispatches does not include thoughts on “No Sudden Move,” the latest from Steven Soderbergh, or the untitled Dave Chappelle documentary that served as the Closing Night presentation, it’s because those films that were not made available for members of the press who were covering the hybrid festival online. They were only screened theatrically, a detail that was not exactly communicated to those press members until the last second.

"The Novice"

In terms of festival prizes, the big winner this year in the U.S. Narrative section was “The Novice,” which received the Founders Award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature, the Best Actress award for lead Isabelle Fuhrman, and the Best Cinematography prize for Todd Martin. The debut feature from writer/director Lauren Hadaway focuses on an intense college freshman (Furman) who joins her university’s rowing team and goes to increasingly obsessive lengths to push herself to be the best of the group in a sport in which working as a team generally takes precedence over individual achievement. The basic premise may be somewhat suggestive of “Whiplash”—it is cited in the festival’s program listing and Hadaway herself worked on that film in the sound department—but if I had to pick between the two, I would go for this one because the drama is less contrived here, and because of the very impressive performance by Fuhrman, whose work is both touching and terrifying in equal measure. Other winners in the Narrative Feature section included Matthew Leone, who won the Best Actor prize for his performance in Tyler Riggs“God’s Waiting Room” and Hannah Marks, who received the Best Screenplay award for her film “Mark, Mary, and Some Other People,” an occasionally insightful but too often uneven comedy-drama about a recently married hipster couple who decide to flirt with the notion of an open marriage with predictably disastrous results.

The top prize-winner in the International Narrative Feature section was “Brighton 4th,” which received the awards for Best International Narrative Feature, Best Screenplay for writer/director Boris Frumin and Best Actor to former Olympic wrestler Levan Tediashvili. This film also has a fairly standard narrative at its center: a one-time Georgian wrestling champion (Tediashvili) journeys to Brooklyn to visit his medical student son, only to get involved in the lives of the fellow Georgians that he stays with at a local boarding house and his son, a compulsive gambler who now owes a lot of money to the wrong people. There’s little to it that you won’t be able to see coming from a mile away. I still enjoyed it, both for the moments of deadpan humor that come out of nowhere and for the magnificent presence of Tediashvili, who may not necessarily be a trained actor by any means but who embodies the role in a way that most actors could only dream of doing. The Best Actress prize was given jointly to Bassant Ahmed and Basmala Elghaiesh for their performances as sisters in Ayten Amin’s “Souad.”

"7 Days"

Last year’s festival was, like so many other things in the world, sidelined by COVID-19 and so it was perhaps inevitable that a number of films in this year’s lineup would be set against that quarantine period. “As of Yet” earned co-writer/directors Chanel James & Taylor Garron the Nora Ephron Award for their comedic tale of a young woman (Garron) who is trying to deal with increasingly troublesome issues regarding her absent roommate (who is off partying in Florida) and considering whether to take the next step with an ongoing online flirtation while stuck at home during the early months of the pandemic. Told entirely through video calls and digital blog entries, the film is uneven and sometime a bit tedious, but it does contain a few big laughs here and there (especially during the finale) and the winning performance from Garron. “7 Days,” from director/co-writer Roshan Sethi, also starts out on a rough note with its tale of two Indian-Americans—the conservative Ravi (Karan Soni) and the more progressive Rita (Geraldine Viswanathan)—whose first date, arranged by their matrimony-minded parents, ends up going on much longer than anticipated when the shelter-in-place mandate goes into effect. However, at about the halfway point, the film smartly moves away from the mismatched-couple-coming-together arc to something more serious-minded and ultimately more rewarding. In addition, the film also serves as further proof—not that any is really needed at this point in time—as to the eternal awesomeness of Viswanathan, who is clearly one of the brightest rising stars of the moment. 

Speaking of stars, a number of them—including Griffin Dunne, Arliss Howard, Chris Cooper, Sanaa Lathan and others—were given equipment and asked to make short films about the COVID experience while under quarantine. And while the two programs of resulting shorts, presented under the “With/In” banner include plenty of familiar faces (including Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, Debra Winger and Emily Mortimer), the results are fairly tedious and will make you wish the producers had instead given the commissions to up-and-coming filmmakers who could have used the break and exposure. That said, I did sort of enjoy the one written and directed by Rosie Perez in which she and friend Justine Machado try to cope with pandemic stress and relationship problems by any means necessary over a series of FaceTime chats.

