DEVO *** [Premieres]
Veteran documentarian Chris Smith (American Movie
, Tiger King
) offers a lively 50-years-on portrait of the veteran art band that offers not just a career retrospective, but a sense of how frustrating it can be for an artist to have a message that almost nobody seems to understand. From the initial meeting of founders Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale as Kent State University students in 1970, Smith spins the tale of angry Vietnam-era activists keen to spread a satirical message about human “de-evolution” in a chaotic time, and whose artistic endeavors to spread that message almost accidentally culminate in the formation of a band. Not surprisingly, there are tales of clashes with record company executives who don’t entirely “get” them, and a rise-and-fall trajectory pivoting around the unexpected hit-single success of “Whip It” in 1980. Yet it’s more interesting as a story of how even smart and savvy folks like Mothersbaugh and Casale find it almost impossible to get their subversive ideas about modern American society to land, even when they get plenty of opportunities to share them directly through interviews (including with not-entirely-ideal interviewers like Merv Griffin and Dick Clark), as even many of their fans treat them mostly like a novelty act. A fun collection of anecdotes about adventures in the music industry gets a dash of melancholy from a realization that even getting a huge national platform isn’t necessarily enough to get the masses to really wake up.
The American Society of Magical Negroes *** [Premieres]
Writer/director Kobi Libii concocts the kind of satirical premise that easily could have tipped over into pedantic self-importance, but emerges with a deft enough touch to end up both entertaining and urgent. The prospects for Aren Mbondo’s (Justice Smith) career as a visual artist appear to be vanishing, when he is approached by Roger (David Alan Grier) to join the titular secret society—a group of Black people dedicated to the proposition that solving White people’s problems and making them comfortable is the best way to keep their own lives safe. There’s a charming romantic-comedy angle in Aren’s relationship with a co-worker (An-Li Bogan) of his first White “client” (Drew Tarver), and a great (though under-used) character in Rupert Friend’s disconnected-from-reality tech CEO. But Libii understands how to keep the focus on the tension between the Society’s goals and the idea that White people don’t have an inalienable right not
to be uncomfortable, even figuring out how to provide a climactic thesis-statement speech that doesn’t feel
like a climactic thesis-statement speech because it’s so well-integrated with comedic chaos. It does seem like Libii doesn’t fully exploit the opportunities for actual magic in his premise—perhaps for budgetary reasons?—and pokes kind of obviously at examples of the "magical Negro" trope in The Green Mile
, Driving Miss Daisy
and others. The result is still an engaging way to walk a tightrope between its two contrasting ideas: not making White people feel bad, while still asking them to listen.
Presence **1/2 [Premieres]
Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter David Koepp (who previously collaborated on 2022's KIMI
) concoct a pretty solid gimmick for their supernatural thriller—a ghost story designed entirely from the POV of the ghost—but at a certain point the “story” has to be as important as the “ghost,” and that story is … just not very good. It opens with a suburban couple (Lucy Liu and Chris Sullivan) moving with their teenagers Chloe (Callina Liang) and Ty (Eddy Maday) into a new house, with only Chloe initially seeming to sense that it may already have an unseen occupant. Soderbergh makes great use of his prowling camera movements, using every trick in his book to convey when the silent, observing entity feels curiosity, anxiety or anger while rarely feeling obliged to indulge the audience with jump-scares. That places a burden on the narrative—which hints from the outset at a tragedy Chloe has experienced that might maker her more receptive to the presence—to provide some actual stakes, and it becomes a pretty clunky journey. Vague references to some criminal activity Liu’s character might have engaged in alternate with the introduction of Ty’s new friend (West Mulholland) without ever providing enough substance for the family’s growing tension and dysfunction to matter as anything but distractions on the way to whatever payoff is down the road. The result is a pretty solid exercise in style where the substance is as ephemeral and unknowable as the character through whose eyes we’ve been watching.
Ibelin ***1/2 [World Documentary]
In case you needed proof that digital communities are just as “real” and important as in-real-life communities, Benjamin Ree’s wonderful documentary gives it to you to powerful tear-jerking effect. That significance certainly wasn’t clear to the parents of Mats Steen—a Norwegian man who died of the degenerative muscular condition Duchenne dystrophy in 2014 at the age of 25—until after his passing, when they placed a notice of his death on Mats’ blog, and discovered that Mats had spent a decade as part of a “guild” in the online game World of Warcraft. Ree spends most of the film on animated re-creations of Mats’ online life as Ibelin Redmoore, and it becomes clear early on why this universe would appeal to a wheelchair-bound person as we see his avatar running and jumping through the landscape, slaying dragons and even getting a chance to be a romantic lead. More significantly, Mats’ online friends share stories of how he touched their lives and helped them through their text exchanges, at times through significant troubles, even as we also get a chance to see that he was occasionally rude and off-putting—in other words, an actual person, not a saint. Ibelin
allows us to see Mats fall in love, make mistakes, make amends and generally live the kind of rich, full existence that didn’t feel accessible to him in his physical body. The emotionally wrenching conclusion underlines the extent to which the connections we make virtually are in no way lesser, and leave ripples into the real world.
