Flavorwire’s Guide to Indie Movies You Need to See in May

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May is upon us, and you know what that means: summer movie season. It’ll begin at full volume with Captain America: Civil War this Friday (and that’s operating under the assumption that it didn’t already start with Batman v Superman in March), and will roar on for four months of superheroes, space travelers, cartoons, shoot-‘em-ups, and sequels. But there will be other options! And here are a few of them.

The Family Fang

Release Date: Out now (NY); May 6 (nationwide and on demand) Director: Jason Bateman Cast: Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman, Christopher Walken, Maryann Plunkett, Kathryn Hahn

Alice (Kidman) and Baxter (Bateman) are, respectively, an actress and novelist, both in the midst of life and career crises, both tracing those issues back to their childhood — where they participated in guerilla-style “improvised public events” conceived, executed, and filmed by their parents (Walken and Plunkett). They look back on the period with distaste, but still use their father’s pep talks as justification for some of their worst decisions. Bateman’s second trip to the director’s chair (after the decidedly mixed Bad Words) is a smoothly executed effort; he takes some tonal risks that work, pulls a neat plot twist, and gets terrific performances all around, from himself and Kidman and especially Walken, who simultaneously projects melancholy and menace. It all wraps up a bit too tidily, but until then, this is an intelligent and complicated familial drama.

A Bigger Splash

Release Date: May 4 Director: Luca Guadagnino Cast: Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson

“When the spaceships come in, she’ll be right out front, her arms wide open.” That’s a description of Tilda Swinton’s character in this dramatic thriller from director Guadagnino (who directed her earlier I Am Love), but it may as well be a description of Swinton herself, cast here as a rock star whose vacation with her filmmaker lover (Schoenaerts) is disrupted by an old flame (Fiennes) and his enigmatic young daughter (Dakota Johnson). The mood is simultaneously idyllic and tense, deceptively casual and off-handedly sensual, with wandering gazes and thoughts leading to some particularly potent psychosexual mind-fucking. Fiennes is gloriously uncorked, Johnson smolderingly aloof, but Swinton is (unsurprisingly) the MVP here, particularly considering the considerable acting challenges presented by playing a character on laryngitis-provoked vocal rest. It’s a peculiar picture — the re-pairings and seductions seem to come in slow motion, the ambiguity is piled high, and the ratcheting tension still takes a darker turn than expected. But you absolutely cannot take your eyes off it.

Dheepan

Release Date: May 6 Director: Jacques Audiard Cast: Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby

This Palme d’or winner from director Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) tells the timely story of a group of refugees trying to make their way in a new life. Meeting for the first time before leaving Sri Lanka yet masquerading as a family, Dheepan (Antonythasan), Yalini (Srinivasan), and Illayaal (Vinasithamby) are ill-equipped to either relate with each other or fit into their new homeland of France — there’s an anxiety-inducing scene where Dheepan is being shown around the apartment complex where he’ll work as a caretaker, understanding not one word of his instructions — but they slowly begin to connect, only to have their tentative bonds tested. A tough, uncompromising picture, with a climax that really goes to work on you.

The Lobster

Release Date: May 13 Director: Yorgos Lanthimos Cast: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw

By turns puzzling, hilarious, heartbreaking, and irritating, the latest from Dogtooth director Lanthimos is a dense parable for modern dating, in which all of society’s looked-down-upon single people are sent away to a joyless seaside resort, to either find a mate or be turned into an animal. It’s a cringe comedy of real darkness, filled with awkward interactions and subhuman cruelty, emotionally and sometimes physically brutal. Yet it remains true to its cold, black heart, as dramatic music underscores dastardly deeds and our hero (Colin Farrell, great) discovers exactly how desperate his situation is. Lanthimos’s antiseptic style isn’t for everyone, and by the end of this journey, he’s painted himself into a bit of a corner. But all the way through, he’s creating scenes and situations where he’s almost daring us to keep watching; those who do are left with a film that’s at the very least provocative, which is more than you can say for the comfort food of even the best indie cinema these days.

Love & Friendship

Release Date: May 13 Director: Whit Stillman Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Tom Bennett

Stillman reunites with his Last Days of Disco stars Beckinsale and Sevigny for this loose adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan, and it’s a smoother fit than you might imagine — his examinations of young Northeastern preppies and the Upper West Side enclaves from which they hail are probably more connected to Austen’s time than that of his contemporaries, concerned as they are with matters of class, social advancement, and familial obligation. The result is a zippy treat, witty and gorgeous with a screwball bounce, and offering up Beckinsale’s most delicious turn in years; it’s a blast to watch this actor, too often stranded in dopey action movies and dopier prestige dramas, really let loose.

