Here’s what a good month September is for indies: normally, when we do this beginning-of-the-month roundup, we have ten titles to recommend, maybe twelve, if we’re lucky. This month, we have seventeen. So let’s get to them.
Release Date: September 2 Director: Kirsten Johnson Cast: Documentary
“I originally shot the following footage for other films,” documentary cinematographer Johnson explains in the on-screen text that opens Cameraperson, “but here I ask you to see it as my memoir.” The result is a searing mosaic that works on you in stages. Initially, she collects moments and outtakes, with rough transitions and off-camera chatter (and gasps, and sneezes) left in, a document of the creative process – we hear conversations about what the crew is shooting and what to shoot next, and get an idea of how these films are made. But as the portraiture becomes more evocative and the themes begin to coalesce (via connected images, places, and compositions), these human moments create a dialogue with each other, combining to tell a wider, powerful story of their own.
Release Date: August 2 Director: Elizabeth Wood Cast: Morgan Saylor, Brian ‘Sene’ Marc, Justin Bartha
Writer/director Wood formulates a potent examination of sexual gaze and sketchy behavior in this story of a nice girl from Oklahoma City who moves to New York City for school and finds herself drawn not only to the drug dealer on the corner, but the “bad girl” he brings out of her. Wood meticulously charts the descent from naïve optimism to utter desperation, the way our heroine goes from an innocent on an adventure to a spiraling, twitching, lying mess. Watching that fall, and the dire series of decisions that precipitate it, is a stressful viewing experience, but a potent one; Wood’s candid tale doesn’t pull any punches, and Morgan Saylor (previously best known from the teen subplot you hated on Homeland) is fearless and fabulous in the leading role.
Release Date: September 2 Director: Daniel Noah Cast: Jerry Lewis, Kerry Bishé, Kevin Pollak, Dean Stockwell, Claire Bloom
Writer/director Noah’s modest drama is, above all, a showcase for Jerry Lewis, who hasn’t starred in a live-action movie since 1995. Yet it’s had a weird history, debuting as a work-in-progress at Cannes all the way back in 2013 (as part of a Lewis tribute) and then disappearing for a stretch. But it’s worth seeking out; Lewis may be a jerk and his filmography may be spotty, but he brings his long life, the weight of his experience, and even his increasing physical feebleness to this story of a recent widower in mourning, coping with the secret he discovered about his wife just before her death. Lewis finds the frustration, the humor, and the pain of the character, and blends them all in a wonderful climactic two-scene with Dean Stockwell, two bitter old men arguing over the events of decades past, before finding comfort in each other. In that scene, and elsewhere in the picture, Noah allows his camera to just hold on Lewis’s lived-in face, all its cracks and crevices and lines, and let the character shine through, building to a closing sequence that’s a real knockout. It’s minor enough to verge on slimness, and feels a touch TV-movie-ish in spots, so it amounts to a film that’s almost entirely about this single performance. But what a performance it is.
Author: The JT LeRoy Story
Release Date: August 9 Director: Jeff Feuerzeig Cast: Documentary
Feuerzeig tells the mind-boggling story of how author Laura Albert, masquerading as a homeless, HIV-positive teen writer named JT Leroy, took the literary world on a decade-long ride, and does so with the precision and clarity of a procedural – how Albert seduced lit types with her talent, how she made her mysteriousness into a Salinger-esque hook, how she used it to capture the attention of celebrities and pop press. But for all its insights about marketing and persona, it’s a very personal story of a woman who used alternate identities and painstakingly crafted characters to dodge her own demons and remake her reality. Feuerzeig is a crackerjack filmmaker, expertly juggling archival footage, inventive animations of Leroy’s stories, extensive interviews with Albert, and shocking telephone recordings (she taped everything), and his film is riveting. But it’s also a remarkably sensitive and thoughtful meditation on the stories we tell ourselves to become who we are – or who we fancy ourselves to be.
To Sleep with Anger (re-release)
Release Date: September 9 Director: Charles Burnett Cast: Danny Glover, Mary Alice, Paul Butler, DeVaughn Nixon
A few years back, Burnett’s 1978 masterpiece Killer of Sheep was finally rescued from its sketchy-rights oblivion and given the proper release it deserved – so it only seems appropriate that the filmmaker’s 1990 marvel is now getting the same treatment. A box office disappointment on its initial release (in spite of the presence of Glover, coming right off Lethal Weapon 2), Sleep is an insightful and deceptively subtle examination of familial tension, emotional abuse, and stewing resentment in a middle-class black family, brought to the surface by the arrival of family friend Harry (Glover). He’s all polite manners and smiling ingratiation at first, but he immediately gets into each family member’s head, exposing all the existing fault lines that cause their little earthquakes. It’s a delicious role for Glover, full of kindness that gives way to sinister darkness with barely a nudge; some of the other performances are a tad stiff. But Burnett’s terrific script keeps everyone firmly on the ground, and his relaxed direction captures the deliberate rhythms of these lives, allowing Harry to properly disrupt them.
