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The first weekend at Tribeca 2017 was filled with heart-wrenching documentaries, utterly entertaining horror, and foreign gems. In short, it was a smorgasbord of delectable film fare for avid film lovers.

The Family I Had
Directors: Katie Green, Carlye Rubin
Category: Viewpoints, Documentary

Look, somebody can read a description of The Family I Had and immediately recognize whether or not it’s for them. You can’t blame anybody for not wanting to watch a documentary so harrowing. Its subject is Charity Lee: a single mother whose son, Paris, at the age of 13, brutally murdered his four-year-old sister, Ella. Near the beginning of the film, we hear the 911 call Paris made just after committing the act, and as you’d imagine, it’s difficult to listen to – if that sounds like something you wouldn’t be able to handle, it’s probably best to skip this one. But those who muster the strength to watch it will be rewarded by some truly gripping footage.

The Family I Had makes frequent use of Charity’s home videos. Watching Paris and Ella play together just boggles the mind even more. How could this kid, who his little sister appeared to adore, do such a terrible thing? It’s the question that Charity, years removed from the murder, will struggle with for her entire life. Harder still for Charity, she still keeps in contact with Paris through email and phone, and, occasionally, visits him in prison. It’s clear to see how much this torments her, but she also can’t bring herself to cut her son entirely from her life.

As the film goes on, we learn more about Charity’s family – her mother, with whom she’s had a strained relationship, even before the murder, has her own dark secrets. And, of course, any footage of Paris himself is chilling, whether it be a foreboding moment in one of the old home videos, or a present day interview with him (now a late teen) from prison. The Family I Had is never easy to watch, but always compelling. Just prepare to be bummed out the rest of the night if you go see it.

Sambá
Directors: Laura Amelia Guzmán, Israel Cárdenas
Category: International Narrative Competition

Films from the Dominican Republic don’t often make it to American shores, so Sambá stands out in an International Narrative category in which most of the selections come from countries more familiar to Tribeca attendees. In Sambá, Francisco Castillo returns home from a 15-year prison stint in the United States. As an ex-convict, finding a job to hold is—you guessed it—very difficult. Francisco eventually stumbles into the world of underground street fighting, where he’s discovered by Nichi, a former big-time boxer from Italy, who decides to train him.

The narrative, unlike its foreign setting, feels very familiar: a man finding redemption through boxing. “Rocky, but in the Dominican Republic!” is a reductive description, but it’s also not entirely inaccurate. Even the conclusion might awaken some déjà vu. However, this all might actually be to Sambá’s favor. There’s something exciting about seeing a traditional sports movie narrative translated to a country we seldom see onscreen – ‘70s Philadelphia this isn’t. The proceedings feel both fresh and recognizably cozy. Each of the boxing matches are thrilling and, like the film in general, beautifully photographed. It’s boilerplate stuff, but quality boilerplate stuff; there’s a reason people love boxing movies.

Sambá is at its best when its focus shifts. More time, for example, could’ve been spent with Francisco’s son and his flirtations with a life of crime. Brief glimpses of Dominican society at large might have the viewer hoping for a much more sprawling version of the film: one where Francisco’s story is only one of many.

 

 

The Departure
Director: Lana Wilson
Category: Documentary Competition

Ittetsu Nemoto is a profoundly decent person, often to his own detriment. As a Buddhist, priest, he’s known in Japan for saving the lives of many, many suicidal people. Director Lana Wilson, much to her credit, gives us a non-editorialized view of Nemoto going about his work. His calendar is absolutely jammed: phone calls, meeting one-on-one with people to give them his words of wisdom, or perhaps following up with somebody he’d previously provided counsel to.

It’s easy to see what makes him so good at what he does. His deft mix of compassion and humor is perfect – he treats suicide with the respect it deserves, but he somehow finds a way to make the people he works with laugh at their situation. It’s fascinating to watch. And yet Nemoto is so good at what he does, that he can’t help but neglect his own life. Given his unbelievable ability to save lives, the logic follows that any time he’s not working, it creates a chance that a life will be needlessly lost.  And now that he’s hit middle-age, complete with a wife and kid, his family isn’t getting the quality time with him that they’d like. On top of that, he is suffering from heart problems – no thanks to the enormous stress of his job.

This is a guy who really deserves the documentary treatment. Wilson’s style is a bit verité. There aren’t any talking head interviews or contrived situations milked for extra drama. We simply watch Nemoto go about his work, which is plenty enough.

And as a bonus, there’s an unexpected breakout star who draws plenty of “awws” from the audience: Nemoto’s adorable baby son.

