The Tribeca Film Festival has become a damn fine place to see some up-and-coming female filmmakers, and although I didn't make a dent in the 50 or so shorts and narratives directed by women, it was nevertheless quite easy to find some extremely pleasing treats. Here are my favorites:
"WADJDA" (directed by Haifaa al-Mansour)
Wadjda is a slightly dorky and funny 10-year-old in Riyadh; she has the buoyant self-confidence of a pre-teen who believes the world is at her fingertips and acts accordingly. She doesn't care that she gets in trouble for wearing sneakers to school or selling bracelets to the other girls (at ever-rising prices) or that her greatest wish, to ride a bike with her friend Abdullah, is forbidden. She's not even angry; she just sort of flips her hand and rolls her eyes like, "Seriously?" She sets out to perfect her memorization of the Koran so she can snag a cash prize in a competition at school, with plans to spend it all on a lovely new bicycle. In the background of this straightforward story, you also see the pressures Wadjda's mom faces, like the everyday stress of being prohibited from driving and the possibility that her husband might take a second wife.
Writer/director Haifaa al-Mansour is the first Saudi woman to write and direct a feature film. She's actually the first director ever to make a feature film entirely in Saudi Arabia. She directed some scenes from inside of a van, using walkie-talkies to communicate with her crew, because of regulations around women in public. But even if it wasn't a groundbreaking movie in these respects, "Wadjda" would still merit critical acclaim all on its own.
"FLEX IS KINGS" (directed by Deidre Schoo and Michael Beach)
This documentary by Deidre Schoo and Michael Beach is the perfect fit for Tribeca because it's such a New York City story. Flexing is a type of narrative street dance that was born in East New York, Brooklyn, and it's hard to describe but completely intoxicating to watch. At various points, performers move like robots or seem to be pulling their arms out of joint or interact with their environments much like parkour athletes. Just seeing the portraits of the various dancers is stunning.
"Flex is Kings" focuses on the artists in East New York who have pioneered flexing, and the dance battle culture that has sprung up around them. The filmmakers show many different people who are involved in flex, but the main focus is on Reem, Flizzo, and Jay Donn. Reem organizes and hosts Battlefest, and he encourages the other flex dancers to use it as a springboard to bigger and better things; he emphasizes presenting themselves well at the battles because "you never know who's at the fest."
Flizzo and Jay Donn are two of the hottest dancers on the scene who are both trying to make good on that hope. Flizzo is a former gang member who's using flex to express himself in wild and imaginative ways despite the pressures of everyday life, and he also mentors young dancers in Brooklyn. Jay Donn is invited to perform as Pinocchio with a dance troupe that eventually takes him to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where he wows audiences and takes his career to a whole new level. Girlfriends, moms, grandmothers, and lots of other talented dancers populate "Flex is Kings," which shows a side of Brooklyn that is worlds away from trendy coffee shops and HBO shows.
"Flex is Kings" is gorgeously shot and edited, with an excellent soundtrack. And guess what? Deidre Schoo and Michael Beach Nichols used Kickstarter to earn less than $45K to put the finishing touches on it. And it looks fantastic. Now that is independent filmmaking.
"RUN AND JUMP" (directed by Steph Green)
Director Steph Green and writer Ailbhe Keogan have made a lovely little film here, so rich and colorful that it looks like it was shot on film, with a great soundtrack and an excellent ensemble of performances. British actress Maxine Peake stars as Vanetia, an Irish woman trying to cope with the after-effects of her young husband Conor's debilitating stroke. Edward MacLiam's performance as Conor is startling and sad; he's truculent and frustrating and occasionally verbally abusive, and he'll probably never return to what he was before the stroke and coma, much to the confusion and consternation of their two kids.
Will Forte appears as an American neuropsychologist who is staying with the family while he studies Conor's progress. Naturally, a lot of the curiosity about "Run and Jump" is about the former "Saturday Night Live" actor's dramatic performance, but Forte pulls it off with aplomb. Ted, a shy man who hides behind an academic beard, is an excellent counterpoint to Vanetia's sparky, almost desperate humor. The wonderful comedic actress Sharon Horgan also appears as Vanetia's hungry single sister. (You'd do yourself a favor to check out "Pulling" on Netflix before the US version debuts.)