As I Open My Eyes
Release Date: September 9 Director: Leyla Bouzid Cast: Baya Medhaffer, Ghalia Benali, Montassar Ayari
Farah (Medhaffer) is about to go to college. She’s bright and beautiful and aware of the world around her; in fact, she sings about it in a band. But that’s not done lightly in Tunis, circa 2010, and the time and place of director Bouzid’s debut feature renders it a good deal more urgent than your standard coming-of-age drama. For a time, it seems Farah’s biggest woes are based in her home: she wants to keeps singing and study music, but her worrywart mother wants her to focus on medicine and quit hanging out with her bandmates. All of that happens before their protest music starts to get the wrong type of attention, prompting a harrowing shift in tone and point-of-view that could’ve unsteadied a lesser film. Instead, Bouzid ups the ante and increases the intensity; it’s a first-rate film, with an important story to tell.
Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four
Release Date: September 14 Director: Deborah Esquenazi Cast: Documentary
The early stretches of this gripping documentary lay out, with clarity that borders on repetition, exactly who everyone is and how they relate to each other – a precision whose purpose becomes clear when director Esquenazi reaches the shocking, unthinkable crime they’re accused of. In 1994, four Latinas were accused of the gang rape of two little girls (the nieces of one of the young women); they spent well over a decade in jail for a crime they continued to insist had never occurred, until… well, it’s best to see the film unaware of its outcome. Such stories of innocent people wrongly accused are, admittedly, an easy land for this writer, and in fact make some of the sloppier filmmaking and narrative choices more forgivable. This is a remarkable story, shocking and infuriating, and a reminder of how easily the notion of “justice” can go sideways.
Command and Control
Release Date: September 14 Director: Robert Kenner Cast: Documentary
On the evening of September 18, 1980, a dropped wrench during a standard procedure in a facility in Damascus, Arkansas caused a Titan 2 missile to explode – and nearly melted down the nuclear warhead it was carrying. Robert Kenner’s film, adapted from Eric Schlosser’s book, uses that incident and its fallout as the framework for a history of the nuclear age and its many other, terrifying “accidents.” It’s an immersive experience; Kenner tightly winds interviews, archival footage, and convincing dramatizations together, to parachute into the middle of the panic and chaos. Brisk, efficient, and, by its conclusion, scary – there are, after all, still thousands of these things out there, with a sensitive nutcase frighteningly close to their access.
Release Date: September 16 Director: Matt Johnson Cast: Matt Johnson, Owen Williams, Josh Boles
A few years back, Apollo 18 proved moon-based found footage thrillers could have great premises and still make for lousy movies. No such trouble with this clever conspiracy thriller from director/co-writer/co-star Johnson (The Dirties), which takes one of the most notoriously tinfoil-hatted of theories (that the moon landings were faked on a soundstage) and documents it, step by step, from early tests to airbrushed lunar surface photos. But they don’t just coast on the clever gimmick; the characters are finely tuned (our protagonists are a specific breed of cocky, beefy nerd), their relationship dynamics are tricky, and what starts as a goofy historical comedy turns into a surprisingly spry thriller without fumbling the turn. In other words, it’s the movie you want it to be – and then, wonderfully, it’s more.
The Lovers and the Despot
Release Date: September 23 Directors: Ross Adam, Robert Cannan Cast: Documentary
“We don’t have any films that get into film festivals!” roars the voice on the audiotape, and it’s not Harvey Weinstein or Scott Rudin; it’s Kim Jong-Il, the notorious North Korean dictator. Turns out, among many other things, Kim was a full-on movie nerd – so much so that he arranged the kidnapping of South Korea’s best filmmaker, Shin Sang-ok, and his muse, movie star Choi Eun-hee, charging them (after years of captivity) with putting his country on the filmmaking map. Directors Adam and Cannan use interviews with various observers and participants (including leading lady Choi), clips from their films, chilling surreptitious recordings, and spy thriller-flavored reenactments to tell the fascinating story of their incarceration and escape. But it’s not just about these two people and their stranger-than-fiction story; Adam and Cannan thankfully and thoughtfully widen the lens, illustrating the key role media manipulations of this sort play in our larger world.
Release Date: September 23 Director: Andrew Neel Cast: Ben Schnetzer, Nick Jonas, Gus Halper
In a way, the most disturbing thing about the harrowing hazing rituals that serve as the centerpiece of Andrew Neel’s fraternity drama isn’t the rituals themselves – it’s the pleasure the “brothers” take in humiliating and abusing their “goats” (pledges). “They just do this to weed out the weak ones,” explains Brett (Jonas) to his brother Brad (Schnetzer), advising him, “you gotta be tougher.” Those notions of masculinity – you’ve gotta be tough, you gotta take a punch, you gotta throw a punch, and there’s nothing worse than being a bitch or a pussy or a faggot – are the real subject of this brutally effective picture. It’s a tough sit, but a fascinating and necessary look at a particular breed of young men who, to varying degrees, are accustomed to taking what they want.
