Tribeca 2022 Roundup
Employee of the Month
Velvet Films // Directed by Véronique Jadin // Starring Jasmina Douieb, Laetitia Mampaka, Alex Vizorek, Peter Van Den Begin, Laurence Bibot
Véronique Jadin’s feature film debut Employee of the Month (L'employée du mois) seeks to provide a scathing social commentary on contemporary office culture, misogyny, and, in a morbid way, independence. In an attempt to do so, Jadin employs a darkly comic tone to help tell her story alongside a talented cast including Jasmina Douieb, Laetitia Mampaka, and Peter Van Den Begin, and, for the majority of the movie's snappy runtime (a cool seventy-eight minutes), Jadin (and writing collaborator Nina Vanspranghe) get it right. The opening half of the movie sets up the environment within EcoCleanPro - the fictional company that provides the one location for the movie - and the toe-curling sexism that occurs so casually - Douieb’s beleaguered Ines works five roles for minimal pay whilst her male counterparts do next-to-nothing yet receive generous annual raises. There’s a real earnestness to Ines' attitude towards her role and it’s easy to initially sympathise with her situation. Her latest role is to mentor the company’s new apprentice Melody (Mampaka), one that she takes to with her usual professional manner, however, the unjust nature of her situation is gnawing away at her. It eventually spills over when a freak accident causes the death of a colleague and the movie spirals into a body count from there on. The events and kills that follow range from goofy to blunt, and, after a short while, the thrills wear off as things start to become a bit ludicrous. Thankfully, Jadin course corrects and the third act becomes a slower waiting game as we await the fates of our female leads. Though the situations throughout are heightened, the toxic culture that seethes away beneath the surface is plain to see and is right to be exposed and explored in this way - we know gender inequality is a topic that won’t go away and further highlighting this can only be a positive. Douieb’s fine performance in managing varying emotional states carries the film even when it threatens to derail itself and Employee of the Month delivers enough humour to undercut the more weighty themes without overshadowing them. Whilst not as sharp as it possibly could have been, Employee of the Month is a decent watch if you’re after a dark comedy that just thunders by.
MarVista Entertainment // Directed by Alex Thompson // Starring Namir Smallwood, Sidney Flanigan, Michael Potts, Max Lipchitz, David Cromer, Cheryl Lynn Bruce
In his follow-up to the acclaimed Saint Frances, director Alex Thompson returns with Rounding - a claustrophobic psychological thriller about the failing mental and physical health of an up-and-coming doctor James (Smallwood). Having transferred to a rural, underfunded hospital in Greenville following the devastating loss of one of his patients in his previous and prestigious posting, James becomes enamoured with a new patient, Helen (played by the criminally underutilised Sidney Flanagan), as she battles with recurring asthma. He’s enamoured with the details of her case, the seemingly missed diagnosis, the overbearing noise of her mother requesting a lung transplant - James sees the signs but is powerless to prevent them, and, in becoming so entrenched, fails to care for himself as his mental state spirals out of control. Rounding is a solid if unspectacular thriller (though Thompson certainly wasn’t aiming for spectacle) that creates a gnawing sense of dread and atmosphere that never seems to be allowed to grow and expand beyond its parameters, it’s a very restrained movie across the board. Smallwood’s performance is very decent in leading the movie, and, even when confronted with strange demonic visions, he never derails his performance with theatrics - though these monster moments do seem shoehorned into the movie. Scenes with James being pushed to move on by his peers, whether via the head of Greenville hospital Dr. Harrison (Potts), his colleagues, or via confidence lessons, are well-crafted and provide the highlights of the movie that is content to methodically move from scene to scene. Generally, this works, save for the monster moments and a final reveal that didn’t feel entirely satisfying once the truth came to light. DoP Nate Hurtsellers bathes the film in a dimly-lit filter that seemingly mirrors James’ current traumatic state (the fictional snowy town of Greenville does look lovely, to be fair) alongside the non-obtrusive score from Quinn Tsan and Macie Stewart. It’s at times hard-hitting given the subject matter, location, and quality of performances but at the same time, it’s also held back from expanding beyond its boundaries which could have led to something more profound and emotional. Still, Rounding is effective at times, engaging at others, and doesn’t really falter all that much along the way.
