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story.lead_photo.caption Wendell Pierce stars as the Rev. Tillman in Burning Cane, the Louisiana-set debut feature from freshman NYU film student Phillip Youmans. The film won three top prizes at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, with Youmans winning the Founders Award for best narrative feature and for best cinematography in a U.S. narrative feature and Pierce for best actor in a U.S. narrative feature.

NEW YORK -- You need to strive for balance.

After more than 20 years of film festivalgoing, you'd think we'd know that. You can see two or three feature-length films in a day, no problem. But do more than four and you're in the land of diminishing returns. Especially at a festival like Tribeca, where the press screenings are centrally located and spread across seven theaters, making it very easy to drift from one film to another without ever surfacing onto Second Avenue.

I try not to drown myself in festival cinema anymore. You need a bout of sunshine, a walk around the block, a vended hot dog or a slice from Joe's Pizza now and then. I tell myself that it's work, after all, and it's the weekend, and that laptops and iPads prevent me from ever being too far out of pocket. I'm not goofing off, I'm working.

That said, I enjoy the Tribeca Film Festival. One reason is because most of the movies that premiere here aren't going to make much of a mark. This isn't Sundance with its intimations of filmdom's future or Toronto's award season preview. Few of these films will be coming to a theater near you. If you want to see them, you'll probably have to stream them. All I want to do is find a couple of gems.

And in the the three days my wife, Karen, and I spent at this year's festival, we found a few. (My Philadelphia-based colleague Piers Marchant was also at this year's festival; we had our usual half-hour hangout. You can read about his festival experience elsewhere in this section.)

There are a couple of narrative features that will probably open in Arkansas later this year, Low Tide and Plus One. I saw Low Tide, an atmospheric coming-0f-age story set on the Jersey shore that reminded me of Jeff Nichols' Mud. There's no release date yet, but it's being distributed by A24, and it seems likely it will have at least some kind of theatrical release later this year.

And Karen saw Plus One, a raunchy comedy starring Maya Erskine (co-creator of the Hulu series PEN15) and Jack Quaid, son of Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid. (Karen's capsule review: "Vulgar, uneven, sometimes funny.") Nevertheless, Plus One won the festival's audience award.

We also saw Burning Cane, which won the festival's Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature. Written and directed by 19-year-old Phillip Michael Youmans(who began making the movie when he was 17), Cane is an evocative and accomplished piece of work that examines a rural Louisiana community through the perspective of a deeply religious woman (spectacular Karen Kaia Livers) who's dealing with an alcoholic son (Dominique McClellan) and a preacher who has lost his faith (Wendell Pierce).

While I understand why Youmans' film won -- and why some people are comparing the baby filmmaker to Faulkner -- there's still an under-baked quality to this piece of cinematic poetry, which feels padded even at 78 minutes. Still, there's no denying the talent Youmans brings to bear, and it's exciting to see it emerge. You'd have to go back to Shotgun Stories (Nichols again) or David Gordon Green's George Washington for a comparable feature debut (though the film also reminded me of RaMell Ross's 2018 documentary Hale County, This Morning, This Evening).

We also lucked out and saw the festival's Best Documentary Feature winner, extraordinary Scheme Birds, a Swedish documentary about young residents of a suburban housing project in a fading Scottish steel town. (I hope I have the opportunity to write more about this film; if it doesn't show up at Hot Springs later this year we'll revisit it when it hits digital platforms.)

As usual, the documentaries at Tribeca outpaced the feature offerings -- after Scheme Birds, the festival's standout was Midge Costin's Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, which I wrote about last Sunday. Karen caught Slay the Dragon, a "fascinating and disturbing documentary on the past, present and future of gerrymandering." ("Outrage is a likely reaction," she says.)

I enjoyed A Kid From Coney Island, a straightforward sports doc about remarkably interesting former NBA star Stephon Marbury and his journey from schoolboy legend to Chinese sports icon. Both Karen and I caught The Dog Doc, which she writes is "thought-provoking and touching" as it follows "a maverick veterinarian and his team that practice decidedly alternative medicine on canine and feline patients who have exhausted other options."

Maybe the best realized feature we saw was Italian director Michela Occhipinti's Flesh Out (the original Hassanya title translates "The Body of the Bride") which -- Karen writes -- "tells the unsettling story of a modern Mauritanian woman who, despite living in a contemporary culture with women participating in a relatively unrestrictive social environment, succumbs to tradition in gaining a substantial amount of weight (called gavage) to develop what's considered a voluptuous body (a sign of beauty, charm, wealth and social status) before marrying a man chosen by her family."

Along similar lines but skewing more to the conventions of the Hollywood rom-com was Indian director Bhaskar Hazarika's Aamis(Ravening), the festival's first-ever film in the Assamese language. It's about a seemingly happily married doctor who meets a graduate student who educates her on (among other things) the pleasures of eating fresh, wild meat-based delicacies. "Despite uneven performances and some overwrought dialogue, it's not easy to forget," Karen writes.

Others may be a little easier to forget. (And not necessarily because of their quality -- at last year's festival Karen saw the affecting Mary Kay Place vehicle Diane. When it looked like it was opening a few weeks ago she couldn't remember anything other than she's seen it. So I requested a screening link. Then it didn't open anyway. It's available on iTunes and Amazon and other digital platforms.)

So, before memory gives up, here's more of what I saw at this year's Tribeca:

Gully -- a rather tone-deaf "wild-in-the-streets" film about neglected and abused teenagers who go all Clockwork Orange on a dystopian Los Angeles.

Clementine -- a low-key, stylish thriller about a lesbian artist who meets a mysterious young woman while hiding out at her ex's lake house in the immediate aftermath of their breakup.

Picture Character -- an entertaining summer-weight doc about the history and cultural impact of emojis.

A Woman's Work: The NFL's Cheerleader Problem -- an interesting but over-long examination of professional football's troubling labor practices as they apply to various teams' dance and cheerleading squads.

So 10 films, a few parties and three or four schmoozing sessions at the festival's bar, a couple of subway (and bus) rides, and maybe 20 miles walked. Not a bad long weekend. We're already looking forward to next year.


MovieStyle on 05/10/2019

Print Headline: A long weekend at Tribeca festival


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