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Winona (Talks) Forever, With Keanu, in “Destination Wedding”

Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves are the unwanted guests of a California wine-country wedding in Victor Levin’s amiable-aimless rom-com, a premise the writer-director commits to with nearperversity. In Destination Wedding, nary a human being outside the forever-bantering co-stars utters a single word in the hour-and-a-half running time. Ryder and Reeves spend the entire movie preoccupied only with one another, despite their characters’ intimate associations with the betrothed couple: Ryder’s Lindsay, an idealistic prosecutor, is six years bitterly removed from an engagement to the groom; said groom is the estranged half brother of Reeves’s Frank, a cynical marketing something-or-other at J.D. Power and Associates. An emblematic scene about fifteen minutes in, set during the Friday-night rehearsal dinner, finds Lindsay and Frank, strangers until an earlier acrimonious meet-cute at the airport, seated at their own table, alienated from the chummy guests in their midst. In such moments, as the pair aloofly analyzes but refuses to engage with the people cavorting around them, Destination Wedding almost suggests a special-features commentary track come to life, with Ryder and Reeves as onlookers voicing their beat-by-beat breakdowns of a rom-com in which they are not participating. (What’s more Gen X than that?)

Levin comes to Destination Wedding having directed one other feature, 5 to 7 (2014), about an aspiring Manhattan-living fiction writer (played by the late Anton Yelchin) who strikes up a passionate affair with a French diplomat’s wife (Bérénice Marlohe). Some of that movie’s literary pretensions — including a slew of quizzical celebrity cameos, like one by the New Yorker’s David Remnick, who tells Yelchin’s mid-twenties scribe that his work carries “the tease of greatness” — are lightly replicated in Destination Wedding. Levin occasionally breaks the two-person repartee to present sarcastic onscreen text; at the outset, he follows up the title card with a surprising “or” and then a needlessly convoluted addendum: “A Narcissist Can’t Die Because Then the Entire World Would End.” But this is by and large a breezy affair. Levin’s most constant worry seems to be collaborating with his cinematographer, Giorgio Scali, to drum up fresh ways with which to compose his leads during their multiple-minute takes of alternatively combative and flirtatious conversation. In one setup, Ryder’s and Reeves’s faces are pressed into the center of the frame by the barrels of a winery; in another, their bodies, now pajama-attired, are allowed to roam more freely on a hotel bed. Levin at times seems rather too taken with the verbosity of his own dialogue, but here and there, his quips and situations match perfectly with his actors’ sensibilities. Reeves’s unstinting dryness makes deadpan magic out of the pre-clumsy-coitus line, “I haven’t felt pleasure since about 2006,” while Ryder’s sardonic eye-rolls and raised eyebrows lend a goofy liveliness to a tableau of Lindsay and Frank receiving foot massages. Even so, this mild diversion is probably a movie best watched with a couple of glasses of red or not at all.

Destination Wedding
Written and directed by Victor Levin
Opens August 31, Village East Cinema and AMC Empire 25
Available on demand September 7

 

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“Distant Voices, Still Lives,” Now Restored, Bustles Beautifully Between Memories

The working-class, mid-twentieth-century Liverpudlian characters who populate Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) sometimes glance in the direction of the camera, their self-conscious near-posing and the director’s portrait-like framing evoking the flipping-through of an old photo album. This combination of intimacy and remove — the startling emotional jolt of seeing a family in mourning stare toward you in silence, an image of the felled patriarch hanging on the wall behind them — characterizes Davies’s enthralling thirty-year-old debut feature, an autobiographically informed but hardly event-reliant memory piece. (It returns this week in a 4K restoration.) Davies’s reminiscences, centered on one Catholic clan, unfold according to a peculiar emotional logic: The characters are more comfortable singing than speaking. (“Bye Bye Blackbird” diffuses a barroom argument.) Scenes aren’t shaped with typical dramatic roundness, but rather pick up and cut off at surprise intervals. Even an encounter with stark interpersonal stakes — a confrontation between army-age son Tony (Dean Williams) and abusive father Tommy (Pete Postlethwaite) — is structured as a sort of de-escalation. Davies opens on an expression of mighty rage, Tony punching his fists through a window (“Fight me, you bastard!”), then transitions abruptly to a near-the-fireplace shot of Tony holding two beers in his bloodied hands, Tommy flatly but quietly refusing his boy’s offer of a drink. Such disjunctive stops and starts recur across Davies’s movie, whose look-back form — all elegiacally drifting camera movements and belted-out bar songs — endures as a grand cinematic anomaly.