"Clean"

Of course, Tribeca has always been driven at least in part by celebrities, and while that can usually mean plenty of well-known faces hitting the red carpet, it can also mean a number of clunkers that were presumably included largely for their name value. One of the dumbest this year was “Clean,” a violent melodrama starring Adrien Brody as a mysterious man who works as a trash collector and spends his free time trying to single-handedly clean up his run-down neighborhood. Not surprisingly, his character has a tragic and violent past that he’s been trying to atone for, and when his rescue of a local girl from a bad situation puts him in the cross hairs of a local crime boss (Glenn Fleshler), it sends him on the rampage of gory revenge that he has clearly been jonesing over for some time. Essentially the stupid version of “You Were Never Really Here,” the whole film is nothing more than hyper violent horseshit. The only thing more embarrassing than Brody’s pseudo-soulful performance is his evident commitment to the flimsy material—he also co-produced the film, co-wrote the screenplay and even composed the score.

Although Jim Cummings may not be that well-known of a personality to the masses, his previous efforts, “Thunder Road” and “The Wolf of Snow Hollow,” have made him a name to reckon with in indie circles and led to heavy anticipation for his latest, “The Beta Test.” Cummings co-wrote and co-directed with PJ McCabe, and stars as a hotshot Hollywood agent who struggles to adapt to a new social environment. His brash pseudo-“Entourage” style no longer plays like it once did, and is exacerbated when, on the eve of his wedding, he accepts a mysterious invitation for an anonymous sexual encounter in a hotel room, which proves to be so mind-blowing that he’s increasingly driven to distraction as he tries to get to the bottom of who sent the invite and why. The end result plays like what “Eyes Wide Shut” might have been like with Jim Carrey, at his most manic, navigating the erotic underworld instead of Tom Cruise. There are some funny moments here and there, but this is Cummings’s third time around playing a character struggling to deal with his outmoded masculinity in a rapidly changing world. He hasn’t brought anything new to the table this time around.

Perhaps the most disappointing film at this year’s festival, both in terms of the talent involved and its squandered premise, is the fairly ghastly-in-the-wrong-way False Positive.” Set to be released on Hulu on Friday, the film stars Ilana Glazer as a woman whose struggles to conceive a baby with her husband (Justin Theroux) seem to have finally ended when she becomes the patient of his former mentor (Pierce Brosnan), a self-satisfied fertility specialist with a revolutionary new process that gets her pregnant in no time. Before long, though, she becomes convinced that something is deeply amiss, but has her fears casually dismissed by everyone as just a case of “mommy brain.” Director John Lee (who co-wrote the script with Glazer) is clearly going for a contemporary riff on “Rosemary’s Baby” with a hint of “Dead Ringers” thrown in for good measure. But the movie bungles ample opportunities to mine the material for horror and social satire, and drags at an unforgivably slow pace with a story that goes absolutely nowhere. All before arriving at a Grand Guignol-style climax, which is then topped by an undeniably arresting final image that’s simply not worthy of the film preceding it. 

"Creation Stories"

This year’s festival kicked off with a screening of the joyous “In the Heights,” and a number of additional films used music as their inspiration as well. Nick Moran’s “Creation Stories” is an adaptation of the biography of Alan McGee, the music producer and record label co-founder whose discoveries included Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine, and Oasis, and charts his wild, drug-fueled career in flashy detail. With a screenplay by Irvine Walsh, Danny Boyle serving as executive producer and Ewen Bremmer in the role of McGee, the film is clearly aiming for a “Trainspotting” vibe. But it ends up shooting itself in the foot with an absurdly ineffective framing device, in which McGee recounts his story to an eager interviewer (Suki Waterhouse) that may be the least effective deployment of that particular gimmick I have ever seen, worse than “Chaplin.” Then there’s Jamie Adams’ “Love Spreads,” which chronicles an all-girl band struggling to record its all-important second album as the manipulative lead singer/songwriter (Alia Shawkat) spends more time talking about her “process” than in actually doing anything (or letting any of the other members do anything either). The film may seem at first like a less strident version of “Her Smell” but takes an unexpected and ultimately winning detour when a new guitarist (Eiza Gonzalez) is flown in and her relentlessly positive and upbeat manner has a surprisingly positive effect. Much darker in tone is “Poser,” the debut feature from Noah Dixon and Ori Segev, in which a young woman named Lennon (Sylvie Mix in a knockout debut performance) yearns to be a part of the Columbus, Ohio music scene. She decides to form a podcast that she hopes will put her in contact with the community and help find her own identity as an artist—she manages the first part when she is befriended by a member of a popular indie pop duo (real-life musician Bobbi Kitten), but the second proves to be far more complicated. I can’t say that this film is entirely successful at what it’s trying to convey but it’s undeniably ambitious. I have a feeling this may be one of those films that plays better on a second viewing. 

