Quick Takes: Film Festival Runoff

It’s Film Festival Season right now.  If you’re on the level of industry press who get flown around the world, that means you’re dragging your corpse from screening to screening at high-profile fests like Venice, Tribeca, and TIFF, then pretending in your late-night hotel room tweets & podcasts that you’re fully awake and spring-loaded with the hottest takes as you drift into a brief nap before the cycle starts again.  And if you’re an amateur movie nerd like me, you’re taking those delirious dispatches from Film Industry Hell as holy gospel, making notes on what movies to look out for much, much further down the distribution path.  The problem is a lot of the smaller, weirder titles highlighted in those reports from the ground can take years to reach local screens, if they ever arrive at all.  After years of attentive podcast listening, I have serial killer conspiracy theorist notebooks full of scribbled-down titles of movies that functionally do not exist, hoping that something as wonderfully bizarre as an Aline, a Double Lover, or a Diamantino might eventually make it my way.  It often pays off!  But it’s a madman’s hobby.

I was thinking about this private film fest ritual in recent weeks, listening to festival recaps on podcasts like Film Comment & The Last Thing I Saw while still searching for titles they covered years ago on my weekly trips to JustWatch.  And I happened to catch a few of those festival runoff titles in recent weeks: low-budget movies that were briefly highlighted in their festival runs while higher-profile awards seekers premiered in much brighter spotlights at the same venues.  I’ve covered local fests like NOFF & Overlook for Swampflix before, but I can’t afford to be the first online with the freshest takes on titles out of Sundance & Telluride that will be widely available in the nation’s multiplexes just a few weeks later.  Instead, here are a few quick reviews of smaller-profile indies that premiered at festivals long ago, but just recently got wide distribution.

The Silent Twins

The newest film from The Lure‘s Agnieszka Smoczyńska has enjoyed the quickest turnaround of the festival titles highlighted here, premiering at Cannes just this Spring.  That kind of rushed-to-market release usually means a film is vying for Awards Season prestige, but The Silent Twins is too thorny & too fanciful to be mistaken for a crowd-pleaser.  Its titular Welsh sisters, June & Jennifer Gibbons, were mutually obsessed to the point of total reclusiveness in real life, refusing to communicate to anyone but each other in their own hushed, made-up language.  Smoczyńska uses their personal diaries & surviving scraps of creative writing as inspiration to imagine what their inner world might have been like, since there isn’t much to depict in their near-catatonic external life as the only Black family in their Welsh neighborhood.  From the outside looking in, this is a grim, by-the-numbers historical drama.  On the inside, it’s a rich fantasyscape that often takes the shape of a grotesque stop-motion music video.

There’s a bizarre mismatch between auteur & genre here, like watching Lynne Ramsay direct Oscar Bait.  Smoczyńska is unlikely to ever make another killer-mermaid disco musical, though, so it’s at least cool to see her directing high-profile work with a hint of commercial appeal.  The (mostly British) audience who know the Gibbons sisters as a from-the-headlines human interest story have been frustrated with the film’s self-indulgent style and historical inaccuracies, while fans of The Lure will be frustrated that it doesn’t break from reality more frequently & more harshly.  Neither side of that divide can walk away 100% happy, but there’s some great tension between its Wikipedia Biopic genre template and its insular, high-style dream logic. And who knows, maybe it’ll make waves at the BAFTAs before it otherwise fades away forever.

Tahara

The road to wide distribution has been much longer for the microbudget coming-of-age drama Tahara, which first premiered at Slamdance, TIFF, and Outfest way back in 2020.  This is, of course, the 77min, darkly humorous queer meltdown drama in which Rachel Sennott makes bagels and makes out as an agent of chaos at a Jewish funeral.  No, not that one, the other one.  Tahara was shot in the moment between when Shiva Baby was just a proof-of-concept short film and when its feature-length version became a critical darling at SXSW & TIFF, earning a spot on many publication’s Best of 2021 lists.  Tahara can only suffer by comparison, then, since it’s not as searingly intense nor as robustly funded as Shiva Baby, which puts Sennott’s electric screen presence to much more attention-grabbing use.  By the time Bodies Bodies Bodies hit theaters this summer, though, she proved herself to be a legitimate, once-in-a-generation star, which makes the first feature she shot worth a look no matter how redundant its surface details seem.

