If December was a feast, January is a famine – the stakes are low, awards qualification periods have ended, and the box office is dominated by holiday leftovers. But if January is usually a dumping ground for unwanted orphans, we’re delighted to report that this year’s release schedule has a handful of very good indies, worth the effort of bundling up and seeking out.
RELEASE DATE: January 5 DIRECTOR: Quinn Shephard CAST: Quinn Shephard, Chris Messina, Nadia Alexander
Youth is a genuine benefit in the realm of high school movies, which document a world that changes with lightning speed, so this tricky drama from 20-year-old filmmaker Quinn Shephard feels, in spots, like a dispatch from the front lines. She also stars, as a troubled teen trying to navigate her judgmental classmates (there’s a Carrie element to this story – scenes where you know her humiliation is eminent, and it’s worrying) while falling for the substitute drama teacher (Chris Messina), who casts her in The Crucible. Shephard’s filmmaking is as assured as her acting, which is saying something; she’s good throughout, but has a moment near the end of such vulnerability, innocence, and pain, it sort of takes your breath away. Blame is a touch overlong, and I’m still not sure if all the pieces fit together, and if the ending is a masterstroke or a cop-out (or both). But I know this much: this is a thoughtful and compelling work, announcing the arrival of a genuinely exciting new talent.
RELEASE DATE: January 12 DIRECTOR: Damon Cardasis CAST: Luka Kain, Margot Bingham, Regina Taylor
Producer-turned-writer/director Cardasis tells the story of a shy, closeted teen (Kain) whose search for acceptance and a sense of normalcy beyond his steadfastly religious household leads him to the startling realization that he’s not so alone – there are people out there just like him. Cardasis also cleverly explores the vividness of teenage fantasy in several musical sequences of audacity and passion; they’re an escape for his protagonist, a coping mechanism (which also make sly use of lip-sync and performance’s deep roots in drag/trans culture). It’s a warm and ultimately understanding film, but set in a world of very real crisis, laying out clearly the cycle of rejection and desperation that too often draws in LGBTQ youth.
The Polka King
RELEASE DATE: January 12 (Netflix and limited release) DIRECTORS: Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky CAST: Jack Black, Jenny Slate, Jacki Weaver, Jason Schwartzman, Vanessa Bayer
The sheer force of his personality – and how that force conveys his clear joy of performance – has always been one of Jack Black’s best qualities, and it’s vital to the success of this breezy, snappy, based-on-a-true-story comedy from filmmakers Forbes (Infinitely Polar Bear) and Wolodarsky (Seeing Other People). As a Pennsylvania polka performer who ends up engineering an elaborate and lucrative Ponzi scheme, Black’s charisma and enthusiasm makes this bad guy not only approachable, but sympathetic; he’s an immigrant, and all he wants is the American Dream, to be successful and important and, most of all, “big famous.” The top-notch supporting cast is aces – Weaver is the standout, as his perpetually, hilariously naysaying mother-in-law – and Forbes and Wolodarsky give the proceedings a screwball snap that still leaves room for an acidic takeaway on our collective willingness to be hustled.
RELEASE DATE: January 12 (NYC) / January 19 (Los Angeles) DIRECTOR: Sam Hoffman CAST: Jemaine Clement, Elliott Gould, Ingrid Michaelson, Annie Potts
“Other people think I’m funny!” Nate’s dad (Elliot Gould) keeps telling him, and if nothing else, Humor Me is a valentine to literal Dad jokes – here rendered in black-and-white, like old-timey comedy two-reelers, but with dick punchlines. Even if Dad’s jokes were funny, Nate wouldn’t be in the mood to hear them; his latest play has been cancelled, his wife has left him for a billionaire (and taken their son with her), and he’s resorted to taking the spare room in dad’s house at an “adult lifestyle community.” You can map out the story beats within ten minutes, director Hoffman’s visual style often veers into overdone cuteness (which mirrors the broadness of the humor), and I’m still not entirely sold on the notion of Jemaine Clement as an everyman; he seems not only not of this country, but of this galaxy. But co-star/romantic interest Michaelson is utterly charming, and the infinitely reliable Gould finds the pathos in what could’ve been a sitcom characterization. It’s a cute movie. Nothing wrong with that.
The Final Year
RELEASE DATE: January 19 DIRECTOR: Greg Barker CAST: Documentary
This political doc focuses on former President Barack Obama’s foreign policy team – John Kerry, Ben Rhodes, Samantha Power, Susan Rice – and a year into the Trump Era, it’s already a kick in the head to remember all the grown-ups that use to inhabit our government. It’s tough to know how the film would play if, as its participants seem to have expected, Clinton had won; as it is, it plays like a cross between tragedy and Twilight Zone, between Obama’s idealistic talk of “passing the baton” to a team that will “continue that agenda.” At 89 briskly-paced minutes, The Final Year skimps a bit on some topics, and has a tendency to portray POTUS 44 through rose-colored glasses – most obviously, the word “drones” isn’t uttered once (a particularly glaring omission when he visits Laos to condemn the “bombs that we dropped decades ago”). But it’s nonetheless a fascinating peek at the inner workings of this thing we used to have, not long ago, called “a working government.”
Small Town Crime
RELEASE DATE: January 19 DIRECTOR: Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms CAST: John Hawkes, Octavia Spencer, Anthony Anderson, Robert Forster
“You’re a nasty sonofabitch and nobody likes you,” a bar bouncer informs Mike Kendall (Hawkes) early in Small Town Crime, and he’s not kidding – this is a drunken mess of a disgraced cop, sidelined for over a year after a traffic stop goes awry (the way directors Eshom and Ian Nelms elegantly fold into that flashback, and come out of it, is one of many fine filmmaking flourishes). When he discovers a girl’s body by the side of the road, he can’t turn off his crime-solving instincts, while also cynically seeing a chance to prove himself as a cop again. The Nelmses manage to juggle the whodunit and thriller elements, all well done (the gunplay in particular is visceral and immediate), with genuine character comedy and drama, much of it provided by Octavia Spencer and Anthony Anderson as Kendall’s sister and brother-in-law. Those relationships anchor the piece and give it real stakes, all the way up to an admirably compromised happy ending. The tone gets a little wobbly on the way there, but that’s a minor complaint – this is a solid, sharp, and funny flick.