"Run and Jump" can be funny, in that way that we laugh when things are too much to bear and your only other choice is to cry. Its quieter moments are what really impress: their daughter, who always dresses in cuddly animal outfits, clutching her father's knees as he uncertainly touches her hair; a late-night joint that breaks the ice; the seamlessly integrated footage Ted is shooting of Conor as Conor putters around in his woodworking shop. The threat of an outburst from Conor, some sort of erratic violence, lurks at the periphery, but the overwhelming feeling is one of tenderness.
This new phase of Forte's career as a dramatic actor is promising. It speaks to Green's talent that she had the foresight to cast him, and that he had the temerity to shed his admittedly hilarious "SNL" trappings to reveal a shockingly vulnerable core. I still hold a torch for the celery-stuffing MacGruber, but I look forward to seeing him in Alexander Payne's upcoming "Nebraska," which will premiere at Cannes.
"THE PRETTY ONE"
This is probably my favorite film of the festival, or of recent times, and I wanna hype it up as much as possible. It sounds twee, but get over yourself. If you liked "Ruby Sparks," you will love "The Pretty One." Or even if you didn't. Whatever, see this movie!
Zoe Kazan stars as identical twins. Audrey is fashionable and sexy and has a cool life in some unnamed city, and Laurel is a weird artist who lives at home with their father. Laurel has been taking care of their dad since their mom died; she wears their mom's clothes and cooks and cleans for their dad, and she even trims his nails. Audrey comes home for a visit and decides it's time for Laurel to leave the nest. Their first stop is at a beauty parlor for a makeover, and their second stop is an unfortunate car accident that leaves Audrey dead. Everyone thinks Laurel is the one who died, and but once she realizes this, she makes a rash decision to go along with it.
When Laurel begins to live Audrey's life, she finds a certain freedom and joy that surprises everyone who knew Audrey, especially her next door neighbor Basel (Jake Johnson). Basel is Audrey's tenant, and they had an antagonistic relationship that would have culminated with his eviction so that Laurel could move in. Instead, well, you can guess the rest.
Learning what others thought of her makes for some of the most heartbreaking scenes, even as they're sweetly balanced by Laurel's humor and kindness. The symbolism is obvious but nevertheless rich and relevant: A woman is split in two, mourning one half while trying on the other for size. Laurel is finding the courage to truly individuate from her family, from her childhood self, and fumbling towards her own adulthood and confidence, owning her creativity and sexiness and worthiness. Watching Laurel navigate mourning while simultaneously trying to live up to the legend of Audrey she's created in her own mind — while also trying to trick Audrey's boyfriend, friends, employer, and Basel — is sad and thrilling and awesome. Although there is a love story here, and the production design is colorful and cool and occasionally kooky, the meat of "The Pretty One" is about sisterhood and self, a most serious matter indeed.
Honorable Mention: "Lil Bub and Friendz" (directed by Andy Capper and Juliette Eisner)
Not sorry, guys. I waited almost an hour in line to pet Lil Bub for a few minutes, and it was like chilling with a tiny Buddha. I'm pretty sure that little cat/space alien holds the key to world peace.
"Lil Bub and Friendz," which is directed by Andy Capper and Juliette Eisner and produced by Vice Media, is like a really long cat video, so if you don't like those, you're outta luck. There are tertiary bits about Internet cat memes — who knew memes could have managers?! — and owners who want their cat to be the next star, and even a visit with Grumpy Cat, but Lil Bub and her dude Mike are the focus. (Mike is also very cute and has lots of tattoos, including some of Bub. I swoon.) These extra bits feel sort of tacked on, and even with a running time of 65 minutes, there's some padding. Then again, a music video of Hell featuring Bub and a nervous Chihuahua set to the power noise of William Bennett's project Cut Hands is pretty great. Basically, this is the next best thing to hanging out with Lil Bub.