Sure, it’s the summer, but this month’s wide releases are still pretty grim stuff: Sequels to Independence Day and Now You See Me and The Conjuring, a wacky The Rock/Kevin Hart buddy action/comedy (you see, one of them is really large, and… you may want to sit down for this…), the story of a slave rebellion as told through the eyes of – all together now – a brave white guy, and that movie where Blake Lively and her bikini battle a shark. But never fear! This month’s indie slate is loaded, with a particularly strong showing of can’t-miss documentaries.
Release Date: June 3 Director: Anna Rose Holmer Cast: Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett, Inayah Rodgers
Toni (the terrific Hightower), eleven years old, does her sit-ups, does her work-out, does her sparring; she seems to spend all her time at the community center (we never see her at home or at school). And one day, she peeks through a window, spies a confident young woman moving and strutting at a dance team rehearsal, and sees something there she wants to be a part of. The Fits is deliberately ambiguous about what draws Toni in – whether it’s an explicit attraction to this girl, or a desire to be a part of the world through which she moves so freely – and the film also keeps vague what, exactly, is the cause and explanation (or, more likely, the metaphor) of the title infliction, an odd striking of seizures and sicknesses that is affecting the older girls on the squad. Yet the film never seems incomplete; it’s strange, and audacious, and frankly exhilarating, and when the closing song, Kiah Victoria’s “Aurora”, asks “Must we choose to be slaves/ To gravity?” that’s about all the explanation you need.
Release Date: June 3 Director: James Solomon Cast: Documentary
Director Solomon initially works in a true-crime documentary mold, investigating the notorious tale of Kitty Genovese, the young woman famously murdered in front of a Queens apartment building while some thirty witnesses did nothing. She became, in the words of her younger brother Bill, “the symbol of bystander apathy for decades — the girl no one cared about.” But recent reappraisals have called the initial reporting of the incident into question, so Bill decides to reinvestigate it himself, as best he can, an inquiry that becomes something of an obsession. What begins as a riveting deep dive into a cultural flashpoint becomes, in its later scenes, a sharp-edged, difficult, sometimes inappropriate, and always fascinating realization that “it’s hard to let go when you can never know the whole truth.”
Time to Choose
Release Date: June 3 Director: Charles Ferguson Cast: Documentary
Before he made the definitive Iraq documentary No End in Sight and the definitive financial crisis documentary Inside Job, Charles Ferguson was a political scientist – which helps explain the precise, detailed (almost data dump-esque) nature of his work in those films, and the particular angle he takes in this exploration of the climate crisis. He’s all about cause and effect, methodically working through the fossil fuels at the root of this problem and the industries built on them, but his message is ultimately that there are choices we can make, and they won’t cost as much as the deniers and oil magnates insist. Ferguson doesn’t quite reach the heights of his first two films; An Inconvenient Truth and other films got to a lot of this first, and he succumbs to that most annoying of doc tropes, the ending text of “action items,” complete with URL direction. But it’s still an important, thoughtful, and urgent film, spiced up by enough gorgeous cinematography to qualify as Earth porn, and deeply concerned voice-over by your boyfriend Oscar Isaac.
Release Date: June 10 Directors: Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow Cast: Documentary
The big, bold letters of the director’s name scroll across the screen — rendered in blood red, of course — as the mad violins of Bernard Hermann fill the soundtrack, and it’s hard to remember the last time I felt so safe in a movie’s hands, so quickly. Directors and acolytes Baumbach and Paltrow spent five years fashioning a week of interviews with their friend and idol Brian De Palma into this informative and affectionate documentary, which manages to both cover his entire career (and I do mean entire, even the movies we’d all probably rather forget) and to discuss, with great detail, iconic shots and aesthetic trademarks. De Palma’s is the only voice heard, which certainly forces us to take his word for things. But it also allows us to get a real sense of the man’s personality; he still sparkles and giggles like a kid getting away with something, telling great stories, imparting valuable wisdom, and surveying a career with honesty and candor. A movie geek treat.
Release Date: June 10 Director: Felix Thompson Cast: Charlie Plummer, Cory Nichols, Christian Madsen
This modest indie drama pithily evokes the humiliation parade that is teendom via the story of Jack, an outcast, semi-delinquent, and general asshole. Writer/director Thompson remembers what it feels like to be this age and alone; he also captures the difficulty and desperation of trying to interact naturally with the opposite sex (there’s a “truth or dare” scene here that’s so accurate, I could barely watch). It’s a tough, honest movie that takes a fresh and naturalistic approach to some admittedly familiar material.