Like Davies’s spiritually aligned and similarly song-rich The Long Day Closes (1992), Distant Voices, Still Lives opens with a downpour; here, the raindrops fall on a front step stocked with fresh milk bottles. Unlike that later movie, which maintains a mostly childhood-specific p.o.v., Distant Voices, Still Lives loops with abandon through the years and personalities, observing deaths, births, hospital visits, weddings, holidays. Eileen (Angela Walsh), one of the two daughters of Tommy and “Mother” (Freda Dowie), gushes over a bottle of Chanel perfume gifted to her by Dave (Michael Starke), whom she later marries. (In The Long Day Closes, the women seated around a table wish they had Chanel.) Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne), Eileen’s sister, asks her father for money to go to the dance, which he agrees to only if she’ll clean the cellar; she scrubs the floors, and then he beats her with a broomstick. At a crowded pub, Tony places a seemingly never-ending drink order; seconds later, he shepherds a tray’s worth of cold beers into a bustling room of crooning loved ones. As kids, the siblings spy on their father brushing a horse and singing to himself — a moment of tenderness for this hard man.

On occasion, Davies interrupts the thoughtful solemnity with touches of humor: Eileen offhandedly calling her loud-chewing husband “Mouth Almighty” is a barb worthy of Cynthia Nixon’s Emily Dickinson in Davies’s A Quiet Passion. Stylistically, some of his maneuvers create an almost confounding mix of the tragic and the unhinged, as when he depicts one accidental disaster two men falling through a pane of glass via an extravagant slow-motion shot that lasts around thirty seconds. A sudden, out-of-context image like that one is typical of the sprawl of Distant Voices, Still Lives, but the intention behind other structural decisions is more clear. Early on, Eileen and her good friend Micky (Debi Jones) loiter outside Eileen’s house after an evening of dancing, hoping to get in one final cigarette before Tommy’s strict curfew. Obviously very cool and destined for better, more glamorous things, the women covertly mock Eileen’s father’s social restrictions (“It’s worse than Alcatraz, isn’t it?”). Years later, the two share another private chat at the end of a long night out. Micky raises the specter of future get-together plans, but the conversation only amounts to Eileen’s halfhearted “We’ll see, kid.” The gradations of life — spouses, responsibilities, fatigue — have caught up with them, wearing down their youthful exuberance. As in the rest of the movie, Davies seizes this crushing morsel of wisdom practically on the fly, before rushing on to the next memory, the next song, the next glass of beer.

Distant Voices, Still Lives
Directed by Terence Davies
Arrow Films
Opens August 31, Metrograph

 

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“Support the Girls” Is a Winning, Rambunctious Comedy About Work in America

Support the Girls marks a thorough airing-out of a most welcome subgenre: the workplace comedy of escalating crises. Unyieldingly patient Lisa (Regina Hall) runs an off-the-highway Texas sports bar, Double Whammies, with characteristic devotion and empathy toward her staff and customers. Though the servers’ tight-fitting attire may be Hooters-revealing, Lisa insists on a wholesome “mainstream” atmosphere, as amenable to families as it is to fight-watchers or before-noon, Lone Starsipping regulars like Bobo (Lea DeLaria). But on the day that Andrew Bujalski’s high-energy sixth feature catches Lisa, the managerial challenges pile up with such urgency that not even she can get through the hours without flipping off a bird or kicking the side of a building. Mostly offscreen waitress Shaina (Jana Kramer) has rammed her car into her belligerent boyfriend, so Lisa cooks up a scheme to raise money to meet Shaina’s impending legal fees: assigning a group of young women who have applied for server jobs to offer car washes in the parking lot. (“Support the girls,” reads a note on the tin can collecting the customers’ donations.)

