Spring in New York City is a season of promise. It’s terrific timing for the Tribeca Festival, which runs from June 8-19 and features its trademark community focus and sweeping bill of fare. Like visitors to a botanic garden, Tribeca audiences seem as keen on roaming through thickets of mainstream movies (not to mention immersive installations, TV series and scripted podcasts) as they do savoring the small films blooming alongside.
This year’s opening night feature, “Halftime,” an admiring Netflix documentary that traces a hectic year in the life of Jennifer Lopez, slots into the former category, boasting exclusive access and the whiff of celebrity gossip and prestige. But the standouts among this year’s world and international premieres are more homespun productions. If “Halftime” is the program’s gold lamé gown, the bulk of its wardrobe is dress-code casual.
It could be that the modest scale of some of these films was motivated by pandemic protocols, which favor lean casts and secluded locations. But never rule out plain old budget restrictions. And anyway, independent cinema has always had a knack for making hay while the sun shines, and while it rains too.
BJ Novak’s feature directing debut, “Vengeance,” is one project that was rocked by Covid-19 early on: Blumhouse suspended production in March 2020 while the team was shooting in Albuquerque, NM Premiering now as Tribeca’s centerpiece, the clever thriller is poised to be a crowd-pleaser.
Novak stars as Ben, a Manhattan journalist and serial dater who flies to Nowheresville, Texas, for the funeral of a woman he was seeing. Only a fling, Abilene meant little to him. But in her grieving kin, a fiery bunch who grow convinced that Abilene’s death was a murder, Ben smells fodder for a Great American Podcast, and starts recording their affairs. Come for the artful dark comedy; stay for the biting parable about self-seekers who leech stories from small-town suffering.
Hunkering down is the name of the game in “We Might as Well Be Dead.” The German tale unspools inside a private compound that serves as a refuge from unspoken dystopian affliction. We meet Anna (Ioana Iacob, spiky and stirring), one of the enclave’s only Jewish residents, amid a crisis: Her daughter Iris (Pola Geiger) has sealed herself in the bathroom in a fit of agoraphobic superstition, a taboo that could get them the boot. An ace feature debut from director Natalia Sinelnikova, the deadpan comedy feels like a cousin to works by Yorgos Lanthimos, an absurdist equally attentive to how confinement breeds fear and fear breeds barbarity.
The image of a woman spiraling alone also appears in “Good Girl Jane,” an entry in the US Narrative Competition written and directed by Sarah Elizabeth Mintz. The coming-of-age story follows an outcast teenager (Rain Spencer) in 2000s Los Angeles who sinks into drug abuse after falling for a local dealer. Mintz couples sumptuous long takes with torrid raw emotion, and like the best debauched kids-gone-wild dramas – “Thirteen” comes to mind – the project is a sleight of hand, teasing bliss before drowning you in dread.
Another world premiere taking a bulldozer to prosaic images of young love is the peculiar animated musical “My Love Affair With Marriage.” The Latvian writer-director Signe Baumane, who financed the feature in part through Kickstarter, builds an impressionistic world of line-drawn characters who skip across diorama backdrops in search of true romance. Sass and pedagogy intermingle in this curious Soviet tale, and if its stuffing sometimes bulges at the seams, it’s only for a surfeit of imagination.
Documentaries at Tribeca are often strong, and in a sea of engaging world premieres, a trio shine as timely, enriching chronicles of paradigm shifts: “Sophia,” “Battleground” and “My Name Is Andrea.” They are each overseen by experienced filmmakers: Crystal Moselle (“The Wolfpack”) co-directed “Sophia” with Jon Kasbe; Cynthia Lowen (“Netizens”) directed “Battleground”; and “My Name Is Andrea” is a work by the narrative and nonfiction director Pratibha Parmar.
Moselle and Kasbe’s absorbing vérité exercise centers on the inventor David Hanson and his robot creation, Sophia. Over several years, we observe this gentle Dr. Frankenstein juggle work goals and the demands of home life as his hazel-eyed humanoid evolves. A more dogmatic crew takes the stage in “Battleground,” which follows a cavalcade of anti-abortion activists. Lowen positions their ideas in a context (especially fraught in the light of new threats to Roe v. Wade) and uses tactful editing to cast certain moments under a pall of irony, urgency or alarm.
“My Name Is Andrea” leafs several chapters earlier in the history books to sketch an abstract portrait of the public intellectual Andrea Dworkin. Parmar makes use of routine archival footage, but she also mounts dramatic re-enactments of Dworkin’s major life events; Ashley Judd, Amandla Stenberg and Soko are among the performers who play versions of the icon-turned-firestarter. These scenes layer with voice-over of her writings to create a moving palimpsest of identity.
Echoes often occur by chance at film festivals, and I discovered an intriguing one between Sarah Adina Smith’s millennial comedy “The Drop” and Michelle Garza Cervera’s allegorical horror exercise “Huesera.” Both grapple with the angsts of motherhood, and share a distressing accident scenario: a woman letting an infant slip from grasp. (To save you the heart attack, the tots are fine.)
The title of Smith’s movie lays all of its cards on the table. It follows Lex (the superb Anna Konkle of “Pen15”) as she attends a tropical destination wedding. She and her husband, Mani (Jermaine Fowler), are trying to get pregnant, and upon arrival on the island, a pal hands Lex her baby daughter. No shock in what happens next – but the real juice flows in the days following the cataclysm, as Lex and Mani’s trust cracks and spectators cast a quiet judgment on Lex’s AWOL maternal instincts.
Perhaps my favorite of all the Tribeca selections I sampled was the Mexican knockout “Huesera.” Oozing with omens and heavy with menace, the story follows the furniture maker Valeria (Natalia Solián, a terrifying talent), who is preparing for the birth of her first child. But occult forces are at play. Amid crib construction, medical visits and family celebrations, Valeria hallucinates a bony demoness who seeks to infiltrate her home and poison her body and mind.
Quintessential horror story beats fuse with elements of Catholic spirituality and Mexican folklore. The most thrilling set piece features a purgative ritual that Cervera executes with a dance choreographer’s sense of movement and a gothic artist’s eye for composition. But even as Valeria retreats from loved ones and sequences devolve into phantasmagoria, Cervera never loses sight of core themes. Spinning on an axis of anxiety, “Huesera” raises the provocative idea that motherhood can feel akin to a curse stripping one of stability and sacred autonomies. No easy ride, the movie – like many great works of vision, scale be damned – is almost an exorcism itself, stripping away fuss and banalities to expose raw truths.