The Endless
Directors: Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson
Category: US Narrative Competition

If there’s a lesson to be learned from The Endless, it’s that somebody should write directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson a check for $50 million. Their previous movie, Spring (a bit like a horror version of the Before Sunrise trilogy) did a lot with very little. Even those who didn’t like it would probably have to admit that it was, at the very least, really original. The Endless once again sees the pair putting their own unique spin on the horror genre (if you can even call it horror) with what seems to be a very modest budget.  There’s a good chance that the budget shapes the material in some way; with big ideas, but only so much money to play around with, Benson and Moorhead are forced to get creative.

It won’t do much good to describe the plot in great detail here. The basics: brothers Aaron and Justin (played quite well by the directors) escaped from a “UFO death cult” when they were younger. After receiving a mysterious video message from the camp they used to call home, the younger Aaron decides they should take a brief trip there to see if it’s truly as bad as the older Justin would have him think. You can guess the gist of the rest: they arrive and things get weird. But weird in a way the viewer might not expect. The strange goings-on at Camp Arcadia, aside from just being spooky, serve as a sort of meta-commentary on cinema and storytelling in general.

The Endless is heady stuff. If it’s popular enough, there’ll undoubtedly be a whole trove of people online discussing it and mapping out all the mechanics of the plot. It’s the kind of movie that might end up being even better upon a second viewing; surely Moorhead and Benson have sprinkled a bunch of little Easter eggs throughout. Even during the first watch, it’s one of the highlights of Tribeca 2017. And please, if you’re a wealthy studio type who happens to be reading this, give the directors a bunch of money to do whatever they want.

A Suitable Girl
Directors: Sarita Khurana, Smriti Mundhra
Category: Documentary Competition

It would be really hard not to enjoy A Suitable Girl. The documentary, about three different women in India looking to find a husband, was shot over a four-year period. Given the intimate access that directors Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra were granted, viewers really get to know the subjects. There’s Dipti, actively seeking a husband through a variety of means, whether by newspaper or online dating. Ritu, on the other hand, is a career woman who’s in a little less of a hurry when it comes to settling down (much to the chagrin of her matchmaker mother). The third woman profiled, Amrita, is only weeks away from her wedding at the start of the film.

Watching how the women’s lives shift and change over the course of four years is fascinating. There’s just something inherently satisfying about seeing so much time pass over the course of 90-something minutes. The massive amount of footage shot by Khurana and Mundhra is expertly edited into a coherent and compelling narrative. But A Suitable Girl also serves as an educator, especially to Western audiences, about arranged marriage. Viewers might be surprised to have a few of their preconceived notions about how the institution actually works shattered.

A Suitable Girl is especially notable in that it’s both universal and specific. The pressures on the women of India to get married, losing a bit of their identity in the process, aren’t entirely dissimilar from pressures that women around the world face. To that end, look out for our upcoming interview with the directors, along with editor Jennifer Tiexiera, in which we’ll discuss the process of making the documentary, as well as its wider implications. To be clear: At A Suitable Girl is likely the best documentary of the festival.

Rock’n Roll
Director: Guillaume Canet
Category: Spotlight Narrative

Fans of seeing a single joke stretched across the entire course of a two-hour movie are going to love Rock’n Roll! That’s only sort of a complaint. It’s almost admirable how much Guillaume Canet sticks to the movie’s one joke, elevating it to further points of absurdity each scene. It can be grating, to say the least, but he knows exactly what he’s doing. By the conclusion, everything has gotten so silly—especially given that the film begins squarely grounded in reality—that the runtime somehow manages to feel both too long and just right.

Guillaume Canet, a famous French actor and director, plays himself; his wife–the much more well-known in America Marion Cotillard—plays herself. When an interviewer mentions to Guillaume that the public doesn’t see him as very edgy or “rock and roll” anymore, he sets out to prove her wrong. It starts out innocently enough, first by staying out late and drinking more. Then he starts wearing different clothes, completely unbefitting of a 40-something family man. Eventually, he bears absolutely no resemblance to the Guillaume Canet of the beginning of the movie. And that’s the joke: the square Canet trying harder and harder to be cool. For two hours.

Rock’n Roll will probably be most fun for Francophiles. Many real-life French actors and celebrities appear as themselves, but only viewers very familiar with the French entertainment industry will recognize more than a handful of them. Likewise, a running gag throughout the movie in which Marion Cotillard, practicing for a role, speaks in a Quebecois accent, isn’t going to play nearly as well for non-French speakers as it would for those who know the language.

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