It’s the first of May, which means summer blockbuster season is upon us, and the coming onslaught of sequels and reboots and 3D and general junk might have you feeling (understandably) less than buoyant about movie-going. But don’t despair! The big studios may have surrendered their slates to the desires of 15-year-old boys, but the indies realize that grown-ups might also want to enjoy an evening at the cinema during the summer months, and have counter-programmed accordingly. Here are a few must-see independent movies for the month of May.
Something in the Air
Release: May 3 Director: Olivier Assayas Cast: Clément Métayar, Lola Créton, Felix Armand
The new film from Olivier Assayas feels very much like an extension of his epic Carlos — it is in love with the fierceness of purpose, the camaraderie of being “us against them,” and the sparky electricity of being part of a movement. The filmmaker is as charged up by fence-jumping, poster-plastering, and spray-painting as his protagonist Gilles (Clément Métayar), but he doesn’t just treat him as a rebellious found object; he’s also a very typical teenage kid, falling in love and harboring crushes and sneaking into movies for a touch or a kiss in the dark. His semi-autobiographical tale has a free-floating, off-the-cuff spirit that can shift, without warning, into an intense immediacy. Think of it as The Portrait of the Anarchist as a Young Man, which goes past its politics and period into the story we all can tell, of finding one’s own place in the world.
Caroline and Jackie
Release: May 3 Director: Adam Christian Clark Cast: Marguerite Moreau, Bitsit Tulloch, David Giuntoli
This portrait of the strained relationship between two adult sisters is a deeply felt and frequently unnerving portrayal of mental illness and sibling rivalry, one that transcends its occasional markers and dreary subject matter to create something sharp and direct. Writer/director Adam Christian Clark is especially skilled at capturing that moment when a stray comment or inappropriate gesture turns a room, when suddenly an agreeable situation becomes weird for everybody. Caroline and Jackie seems to know these situations from the inside out, which gives it an advantage over your standard family melodrama or pedestrian examination of mental illness. It’s easy for a film to make sweeping generalizations and gin up heavy drama. What’s tougher is what this film does, to examine the minute-to-minute feeling of being around that, in it, and unable to escape it.
What Maisie Knew
Release: May 3 Directors: Scott McGehee and David Siegel Cast: Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgård, Onata Aprile
Directors McGehee and Siegel (The Deep End) update the Henry James novel into a modern tale of divorce and bad parenting, and while the picture too often stacks the deck (in the second act, the sheer awfulness of Moore and Coogan veers from tragic to unintentionally comic), the technique is remarkable: they tell the story entirely from the perspective of young Maisie (Aprile), so the big fights are only overheard, and the action must be pieced together by the viewer (just as they are by the protagonist). Few films have ever captured the strangeness of that experience quite so effectively, from the shuffling and sniping and spending to the weird interrogations about new girlfriends. Doesn’t quite hold as narrative, but nonetheless a deeply evocative experience for children of divorce.
Release: May 10 Director: Ben Wheatley Cast: Alice Lowe, Steve Oram
Ben Wheatley’s Kill List follow-up isn’t the easy, chuckle-headed black comedy you might expect from its trailers — this tale of two drab 30-somethings, newly in love, whose pastoral holiday becomes a killing spree works in unexpected ways. Wheatley instills a feeling of uncertainty and discomfort as their crimes escalate; it initially appeals to our buried, murderous impulses, but as the offenses become more petty and slight, the film doesn’t shy away from the implications of the material. And the way Tina (the wonderful Lowe) becomes our object of sympathy by acting — by anyone’s standards — less sympathetic is a thrilling subversion of audience assumption and expectation.
Stories We Tell
Release: May 10 Director: Sarah Polley
Sarah Polley’s first feature documentary doesn’t quite achieve the precision of her narrative efforts, but its experimental nature is one of its virtues; she’s telling the story of the mother she barely knew, and the remarkable things she found out about her in recent years, via testimony (less documentary than “an interrogation process,” she says, only half joking) from family and friends. It’s an intriguing story with the turns of good fiction, and if she has trouble pulling it out in the clutch (there seems to be a real issue with how to properly end it), the genuine emotion and first-person insight into the slippery nature of objective truth ultimately win the day.
Release: May 17 Director: Noah Baumbach Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver
Noah Baumbach’s latest was written in collaboration with Greta Gerwig, whose honest-to-goodness movie-star performance was one of the many virtues of his last picture Greenberg. That film was the culmination of rather a sour streak in his post-Wes Anderson filmography — not a complaint (his work wears ennui well), just an observation made clear by the rather cheerier exterior of this new work. Its bittersweet nature is further from the surface, buried in the charming hopelessness of his heroine (Gerwig), and the luminescence of its black and white photography. But it’s there, and it keeps the film from becoming the throwaway piffle that some will surely dismiss it as anyway.
Release: May 24 Director: Richard Linklater Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
We’ve arrived at part three of Richard Linklater’s ongoing romantic chronicle, whose second chapter was a rare instance of a sequel topping its original — deeper, richer, more fully felt. It would seem impossible that Before Midnight could follow that upward trajectory, but somehow, it does; it expands and enriches the world of the series, and is also its own wonderful, perfect thing. It’s (as expected) sweet and charming, but with an edge this time, a view of romance that has evolved into something more realistic, and worthy of closer consideration. Or, as Jesse notes near its end, “It’s not perfect, but it’s real.”
Release: May 31 Director: Zal Batmanglij Cast: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, Jason Ritter
Zal Batmanglij’s Sound of My Voice follow-up begins working from the same thematic playbook, exploring the dynamics of leaders and followers, this time within an anarchist group engaging in acts of “eco-terrorism,” again penetrated by an outside observer (Brit Marling as an agent for a private security firm lousy with corporate clients). But if the pictures are superficially similar, it’s more like comparing Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door with Mean Streets — a case of a filmmaker returning to a theme of interest, but on a bigger canvas and with more sophistication and precision. This is a gripping, challenging, brainy film.
The Kings of Summer
Release: May 31 Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts Cast: Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Megan Mullally, Mary Lynn Rajksub
There’s a wonderful, wistful way about Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s coming-of-age-in-the-woods story, which is an awfully likable movie — eager to please, even. It captures the irresistible appeal of making one’s own way, and the apocalyptic feeling of one’s first heartache, and the photography is lovely (even if there are a couple too many frolicking-to-music montages). If it’s all over the place, tonally speaking, it must be noted that the sidebars (like Nick Offerman and Alison Brie’s encounter with a food delivery man) make for some of its most memorable scenes. And if the whole thing is a bit unruly and undisciplined, well, that’s part of its charm.
Release: May 31 Director: James Marsh Cast: Clive Owen, Andrea Riseborough, Gillian Anderson, Aidan Gillen
Man on Fire director James Marsh helms this finely crafted, intelligently acted political thriller/drama with a complexity, subtlety, and depth that immediately recalls Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It doesn’t quite have that film’s skill and precision (or that of Marsh’s nonfiction work), but there’s much in it to admire; Marsh keeps creeping in closer to the action, working up a palpable sense of whispered tension and understated suspense. His rhythms take some getting used to, but his direction is concise, forceful even, and actors Owen and Riseborough (most recently seen in Oblivion) turn in performances both controlled and urgent.