Release Date: June 17 Director: David Farrier, Dylan Reeve Cast: Documentary
David Farrier is a New Zealand pop culture broadcaster whose innocent inquiry into the bizarre sport of “Competitive Endurance Tickling” takes one bizarre turn after another in this utterly strange and endlessly fascinating first-person documentary. Farrier goes looking for answers and stumbles into a mystery so complex, and so full odd turns, you wouldn’t believe it in a narrative film: a “tickling empire,” in which monied “fetish queens” create bizarre (and, they strenuously insist, “exclusively heterosexual”) videos that turn into fodder for blackmail, threats, and generally inexplicable behavior. Just when you think you’ve predicted a big reveal, another whammo socks you in the jaw; it’s got the complexity, twists, and tension of a good thriller, yet sounds notes of humanity when you least expect them.
Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made
Release Date: June 17 Directors: Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen Cast: Documentary
Back in 1982, a trio of grade-school kids got together with the rather simple idea of doing their own version of their beloved Raiders of the Lost Ark. The technology was crude — a clunky VHS camcorder — and their budget was an accumulation of allowances, but the film they made pulsed with imagination, enthusiasm, and heart. Directors Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen tell the story of that production and its unexpectedly lengthy afterlife, which led to a reunion, long after the fact, to film its final, missing scene. It’s irresistible stuff, a charming valentine to movies, to being a kid, and to not being told what you can and can’t do.
Release Date: June 22 Director: Penny Lane Cast: Documentary
Gather round, kiddies, and director Lane will tell you the tale of John R. Brinkley, the early 20th century radio pioneer, gubernatorial candidate, and world-famous doctor who made waves for a controversial procedure implanting goat testicles into impotent men. Lane recognizes the inescapable humor of this story without ridiculing it, or its participants; every turn is stranger than fiction, and she compliments the usual expert testimony, newsreels, archival recordings, and home movies with storybook narration and animated interludes (in shifting styles to match the arc of the story). It’s all good, all-American success story fun until the devastating third act, which meticulously drills down into the very idea of legend-telling, myth-making, and story-spinning. One of the year’s very best documentaries, and (albeit accidentally) a must-see companion to a certain self-aggrandizing presidential campaign.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Release Date: June 24 Director: Taika Waititi Cast: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata
Fast-paced and funny, wry and clever, writer/director Waititi ( What We Do in the Shadows ) adapts Barry Crump’s novel into a mash-up of boys’ adventure tale and Rambo riff, with grieving widower Sam Neill and delinquent foster son Julian Dennison taking a trip to the bush that becomes an elaborate run-away. Waititi manages to do “quirky” without being obnoxious; he’s got an absurd streak, as a storyteller and a filmmaker, which manifests itself in clever edits, dry reactions, and outright silliness. It’s a raucous good time – a sensibility that will hopefully carry over to his next (much bigger) gig, taking over the plodding Thor series.
Breaking a Monster
Release Date: June 24 Director: Luke Meyer Cast: Documentary
This candid documentary spends a chaotic year or so with the members of Unlocking the Truth, a trio of black tweens from Flatbush, Brooklyn, whose thrash-metal sound took them from YouTube sensation to major label signing. Meyer’s cameras track the band as they sign, rehearse, strategize, and work, while slyly intercutting their youthful impatience with the matters at hand (they text idly and play GTA during important meetings). Meyer works in an observational and occasionally bemused style – he doesn’t explicitly comment on his subject matter, but his cuts, soundbites, and choices say a lot. And at its best, he gets at the machinery of the modern music industry, both bad and good; the patience with which he shows the trio working to create their lead-off single pays off in a vivid portrait of creativity and commercialism. The film’s only real flaw is its sense of already being out of date; in the year-plus since its festival unveiling, the band broke with their label, and there thus seems much more story to tell. Sequel, perhaps?
Release Date: June 24 Director: Thomas Bidegain Cast: François Damiens, Finnegan Oldfield, Agathe Dronne, John C. Reilly
In its first hour or so, the unapologetic echoes of The Searchers ring loud and clear: Director Bidegain tells the story of Alain (Damiens), a tough, stoic French cowboy — there’s a subculture I wasn’t aware of — whose 16-year-old daughter runs away with her Muslim boyfriend, prompting a multi-year, multi-continent search to “rescue” a young woman who by all indications doesn’t want to return. The transition is fairly seamless (Ethan Edwards’ racism translates cleanly into Alain’s Islamophobia) with her father and young brother hitting brick walls and dead ends all the way, ignoring all indications that “she’s not your daughter anymore.” But it’s his obsession, ruining his life and his relationships — and then Bidegain suddenly veers, tinkering with the homage before dispensing with it all together to become something quietly devastating, and (especially in its final scenes) staggeringly powerful. But even when it diverges from it source, the thematic link is clear: this is ultimately a story about responsibility, and the humanity that must compel it.