Sugar Mama Production // Directed by Sophie Galibert // Starring Alex Trewhitt, Joe Sachem, Dan Schultz, Sandy Duarte, Alice Bang
In a time where choice is something that is being taken away far too easily by people who really have no right, Sophie Galibert’s debut feature Cherry couldn’t be more timely. The movie focuses on Cherry (Trewhitt), a young Californian who is seemingly drifting through life without purpose or direction. When she discovers that she is eleven weeks pregnant, she has only twenty-four hours to decide what to do, what decisions to make, and who she wants to be - all the while, life goes on unknowingly around her. The tone is set immediately as we find Cherry rollerskating through LA, her outfit and the locations drenched in colour set to the sounds of "Ain’t Got No, I Got Life" (here performed by Vita Levina) - there’s a real freedom and independence to Cherry that sits alongside the importance of the subject matter. Throughout, the indie vibe continues but the movie never strays from its topic - Cherry has a decision to make, and whilst she struggles with the reality of her situation, external aid seems to elude her at almost every turn. Her family is clearly loving, however, their own problems put up barriers for Cherry and her boyfriend, Nick (Schultz), well, he reacts in a way that is probably not too uncommon with younger men faced with a life-changing and abrupt situation (the less said about the American healthcare prices, the better…). Cherry’s internal dilemma is portrayed well by the impressive Alex Trewhitt and her energy and vulnerability in the role helps to carry the movie through its highs and lows (narratively and generally). Despite its razor-thin runtime (a mere seventy-six minutes), Cherry manages to include so much whilst also taking the time to slow itself down and let us contemplate and empathise with Cherry - despite the countdown style of storytelling, dark comedy (at times), and kinetic energy of our lead, Cherry carries a weight to it that will resonate with many who watch it. In lesser hands, Cherry could have succumbed to the free spiriting indie vibes and lost sight of its message and story, however, Galibert doesn’t allow that to happen. Instead, she delivers a tight, emotional, heavy, and (oh so) timely movie that just happens to look and sound great too.
Cornerstone Films // Directed by Armağan Ballantyne // Starring Jackie van Beek, Damon Herriman, Jemaine Clement
What the hell?! With Nude Tuesday, director Armağan Ballantyne, along with screenwriter Jackie van Beek and comedian Julia Davis, has crafted one of the strangest, unique, and craziest films I’ve witnessed in a while. Despite being a product of Screen Australia, every character speaks literal gibberish, a language created solely for Nude Tuesday that is crucially accompanied by subtitles to assist us with the character's thoughts, feelings, and sexual desires. Nude Tuesday follows Laura (van Beek) and Bruno (Herriman), a sexually-stale couple struggling to maintain their marriage. For their anniversary, they receive the gift of a vacation to a woodland resort aimed at reawakening urges and needs long thought lost, all under the guise of sex guru Bjorg (Clement). What follows is a bonkers yet somehow heartwarming comedy that should fall under the bizarreness of its literal gibberish, instead, it's this that creates something more endearing - if not entirely successful. Van Beek and Herriman work excellently together as the dispirited couple, and just as well apart as the supporting cast ably and gamely solidify the foundations around them. At points, the overtly-naughty lines, euphemisms, and innuendos don’t always work and the movie threatens to overstay its welcome, but Ballantyne deftly inserts quieter or emotional scenes to provide an emotional spine to Nude Tuesday and adjourn some of the chaos - Cam Ballantyne’s off-the-wall score helps to provide another layer of fun and freedom to proceedings. There were plenty of moments where I laughed out loud whilst reading the subtitles, and it all leads to a satisfying ending that, ten minutes into the movie, I was honestly worried we’d never reach. Nude Tuesday is creative, original, and brave (and possibly the epitome of a festival film). Maybe it shouldn’t work, but, somehow, it really does. Allow yourself to absorb the madness and you’ll have a blast.