Audrie & Daisy
Release Date: September 23 Directors: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk Cast: Documentary
In 2012, two teenage girls, one in California and one in Missouri, were sexually assaulted while intoxicated, their assaults captured on digital cameras and shared with classmates. One girl, convinced that the damage to her reputation was too much to bear, ended her life. The other went public with her accusations, only to have her case mishandled by the shockingly corrupt local officials, and to subsequently find herself bombarded with public harassment. But she didn’t take her life; she formed a network with other survivors, and told her story loudly and clearly. “The words of our enemies aren’t as awful as the silence of our friends,” she says at the end of Cohen and Shenk’s documentary, which tells these two stories delicately and mostly without commentary, though the more infuriating aspects are duly noted. It’s a well-made film, blending case archival materials with stylized interviews and inventive animations. We hear a lot about rape culture, but it’s rare to see it summarized as succinctly as in the soon-to-be-deceased Audrie’s Facebook chat with her attacker: “u have no idea what its like to be a girl.” Too many men don’t, but via films like this, perhaps they can learn.
My Blind Brother
Release Date: September 23 Director: Sophie Goodhart Cast: Jenny Slate, Nick Kroll, Adam Scott, Zoe Kazan
The only thing worse than a terrible relative is one you can’t complain about, and that’s the daily truth of Bill (Kroll), whose brother Robbie (Scott) is an inconsiderate, egotistical jerk – and a blind humanitarian. Their dynamic is funny as hell, but there’s real tension and resentment as well, and writer/director Goodhart pivots easily from broad comedy to serious drama (sometimes within the same scene). She knows just how long to hold a deadpan visual or a bemused reaction, she’s got a quirky, idiosyncratic dialogue style, and she coaxes sensitive, intelligent performances from her very funny cast. There are huge laughs, but this is serious business; it’s ultimately about how people are complicated, and sometimes they don’t do the right thing. Wise, silly, and very smart.
Do Not Resist
Release Date: September 30 Director: Craig Atkinson Cast: Documentary
The strangest thing happens during a Senate hearing about a third of the way into this infuriating documentary investigation of police militarization: you realize this is an issue Tom Coburn, Rand Paul, and Claire McCaskill are all lined up against. It’s an issue that blurs seemingly contradictory ideologies, in which law-and-order Republicans can find common ground with Black Lives Matter activists; wisely, Atkinson chooses mostly to observe rather than explicitly comment, though what he chooses to observe and include makes a comment itself. He captures frightening tension on the streets of Ferguson, yee-haw “SWAT games” at police training facilities, ballroom seminars from a top cop who informs officers they are “tools of violence,” and cops executing meritless warrants in comically outsized military vehicles. By the time he lands on the analyst who talks about predicting criminal likelihood before birth, we’re clearly through the looking glass. Cumulatively, it knocks the wind out of you; this is an immersive and scary piece of work.
Release Date: September 30 Director: Andrea Arnold Cast: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough
Writer/director Arnold, who went minimalist for her 2011 Wuthering Heights, goes maximalist (and then some) for this lengthy, meandering, yet fascinating tale of an aimless teenager who joins up with a motley crew of hard-partying, door-to-door magazine-selling con artists. In other words, it’s the Spring Breakers/Glengarry Glen Ross mash-up you never knew you wanted. It’s a movie that feels lived in, and Arnold works in an ingratiating, off-the-cuff style; most of her cast don’t appear to be actors (in the best possible way), so she captures conversations that are messy and half-overheard, complemented by casually beautiful compositions and a wild, anything-goes storytelling spirit.
Among the Believers
Release Date: September 30 Directors: Mohammed Naqvi, Hemal Trivedi Cast: Documentary
“They’re really malleable at this age,” explains the dean of a branch of the Red Mosque madrassa network, a heavily influential group of Pakistani schools who pride themselves on educating and preparing the next generation of Taliban. Those schools – and the hatemongers and hustlers who run them – are the subject of this chilling documentary, which takes an unflinching look at the Red Mosques (initially financed by the U.S., of course) and their horrifying actions of social vigilantism, culminating in the brutal Peshawar school attack. Hints of hope are present in educators and activists who push back, but one can’t help but feel doom in the face of fundamentalists who insist, “If you disagree with us, arrest us, shoot us. But if you think you can change us, forget it.”
Release Date: September 30 Director: Brendan Toller Cast: Documentary
Early in this entertaining documentary, Iggy Pop defines Danny Fields as “a connector, like a fuel line in a car,” and that’s a pretty apt description. Fields was something of a Leonard Zelig figure for ’60s and ’70s pop culture: he hung out at the Factory, appointed himself the press agent for the Doors, was the first publicist for Elektra Records, edited 16 magazine, helped ignite the Beatles’ “bigger than Jesus” controversy, managed the Ramones, and gave early boosts to Patti Smith, the Stooges, the MC5, and Leonard Cohen. So, as you can imagine, he’s got some stories to tell — and he’s a colorful storyteller, witty, candid and free of fucks to give. Director Toller complements those stories with priceless archival footage, unheard old tapes, and inventive new animation, creating a fast-paced, energetic, and thoroughly enjoyable bit of pop portraiture.