Temperatures are up, sandals are out, and multiplexes are crowded — though variety’s not really the name of the game, since the aim seems to be getting this week’s Designated Blockbuster onto as many screens as possible. But occasionally, tucked away on the smallest screen, or across town in the art house, you’ll find a release from the relentless commerce of the summer movie parade, and this June finds several fine independent pictures providing an alternative to the guns, bombs, and superheroes of the season.
The Big Ask Release Date: Out now (in theaters and on demand) Directors: Thomas Beatty, Rebecca Fishman Cast: David Krumholtz, Melanie Lynskey, Gillian Jacobs, Jason Ritter
Beatty (also the film’s writer) and Fishman assemble a top-notch ensemble cast for this comedy/drama, which takes a high concept — three couples assemble for a week in the middle of nowhere for a week-long vacation, made awkward by a rather unorthodox proposal — and takes it seriously, capturing the peculiarity of these strained interactions as well as the uncomfortable neediness of depression. Krumholtz is terrific and Jacobs is wonderful (as ever), but the standout is Lynskey, who grounds the odd narrative by beautifully conveying a character who is helplessly watching someone she cares about slip right through her fingers.
Obvious Child Release Date: June 6 (in theaters) Director: Gillian Robespierre Cast: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, Gabe Liedman, David Cross
Jenny Slate proves herself one helluva likable big-screen presence, playing a Sarah Silverman-ish Brooklyn stand-up in this wise, witty, and unexpectedly bold comedy from writer/director Robespierre. Her dialogue is consistently funny, with a nicely conversational rhythm (it feels improvised, but in the good way), and her lived-in direction captures a specific New York flavor. Slate, always a gem, is confident, funny, and convincing. But it’s the picture’s clear-eyed view of casual sex, accidental pregnancy, and unapologetic abortion that makes it memorable — and, in its own quiet way, kind of revolutionary.
The Sacrament Release Date: June 6 (on demand now) Director: Ti West Cast: Amy Seimetz, Gene Jones, Joe Swanberg, A.J. Bowen
Director West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) merges the of-the-moment “found footage” style with his own throwback interests, using the pseudo-documentary construct to tell the story of an offshore religious community that bears a more-than-passing similarity to Jonestown. What makes West such a special filmmaker is that, for him, horror movies aren’t just about kills and jolts — they can be about mood, character, and payoff. The Sacrament has all three in spades, with a jangly uncertainty permeating even the innocuous scenes and terrific performances at its center (particularly Seimetz as our window in, and Jones as the sect’s leader, nailing that confident charisma that can turn into creepiness and paranoia in a snap). But West knows we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, because of both the genre and the People’s Temple parallels (some of them direct quotations), so when “Father” starts serving “the potion” to his followers, West doesn’t pull the punch; the horror is, in many ways, real and true, and thus all the more disturbing.
Trust Me Release Date: June 6 (on demand now) Director: Clark Gregg Cast: Clark Gregg, Saxon Sharbino, Amanda Peet, Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney, Felicity Huffman
Clark Gregg’s second film as writer/director (after the flawed but fascinating Choke) shows the striking influence of his frequent collaborator David Mamet — it talks fast, thinks fast, and moves fast, telling its story of a bottom-rung agent for child actors with the acidic humor inherent in the material. But it’s not as cynical as most Hollywood satires, and as you’d expect from a film made by an actor, Gregg loves actors. Reinforcing that point is a star-making performance by an astonishing young actress named Saxon Sharbino; her real, lively talent is what centers the story, and the picture. (The perpetually underused Peet is also very good.) Gregg bites off more than he can chew in the third act, and the film gets a bit out of his control. But its final scene is ballsy and brilliant, bringing this sharp and entertaining film to a rousing conclusion.