High-Rise

Release Date: May 13 (out now on demand) Director: Ben Wheatley Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans

I still haven’t decided if Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel actually holds together; the social commentary sort of redefines “on the nose” (even considering the source material), and there are moments when he takes a rather unbecoming interest in fetishizing the bad behavior — particularly the sexual violence — of his characters. But if you’ve got the stomach for it, it’s filled with provocative moments and memorable images, and Wheatley’s flashy style proves a good match for the increasingly unhinged narrative. Barely controlled chaos is his métier, and this is an ideal match of shoot-the-works filmmaker and sinister subject matter.

Weiner

Release Date: May 20 Directors: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg Cast: Documentary

It all comes back, in the opening credits — how excited we were about Anthony Weiner, when those videos of him really letting his Republican colleagues have it started going viral, and he became one of the rising stars of the Democratic party. And then he fell as quick as he rose — until, two years after his resignation, he decided to run for mayor of New York. The question of why someone would put themselves through that is central to Kriegman and Steinberg’s masterful documentary (along with and why would you let someone film it all), which tracks a campaign that ended up running remarkably parallel to Weiner’s earlier career: big rise, sex scandal, big fall. They certainly don’t let their subject off the hook, but it’s impossible not to feel his frustration as important policy proposals are ignored for the grandstanding and sleaze-chasing of randos and press. The filmmakers’ all-access pass results in a few scenes that are, as our own Shane Barnes noted, akin to a non-fiction Veep, but also moments so private, it feels like we absolutely should not be there; by the end, wife Huma tells them, “It’s like living a nightmare,” and she’s smiling, but she’s not joking.

Pervert Park

Release Date: May 20 Director: Frida and Lasse Barkfors Cast: Documentary

Few crimes are as cyclical as that of sexual abuse, and one of the inescapable conclusions of this thought-provoking, difficult documentary is that those cycles will continue unless they’re battled with treatment and rehabilitation. Both are taking place in the Florida Justice Transitions program, which houses sex offenders on probation in a mobile home park, and treats them in group therapy sessions and classes that are fascinating and troubling. Pervert Park looks right at these people and doesn’t blink; it’s less a work of advocacy than of observation, positing merely the notion that this is less an issue of containment than of sociology.

Maggie’s Plan

Release Date: May 20 Director: Rebecca Miller Cast: Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore

Slightly zany, occasionally stiff, and dryly funny, this New York rom-com from writer/director Miller doesn’t quite figure out the clockwork timing and light tone that its screwball plot seems to require. But it’s still worth your attention, filled as it is with sharp dialogue (“There’s something so pure about you, and a little bit stupid”) and A-plus performances. Ethan Hawke effortlessly conveys the essence of a guy who seems intense and neglected and talented, and turns out to be kind of a schmuck; Greta Gerwig finds astute variations on her semi-recurring NYC dizzy dame, mostly by putting a firm hold on her emotional truth (watch the scene where she hears a confession she knows is coming; it’s conflicted response of the highest order). And Julianne Moore is simply magnificent, taking what could’ve been a goofy caricature – with a Lily von Schtupp accent, no less – and making her live and breathe, and then get laughs.

Unlocking the Cage

Release Date: May 25 Directors: Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker Cast: Documentary

Doc legends Hegedus and Pennebaker (The War Room, Startup.com) train their cameras on Steven Wise, the animal rights attorney heading up the movement to grant chimpanzees and other thinking animals the right to live autonomous lives — specifically by extending the writ of habeas corpus to non-humans. It’s tricky territory, legally and morally (particularly when analogies to slavery start popping up), and the filmmakers don’t always manage to turn it into riveting cinema. But it’s a thoughtful, hopeful film, filled with dedicated and inspiring advocates, and the courtroom scenes are absolutely fascinating.

Presenting Princess Shaw

Release Date: May 27 Director: Ido Haar Cast: Documentary

Samantha, aka Princess Shaw, spends her days working at a retirement community and her nights on YouTube — filling her channel with confessional monologues and a capella original songs. She struggles and strives, a living embodiment of the frustration of trying to be a creative artist and failing, totally unaware that her songs have been discovered by YouTube montage musician Kutiman, who constructs elaborate production tracks for her work. Director Haar cleverly intercuts these two connected but un-communicating artists until the remarkable moment when she first hears what he’s done with her work, on her crappy phone speaker, grin a mile wide, unable to say anything but “Oh my God.” Haar’s film is engaging and somewhat inspiring, speaking to the randomness of discovery and success — an inescapable fact of show business that will, as ever, discourage some and spark the hopes of others.