As we’ve discussed, the joyful fall movie season is upon us, and it’s time for Hollywood to spend four months making like they’re not a factory for endless remakes and comic book sequels. But don’t let them break their arms patting themselves on the back; every month the independent distributors give us a steady stream of smart movies for adults, and they’re not backing off just because the big boys are joining in. Here’s a few indie flicks worth checking out this month.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali
Release: Out now Director: Bill Siegel Cast: Documentary
The life of Muhammad Ali is certainly not one that lacks documentation; from When We Were Kings to Facing Ali to Thrilla in Manilla to Muhammad and Larry, you can trace the bulk of his career through the documentary films that have taken him as their subject. Bill Siegel’s new portrait is less concerned with him as a fighter than as a political figure, focusing primarily on Ali’s conversion to the Nation of Islam and his refusal to fight in Vietnam, which led to a three and a half year battle and exile from the ring. As straight biography, it’s pretty familiar; the film’s value is in the detail paid to Ali’s development as a political thinker and provocateur, via copious (and often tense) clips from speaking engagements and television appearances. Ali was a great fighter, but he was also a fascinating man, and The Trials of Muhammad Ali pays him the compliment of viewing his life as a continuing philosophical evolution.
Release: Out now (in theaters and on demand) Director: Liz W. Garcia Cast: Kristen Bell, Mamie Gummer, Martin Starr, David Lambert, Amy Madigan
TV scribe Liz Garcia’s directorial debut veers easily towards pat construction and obvious cues (particularly with regards to the copious alt/pop college radio soundtrack songs). But it’s an insightful character study, focusing on a pushing-30 New Yorker (Kristen Bell) who flees her premature malaise in the city to return home, resume her old job, and act like a compulsive teenager — complete with a reckless sexual relationship with a teenage boy. Bell turns in a good, heartfelt, true performance, wearing the wounds or premature disappointment well, and Garcia vividly pinpoints how such a meltdown would make her a “bad influence” on her seemingly stable old friends (particularly BFF Mamie Gummer, very good). The Lifeguard meanders a bit (the subplot with Gummer’s husband is a big dud), but it’s got a quiet, low-key, hanging-out vibe, and is a rare film that manages to capture, at least briefly, Bell’s considerable charisma.
Release: September 6 Director: Hannah Fidell Cast: Lindsay Burdge, Will Brittain, Jennifer Prediger
Hannah Fidell’s Sundance hit casts an unblinking gaze on a high school teacher in the midst of a sexual affair with one of her students, but it’s less an exploitative excuse for voyeurism than a thoughtful, modest character study — and a showcase for a terrific young actress named Lindsay Burdge. Fidell conveys the dynamics of the relationship masterfully; the sex we see is adequate but not exceptional, indicating that both are more turned on by the affair’s taboo nature (watch the charge she gets when he kisses her after class), and it’s interesting to note how the relationship brings her down to his level instead of vice versa (sexting, jealousy, dances, and sneaking around). Fidell knows we’re waiting for them to step in it, and much of the film’s narrative power comes from how the filmmaker pokes at that expectation.
Release: September 6 (available now on demand) Director: Lynn Shelton Cast: Rosemarie Dewitt, Ellen Page, Josh Pias, Allison Janney, Scoot McNairy
A sweet and rather vulnerable picture from Lynn Shelton, writer/director of Your Sister’s Sister, this time working up a narratively slight but emotionally overwhelming story of a family’s difficulty communicating and interacting with themselves, and everyone else. Rosemarie Dewitt is particularly poignant as a massage therapist seized by a sudden, inexplicable feeling of disconnected helplessness. Moving and surprisingly visceral, Touchy Feely confirms Lynn Shelton is one of our most reliably compelling indie filmmakers.
Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction
Release: September 13 Director: Sophie Huber Cast: Documentary
Like last year’s excellent The Zen of Bennett, Sophie Huber’s film is less a documentary profile than a mediation on a legend’s very being. In examining definitive character actor Stanton, Huber uses some of the standard tools (background info, clips, testimonials from collaborators), but seems less interested in that stuff than in merely gazing at the man himself, and drinking in his essence. The subject isn’t terribly forthcoming in conversation, but he’s more than happy to sing some of his favorite songs; her camera lingers on his worn voice and weathered voice, and in doing so, gives us more of an understanding of the man than a dense book or PBS mini-series.
Jayne Mansfield’s Car
Release: September 13 (available now on demand) Director: Billy Bob Thornton Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Robert Duvall, John Hurt, Kevin Bacon, Frances O’Connor, Robert Patrick
Billy Bob Thornton returns to the director’s chair after over a decade spent solely on performance, but he hardly seems rusty; his portrait of culture clash in a small Alabama town circa 1969 is evocative and enjoyable, filled with memorable dialogue and nuanced performances. Thornton leans a bit too awkwardly into the broadly comic material, and some of the period scene-setting ventures into the realm of cliché. But it’s a leisurely, unpredictable ensemble piece, and the cast (especially Thornton, Robert Duvall, John Hurt, and the wonderful Katherine LaNasa) is disarmingly good.
Release: September 20 Director: Martha Shane and Lana Wilson Cast: Documentary
The term “pro-choice” has been bandied about for so long that it’s more of a placeholder than anything, but this extraordinarily compassionate and thought-provoking documentary by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson gives the second half of the term its full due. The ostensible subjects are the four remaining doctors who perform third-trimester abortions after the murder of Dr. George Tiller, but it’s really about what goes on in those clinics — the difficult and often gut-wrenching choices made not only by the patients, but the doctors. The deck occasionally feels stacked, but no matter; this is an important film that looks unblinkingly at an important subject.
Release: September 20 Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez Cast: Jonathan Groff, Corey Stoll, Denis O’Hare, Casey Wilson, Dean Stockwell
At long last, the peculiar wit of David Sedaris makes it to the screen with this absorbing adaptation of an essay from his collection Naked. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez gets the tone of Sedaris’s work just right, and his visual sense is appropriately droll; the shifts between comic and considerably more dramatic beats are nimbly executed. And, thankfully, there’s an anything-goes air to it — you don’t know where they’re going, and that raises our interest considerably.
Release: September 27 Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johannson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Brie Larson
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s feature directorial debut is a smart, funny, and shockingly candid tale of sexual objectification and porn addiction, wittily deconstructing the wild variations between sexual reality and fantasy. His Jersey Shore-styled performance is a terrific comic creation; Scarlett Johannson matches beautifully, having a ball as a hard-partying Jersey girl who knows she’s got it like that. Some of the tropes are overdone (Julianne Moore’s wise soul who knows all the angles, the “Silent Bob” character who is mute until a truth is to be told), but the direction is energetic and the playing is inspired.
Release: September 27 Director: Greg “Freddy” Camalier Cast: Documentary
Director Greg “Freddy” Camalier tells the fascinating story of how producer Rick Hall and a succession of (as Bono says in the film) “white guys that looked like they worked in the supermarket ‘round the corner” in Muscle Shoals, Alabama created some of the funkiest music of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Their recordings defined Wilson Pickett, helped Aretha Franklin find the sound that eluded her, and gave the Rolling Stones the American authenticity they strived for, and the stories of those sessions (and many others) are joyous and thrilling. But it’s also a story of heartbreak and sadness, of Hall’s personal tragedies and the hot tempter that lost him countless deals and musicians — three of whom set up shop themselves across town, to great success of their own. Great music, riveting stories, terrific documentary filmmaking, and an ideal double-feature with 20 Feet from Stardom.