For filmmakers and press and industry people, the Tribeca Film Festival has become happily user-friendly. A young director with a first feature in competition told me he drank Stoli at parties for 10 nights and never paid for a drink. (Stoli is a TFF sponsor.) Staff and volunteers were always helpful. The biggest plus was that roughly half the movies were available online to those with various types of passes. With over 70 features in the lineup—down from the early years when the total was more than double that—there’s an advantage in being able to look at some of them without leaving one’s nest and heading to Chelsea, which has become the TFF’s hub. The festival still uses its namesake neighborhood for family events, such as the “drive-in.” And it has yet to find a venue suitable for galas. It could be considered a coup for the TFF to have secured The Avengers for its closing night (five days before the movie’s U.S. release), but watching it in the auditorium of the Borough of Manhattan Community College on Chambers Street was less than desirable.
But what about the movies themselves? The festival’s focus is small American indies; small international art films; and a wide range of documentaries, including sports and music movies, most of them already headed for TV. At least 15 movies arrived at Tribeca with theatrical distribution sewn up and either already have opened or will very soon, among them Julie Delpy’s international comedy of manners, 2 Days in New York, starring Chris Rock, hilarious and understated, as a freelance journalist married to Delpy’s hyper-French expat. Also opening soon, Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles transposes the novel's story to contemporary India. Freida Pinto brings a tragic dimension to the Tess character, and Riz Ahmed is a strong foil as the wealthy young man who at first is besotted by her purity but turns increasing sadistic as the imbalance of power in their relationship becomes apparent to them and everyone else. Winterbottom once again displays a knack for depicting obsessive sex and the tangled net of social, political, and gender inequality that determines its sadomasochistic course.
Sex, gender, and class are given a comic spin in Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria (opening May 18). Set in Victorian England, it derives its humor from a treatment for female hysteria which, historically, was less well documented than the standard practices of locking women away in madhouses or removing their uteruses. Hugh Dancy plays a young doctor who becomes the, um, right-hand man of an elderly practitioner who treats middle-class women by massaging their “pelvic region” until they achieve “paroxysms.” The favorite of the clientele, he develops something like carpal tunnel syndrome but is saved by his best friend (Rupert Everett), an electro-mechanical genius, who invents just what the doctor ordered—an electric vibrator. Hysteria would be just a bit of fluff if not for the superb performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal as a feminist social worker. Gyllenhaal’s great gift is to find the seriousness in social satire without undermining the humor. Someone should write contemporary adaptations of every play in the George Bernard Shaw canon specifically for her.
Still, I go to Tribeca hoping to be surprised by an unsung gem. This year, I found one, Andrew Semans’s Nancy, Please, a twisted, mordant comedy about writer’s block spiraling down into complete self-destruction. Oh, the horror, the horror. Paul (Will Rogers) is a Yale Ph.D. candidate who is two years late in delivering his thesis on Dickens’s Little Dorrit. Having moved in with his girlfriend, he discovers that he has left his copy of the novel with what seem to him irreplaceable notes in the room he previously rented from a beautiful townie (Eléonore Hendricks, full of surprises) who, he believes, takes malicious pleasure in inconveniencing him. The quest to retrieve the book becomes a full-blown obsession. Anyone who has ever suffered a creative block of any kind or has lost months desperately searching for a missing fetish object or a missing inherently meaningless object will find both pleasure and terror in this precisely realized movie, and very likely will want to see it again and again, so perfectly does it capture the anxiety, terror, and, if you distance yourself, hilarity in this kind of self-sabotage. I’m getting vertigo just trying not to block while writing about it. The script by Semans and Will Heinrich is hyper-articulate; the lensing with the RED camera is adroit, and the use of point of view in relation to both image and sound is brilliant. Nancy, Please is a much more than promising debut feature.
Still, it’s a delicate movie and thus was overshadowed by two features that were more audacious in their productions and the stories they tell. Shot entirely in Cuba (and in gorgeous Super 16 mm), Lucy Malloy’s debut feature Una Noche depicts the once-brave Communist state crumbling into poverty and despair, a result of economic isolation. The narrative focuses on three teenagers—a twin brother and sister, and the young man with whom the brother is in love. Their vague fantasy of rafting to Miami becomes a forced reality when one of them accidentally kills a tourist. The Cuban government must have viewed the script as a cautionary tale, but it’s the unscripted, documentary-style footage that makes the film an eye-opener. Even more harrowing, Kim Nguyen’s War Witch depicts the horrifying plight of child soldiers. The film is set in an unnamed African country but is actually based on an incident in Burma. Rachel Mwanza is heart-wrenching and very tough as a young girl kidnapped by insurgents and forced to shoot her parents to keep them from suffering a more painful death by machetes.
Among the other notable fiction films were Edwin’s ephemeral Postcards From the Zoo; Stefan Ruzowitzky’s Deadfall, a bleak, snowbound neo-noir; and Macdara Vallely’s Babygirl, a mother-daughter story set in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in the Bronx, wonderfully acted by a mostly nonprofessional cast.
As at Sundance, the documentaries were in general more accomplished than the majority of the fictions. The outstanding doc was Raymond De Felitta’s Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story, an intricate, very personal investigation of racism in Greenwood in the mid-Sixties and today. (It opened before the festival was half over.) Like De Felitta, Arnon Goldfinger in The Flat probes the history of his own family to unravel a complicated dynamic of oppression and denial, this one involving Jews and Nazis before and after World War II. And Chris Kenneally’s brighter Side by Side charts the 30-year rise of digital moviemaking in Hollywood. Replete with A-list directors (Scorsese, Soderbergh, Fincher, Lucas), cinematographers, digital colorists, editors, executives, and archivists, the movie is a lively, useful primer. Among the pronouncements, it was an earnest one from David Lynch that was most relevant to any festival in which Side by Side will play. Lynch opined that just because everyone has pencils and paper, it doesn’t mean that there are more people who can write good stories. Tribeca was the proof of the digital moviemaking parallel implied by Lynch. Even so, there were treasures to be found.