A number of this year’s entries played around with familiar genre film tropes with results ranging from the fascinating to the vaguely irritating. One of the more eagerly anticipated titles along these lines was Werewolves Within,” an adaptation of the popular VR game in which a cheerful forest ranger (Sam Richardson) arrives at his new post in an oddball small town, where he will stay for the duration of a pipeline construction project. He soon discovers that a werewolf may be living in the area and decimating the population. When he and a group of locals are trapped together during a storm, he has to figure out which one of them is the creature as they are being picked off one by one. The film has some funny moments and a game cast (including Milana Vayntrub, Harvey Guilen and Michaela Watkins) but the combination of horror, comedy and whodunnit ultimately proves to be a little too much to bear. The whole of “Werewolves Within” eventually grows kind of tiresome, though things do pick up a bit during its final moments.

Samantha Aldana’s “Shapeless,” on the other hand, has a good and potentially interesting idea at its core but ultimately lives up to its name and then some. It’s a messy and fairly uninvolving combination of psychological drama and body horror, in which a New Orleans-based jazz singer (Kelly Murtagh, who co-wrote the screenplay) finds herself struggling with career issues and a secret eating disorder that has taken on Cronenbergian proportions. Another intriguing idea is found in “See For Me.” It’s a tech-savvy take on “Wait Until Dark,” in which a blind house sitter (Skyler Davenport) is alone in a remote mansion during a home invasion and, via a phone app, is guided through danger by an army veteran (Jessica Parker Kennedy) who finds herself in the middle of a real-life version of one of her beloved first-person video games. The film ultimately fails to make much of it as anything other than a gimmick, though the performance from Davenport as the morally ambiguous heroine helps keep things interesting for a while. Clearly aiming to hit the same sweet spot that Jordan Peele did with “Get Out” and “Us,” Delmar Washington’s “No Running” blends the everyday struggles of being a young black man with a “Twilight Zone”-style take about a high school student (Skylan Brooks) who has recently moved to a new town where he is one of the only black people. He’s then suspected in the disappearance of a classmate, and his attempts to prove his innocence land him in the middle of a seemingly vast and potentially otherworldly conspiracy. While the early scenes have a recognizable power to them, things get progressively sillier as the conspiracy deepens. The ending, while ambitious, is kind of a mess.

"Ultrasound"

“Ultrasound” is also ambitious and kind of a mess, but it’s the kind of mess that keeps you hooked, if only to see how writer Conor Stechschulte (adapting from his own graphic novel) and director Rob Schroeder plan to try to explain their mind-boggling set-up. The opening scene—in which a man (Vincent Kartheiser) has car trouble and seeks shelter late one night from the oddly friendly Arthur (Bob Stephenson) and his much younger wife (Chelsea Lopez)—suggests a bizarre combination of the opening of “The Human Centipede” and a letter to Penthouse. But that would almost be staid compared to what happens next, especially when the scene shifts to a strange research facility where a scientist (Breeda Wool) begins to have deep misgivings about her current project. Once upon a time, a mind-bender like this would have been a hit on the midnight movie circuit, but no matter what time you watch it, this is still an enormously inventive work. While I doubt very much that I could explain any of it, it will no doubt stick with me for far longer than more conventionally coherent films.