Undertaken without the blessing of the bar’s crotchety owner, Cubby (James Le Gros), the car wash project becomes a constant source of anxiety in Lisa’s afternoon. But the more immediate, minute-by-minute complications also strain Lisa’s trademark enthusiasm. In one shot alone, Lisa receives back-to-back crisis dispatches from servers: One reports that a customer made a crude remark about her weight; another emerges from a restroom from which emanates the sound of a man hurling. Lisa takes this all commendably in stride — just before her confrontation with the offensive patron, we see her let out a deep sigh — but we’re only a half-hour into the movie. And did I mention that the restaurant’s televisions aren’t working or that the police are on-site investigating a robbery?

This frenetic suite of situations hardly adds up to Frederick Wiseman’s Sports Bar. But Bujalski — as he has in his previous work, like Results (2015), about the employees of a boutique Texas gym — still displays a productive and analytical interest in the mechanics of operating a small business. Lisa’s recruitment of job applicants for the car wash scheme demands setup scenes in which she and Maci (Haley Lu Richardson) outline the statutes and philosophies of Double Whammies: an official list of “Golden Rules” posted in the locker room (“Be responsible”); Maci’s explanation of the borderline between acceptable and questionable touching of the customers (“try not to squeeze”). Even a sideline character like Jay (John Elvis), depicted chiefly through his gratuitous passes at the Double Whammies ladies (he’s married and in one line refers to his wife as his “roommate situation”), isn’t some professionally anonymous personality but the proud polo-and-khaki-wearing employee of a speaker store, Sounds Town. Bujalski works this fact into the traffic of the plot, showing Lisa and one of her most beloved colleagues, Danyelle (Shayna McHayle, a/k/a Junglepussy), visiting Jay’s shop and exploiting his infatuation to secure a discount on a speaker system for the restaurant. A charming but inconsequential scene of Lisa attempting to entertain Danyelle’s son, McKray (Jermichael Gray), also can’t escape the specter of the bottom line. Lisa shares with the child her shift chart, playfully likening the schedule to a puzzle and her servers to “my bench” and “my superstars” (“Your mom, she’s right at the top”).

Bujalski frames most of Support the Girls as an almost real-time delineation of chaos, but his storytelling elegance — delicate, nearly invisible foreshadowing; cogent evocations of backstory — adds reflective layers to the surface anarchy. During one car ride, Lisa happens to see a woman crying in a juice-bar window; it seems like nothing, but Lisa later returns to the shop and consoles the woman, who turns out to be Krista (AJ Michalka), a Double Whammies server agonizing over how her impulsive Stephen Curry tattoo will be received at work and elsewhere. The more Lisa sprints selflessly around — attending to calamities as minor as an absent foosball table or as major as her on-the-rocks marriage (to Cameron, played by Lawrence Varnado) — the more Bujalski and Hall start to painfully question her superhuman investment in others. The early impression of a confident, sunny bravado, with Lisa cheerfully confronting tasks as they materialize, falls away, exposing the vulnerable interiority of a person defined so profoundly by her prioritization of work and colleagues over herself. When Danyelle says to Lisa, “You’re married to this place,” it feels like precisely the sort of line that might have kept Lisa coming back in the past — but that on this trying day has the opposite effect, sending her off on an overdue mission of personal reckoning.

