Real life offers many stories worth telling and an increasingly affordable means of telling them, so it comes as no great surprise that great documentaries circulate more prevalently with each passing year. As usual, the sizable program at the Tribeca Film Festival is especially strong with non-fiction offerings. Highlights so far demonstrate an extraordinary range in the program: Sean Dunn's poetically mournful "Oxyana" captures an entire town in West Virginia addicted to prescription drugs; Matt Wolf's "Teenage" delivers an astute collage of sentiments that gave rise to the modern teenager in the aftermath of World War II; "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me" captures its hilariously vulgar and entertaining subject in all her defiant and occasionally self-destructive glory.
But the Tribeca Film Festival isn't exclusively a documentary festival on par with True/False, Hot Docs, Silverdocs or Full Frame. Alongside a handful of festival favorites like "Before Midnight" and David Gordon Green's "Prince Avalanche," Tribeca strives to deliver new American cinema on par with other festivals produced on a similar scale. However, over the course of its dozen years in existence, the festival has struggled to compete for world premieres that haven't already been lured by Sundance or South by Southwest. Even as its program has steadily improved, the quality of Tribeca's narratives remain its biggest sore point.
While it arguably offers a bigger platform for filmmakers than the scrappier SXSW, the Austin gathering maintains a greater draw for micro-budget indies, some of which travel overseas to Cannes in May. Located just a month ahead of the French festival, Tribeca is somewhat awkwardly situated on the calendar, but still feels the pressure of many festivals to attract stars to fill its red carpets and please its sponsors.
Faced with a limited range of options, the festival winds up with a number of tepidly received titles that nevertheless benefit from flashy premieres: This past week, "Junebug" director Phil Morrison unveiled a long-awaited followup, "Almost Christmas," starring Paul Rudd and Paul Giamatti, and faced near-universal derision in subsequent reviews. "Sherrybaby" director Laurie Collyer's similarly delayed return to feature filmmaking, the Naomi Watts vehicle "Sunlight Jr.," fared only a little better. Clark Gregg's "Trust Me," in which he also stars, faced a slew of mixed reactions. And don't get me started on "Adult World," a thoroughly terrible coming-of-age story in which an aspiring poet, played by Emma Roberts, attempts to apprentice herself with John Cusack as a bitter, reclusive scribe. It's as bad as it sounds, the sort of lazily scripted "comedy" that fuels condescending perceptions of American indie clichés.
But if you can forgive the presence of such mediocrity in the context of the demands faced by festival programmers, there are actually a number of much smaller, quieter narratives populating the lineup this year. While they might benefit from better exposure in the program, the handful of stories that have stood out provide a welcome alternative to the glitzier selections.
Considering its location, Tribeca might benefit from creating a program of features exclusively dedicated to the city's thriving filmmaking scene; if such a section existed, the breakout this year would undoubtedly be narrative competition title "Stand Clear of the Closing Doors," the accomplished sophomore feature from Sam Fleischner ("Wa Do Dem"). Partly inspired by the seminal Coney Island child-on-the-lam drama "The Little Fugitive," Fleischner's astute tale follows a Latino teen with Asberger's Syndrome named Ricky (Jesus Sachez-Valez), who wanders off and leaves his mother frantically searching for him during the days between Halloween and the arrival of Hurricane Sandy last fall, an event that inadvertently played a role in the film's remarkable, ominous finale.
Fleischner's naturalistic approach frequently adopts a documentary-like feel as Ricky remains tethered to the subway system for days at a time and undergoes a series of colorful encounters with the city's diverse population. Though never quite the sum of its parts, the movie brilliantly inhabits its young, confused protagonist's mind, conveying the precise means by which New York's urban details come alive for him.