Willow Creek Release Date: June 6 (in theaters) Director: Bobcat Goldthwait Cast: Alexie Gilmore, Bryce Johnson
You may spend a good portion of Willow Creek’s slender running time wondering exactly what writer/director Goldthwait (God Bless America, World’s Greatest Dad) is up to: is he sending up the “found footage” horror genre or contributing to it? It’s certainly a funny film, with the skeptic/believer byplay of stars Gilmore and Johnson providing the comic motor, and Goldthwait’s clever script tinkering with the conventions. And the long, long, long scene of the frightened pair simply listening to the sounds of the forest from inside their tent seems to satirize the boredom of the style’s lesser entries; it just keeps going, until it becomes funny that it’s still going. But he delivers the scary goods in the closing scenes, and does as so as effectively as Blair Witch or any of its imitators. It’s a film that keeps you guessing up through its final frames, and that’s reason enough to give it a look.
Hellion Release Date: June 13 (in theaters and on demand) Director: Kat Candler Cast: Aaron Paul, Juliette Lewis, Josh Wiggins
Writer/director Candler tells the story of a broken family with an offhand naturalism and casual power. Aaron Paul (bushy-bearded and very good) plays a widower who is finding it increasingly difficult to handle his hell-raising sons, prompting social services to place the youngest with a sympathetic aunt (Lewis). Without descending into “poverty porn,” Candler puts across the resigned hopelessness of these characters, while also understanding how they all fit along the same continuum. There are no easy solutions or Hollywood bullshit here, though she does allow the slightest, tiniest glimmer of hope in the brave final act that closes this very special film.
Venus in Fur Release Date: June 20 (in theaters) Director: Roman Polanski Cast: Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric
An actress wanders into a theater, late for a rehearsal; the director is on the phone, complaining that all the actresses he’s seen are twits. At first, she seems the same, but after pushing and prodding her way into a reading, she reveals herself to be (of course) a masterful performer — and perhaps more. What begins as an audition becomes a reading/performance/discussion, elegantly pivoting between the text and their argument over (and mirroring of) it. Director Polanski, adapting David Ives’s play, puts several textual levels into the mix: the power plays between male and female, sensualist and intellectual, and most of all director and actor, delving deep into the seductive quality of the audition transaction. He even extends the meta-textual element to cast his wife Seigner (excellent) as the actress, and allows Mathieu Amalric (also very good, as the director) to basically do a Polanski impression, aping the director’s appearance, dress, and stature. It’s witty, thought-provoking, and baroquely kinky — Polanski’s best work in years.
Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger Release Date: June 27 (in theaters and on demand) Director: Joe Berlinger
Joe Berlinger (co-director of the Paradise Lost trilogy) crafts this engrossing documentary on the trial of notorious South Boston gangster “Whitey” Bulger (who partially inspired Nicholson’s character in The Departed). In 2013, after years on the run, Bulger stood trial on 39 counts of extortion, gambling, and murder — but the case is far more complex than it seems, the questions of Bulger’s status as an FBI informant leading to larger revelations about corruption and responsibility for his crimes at the Bureau and the DOJ. As usual, Berlinger’s filmmaking is exhaustively detailed, urgent, and persuasive; this is a riveting documentary, doing its level best to jam together the pieces of a story whose real truth may never be known.
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz Release Date: June 27 (in theaters and on demand) Director: Brian Knappenberger
Aaron Swartz was a gifted, bright kid who became something of a teen prodigy in Internet circles, vital to the development of Reddit, RSS, Creative Commons, and the anti-SOPA movement. He didn’t just want to make money; as he said frequently, he wanted “to make the world a better place” via activism and protest, as well as open access to locked-away knowledge. His attempt to circumvent the scholarly journal scam operation JSTOR ended up landing him in legal trouble far out of proportion to the “crime” he committed, and those legal woes led to his suicide at 26. The Internet’s Own Boy is a sharply executed profile doc, doing its best to understand what made its subject tick (up to and including those final months and days), but more than that, it’s a film of ideas — it’s not just about Swartz, but what he stood for. Powerful, moving, tough, and angry documentary filmmaking.