Girl Power

Amy Taubin on the 10th BAMcinemaFest

Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You, 2018, color, sound, 105 minutes.

A TERRIFIC PREVIEW of the summer’s hot independent movies and a place to make discoveries, this year’s BAMcinemaFest is one of the best in the series’s ten-year history. The films show only once, with the directors doing a Q&A after each screening. The sold-out opening night has Boots Riley presenting his debut feature, the dark, delirious Sorry to Bother You, which at Sundance seemed like Black Futurism but six months later is more like a prophecy fulfilled—maybe not today, but probably tomorrow. The visuals are as eyeball-rattling as a comic strip; the soundtrack by Tune-Yards and Riley’s Oakland hip-hop group, the Coup, is dense and driving. In the midst of the chaos, Lakeith Stanfield plays a character who is perpetually uneasy with the choices he makes, thereby becoming the guilty Everyman of the moment.

Independent film veterans Gus Van Sant and Andrew Bujalski are bringing their most mainstream films ever, both scheduled to open later this summer. Bujalski’s Support the Girls is set in a Houston sports bar that’s like an indie version of Hooters—smaller and more personal. Regina Hall plays a harried manager devoted to the well-being of both staff and customers at considerable cost to her own. Like Hall’s character, Bujalski sees to it that his largely female cast is never exploited and that the customers, on-screen and in the audience, keep in line and still have a good time. With one Ivanka-like exception, the film really does support the “girls.” Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is Van Sant’s tribute to the legendary, irascible Portland cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), who at age twenty-one was paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident. He wasn’t driving, but he was as drunk as his friend behind the wheel. Callahan continued to drink until he hit bottom, went to AA, and found an extraordinary sponsor (Jonah Hill), who in the film is as much an inspirational figure as Callahan later becomes. Like Van Sant’s Milk (2008), Don’t Worry pays tribute to those who transform their own lives by supporting others.

Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace and Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline have already found a following on the international festival circuit. In the former, a young woman (Thomasin McKenzie) tries to help her war-traumatized father (Ben Foster) reenter society. Granik gets strong performances from everyone in the film, including the supporting actors who play members of a self-sustaining community living off the grid in the Oregon wilderness. Leave No Trace is solid, if laboriously picturesque, realist filmmaking.

Madeline’s Madeline comes at the child/parent relationship from a radically different dimension—that of psychodrama. Teenage Madeline, a talented aspiring performer (as is Helena Howard, the disarmingly honest actor who portrays her), has fallen under the spell of a garden-variety psychologically manipulative experimental theater director (Molly Parker). Madeline’s mom (Miranda July) is worried that her impulsive, imaginative daughter is in danger. This does not prevent her from eventually taking the opportunity offered by the director to steal the spotlight from Madeline, thus freeing her daughter to act out her memory of the violent confrontation she had with her mother years before—the “madeline” coyly referenced in the title. These aren’t spoilers; the narrative is too lame for the term to apply. Did I mention that both the mother and the director (Madeline’s two moms) are treated satirically, while Madeline, who is fetishized by Decker in much the same way as by the director of the theater piece within the movie, walks away from this mess a gloriously free spirit? Madeline’s Madeline is repetitive and politically slippery: Are we meant to congratulate ourselves for raising an eyebrow at the theater director’s blindness to her own racism, or how her touchy-feely, boundary-violating coaching of her cast is blatant sexual abuse? The film is gorgeously shot and edited, especially in the sequences that express Madeline’s inner vision. At those moments, Decker seems inspired by landmark avant-garde films such as Maya Deren’s At Land (1944) and Stan Brakhage’s Scenes from Under Childhood (1967–70). Too bad that such an adventurous filmmaking aesthetic and three wonderful actors are undermined by gimmicky, half-baked storytelling.

Josephine Decker, Madeline's Madeline, 2018, color, sound, 93 minutes.