Oddly enough, Tahara shares more in common with The Silent Twins, stylistically, than it does with Shiva Baby.  Sennott stars alongside Madeline Grey DeFreece as a pair of high school BFFs who are so mutually obsessed that they can almost communicate telepathically, chatting in a private body language that director Olivia Pearce helpfully translates into on-screen subtitles.  When Sennott’s bratty partygirl hedonist pressures her more bookish bestie into making out for LOLs at a classmate’s funeral, her friend catches feelings and the film slips into Silent Twins-style stop-motion fantasy.  However, their interpersonal drama is extremely low stakes in comparison to Smoczyńska’s film, or even Shiva Baby, really.  Mostly, this is a charming indie comedy that scores a lot of nervous laughter off the social tension of Sennott causing self-involved havoc in a buttoned-up funeral setting.  It’s the exact kind of movie you’d expect to see at a local film fest and hold onto as an “I knew them when” badge of honor as the breakout performer moved onto bigger & better things.  Only, Sennott’s rise to fame was much quicker than the movie’s roll-out.

Mother Schmuckers

It’s shameful to admit, but the film from this batch I was most looking forward to was the one most devoid of best-of-the-year potential, awards season prestige, or even basic artistic merit.  The Belgian buddy comedy Mother Schmuckers premiered at Sundance in 2021 to total critical indifference, despite its most juvenile efforts to provoke.  The 70min novelty gross-out revisits the tipping point when the Farrelley Brothers converted the John Waters gross-out comedy into mainstream crowd pleasers, choosing instead to upset & offend.  It’s Dumb & Dumber for the Pink Flamingos crowd, both a revolting abomination and a revolting delight.  I can’t recommend it in good conscience, but I also won’t pretend I didn’t enjoy it.

Real-life brothers Harpo and Lenny Guit star as fictional idiot brothers who torment anyone & everyone unfortunate enough to know them, as if they were performing hype house YouTube pranks that no one is around to film.  Mother Schmuckers opens with the titular schmucks cooking feces in the family frying pan, then offering it to their incensed mother until she pukes onto the camera lens, providing a slimy green backdrop for the title card.  Kicked out of the house and left in charge of the most valued member of the family—their mother’s dog—they get into endless bad-taste shenanigans, ranging from murder to bestiality to necrophiliac prostitution . . . all while searching for an easy meal.  The film indulges in a little visual flair to lighten up the severity of these stunts, dabbling in color blind dog-cam POV, vintage picture-in-picture inserts, and Jackass-style found footage camcorder textures.  This is not another fantasy-prone-siblings-shunned-by-a-cruel-world heartbreaker like The Silent Twins, though.  It’s trash; it knows it’s trash; and any festival programming it would’ve been smart to bury it in the midnight slot where only the most delirious trash scavengers would stumble across it.  All that said, I laughed a lot while watching it, which I believe qualifies it as a success.  I’m also in total amazement that it scored American distribution, given how many higher-minded films never make it past the festival circuit.

-Brandon Ledet

Zillennial Warfare

Even though there’s a clear birth-year boundary between Millennials (born 1977-1995) and Gen Z (born 1996 – 2015), you’ll often hear them grouped together, usually in complaints by older generations who are becoming increasingly out-of-touch and out-of-time.  When a Boomer complains that food service is slow because “Millennials” are lazy and “No one wants to work anymore”, what they really mean is that restaurants are under-staffed because Gen-Z is finally demanding better working conditions for themselves than the last few generations dared to.  To my eye, there are some major, vivid distinctions between Millennials—who are old enough to remember life before the internet but too hopelessly addicted to ever leave it—and Zoomers, who are already pushing for a kinder, more authentic post-internet world.  It’s not yet as clearly defined as the boundary between the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps individualism of Boomers and the checked-out apathy of Gen-X, though, mostly because younger generations have not yet had the advantage of guiding public discourse through decades of pop media.  That setback is changing as Millennials & Zoomers are getting old enough to have real Big Boy jobs in Hollywood & NYC, but the change has been gradual.  I was thinking a lot about that deficiency in proper assessments of Millennial Brain and Gen-Z Culture this past week, though, when I happened to see two thrillers that addressed those exact topics while sharing the same marquee. 