Daughters *** [U.S. Documentary]
It won the big overall audience award for Sundance 2024, and it’s easy to understand why; there’s undeniable emotion in the story of incarcerated men in a Washington D.C. prison getting a rare one-day opportunity to spend time with their daughters as part of a “Date With Dad” dance event. There are also some structural decisions that both add to the complexity of the story and make it somehow slightly less powerful than it should be. Co-directors Natalie Rae and Angela Patton (the latter of whom was one of the founders of this program) open in 2019, focusing on four men who opt to participate in the seven-week parenting program that’s a pre-requisite for the visit, as well as their children, who span a range of ages and feelings about their incarcerated fathers; 5-year-old Audrey is such a delightful dynamo of personality that an entire documentary could be built around her alone. As it turns out, splitting the focus offers part of the challenge, as does the way in which the filmmakers follow up on these families over the subsequent seven years, as we see both success stories and sadder developments. The centerpiece sequences involving the dance itself are so emotionally intense that it’s understandable the filmmakers might not want to linger too long over the coda, yet it feels like more of that might material might be helpful to get a full picture of where this event succeeded, and where the system fails. Reader, I cried, make no mistake—and I also wanted a chance to explore these stories in the depth they needed.
The Outrun *** [Premieres]
The changes that director/co-screenwriter Nora Fingscheidt makes to Amy Liptrot’s recovery memoir feel weirdly arbitrary, but the result is still an effective drama about personal growth and a sense of place, anchored by a terrific lead performance. Saoirse Ronan plays Rona, a 29-year-old native of Scotland’s Orkney Islands who returns home to the family farm after bottoming out in her alcoholism and going through an outpatient program. Fingscheidt weaves back and forth through time, flashing back both to Rona’s childhood marked by her father’s bipolar disorder, and to the out-of-control life that eventually costs her an important romantic relationship, and the fractured chronology effectively captures someone trying to process the past and get out from under the weight of it. It’s a bit less clear why Fingscheidt feels the need to change the protagonist’s name to an anagram of her own, and punching up the melodrama of the story by giving Rona a falling-off-the-wagon episode that never happened dampens the sense that her recovery is connected to reconnecting with her origins. Still, Ronan plays both the externally chaotic and internally struggling versions of Rona with her usual dynamism, and Fingscheidt beautifully incorporates the geography and meteorology of the Orkney’s into an affecting character study, even if it’s one where I wished we got more of the actual character who inspired it.
Ghostlight **1/2 [Premieres]
It has long been one of my critical articles of faith that you need to grant a movie its premise—but in this case, I have to make an exception. We can figure out early on that there’s been some sort of tragedy in the lives of working stiff Dan (Keith Kupferer), his wife Sharon (Tara Mallen) and teenage daughter Daisy (Katherine Mallen Kupferer, yes, all a real-life family). The feelings about that tragedy are backing up on Dan, until he stumbles upon a rag-tag community theater group putting on a production of Romeo & Juliet
, and almost accidentally joins the cast. Writer Kelly O’Sullivan (who co-directed with Alex Thompson) clearly wants to create a paean to the healing power of art, and there’s a great cast here (including the sublime Dolly De Leon as the show’s improbably mature Juliet) to give it both humanity and comedic energy. The problem is that once it becomes clear what the precise nature of the family tragedy was, the specific play with which Dan is involved feels like an absurd coincidence, deus ex machina’ed into his life to offer the specific catharsis he requires; men would rather join a community theater production than go to therapy, and so forth. As a result, the emotional payoffs ultimately feel almost grotesquely calculated. There’s “granting a movie its premise,” and then there’s “being willing to accept writerly contrivance for the sake of tear-jerking.”
Agent of Happiness *** [World Documentary]
The Bhutanese government’s unique policy of surveying its citizens to determine their level of happiness makes for a naturally intriguing subject, but co-directors Arun Bhattarai and Dorottya Zurbó find some unique angles in exploring where the government couldn’t possibly help, and where it perhaps hasn’t even tried. They primarily follow Amber Gurung, along with his colleague Gunaraj among the many census-takers who travel the country, asking questions to reach an almost comically-precise mathematical determination of each person’s happiness on a scale of 1 to 10. There’s a lot of cultural specificity built into those questions—“how often do you meditate” exists alongside “how many cows do you own”—and the filmmakers effectively incorporate the distinctions between rural and city life into both the subjects profiled and the cinematography. They also include subjects with fairly complicated lives: a trans woman; the daughter of a divorced alcoholic mother; sister-wives of an abusive husband. And they reveal Amber’s own struggles as a 40-year-old man to find a wife, in part due to losing his citizenship status over government policies towards ethnic Nepalese. It’s not just a matter of finding irony in this “agent of happiness” having his own burdens; it’s a realization that any such undertaking may end up gathering data, yet not resulting in anyone knowing or caring what to do with it.
Skywalkers: A Love Story *** [ U.S. Documentary Competition]
Director Jeff Zimbalist (a former rooftopper himself) deftly weaves a thrilling and immersive visual film around a daredevil couple’s quest to save their careers and relationship. The film draws us into the meticulously-planned and precisely-timed escapade of Russian rooftoppers Vanya Beerkus and Angela Nikolau, who risk their freedom as they evade security in pursuit of their unlawful ambition: climbing the world’s tallest skyscraper to perform a daring acrobatic stunt at its spire. The couple meet after following each other on social media and having an unspoken rivalry; they then team up to explore and reach new heights. Most of the footage from the climbs was shot by them using Go-Pros, and the narrative unfolds into the couple’s love story amidst this high-stakes adventure. It delves deeply into the profound dynamics of trust, exploring the responsibility and vulnerability inherent in entrusting one’s life to another. The film captures the evolution of the central relationship as it transforms under the weight of their shared burden, providing an insightful exploration of the intricate balance between personal ambition and shared commitment. Viewer tip: If you have vertigo or a fear of heights, this film will get your adrenaline pumping early.