It’s another very dry week w/r/t new movie releases for home viewing — what can I tell you, it’s the end of summer — but a couple of quietly wonderful indies are newly streaming on Netflix, a new music doc is on Blu, Criterion has blessed us with another Truffaut, and a very important documentary is getting a long-overdue DVD release.
Pariah : Late one night, as she rides home from the club where she hangs out with other “AG” lesbians and the bi-curious girls who are drawn to them, we see Alike (Adepero Oduye) undergo a transformation — she loses the baseball cap and loose-fitting rugby jersey, revealing a form-fitting tank top underneath, and snaps in her earrings. She’s 17, and she’s already living a double life. Dee Rees (in a winning and assured debut) tells the story of Alike and girls like her, the kind who don’t often make their way onto our screens, even in low-budget indies like this. And there’s something to be said for movies that show us a scene or subculture we haven’t seen before; it’s startling to see a story we’re so unfamiliar with, and one that feels as tuned-in and accurate as this one does. Don’t get me wrong, it may not be — I’ve got no basis for comparison. And maybe that’s the point.
Alex of Venice : Chris Messina (Danny on The Mindy Project) makes his feature directorial debut in this slice-of-life story of a working mother (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who finds everything tumbling down when her husband (Messina) decides he needs some “time away.” Taxed with taking care of not only their son but her aging father (Don Johnson, wonderful), she gets a dubious assist from her wild child sister and tries to figure out, at this late date, exactly who she is and what she wants to be. It also sounds pretty well-worn, but Alex transcends its clichés, thanks to naturalistic dialogue (a raw sex talk between the sisters is glorious), an eye for details, and its relaxed, delicate vibe. And Winstead is phenomenal, turning in a genuine, heart-on-her-sleeve performance of real heft and emotional power.
Lambert and Stamp : Your film editor isn’t exactly a Who fan, and even I was fascinated by this documentary profile of Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert, the odd-couple managers who propelled the band to worldwide success. What makes their story interesting is its accidental nature; they weren’t looking to become mangers but filmmakers, and they saw the band as an event they could help coordinate and then document. Thus, they were true showmen — a dynamic that unquestionably influenced the band — yet they had dreams of their own success, which ultimately complicated the band/manager relationship. Director James D. Cooper uses interviews with Stamp, the band, and other survivors to supplement some terrific archival footage, creating a compelling portrait of a phenomenon that quickly outgrew even the ambitions of those involved. (Includes audio commentary, Q&A, more archival footage, and the vintage concert short The Who in Finland.)
Seventeen : The story behind this documentary is nearly as fascinating as what’s on the screen: though it was conceived as the concluding chapter of a six-part 1982 PBS documentary series called Middletown (created by Hearts and Minds director Peter Davis), the network refused to air Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines’ portrait of a handful of high school seniors in Muncie, Indiana, presumably due to concerns about the film’s raw language and themes. So the filmmakers instead sought theatrical distribution, screening the film at the second Sundance Film Festival — where it won the Grand Jury Prize (besting such films as The Times of Harvey Milk and Streetwise) — and finally getting a small theatrical release in 1985. But it never made it VHS or DVD (rights to the pop music on the omnipresent radios were probably to blame), until now. A remnant of an era when reality television and social media hadn’t yet made regular teenagers into performers, it’s a strikingly intimate look at kids who are growing up too fast, and the teachers and parents who haven’t got a clue. Filled with casual racism, sex, and drug use, Seventeen is a sharp commentary on race, class, and authority — a riveting documentary and, now, a time capsule as well. (No extras.)
Day for Night : François Truffaut’s 1973 Oscar winner begins with an elaborate tracking shot on a busy street — which goes off the rails, prompting a reset and do-over with shouted instructions and orchestration of extras and vehicles, an intricately choreographed ballet emphasizing the effort and expense of replicating the rhythms of “real life.” And that’s the real subject of Truffaut’s wonderful film, an affectionate valentine to the process of filmmaking — a process of promise-making, schedule-wrangling, endless decisions, and affairs and break-ups galore. Set during the production of a melodrama plagued by egotistical actors and various hiccups, Day for Night has a wonderful how-it-works quality that goes beyond even promotional behind-the-scenes featurettes; the tiny details become the world of Truffaut’s film, which lovingly captures how an oddball assortment of actors and technicians become, for a few weeks, a makeshift family. Warm, funny, and inspiring. (Includes new and archival interviews, archival television footage, featurette, new visual essay, and trailer.)