FOUR-STAR STAR TURNS
Little Woods Writer/director Nia DaCosta won the festival’s Nora Ephron for this whisper-quiet but deeply affecting story of opioid dealing in the backwoods of North Dakota, anchored by an achingly good Tessa Thompson performance. She stars as Ollie, a broke young woman on parole for dealing oxy on job sites and truck stops, who reluctantly reenters the life in a family emergency. (Look at that, it’s a movie about “economic anxiety.”) Thompson conveys vulnerability, desperation, and toughness with aplomb; it’s full of scenes other actors would’ve oversold and blown, and she nails every one of them. DaCosta directs in a modest, slice-of-life style, which only heightens the tension of events on screen – this is the kind of movie you lean forward to hear, and before you know it, you’re overwhelmed.
Stockholm Based, as its opening splash tells us, on “an absurd but true story,” this docudrama from director Robert Budreau is, basically, an explainer of where the phrase “Stockholm Syndrome” came from: the 1973 robbery of Stockholm’s Kreditbanken bank, in which a robber (Ethan Hawke) and hostage (Noomi Rapace) got, very briefly, rather hot for each other. Budreau and his actors pull off toughest sell, making the pair’s desperate, pressured chemistry convincing; Rapace gives him a look after their first kiss that’s one of the trickiest bits of acting I’ve seen recently, and she absolutely nails it. Hawke and Budreau previously collaborated on the Chet Baker biopic Born to Be Blue, and this is a very different role, but a good fit – Hawke is clearly having a great time playing a bit of a bumbler. Budreau never quite finds an ending, but the vibe he grooves in along the way (much of it provided by the less-remembered, early-‘70s Dylan on the soundtrack) is just right.
WORST OF THE FEST (RUNNER-UP)
Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss By Passing Through the Gateway Chosen By the Holy Storsh About a third of the way into Vivieno Caldinelli’s blood-soaked comedy, Sam Huntington delivers a long, rambling monologue about why he can’t go back to Ohio. It begins mundane and builds, slowly, into surrealistic anarchy, and that build is funny in theory, but (for whatever reason) not in practice. Sadly, most of the movie is like that; you can see how it could have been both hilarious and disturbing, had they figured out how to make it play. And they had the cast to do it; Dan Harmon is funny as hell as a frustrated cop, Rhea Seehorn is wonderfully cast against type as an absolute monster, Taika Waiti finds the right notes as a departed cult leader, and it is, admittedly, a lot of fun to watch Kate Micucci go batshit insane. But more often than not, Seven Stagessimply fails to navigate the turn from freaky to funny.
WORST OF THE FEST
In a Relationship The formidable charm of Emma Roberts (and supporting player Greta Lee) is wasted in this strained romantic comedy/drama from writer/director Sam Boyd. The narrative is thuddingly predictable and the dialogue is mostly creaky, but most distressingly, there’s no rooting interest in the central relationship; Hallie (Roberts) is great, longtime afraid-to-commit boyfriend Owen (Michael Angarano) is a dirtbag, and she’s better off without him, the end. That’s all clear within the first five minutes; too bad it takes the rest of the movie for Boyd to land there.
Mapplethorpe “We’ve seen this scene before,” I thought to myself, during the tense dinner table conversation when Robert Mapplethorpe brings Patti Smith home to meet the folks, but the point was quickly rendered moot; we’ve seen all these scenes before. Ondi Timoner’s biopic attempts to capture both a person and their scene, but you can’t do that in a movie that barely clocks 90 minutes; they lightly graze on the story, skipping years and attempting to cover the gaps with clumsy montages (Reagan, Pac-Man, and McEnroe! It’s the early ‘80s!). We get lots dialogue in the subtext-free exposition mold so mercilessly mocked by Walk Hard (My favorite exchange: “We’re making history here.” “Let’s go down to Stonewall. That’s real history”), but never the vaguest sense of what drove him, what inspired him, what made him the artist he was. Matt Smith and Marianne Rendónare convincing as Mapplethorpe and Smith, but their efforts aside, what a waste.
BEST OF THE FEST (RUNNERS-UP)
Nico, 1988 “Look, my life started after the experience with the Velvet Underground,” she insists. “I’d rather we talked about the present.” It’s a refrain, in interview after interview, for Nico (Trine Dyrholm), and to writer/director Susanna Nicchiarelli’s credit, she does what Nico asks – focusing on the last two years of the experimental songstress’s life, a portrait of an icon’s twilight. In doing so, she captures the grind of a faded musician’s grind of road life: cars, interviews, and gigs, running of the fumes of one’s former fame. Dyrholm is extraordinary in the leading role, utterly credible; she carries off both the enigma and the history, much of which is carried in her eyes. Those eyes have seen things. (She also does the singing herself, and quite convincingly.)Nicchiarelli is less successful at filling in the secondary characters in Nico’s band, and we’re never that interested in them anyway; our focus is on Nico, and 1988 is as wary and lived-in as its subject.
Slut in a Good Way This sly examination of sexual double-standards from writer Catherine Léger and director Sophie Lorain concerns a trio of French-Canadian teenagers whose new jobs immerse them in a world of sexy boys and disappearing inhibitions. It plays as both an art-house riff on the workplace teen sex comedy and something of a post-modern John Hughes flick – our heroines fit into types without coming off as stereotypes, thanks primarily to the picture’s matter-of-fact tone and approach to its subject matter. The good times/bad times arc and third-act conflicts are a bit boilerplate, and the tied-up-with-a-big-bow happy ending for all betrays the admirable messiness of what’s come before. But for much of its running time, it’s a wise and witty treat.
BEST OF THE FEST
Diane Diane is just a nice retired lady in a nice little town upstate who spends her days going around doing her part: trading casseroles (and borrowed dishes), visiting sick relatives, scooping out mac and cheese during dinnertime at the shelter. But there’s darkness in her day-to-day; whenever anyone asks how her twentysomething son is doing, there’s a hesitancy in their voice, and everyone knows why. Writer/director Kent Jones tells her story in short, simple scenes, snapshots of this seemingly ordinary life – and then he digs deeper, with a reminder that even someone like Diane had younger, wilder days, and maybe she’s not some folksy saint after all. Mary Kay Place is marvelous in the leading role, and her screen presence is so arm and comforting, we think we know her. Jones uses that familiarity, brilliantly.
The Party’s Just Beginning Doctor Who and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle‘s Karen Gillan stars, writes, and directs (it’s her feature debut on the latter two fronts), but this isn’t some actor’s vanity project; it heralds the arrival of a major filmmaker, with a genuine voice and a striking style. She stars as Lucy, an aimless young Scottish woman whose days and nights are a blur of monotony, yet becomes keenly aware of how her town’s overwhelming ennui is manifesting itself in inescapable suicides. It’s a refreshingly unpredictable movie – it really could go anywhere at any time, thanks not only to the wildness of her direction, but the cleverness of its cross-cutting – and Gillan’s insightful script finds the humor in some deeply dark material. And then, on top of all that, she crafts a tremendous performance, haunting yet present, dryly funny but casually tragic. There’s a real power to the filmmaking here; Gillan is, clearly, a force to be reckoned with.