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.Fleischner’s story is unique in that it presents a simple premise and weaves it together with many layers of sensory experiences. A similarly ambitious approach can be found in another competition title, “Bluebird,” the debut feature of writer-director Lance Edmands. Previously an editor on movies like “Tiny Furniture,” Edmands’ background makes sense in light of his first movie’s cautious assemblage of several mini-dramas in a small town. Set in a remote, chilly region of northern Maine, “Bluebird” revolves around the tumult that results when bus driver Lesley (Amy Morton) inadvertently misses a sleeping child in her bus at the end of the day and feels responsible when he winds up in a coma after spending the night in the deep freeze.
While the boy’s negligent mother Marla (Louisa Krause) attempts to push responsibility onto the older woman, her blue collar husband (John Slattery) struggles to keep his job and remain supportive without losing motivation or ignoring critiques from the couple’s disgruntled daughter (Emily Meade). That’s a lot of mini-stories to juggle at once — especially for such downbeat material — and “Bluebird” at times strains from the weight of its self-serious tone (particularly epitomized by the on-the-nose presence of the titular CGI critter). However, Edmands’ cautiously assembled structure draws the ensemble together with a beautifully enacted series of events that unites them in a struggle to make their isolated world worth living in spite of the literal and figurative isolation surrounding them. Gorgeously shot on film by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”), “Bluebird” owes much to the strength of its cast, particularly the deeply empathetic Morton and the angst-riddled Krause, delivering a notable contrast to her giddy turn in last year’s “King Kelly.” For everyone involved, “Bluebird” is a strong calling card.
Another actor deepening his reel at Tribeca is former “Saturday Night Live” star Will Forte, who takes on his first serious role in “Run and Jump” and buries himself in the performance. This tenderhearted drama, the feature-length debut of Steph Green (who was nominated for an Oscar for her 2009 short “New Boy”), involves an Irish family in which former man of the house Conor (Edward Macliam) comes home from the hospital after suffering a stroke that turns him into a shell of his former self. While his wife Vanetia (Maxine Peake) struggles to accept her husband’s diminished state, American doctor Ted (Forte) arrives to study Conor’s condition.
Some expected tensions arise: While staying in their intimate countryside home, Ted slowly grows acquainted with each member of the family, and possibly develops feelings for Vanetia that venture far beyond his professional responsibilities. While hinting at these bubbling emotions, Green maintains a gentle warmth to the story grounded in understatement and and credibility. Forte, solemn but never pouty, ventures into Steve Carrell territory with his embodiment of a forty-something loner. While not a showstopping performance, it certainly gels with the material, pointing to a new range for the actor. However, Peake truly stands out as the well-meaning Vanetia, whose ebullient personality is constantly at odds with a horrible situation that threatens her family’s future.
Far from the only group of movies worth seeing at Tribeca this year, this trio only shows a glimmer of hope among the movies not exclusively programmed because they happened to be available. There are plenty of other nuggets hidden deeper in the lineup, like Vahid Vakilifar’s “Taboor,” Iranian curiosity set in a cryptic near future and involves a vaguely defined delivery man whose world suggests Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville” by way of Bela Tarr. In the midnight section, French director Marina de Van (“In My Skin”) contributes to the “creepy kid” strain of horror cinema with “Dark Touch,” in which an 11-year-old girl loses her whole family by way of supernatural circumstances that continue to haunt the neighbors willing to take her in.
The diversity helps compensate for some of the weaker entries; there’s something for everyone in nearly every section. Whether scary, touching or sad, the rundown of quality from the narrative lineup this year proves that even if you have to scrounge through the program to find the movies worthwhile, the journey isn’t without a point.