Emily the Criminal could not have been better timed to coincide with national headlines & online Culture War arguments over Millennial “entitlement” & debt.  Just as the Biden administration #triggered Boomers online by announcing concrete plans to (partially) forgive student loan debt, the financial-desperation thriller hit local theaters with a plot hinged on that exact conflict.  Aubrey Plaza stars as a food service worker who’s drowning in $70k of student loan debt from art school, something she cannot seem to make progress on thanks to low service industry wages and predatory interest rates.  So, she gets mixed up in increasingly risky credit card fraud schemes and subsequent bouts of hyperviolence.  The film is a little too subdued & old-fashioned for its own good, decades behind the times in its tone & style. In a way, though, it’s smart for a thriller about The Millennial Condition to echo the low-level crime thrillers Millennials grew up on in the VHS era.  For most of the runtime, Plaza’s student loan debt is an arbitrary excuse for a by-the-books, in-over-her-head thriller.  The generational culture wars only really come into play in a pivotal third-act scene where she finally lands an interview for a “real” job, only to discover during the interview that she’s applying for a full-time, unpaid internship.  She genuinely cannot afford to work, so she has to steal.  The Gen-Xer interviewer calls her spoiled for turning down the “opportunity” & “exposure” she’d receive for her unpaid labor, mirroring the exact arguments about Millennial entitlement that were raging online while the film was in the theater.  In its filmmaking sensibilities, Emily the Criminal feels distinctly behind the times, but it could not be timelier in its themes of generational debt & desperation.

The generational commentary is much more pronounced in the Gen-Z satire Bodies Bodies Bodies.  It’s not contained to a single scene; it’s the entirety of the text.  Bodies Bodies Bodies is an ensemble-cast murder mystery in which a Florida mansion full of mean, coked up, trust fund Zoomers violently #cancel each other during a good, old-fashioned hurricane party.  It literalizes & escalates online mob mentality in a chaotic, real-world environment where morality-police dogpiling has lethal consequences.  If Emily the Criminal supposes that the #1 threat to Millennial prosperity is exponential debt, Bodies Bodies Bodies supposes that Gen-Z’s biggest enemy is the generational impulse to turn on each other at the slightest political misstep.  Social media buzzwords like “toxic,” “triggering,” and “silencing” are wielded like weapons . . . along with the actual weapons they use to bash each other’s skulls in during their paranoid search for a killer.  As a satirical assessment of a generational zeitgeist, I’m not convinced that Bodies Bodies Bodies has Gen-Z entirely pinned down.  If anything, it’s mostly older generations who are terminally online at this point, as younger Zoomers tend to be lightening up & logging off out of boredom with most social media platforms.  If the generational commentary is at all convincing here, it’s in showing what a vicious, un-fun internet culture we’ve set up for these kids, who now only really check in for make-up tips, line-dances, and absurdist recipes.  Luckily, the movie also works as class commentary on the selfishness & cruelty of the wealthy, a topic that’s evergreen.  It also satisfies as a murder mystery, a rare example of the genre where the reveal is just as compelling as the tension leading up to it.

I don’t know that either of these movies are especially exceptional on their own terms.  My biggest takeaway from either was just continued appreciation of actors I already loved going in: Plaza in Emily and Shiva Baby‘s Rachel Sennott in Bodies, both of them stars.  As a pair, though, the movies were an interesting glimpse into how Hollywood perceives the differences between Millennials & Zoomers.  Millennials are now old enough to have their problems taken (a little too) seriously, while Zoomers are still at an age where they can only be assessed in comedic caricature.  That difference makes Bodies Bodies Bodies both the more fun and the less accurate of the pair. Gen-Z will eventually get their own grim, generation-defining dramas in due time, though, once Hollywood starts mocking whatever doomed generation follows them. It’s the circle of strife.

-Brandon Ledet