In recent years, female filmmakers have been carving out a space for themselves in the American West, redefining a genre and a place that is has historically been depicted as the terrain of lonely male cowboys and vigilantes. There have been period pieces like Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, and Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff and First Cow, as well as contemporary stories set in the west, such as Chloe Zhao’s The Rider and Nomadland, and Reichardt’s Certain Women. These films bring a new realism to the western as they widen the lens to center female characters and to incorporate themes of friendship, romance, and community.
Great athletes have to be obsessive to push themselves past their physical limits but they also must stay grounded and mindful of injury. Finding the balance between these two states is the tension that many athletes struggle with, especially early in their careers. Like Black Swan or Whiplash, The Novice is a portrait of a type-A striver whose competitive nature gets the better of her. As an emotional thriller, The Novice didn’t really work for me, but as a sports movie, it’s distinctive for the way it takes the shine off of winning. In her debut feature, Lauren Hadaway explores the dark side of athletic training, and the way it can easily tip over into self-laceration.
Three years ago, the world was captivated by the story of a Thai boys’ soccer team trapped deep in a cave. Their bizarre entrapment occurred when twelve boys and their coach went exploring the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system, a local spot they knew well. They planned to stay underground for an hour or so, but when the cave was unexpectedly flooded, they found themselves with no choice but to burrow farther. Eventually they found respite on a small stone ledge 2.5 miles into cavern. It took twelve days to even find their location, and another week-and-a-half to figure out how to get them out, with the clock ticking as oxygen levels in the cave began to deplete. Their rescue was a risky enterprise, involving thousands of people, hundreds of government agencies, and cave divers from all over the world. People around the globe cheered when the children were eventually saved, and even though viewers will know the happy ending going in, The Rescue is still a riveting story of cross-cultural collaboration and human ingenuity. I was surprised by how fascinated I was, considering how much of the story I already knew.
As Omicron descends, this is the documentary to watch–or avoid–depending on your temperament. Director Nanfu Wang takes viewers back to the earliest days of the pandemic, opening with eerie footage of New Year’s Eve celebrations in Wuhan, where thousands of revelers, some of them likely already infected with Covid-19, mingled in close quarters, sang, cheered, danced, and generally did everything we’ve been avoiding for the past two years. Wang herself was there, celebrating with her family. On New Year’s Day, a stray news item caught Wang’s attention: eight people were punished for “spreading rumors” about a new form of pneumonia that had emerged in local hospitals. The punishment was the headline, not the pneumonia, and it wasn’t a big story. No one gave it much thought, even Wang, who was preoccupied with her return to the U.S. where she is a naturalized citizen. It was only in retrospect that she realized she had witnessed the Chinese government’s early response to the threat of Covid-19. Her documentary takes a close look at the Chinese government’s failure to communicate the dangers of Covid-19 to its citizens and to the world, and compares it with America’s response, three months later, which was dispiritingly similar, with political leaders downplaying the virus until the very last minute.
The late-blooming actress Krisha Fairchild anchors Freeland, a wispy slice-of-life movie that never really gets going, despite its timely subject matter and Fairchild’s compelling lead performance. Set in Humboldt County, California, Freeland focuses on a marijuana farmer, Devi, whose business has been adversely affected by the legalization of pot in California. Her under-the-radar business is suddenly getting a lot of competition, and she hasn’t obtained a permit to sell her product legally, because of fees and bureaucratic red tape. At the beginning of the film, Devi has some hope that she’ll be able to keep afloat with out-of-state sales, but when one of her biggest clients bails, she realizes she’s going to be stuck with a lot of unsold product. She asks her small staff of three to work unpaid during the harvest period, promising a bigger payout later. They reluctantly agree and the tension between Devi and her increasingly disgruntled workers is what drives the story.
This movie has to be one of the most underrated of the year, but I’ll admit that I’m not the most impartial critic when it comes to stories about mothers dying of cancer. I lost my own mother to the disease twenty years ago, and I appreciate movies that look at the experience honestly. I felt that this movie did, which surprised me, because the reviews from film festivals described a film that was a weepie, overly sentimental mess. As a result, Our Friend was released in January, dumped in the theaters before anyone was really going back, and placed on streaming at a premium price. Now it’s streaming on Amazon Prime and I hope it will get a second chance on the platform. I started watching it on a whim, thinking I would turn it off after twenty minutes, but instead I found myself immersed in a beautifully acted and directed ensemble film about friendship, ambition, marriage, and dying.
I didn’t have much awareness of overnight childcare centers until I watched Through the Night, a documentary about a married couple, Deloris and Patrick Hogan, who run Dee’s Tots, a 24-hour daycare in New Rochelle, New York. Sadly, I don’t think my ignorance is unusual, and is likely shared by the many members of Congress who have consistently declined to fund public childcare, even after the pandemic revealed how necessary it is to working parents. Although not overtly political, Through the Night is quietly radical as it shines a light on the work of caregiving. It’s highly skilled labor that is essential to the health of children and families, yet childcare workers are often overworked and underpaid. To the extent that the government has childcare policies, they are designed to fit a model of a nuclear family with one stay-at-home parent. Director Loira Limbal shows the reality: many parents (usually mothers) are raising children on their own, and their jobs do not offer the pay, benefits, or flexibility to accommodate child-rearing.
Zoe Lister-Jones is at the center of her third directorial effort, an apocalypse comedy about a woman trying to get to a party on the last day on Earth. The twist is that she’s accompanied by a younger version of herself, a spirit who is suddenly visible on this final day, when everyone has a heightened sense of reality. In a recent interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Lister-Jones explained that the plot was partly inspired by all the inner child work she’d been doing in therapy. That might sound cringeworthy and at best heavy-handed but this little indie is buoyant and goofy, and gently sends up L.A.’s wellness culture, COVID-deniers, and even the existential anxiety many of us are grappling with as the climate crisis becomes more obvious. Shot entirely outdoors in L.A. during the pandemic, How It Ends is also a record of life under lockdown, showing the eerie stillness of the streets and skies.
I’m back from a two-week vacation in Maine where I swam in the ocean every day, ate lobster rolls, hiked through moss-covered forests, and, on the nights when it was too cloudy to look at the stars, I watched a few movies. Here are a few quick thoughts, and I’ll be back to full reviews next week.
Lorelei is a well-meaning film set in rural Oregon about a man trying to start his life over after a 15 years in prison. Despite solid performances throughout, and a well-researched story, the movie never really rose above its earnest intentions. I see this a lot in debut features — and debut novels, too — especially when the director is trying to work in a realistic mode. I give writer and director Sabrina Doyle credit for creating complex characters and for a certain optimism at the core of her storytelling. But even though I was rooting for the film, it got bogged it down by its many plot elements, and lacked a certain wit and levity. There was an overall lack of cohesion that made it slow going, especially in the final act.