Support the Girls
Written and directed by Andrew Bujalski
Magnolia Pictures
Opens August 24, IFC Center and Alamo Drafthouse

 

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Ricky D’Ambrose’s Minimalist “Notes on an Appearance” Is Obsessed With Absence

Set within the remote planet of Brooklyn intelligentsia, Ricky D’Ambrose’s hourlong Notes on an Appearance relays a narrative teeming with incident — death, disappearance — through an elusive yet methodical style. Establishing shots are few and far between. A scene might consist almost entirely of a tableau of physical objects; an early one features an overhead perspective on a table, hands motioning in and out of frame — setting down a water glass, pouring coffee — as idle café chatter fills the soundtrack. D’Ambrose implies the characters commuting via close-ups of the New York City subway map and the aural roar of a train tearing across the tracks. The movie’s first shot, of a polite postcard scribbled in blue pen, not only sets the story in motion but even condenses into a few jotted-off sentences a continent-crossing journey. We learn that David (Bingham Bryant) has plans to travel from Milan to Brooklyn, where he will hook up with graduate student Todd (Keith Poulson) and assist him in researching the work and estate of the anti-establishment political thinker Stephen Taubes (voiced by Stephen F. Cohen).

Such economical methods are all a creatively frugal solution to the challenge of an average 9-to-5 employee producing a debut feature. (D’Ambrose has explained in multiple interviews that he works as a personal assistant at the Nation. “The money I earn from my job can never go towards my movies,” he said in one.) But D’Ambrose’s means of expression in Notes on an Appearance — and in his shorts, including the thematically related Spiral Jetty (2017) — can also seem like a concerted rejoinder to more conventional storytelling wisdom, for reasons that have nothing to do with money. D’Ambrose wants to make a movie that evokes the daunting legacy of a disembodied political figure? OK, great — just get a fucking picture of an old guy (credited to the Facultad Libre de Rosario), insert it in close-up, then deliver rapid-fire reams of information about him. What would demand fifteen minutes and probably a glorified flashback-only cameo in the industry-standard, backstory-obsessed version of this movie takes D’Ambrose just a handful of beats, all thanks to blunt, arresting shots of fetishistically accurate reproductions of Taubes-centered media coverage.

Taubes, also echoed in the home movies he shot and tapings of the lectures he gave, is one of the animating absences of Notes; another is David, who not long into the movie suddenly disappears. D’Ambrose proves uncannily adept at conjuring zero-budget paranoia through the sheer accumulation of documents. Eventually, with the movie hopping from such haunted elements as David’s diary entries to wobbly footage of the Twin Towers to audio of Taubes, Notes simply plays like a plaintive reminiscence of things that no longer exist. D’Ambrose doesn’t engage in character psychology — he instructs his cast members, a who’s who of New York cinephilia, to recite their lines with minimal emoting — but he does suggest some emotional conclusions through this block-by-block organization of material. From intimations of widespread political anger (also a part of his 2013 short, Pilgrims), he moves us to gallery openings. From a Q&A on literary translation (complete with brutal audience questions like “Do we think of this as just another failure of late capitalism?”), he moves us to a scene of Karin (Madeleine James), one of the academics from the panel, chastising Todd for being so distraught by David’s disappearance. In the balance between the carnage and the bullshit, there arises something like a deep disillusionment.

Notes on an Appearance
Directed by Ricky D’Ambrose
Grasshopper Films
Opens August 17, Film Society at Lincoln Center

 

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With the Masterful “The Age of Innocence,” Martin Scorsese Dug Beneath the Surface

