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The 12th Annual Tribeca Film Festival, April 17 – 28, 2013 in New York City, is usually judged by the film industry as to how many of its 89 features get picked up for theatrical or other mechanisms for public viewing, though over two dozen either came in with or had distribution by the end. But among the 53 world premieres, six international premieres, 15 North American premieres, five U.S. premieres, and nine New York premieres, with 24 in competition and the rest spread through categories of “Spotlight”, “Viewpoints”, “Midnight”, and various special events, were unheralded gems that you may only get to see at other film festivals, in the U.S. and abroad. Keep a look out for these recommendations:
Very Good Looks at Teenagers Making Very Bad Choices
While director Matt Wolf’s cool documentary Teenage informatively looks back at 20th century U.S. and European history through the eyes and voices of young people, contemporary teens around the world in fiction features were among the Festival’s most intriguing and intense characters as they faced difficult choices amidst violence, corruption, crime, sex, and even cannibalism. Several new directors are heavily influenced by the Dardenne Brothers to dramatically offer engrossing realism in cautionary tales with nonprofessional teen actors.
Harmony Lessons garnered a Special Jury Mention in the world narrative section, and is as powerful a condemnation of authoritarianism as such classics as Animal Farm, 1984 and If... Building v-e-r-y slowly, debut director Emir Baigazin vividly demonstrates the endemic, bullying violence within survival of the politically fittest, from farm, to classroom, to bathroom, to playground, to prison, whether controlled by the government, or, most cynically, by corrupt religious rebels. He plucked Timur Aidarbekov from an orphanage to embody puny, clever thirteen-year-old orphan Aslan, who plots to retain his individuality even as the police state permeates every level of rural Kazakhstan society. I hazard that not too many Americans know much about the former Soviet Republic, but even if this film is only an allegory, the stunning rendering is sure an emotionally (not visually explicit) brutal indictment that makes the title a bitterly ironic gut punch.
In Northwest, Danish director Michael Noer works the Mean Streets of the tough titular neighborhood of Copenhagen in the throes of Gangs of New York-like immigrant succession in its criminal underworld (yeah, he also cites Scorsese as an influence). A fast-paced thriller, shot intimately with handheld cameras, the casting of dynamic real-life teen brothers Gustav and Oscar Dyekjær Giese viscerally communicates close family ties with no time wasted on exposition or superfluous dialogue in very sympathetically showing how petty thief Casper can step by tragically inexorable step get pulled into the ever more morally bankrupt maelstrom of drugs, pimps, and escalating revenge that sadly drags in the younger brother he was trying manfully to provide for and protect. This searing verité is an ominous warning about unemployed European youth with no legitimate prospects.
Alì Blue Eyes is not only a follow-up fictionalization of director Claudio Giovannesi’s documentary look (Brothers of Italy) at second generation immigrants (Arabs, Romanians, Russians) in Rome’s gritty port neighborhood of Ostia. He cast the same teens to portray telescoped versions of their struggles to balance traditional family pressures with the pull of modern Italian society, and the difficulties of integrating at school and on the streets (wearing blue contact lens to try to fit in). Over one calamitous week of romance and rebellion, restless 16-year-old Nader, with his close real Italian friend Stefano, increasingly escalates adolescent hijinks into inter-ethnic criminal threats to the dismay of his Egyptian-born Muslim parents (played by his parents). The sweet and sexy Romeo & Juliet angle of dating Italian Catholic Brigitte is also the real deal (she was too jealous to let him act kissing another girl), even as he hypocritically reins in his younger sister (in fiction and real life). As rambling as real life, his future identity and independence are left unresolved.
In comparison, the teenage criminals in Deep Powder would seem too foolishly naïve, even for the early 1980’s, if they weren’t based on a true, notorious case that ensnared classmates of writer/director Mo Ogrodnik. Rich kids at New England boarding schools did pool their funds and take turns bringing in cocaine from South America. While the attractive ensemble has a promising future on the next Gossip Girl-type TV show re-playing these same usual high school social types, the love story between a high-flying skier and a down-to-earth ski lift operator provides the heart. As Natasha, Haley Bennett has more than beauty to ensnare townie Danny Kovalcek (a very appealing Shiloh Fernandez) who soulfully conveys his palpable ache for her, and makes the romance worth seeking out when its high-powered producers Christine Vachon and John Wells doubtless secure at least video-on-demand distribution.