We Might as Well Be Dead
Fortissimo Films // Directed by Natalia Sinelnikova // Starring Ioana Iacob, Pola Geiger, Jörg Schüttauf, Şiir Eloğlu, Moritz Jahn, Susanne Wuest, Knut Berger, Mina Özlem Sağdıç
From newcomer director Natalia Sinelnikova comes the satirical drama We Might as Well Be Dead, the story of an exclusive apartment complex whose supposed upper-crust residents begin to succumb to fear and paranoia at the thoughts of an external trespasser on their grounds. Told via the perspective of the complex’s security officer Anna (a very good Ioana Iacob), the events are kicked off when a dog belonging to a tenant vanishes and a trespasser is seen looking in on one couple's naughty nighttime frolics. That all makes this sound like a bit of a caper, a hoot, perhaps? Sadly not, We Might as Well Be Dead is too cold and clinical to allow for much levity, despite its fizzing social commentary and criticism. Sinelnikova’s take on the reactionary differences between social classes is incisive, however, the deliberately slow pacing is a hindrance especially considering the ambiguities that the movie attempts to conjure aren’t all that interesting (does Anna’s daughter Iris (Geiger) really have dangerous mind powers? Why is she locked away? What’s outside of the grounds?). The stark bright lighting is apparent (having researched the name behind the complex, St. Phoebus, who was the Greek god of light) but I couldn’t help but wish Phoebus could have actually been around to shine their light on the darker scenes (darker in brightness, not tone) as it became a struggle to ascertain just what was happening at times. Despite a strong central performance from Iacob, and some well-constructed setpieces and flourishes, We Might as Well Be Dead lacks a cutting edge, and, well, a sense of drama that left me feeling disconnected overall.
MK2 // Directed by Del Kathryn Barton // Starring Kristina Ceyton, Deanne Weir, Daniel Besen, Chris Plater, Boris Tosic, Simon Baker
One of the more intriguing offerings coming out of Tribeca is Del Kathryn Barton’s Blaze, a visually stunning coming-of-age story that explores trauma, identity, grief, depression, rage, and, at its core, a young girl entering womanhood - a young girl protected by an imaginary dragon. It sounds like a lot, and Blaze is a lot of things, but, ostensibly it's a very decent movie. The opening sequences are nothing short of harrowing as twelve-year-old Blaze (Savage) witnesses a brutal and shocking rape in an alleyway. Witnessing this causes Blaze to spiral mentally despite the best efforts of her caring father Luke (Baker) and the movie charts her descent and beyond. It would be wrong not to begin by praising the fabulous performance of Julia Savage who is tasked with displaying so many emotions across so many levels of trauma and fantasy, she genuinely carries the movie, and it's hard to imagine how it would have played without her stellar showing. Similarly, Simon Baker delivers a strong performance as her father who is there for his daughter through everything. As an artist, Barton certainly knows how to bring a visual flair to scenes and the dragon she creates is a practical wonder - all sequins, feathers, and sparkles - as well as the army of trinkets and porcelain pals that create Blaze’s army in her bid to cope with everything that is happening to her. A montage involving Blaze and the dragon in the movie's final act is nothing short of spellbinding and it's apparent that Barton can communicate her ideas visually (though, at times, I felt as if I were watching a 90's music video). However, the screenwriting (the movie is penned by Barton and her collaborator Huna Amweero) and lack of subtlety leaves something to be desired at points that took away some of the movie's impact. Blaze falters at its midway point and I found myself becoming less interested in where the narrative was going before it later picks up for the aforementioned final act - and the final scene itself is impactful, empowering, and sends a strong and welcome message. Blaze isn’t a case of spectacle over story, though. The central theme and focus are staggeringly important and Barton’s use of the fantastical to represent Blaze’s processing of her grief was certainly inventive (akin to 2016’s A Monster Calls but more effective here), but there was just a slight lack of polish to the screenplay here. That said, Blaze is not a movie you’ll forget in a hurry, and, whilst it may not hit every beat, it’s visually sumptuous and forthright with a superb lead performance.