Despite my reservations about Madeline’s Madeline, the BAMcinemaFest programmers should be applauded for favoring films that refuse conventional three-act narratives. Madeleine Olnek infuses Wild Nights with Emily, her Emily Dickinson biopic, with wry humor. Focusing on Dickinson’s decades-long love affair with her childhood friend and later sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, Wild Nights is funny and touching in its liberation of the poet from the loneliness and depression to which she is condemned in films like Terence Davies’s tone-deaf A Quiet Passion (2016). In Qasim Basir’s A Boy, A Girl, A Dream, a man (Omari Hardwick) and a woman (Meagan Good) meet during the dismal evening of the 2016 election. Immediate attraction grows into life-changing commitment in real time. The film features a single unbroken shot as the characters move through the Los Angeles night. According to Basir, the eighty-nine-minute movie was digitally captured thirteen times, beginning to end, without a break. Whether the various takes were mixed and matched or if the best of the thirteen was chosen was unclear from his remarks. A Boy, A Girl, A Dream is a bit like watching a Warhol talkie but with ingenious camera moves, eye-catching locations, and a focus on ambitious, complex African American characters.

Documentaries, including a few fact-fiction hybrids, make up about 50 percent of the festival lineup, and you can’t go wrong with any of them. Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s The Gospel of Eureka is set in Eureka Springs, Arkansas (population just over two thousand), home to the sixty-five-foot granite statue of Christ of the Ozarks as well as an annual outdoor performance of “The Great Passion Play” and Lee Keating and Walter Burrell’s LGBTQ bar, where karaoke night brings out fantastic drag performers who are as likely to lip sync gospel hymns as disco anthems. Partly shot during the ramp-up for what New Yorkers like this writer presumed would be a polarizing vote on “Non-Discrimination Ordinance 2223” (aka the bathroom-choice bill), Palmieri and Mosher amazingly find no visible animosity between winners and losers. With Justin Vivian Bond’s dry-humored narration as an anchor, the filmmakers cut between the exultant performers and audiences of the drag cabaret and the passion play. Certainly, there are hints that Eureka hasn’t always been as tolerant as it is today and that darkness still lurks at the edge of town. But when the disco ball and the Star of Bethlehem are both signs of the divine—some Eureka residents even find God in both of them—it’s hard not to respond with hope to The Gospel of Eureka.

Andrew Bujalski's Support the Girls, 2018, color, sound, 94 minutes.

In Robert Greene’s Bisbee 17, performance is critical to the survival of another small town. Once a copper-mining center, Bisbee, Arizona, was the scene of a mass atrocity in 1917, when the owner of the mines ordered local law enforcement to herd hundreds of striking workers, most of them Native Americans and immigrants from Mexico and Europe, into railroad box cars and dump them in the New Mexico desert, where many died of thirst and hunger. One hundred years later, the mines are gone, and with tourism as the only industry, the more progressive citizens of Bisbee decide to lay aside their Wild West routines and put on a show in which they reenact this murderous deportation. For Greene, whose films focus on the intersection of performance and everyday life, Bisbee in 2017 remains a place of high drama. As the spectacle’s creators and actors delve into the past, they discover that racism is as virulent in Bisbee as it was a century ago.

Skateboarders are the subjects of two fascinating documentaries. Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap is a study of damaged masculinity and the bonds among three skateboarders, one of them the filmmaker, as they are forced to abandon the freedom of adolescence for the burdens of adulthood. In Crystal Moselle’s fiction-documentary hybrid Skate Kitchen, a group of New York teen-girl skateboarders play characters pretty much based on them. Unlike their male rivals for skating territory, who have only a minor presence in the film, the girls bond across gender and racial lines, and their gab sessions are as quicksilver, risk-defying, and free as their movements on their boards. Skate Kitchen’s cinematography is nowhere near as refined as Minding the Gap’s, but then there’s nothing refined about the ways these girls break new ground as they come of age, nor about how they take possession of Manhattan, uptown and downtown.

BAMcinemaFest’s revival movie is Kasi Lemon’s Eve’s Bayou (1997), one of the memorable feminist movies of that decade and never more resonant than it is today. And on the festival’s website is a remembrance of Robin Holland, the great portraitist who died in January. For five years, Holland was the festival’s official photographer. The directors who looked into the lens of her camera are fortunate to be able to see themselves through her eyes.

BAMcinemaFest runs through June 30 at the Harvey Theater and the Rose Cinema in Brooklyn.