In the end, “Ultrasound” would prove to be one of my favorite films from the narrative lineup and there were a few others that I recommend that you seek out as well. From a technological perspective, few films on display were as wildly ambitious as “Roaring 20’s,” a French import from Elisabeth Vogler that follows a group of 24 actors as they wander around the same neighborhood and interact with each other in what appears to be a single unbroken 85-minute take. The effect is like a live-action version of “Waking Life,” and while not all of the individual vignettes are gold, most of them do work to such a degree that you almost forget the technical miracle being pulled off before your eyes. (Well, someone clearly noticed; Vogler received the Cinematography prize in the International competition.) Wandering about also plays a part in “Italian Studies,” Adam Leon’s story of a New York-based author (Vanessa Kirby) who seems to have lost her memory and wanders the streets of Manhattan almost as if she were an alien trying to understand our world. (Some have made comparisons between this film and “Under the Skin,” and while it doesn’t go quite that far, there are some thematic similarities.) The ending doesn’t quite work—to be fair, this is the kind of film where virtually any conclusion is going to come across as at least slightly anticlimactic—but it does hold one’s attention, thanks largely in part to yet another strong performance from Kirby. Kirby is quickly becoming one of the more interesting actresses out there, and one willing to plunge headfirst into the most challenging roles.

"Catch the Fair One"

On the surface, “Catch the Fair One” may seem like a standard-issue revenge thriller, a blood-soaked tale in which a young woman is snatched by human traffickers and a relative goes out in pursuit of her, laying waste to anyone who gets in the way. The twist this time around is that the violent hero is a Native American woman and former boxer who intentionally gets involved in the same trafficking operation that took her sister in the hopes of tracking her down. Although executive producer Darren Aronofsky is the big name in the credits, director Josef Wladyjka handles the potentially problematic material in a straightforward manner that’s brutally effective without tripping into pure exploitation. In this, he is aided immensely by the incredibly forceful and striking turn from real-life boxing champion Kali Reis in the central role—she can clearly handle herself in the action-oriented scenes but proves to be just as fascinating to watch during the more character-driven moments as well. 

Almost as brutal, at least from an emotional standpoint, is “All My Friends Hate Me,” an English black comedy that turns what might have once served as the inspiration for one of those twee Richard Curtis comedies into something dark, sinister, and very funny. The amiable neurotic Pete (Tom Stourton) sets off to spend his birthday weekend at a lavish country estate with a group of old friends he hasn’t seen since college, where he was (or at least fancied himself as) the crazy-go-nuts cut-up of the group. Now serious-minded and dedicated to charity work, he’s slightly apprehensive about seeing the old gang again. Those apprehensions quickly blossom into full-blown neuroses when he no longer finds himself fitting in with the others, to the point where he is convinced that ... well, you saw the title. To make matters worse, they’ve picked up a local lush who seems hellbent on taking Pete’s place as the group wag. Trust me, if you’ve ever awkwardly sat through a reunion with old friends after a long time and wondered what you could have possibly had in common with them in the first place, you will recognize the hilariously discomfiting vibe of the screenplay by Tom Palmer and Stourton that director Andrew Gaynord executes with deadly precision.

In terms of sheer likability, though, it’s hard to beat “Queen of Glory,” the debut feature from writer/director Nana Mensah, who received the much-deserved prize for Best New Narrative Director for her work here. Mensah also stars as Sarah, a Ghanaian-American scientist who is about to leave New York City to follow her married lover to Ohio. Just before that happens, her mother dies and leaves her the small Christian-oriented bookstore that she owned that has become a vital part of its Bronx neighborhood. While trying to deal with overbearing family members during the funeral preparation, especially her estranged father, Sarah intends to quickly sell the store but unexpectedly finds her outlook changing thanks to encounters with her relatives, a family of odd Russian neighbors, and an ex-con (Meeko Gattuso as the store’s only other employee and someone who owes the turnaround in his own life to the faith that Sarah’s mother had in him). The film is slight—barely 80 minutes long—and there’s no real question as to where things are heading, but Mensah’s film (and I mean this in the nicest way possible) is like watching a well-oiled sitcom in which all of the performers are playing off of each other so beautifully they hardly seem to be acting at all. Best of all, “Queen of Glory” reminds us of the importance of community and getting out of one’s comfort zone to experience the world around us—pretty much the perfect message for those making their first tentative steps back into the world after our strange year-long hiatus.

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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