Summer is here, and there’s so much to see at the multiplex! I mean, sure, Solo is on half the screens, and Infinity War is on most of the rest, but I’m sure they’ll move out of the way for (peers at IMDb) oh boy, another Jurassic World. So yes, once again, the art house comes to the rescue with a very crowded slate of summer counter-programming; here are a few of the indies and docs worth tracking down this month.
Who We Are Now
RELEASE DATE: Out now DIRECTOR: Matthew Newton CAST: Julianne Nicholson, Emma Roberts, Jimmy Smits, Zachary Quinto, Jess Weixler, Lea Thompson
“Hey, one of us disappeared for ten years. It’s weird!” So says Beth (Julianne Nicholson) to her old friends in the midst of a night of wine-drinking and awkward conversational faux pas – one of many such scenes in writer/director Matthew Newton’s keenly observed and masterfully acted drama. It boasts a sturdy ensemble, but this is Nicholson’s show, and she’s dynamite; filled with resentment and rage, easily triggered and immediately apologetic, her Beth is a vehicle for the kind of tension and emotion that is, for the viewer, both uncomfortable and riveting. The entire ensemble shines, though Roberts, Smits, and Quinto are the stand-outs.
RELEASE DATE: Out now DIRECTOR: Bart Layton CAST: Evan Peters, Ann Dowd, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Udo Kier
Like his 2012 indie hit The Impostor, Layton’s latest blurs the lines between documentary and narrative, intercutting the actors dramatizing this story of a rare book heist with their present-day, real-life counterparts, even plucking the real guys into the staged scenes (“So this is how you remember it?”). And that’s not the only bait and switch here; Layton seems to be assembling a standard caper movie, and takes full advantage of the rapid pace and energetic sense of montage such a story affords, even lifting music cues and lines of dialogue from the classics in the stack of heist movies they rent from Blockbuster for research. But the job itself isn’t slick and cool; it’s messy and ugly and upsetting, and in those riveting scenes (which are all the more nerve-racking because they don’t really know what they’re doing – so anything could go wrong), it becomes, surprisingly enough, a stealth act of media critique.
RELEASE DATE: June 8 DIRECTOR: Ari Aster CAST:Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd
Like The Witch (also released by A24) before it, this Sundance premiere has been accumulating deafening buzz as an all-time scary movie for the past six months, which is probably disservice – it’s less a horror movie than an emotionally brutal family drama dressed up like one. The events are horrifying, to be sure, but in a way that has less to do with cheap thrills than vivid nightmares, and writer/director Aster captures the way a tragedy can weigh on you, day in and day out. It’s his first feature, and it’s an astonishing debut; the cinematography is purposeful and powerful, and at the very least, it’s like a two-hour demonstration of the power of sound to create dread. The very last beat is more than a little goofy, but that complaint aside, this is a refreshingly bleak and unsettling piece of work, and Toni Collette’s performance is a powder keg.
Hearts Beat Loud
RELEASE DATE: June 8 DIRECTOR: Brett Haley CAST: Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons, Ted Danson, Toni Collette, Sasha Lane, Blythe Danner
There’s a wonderful moment early in this warm-hearted comedy/drama in which record store owner Frank Fisher (Offerman) is waiting for his order at the neighborhood bakery when, to his wide-eyed amazement, the song he recorded with his daughter Sam (Clemons) starts playing over the speakers. “You guys, this is my band!” he exclaims to no one in particular; it’s a lovely beat, though one it’s hard to imagine anyone carrying off as charmingly as Offerman. Writer/director Haley specializes in personality pieces – his earlier films include I’ll See You in My Dreams and The Hero– and Hearts taps nicely into Offerman’s very specific, sensitive-burly-dude appeal. The picture is much more about the sweetness of his relationship with Clemons (and hers with new girlfriend Lane) than any particular plot or conflict, and that’s fine; it’s a lovely summer hang-out movie, nothing more, nothing less.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor
RELEASE DATE: June 8 DIRECTOR: Morgan Neville CAST:Documentary
It’s hard to argue that the timing isn’t right for an appreciation of a man who attempted, for decades, to spread the message that “Love is at the root of everything… love or the lack of it,” and director Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) doesn’t have to underline the argument when he shows clips from an episode, during the very first week of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, about fear of change, manifested in a king who builds a wall. (Yes, really). The film is full of clips like that, and wonderful archival interviews in which the educator, minister, and broadcaster – whose shows allowed him to fill all three roles at once – articulates his philosophy. Neville’s tear-jerking film conveys them succinctly, nudged along by simple but effective animations, a moving score, and a free-flowing structure that lets him push past bio-doc conventions to fully explore what was important to this man, and the ideas he was trying to move into the mainstream.
Half the Picture
RELEASE DATE: June 8 DIRECTOR: Amy Adrion CAST: Documentary
A who’s who of women in Hollywood – including Ava DuVernay, Kimberly Peirce, Penelope Spheeris, Miranda July, Jamie Babbit, Martha Coolidge, Lena Dunham, and many more – turn up to contribute to Amy Adrion’s perceptive examination of gender bias (unconscious and not) in the motion picture and television industries. If you’re interested enough to see the movie, the stats probably won’t come as a surprise (thought the sharp, clean graphics and animation helpfully underscore them); the real value here is the space Adrion gives these extraordinary women to tell their war stories.
Three Identical Strangers
RELEASE DATE: June 29 DIRECTOR: Tim Wardle CAST: Documentary
“When I tell people my story, they don’t believe it,” explains Bobby Shafron at the top of Tim Wardle’s extraordinary documentary, and it is indeed a stranger-than-fiction situation: at 19 years old, on his first day of college, Shafron discovered he had a twin brother he never knew about, separated at birth before their adoptions. And then, when that story made regional news, the twins discovered there was a third. Wardle’s construction is clever as hell; it begins as a fairy tale story and portrait of a feel-good media sensation, then takes another, darker turn 17 years later – and it just keeps blindsiding you as they slowly peel the onion of this extraordinary story. The filmmaking is top-notch (low-key reenactments, stylized sound work, rhythmic editing), but it never distracts from this incredible, and ultimately tragic, piece of storytelling.
Woman Walks Ahead
RELEASE DATE: June 29 DIRECTOR: Susanna White CAST: Jessica Chastain, Sam Rockwell, Michael Greyeyes, Ciarán Hinds, Bill Camp
There’s something indelible about the image of Jessica Chastain dragging her trunk down a dirt trail in the blazing sun, and at its best, this snapshot of late-nineteenth-century New York portrait artist Catherine Weldon is propelled by that kind of sheer visual poetry. The producers include Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, and that closing-credit information scans; it’s exactly the kind of intimately scaled, achingly earnest historical drama that’s become their specialty. True to that form, it has plenty of corn, and runs a bit roughshod. But director White fills it with enough small moments and sharp performances to hold it together.