Topic // Directed by Lee Sunday Evans // Starring Kristin Villanueva, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Michael Braun, Kathleen Chalfant, Michael Chernus, Linda Powell, BD Wong
Lee Sunday Evans’ The Courtroom is a drama adapted from an off-Broadway production that was itself adapted verbatim from court transcripts. The case in question is that of Elizabeth Keathley (played here by Villanueva), a Filipina immigrant who mistakenly registers to vote while on a K3 visa, a crime punishable by deportation. Along with her husband John (Chernus) and unabating lawyer Richard Hanus (Linda Powell in a gender-swapped role), Elizabeth must fight back against US law in order to remain in the country and obtain legal citizenship. As this is presented and adapted from a genuine case, the tension and atmosphere work best if you are unaware of the outcome of the case (as I was). Indeed, Evans and composer Daniel Kluger add little score to proceedings bar the occasional hum of atmospheric music in order to ensure the focus remains on the performances and the argument in question - was Elizabeth knowingly acting unlawfully when she cast her vote in 2006. The idea to colour the background of the courtrooms in pitch black is a successful and creative decision (theatrical, one could say) and demanded focus, again, on what and who was important - this was especially effective during close-ups in pivotal arguments of evidence. The performances from the cast are all excellent - especially Powell who has the lion's share of screentime - and bring real emotion to a story that doesn’t seek to present heroes and villains, simply the truth, even if that truth requires more from the law than it presently allowed at the time of the hearings. Whilst Evans does not seek to glamorise the case or persons involved (though the final shots do seem strangely at odds with the rest of the movie), she is successful in creating a taut drama high on genuine stakes and real tension all born from the fight against a flawed law and the meticulous performances from all involved.
You Can Live Forever
Prospector Films // Directed by Mark Slutsky and Sarah Watts // Starring Anwen O'Driscoll, June Laporte, Liane Balaban, Deragh Campbell, Tim Campbell, Antoine Yared, Hasani Freeman
You Can Live Forever was one of the movies I was anticipating ahead of Tribeca mainly due to its intriguing premise - two teenage girls begin a secret relationship in a strict Jehovah’s Witness community. Anwen O’Driscoll’s Jaime is sent to live temporarily with her Jehovah’s Witness relatives following the passing of her father. During a Witness meeting, she is immediately drawn to Marike (Laporte), the daughter of a prominent Witness elder, and from there, the two enter into a secret, forbidden relationship that carries danger, affection, and sadness at every turn. You Can Live Forever is a blend of many things - tender, tragic, aching, a release, restrictive, to name a few - and co-director Sarah Watts (she directs alongside Mark Slutsky) draws upon her own story for the movie and there’s a real sense of genuine earnestness and an intensely personal touch throughout. The sense of yearning throughout this impermissible relationship is profound, both O’Driscoll and Laporte are fantastic in their roles and both say as much with just a longing gaze as they do with their words or actions. Both women want to pursue a relationship, however, one wants this without the Witness dynamic and the other wants to have her cake and eat it - it seemed doomed to fail but there’s a real sense of will throughout, the sense that we hope and want it to be OK in the end. The risk of disfellowshipping looms large over Marike and those around her if she is caught (her family is aware of the ramifications in a small but crucial subplot) and the movie seems to paint the congregation as the villains of the piece here. Maybe the directors aren’t saying this, maybe they’re trying to have us understand differing opinions and faiths, however, I lean more on the belief that the directors are pointing at the former. You Can Live Forever exudes a certain, inescapable, and deliberate dread during meetings or family dinners (of cafe and cake meetups) built upon the secret being revealed. Alongside the tension are beautiful moments of release and freedom, specifically a bathtub baptism scene that showcases so much nuance and emotion from both actresses. Gayle Ye’s cinematography is key to framing the relationship and environments and the music provided by CFCF compliments the movie so well and adds to the layers of drama that are constantly unfolding. You Can Live Forever is as achingly beautiful as it is sad in a story where faith and love collide, but it’s the movie's subtleties that shine through to create a stirring and impactful love story as well as being simply a splendid movie.