April 22, 2012

TRIBECA 2012: Critic's Notebook #1

by Steve Dollar

First Winter

The end of the world was just the beginning of this year's Tribeca Film Festival. Serious consideration of apocalyptic themes have permeated all kinds of recent cinema, perhaps gearing up in a timely fashion for the Mayan Shakedown forecast for 2012, so it was no surprise to note the opening weekend's selection of First Winter—which considers the events that immediately follow An Event. What surprised, however, was the film. It's a low-budget ensemble drama made by a group of young Williamsburg denizens—yoga hipsters, if you will—whose retreat at a remote farm upstate suddenly feels a whole lot more isolated when the power dies and a transistor radio picks up disturbing, cryptic static out of New York City.

Echoes of 9/11 can't entirely be ignored, which makes this a resonant selection for Tribeca, a festival that came into existence because Robert De Niro's neighborhood became the site of its own apocalypse. But if anything, this strikingly accomplished debut by writer-director Ben Dickinson represents something of a reboot for the fest, which opened its 11th annual edition last Wednesday. A new team of programming honchos, including Geoff Gilmore (a former longtime chief at Sundance) and Frederic Boyer (formerly in charge of the Director's Fortnight at Cannes), appears to have made an impact. One promising development, in particular, has been an embrace of "no-budge"—the kind of post-mumblecore projects that Sundance and South by Southwest take pride in discovering.

First Winter

As such, First Winter looks exemplary, in specific ways, of how that scene (or whatever you want to call it) is shifting. Though still grounded in the intimate and volatile dynamics of relationships in a small, incestuous circle of friends, the plot's sexual and psychological games—It's a polyamorous bunch whose vegan-ish ethics have nothing to do with carnal knowledge—are framed against a minimalist tableau, with sparse dialogue and an immersion with the natural landscape. The immediate absurdity of the shorthand premise (just what we need, another piece of entertainment detailing the privileged pretensions of Brooklyn's most over-mediated demographic) gives way into a complicated character study and a not-necessarily unfunny social critique. The beardos don't even know how to properly shoot a rifle. The tilt into genre is key, raising life or death stakes that add ballast to the narrative, and marks an ongoing trend that extends from creepy plasma-splashed "mumblegore" of the omnibus V/H/S to lyrical romantic noir of Amy Seimetz's Sun Don't Shine. Like the latter film, First Winter features Kate Lyn Sheil (in a smaller, but no less vocal, performance) and beautiful Super 16mm cinematography. It also aspires to something visionary, evolving over the course of 91 minutes into a Tarkovsky-themed meditation whose ambiguities linger.


The festival, which runs through April 29, has more to offer on its indie slate. SXSW everyman Alex Karpovsky makes his Tribeca debut with a shocking turn in Rubberneck. The tightly wound suspense tale of a workplace obsession gone wrong finds the former stand-up comic playing a Boston research scientist whose emotional well-being has been stunted by a family secret. Because of his endless string of performances in indie comedies, I naively assumed that Karpovsky wrote and directed Rubberneck as some sort of deeply twisted humor of excruciation. And I can tell you, that attitude made the first half of the film amazingly weird to watch. Once the plot pivots, though, there will be no confusion. (And for those who prefer the "early, funny" Karpovsky, there's Supporting Characters, a soft-hearted bromantic roundelay about indie film editors and their female troubles).

Lola Versus
The rom-com lives on, however, and more conventionally, another indie icon—Greta Gerwig—navigates post-breakup heartache in Lola Versus. Though the busy actress (Damsels in Distress, The Dish & The Spoon, To Rome with Love, Noah Baumbach's cable series The Corrections and so on) should probably be done with big dumb Hollywood movies (Arthur, No Strings Attached), the low-budge Lola serves as a bit of antidote to pre-fab multiplex comedies. It's still majorly fluffy, but as co-written by Zoe Lister Jones (Breaking Upwards), who plays Gerwig's horny sparkplug bestie, the dialogue zings with boisterous gynocentric wit. Along with Lynn Shelton's emotionally generous romantic farce Your Sister's Sister and Jay Gammill's Free Samples—all about Jess Weixler having a really bad day in an ice cream truck—these comedies suggest that happily ever after has more to do with getting your shit together than finding Jason Segal at the end of the rainbow (or fine, maybe Mark Duplass, Jesse Eisenberg or Hamish Linklater).

Caroline and Jackie

And, of course, there is indie film that comes with no mumblecore attached. Visually polished (if emotionally raw), Adam Christian Clark's Caroline and Jackie takes a dysfunctional sibling premise and flips the script a couple of times, using that old standby—the dinner party—as the stage for a long, long night of crazy. The ensemble piece about twisted sisters (one twisting, the other the twistee), familial bonds that abide no matter how frayed they appear, and the often transparent cruelty lurking behind good intentions could be thought of as a crisp, latter-day riff on Persona, set amid a self-satisfied Los Feliz tableau. Marguerite Moreau (Caroline) and Bitsy Tulloch (Jackie) play their yin/yang roles with a gleaming intensity as the story veers increasingly stranger and darker, a suspense flick lurking in the shadows of an ensemble comedy.

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Posted by ahillis at April 22, 2012 7:10 PM