In many Martin Scorsese movies, the characters’ frustrations and passions — Jake LaMotta’s jealousy, Jordan Belfort’s greed — bubble up to the surface, exploding in plain view. In The Age of Innocence (1993), Scorsese’s goosebump-good adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel about the pomp and circumstance that dictated all aspects of life within the uppermost social enclaves of 1870s New York, the opposite proves true. This is a movie where a single brittle remark might seem to alter the course of a candlelit dinner, only for the congenial facade to be immediately rescued by polite hedging, demurred glances, and deft subject-changing. The most intense of emotions are tucked carefully away, hidden under propriety and inflexible rules of etiquette, private fantasies never to be referenced or spoken of aloud. In one scene, the lawyer Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) imagines the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) wrapping her arms around him; Scorsese indulges the young man’s vision, showing the pair caught in a desperate embrace. Of course, Newland does nothing about his feelings, the damned fool; how could he, when he stands engaged, to the great merriment of those in his orbit, to Ellen’s cousin, the perfectly proper and generally-agreed-to-be-ravishing May Welland (Winona Ryder)? Still, he’ll always have the fantasy.

To make a sumptuous period piece about well-mannered imbeciles with money seemed to some filmgoers a new challenge for Scorsese, when The Age of Innocence was first released. (Now 25, it has received a new 4K restoration.) But the movie is not an unfathomable departure, least of all geographically. In fact, the partnership of Scorsese’s volatile style and Wharton’s decorum-oriented milieu clarifies insights from both artists. As Scorsese’s iris shots and bursts of color and frisson-filled close-ups maximize the yearning that pulses between the lines of the novel, Wharton’s clever, cutting tone keeps the director in check, pushing him toward a psychological nuance of a more discreet order than, say, Raging Bull’s “Your mother sucks fucking big fucking elephant dicks.” Scorsese and co-screenwriter Jay Cocks hold closely to Wharton’s voice, to the point even of implementing a recurring narration (spoken by Joanne Woodward) that unspools hefts of Wharton’s prose wordforword. Some of the strongest passages find Scorsese and the cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’s camera sweeping through immense rooms, inhaling opulence and character activity as Woodward coolly recites Wharton’s sentences dissecting the denizens. Through this analytical distancing, Scorsese achieves a Barry Lyndon–like sense of rueful detachment.

Newland Archer’s predicament in The Age of Innocence — his torn feelings between May Welland and a life of stability, and Ellen Olenska and a life of scandal — unfolds through a series of public gatherings and private tête-à-têtes. Scorsese’s extravagant camera movements emerge naturally from the former; so, too, does his Casino-like process mode, in which he keys in on a particular environment’s ceremonies and rituals — in this case, the plating of multicourse meals, or the trimming of post-dinner cigars. He also applies slow motion to episodes of especially conspicuous behavior. Watch Ellen, seated next to a man who does not fascinate her, glide across a crowded room to engage Newland in conversation — the narration underlining the audacity of her actions, leaving on her own volition one man’s side to pursue another’s (“It was not the custom in New York”). Slow motion reappears much more abstractly in an out-of-nowhere later shot (set to Enya’s “Marble Halls”) of a huddled mass of bowler hat–wearing men marching up a Manhattan sidewalk. In this movie of cloistered-off families whose interactions with everyday New York rarely extend beyond a flower-shop window or a shoulder brush en route to a box at the opera, this image of bundled-up people herded together against the wind evokes a profound melancholy even as it mystifies.

In the confessional scenes, between two people (and, often, with a fireplace), Scorsese calms the camera movement and engages the actors in a fiercely tempered collaboration. The rules governing this elite society hold power over these people even in their most secluded rooms, so Scorsese and the ensemble must land on subtly imaginative ways to communicate the secrets and hint at the concealed desires. Some of the methods (with the help of the editor, Thelma Schoonmaker) are as direct as a well-timed close-up — of hands caressing here or a log in the fire turning over there. Elsewhere, Scorsese’s positioning of the actors within the frame produces internal revelations. In one early encounter between Newland and Ellen, set at the latter’s apartment during the late afternoon, Scorsese guides the discussion gradually into a typical shot/reverse-shot breakdown; but Pfeiffer issues many of her initial lines and reactions not by returning her scene partner’s gaze but by glancing thoughtfully out the window in the other direction, signaling the adventurous inner life and disregard for convention that so magnetizes Newland. In such dealings of the unspoken, The Age of Innocence remains a consistent spellbinder, laying bare its inhabitants’ follies and furies with a tender touch and a vigilant quietude that accumulates into a grand force.