Irish teenagers also fall into first love and fall in way over their heads in a moral and violent morass in What Richard Did, currently available on Tribeca’s VOD. While not quite the scathing social criticism of the Celtic tiger bourgeoisie as Kevin Power’s novel Bad Day in Blackrock it’s based on, the extraordinary performance by Jack Reynor in the title role drives a serious drama well-told by director Lenny Abrahamson primarily through natural dialogue, body language, and tense silences. Reynor’s big blue eyes and dimpled chin have already helped him get cast in a Hollywood action flick (and he could easily play either Matt Damon in a youthful flashback or his son), but his acting chops within a fine team as a privileged rugby player who kicks into overwhelming guilt should be seen now before he’s a big blue-screen star.
The universal normality of bourgeois Israeli teens behaving excruciatingly badly makes Six Acts that much more uncomfortable to watch. This seems a realistic enactment of the ambiguous complexities of what could be date rape among immature teenagers without knowing that scripter Rona Segal was inspired by actual events. As heartbreakingly played by Sivan Levy, Gili is so desperate to fit in with the popular kids soon to graduate her new high school that the guys quickly figure out they can manipulate her low self-esteem. With each ever more degrading sexual act that she might be acquiescing to, debut director Jonathan Gurfinkel gets more emotionally raw than most teen films in queasily demonstrating her pathetic complicity in getting passed along the ranks from the smoothest, entitled player down to the most awkward at getting lucky (as they see her). At least the last one nervously offers her the morning after pill. The squeamish blame game would probably loudly continue if teens were to watch this in groups as a basis for frank discussions on the dangers of peer pressure pushed by online gossip.
Teenage rebellion played out in serious political contexts in two international selections. Australian Kirsty Sword was just out of her teens in 1991 when she started helping filmmakers expose Indonesian atrocities in the Southeast Asian island country of East Timor. But the documentary Alias Ruby Blade gives unusual immediacy to her telling of a decade of human rights activism under that nom de guerre, beyond her out-of-print 2003 autobiography A Woman of Independence, through intimate never-before-seen archival audio and video tapes from the cameras and recorders she smuggled to imprisoned resistance leader Xanana Gusmão. At the “Tribeca Talks: New Chick Films” panel, producers Tanya Ager Meillier and Abigail Disney explained their admiration through their subtitle “A Story of Love and Revolution”, as, yes reader, she married him, just before he was elected president of a free democracy.
In Jîn, the 17-year-old named in the title (played by Deniz Hasgüler) is an amazingly resourceful Kurdish fighter rebelling against the Turkish army (over 30,000 adolescents have died in 30 years of guerilla war), amidst a beautiful natural landscape (director Reha Erdem’s poetic village paean Times and Winds was in the 2007 Festival). But she is also rebelling against her military unit, her family, economic, educational, and ethnic inequities, traditional cultural and gender restrictions, and, especially, war itself. In a picaresque journey down mountains, in caves, across rivers, through forests, hiking and hitching into isolated homesteads and towns for the pleasure of a phone call to her mother (one of the few times she speaks), communing with wildlife, and briefly experiencing a separate peace in civilian disguise. Even on the run, ducking interrogators and bullets, her spontaneous (too) extraordinary humanity trumps all the conflicts she faces.
Fresh Meat, currently available on Tribeca’s VOD, is a delicious satirical relief from all these serious adolescent issues – the teenage girl here (newcomer Hannah Tevita) is only dealing with her lesbian attraction to the hot gangster moll who is holding her cannibal family hostage in their McMansion. (New Zealand isn’t all Lord of the Rings scenery.) The midnight movies in the Festival are usually among its strongest offerings, especially in the international horror comedy genre, and debut director Danny Mulheron’s dead-on attack on suburbs as cemeteries of consumerism is very much an ironic teenage point-of-view. Beyond a wild homage to Paul Bartel’s 1982 cult fave Eating Raoul, Maori playwright Briar Grace-Smith’s very funny script knowingly mocks indigenous traditions, particularly when action star Temuera Morrison atypically takes on a comic role and hysterically chews up the scenery. (Note: Mulheron did not realize that the prophet the dad is worshipping with bloody rituals would look to American audiences a lot like Michael Jackson.)
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