Summer time has begun! Did you go see the Avengers movie like a good American? No? You’re not even interested in such a thing? What’re you, a commie? Well, comrade, maybe some of these hoity-toity indie movies and documentaries are more to your latte-sipping taste? The rest of us will be over here at the multiplex, changing, “USA! USA! USA!”
I kid the Avengers. But seriously, at least see some of these too.
The Rachel Divide
RELEASE DATE: Out now DIRECTOR: Laura Brownson CAST: Documentary
“Yeah, it’s been a crappy summer.” So says young Franklin early in Laura Brownson’s documentary, and it’s hard not to feel for him – his mom is Rachel Dolezal, the notorious president of a Washington NAACP chapter who was outed, that summer of 2015, as white. Brownson walks through the complexities of that controversy (and the sticky quandaries it posed, many of which were never really answered), as well as Dolezal’s complicated history and subsequent troubles. But just when it seems to get sympathetic, Brownson will remind us of exactly what choices she made, and brings on the right voices to articulate the implications of those choices. It may seem an unnecessary examination of an overexposed figure, but The Rachel Divide asks tough questions, and does its level best to answer them.
RELEASE DATE: May 4 DIRECTOR: Jason Reitman CAST: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston
The Young Adult team of star Theron, director Reitman, and screenwriter Diablo Cody reteam for this tough yet funny comedy/drama, which captures the exhaustion and desperation of parenthood (and, more specifically, the immediate postpartum period) with a verisimilitude I’ve never seen onscreen. Theron plays a mother who’s just given birth to her third child; Davis is the “night nanny,” hired by a rich sibling (Duplass), to come in and help her get some much-needed rest. “I’m just not used to people doing things for me,” she says, and you believe her; what happens next is unexpected, sometimes awkward, and often uproariously funny. It’s a poignant piece of work that taps in to the inherent helplessness of raising children, and while I’m not sure its ending works entirely in the moment, it keeps returning in the aftermath for further consideration and appreciation. That goes double for the movie.
RELEASE DATE: May 4 DIRECTORS: Julie Cohen, Betsy West CAST: Documentary
Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s profile of the second woman seated to the Supreme Court is, in many ways, also a story of ambitious women of her generation (and those before, and those after), with still-shocking stories of appalling sexism in academia, the workplace, and the world at large. But while other women marched, Ruth Bader Ginsburg litigated, and the film is a fascinating survey of both her victories and defeats (both as a legislator and as a judge). But it’s most unexpectedly effective as a love story between Ginsburg and her late husband Marty, who was both her partner and her champion. It’s a bit of a rose-colored view – she’s ultimately not seen with much more complexity than the “Notorious RBG” meme – but as far as cinematic celebrations go, well, at least this one has a subject worth celebrating.
RELEASE DATE: May 11 DIRECTOR: Michael Mayer CAST: Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, Annette Bening, Corey Stoll
Director Michael Mayer attempts – and mostly succeeds at – taking a breezy, earthy, approachable pass at Chekhov, keying in on the evocative quality of those warm summer nights in the country, and the timeless elements in the text: familial resentments, rivalries, and aggravations that have become commonplace, the perpetual round-robin of romance (everyone wants someone else, who in turn wants someone else). In attempting to keep modern audiences interested, Mayer occasionally strains a bit too hard and ends up busying up the filmmaking. But this Seagull still lands, thanks in no small part to its jaw-dropping cast and handsome production.
RELEASE DATE: May 18 DIRECTOR: Paul Schrader CAST: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer
“It’s hard to struggle against torpor,” Rev. Toller writes. “I must get pen to paper.” But “this journal brings me no peace – just pity, noting more.” In that desire to get pen to paper, the protagonist of Paul Schrader’s latest has something in common with Schrader’s best-known creation, Travis Bickle – and First Reformed is closer to Taxi Driver than you might expect an austere, modest religious drama to be. It spends much of its running time in that mold, as this man of god struggles with drinking, depression, death, and the difficulty of holding both hope and despair in his head at once; eventually, the picture takes a bold turn that seems left-field, but is totally in sync with the filmmaker’s M.O. It’s a challenging film, and perhaps too humorless (even for Schrader). But it’s sort of thrilling to see a filmmaker of his age and experience continuing to dig at his career-long preoccupations, while simultaneously staking out new and difficult territory.
The Gospel According to André
RELEASE DATE: May 25 DIRECTOR: Kate Novack CAST: Documentary
Fashion editor, commentator, and general icon André Leon Talley is a big man, in big clothes, with a big personality. Tamron Hall calls him “a black superhero,” and she’s not wrong; he’s been working “the chiffon trenches” since the ‘70s, and in that time, he’s accumulated a lot of stories, and a lot of opinions. Kate Novack’s affectionate bio-documentary digs up plenty of wonderful old footage and photos (some of the Vogue layouts he worked on are still staggering), but the most moving material is the most personal, as Novack traces all the way back to his humble Southern beginnings, and crisply conveys how those days of church clothes and social awkwardness affected the person he was, and the legend he’d become.