The Age of Innocence
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Sony Pictures
Opens August 10, IFC Center

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Charles Stone III Talks the ‘Incredibly Flawed’ Heroes of “Uncle Drew,” “Mr. 3000,” and “Drumline”

For a director whose visibility was jump-started by Budweiser commercials in which men clench at the thought of spending a night in front of the TV with the girlfriend, Charles Stone III has amassed a deceptively impressive track record of emotional integrity within today’s Hollywood apparatus. Starting with 2002’s one-two punch of Paid in Full and Drumline — the former a process-minded portrait of drug-dealing in Eighties Harlem; the latter an emphatic marching-band drama — Stone has exhibited a special combination of stylistic gusto and pleasingly accessible pop psychology. His characters — whether Nick Cannon’s gifted but unbridled Devon Miles in Drumline, Bernie Mac’s riotously self-centered Stan Ross in Mr. 3000 (2004), or Kyrie Irving’s weathered and wisdom-dispensing Uncle Drew in Stone’s latest, Uncle Drew — are all formidably talented creators in need of major internal growth. With Uncle Drew set to enjoy its second weekend in theatrical release, Stone spoke to the Voice about collaborating with world-class athletes, the joy of depicting generational differences, and the smoldering chemistry of Bernie Mac and Angela Bassett in Mr. 3000.

To start with Paid in Full: That movie has a screenplay credit for Thulani Davis, who was a longtime writer at the Voice. Can you talk about that collaboration and how it came about?

I’m close with Thulani. Especially as a young adult, once I got out of art school. She always had great advice. But I also appreciated her own writing, her own novels. 1959 was really cool. Also My Confederate Kinfolk. She and I used to have discussions about comic-book heroes, especially when The Dark Knight Returns came out — Frank Miller’s reinvention of Batman. I did love the fact that she understood the hero’s tale. She herself is a Buddhist priest, and a novelist, and a poet, and a librettist. She’s a jack-of-all-trades. A lot of times, in the work that I do, I like to work with people who are multifaceted, who have multiple dimensions to their storytelling art. She had written a lot of plays. I did a draft myself before I brought her on. And then I thought she was the perfect fit to bring on after that.

I’ve read that you’re an alumni of the Rhode Island School of Design, but I don’t know much about what you studied there. Was the plan always to be a director?

I [was] a lover of animation growing up. Then, when Star Wars came out — I must have been around ten — it just blew my world wide open. That’s when I knew I wanted to be involved in live-action filmmaking. But it was funny that I thought I was going to be a special effects supervisor. That was the term I remember reading. I used to collect Cinefex magazines, Cinefantastique, [and other] popular special effects and sci-fi cinema publications. I was absorbing how the effects were done. I figured I was going to go to college and major in animation. The thing that was interesting about my experience at RISD is [that] I got involved in a lot of different things. Animation was the goal, and that was my major. But I’m also a drummer, so I was playing in funk bands. I used to be a DJ, so I would spin Chicago house music and old disco. I was doing theater at Brown University. [I was doing] stand-up comedy. I had my hand in different things throughout this process.

From there, [I] graduated, moved to New York. I figured I was going to work for a small production company doing animation and effects, which I did. I actually asked the owners of the company, “Look, if I could get a music video, would you all produce it?” They were like, “Yeah, sure.” I submitted my animated shorts to the band Living Colour. I also ran into Vernon Reid, who’s now a dear friend of mine, and introduced myself. About six months later, in April of ’89, their manager called me and said, “We’ve got $10,000. Want to do a small music video?” It was for the song called “Funny Vibe.” I already had ideas written out for that. I gladly did it, and it was a big success. Of course, that took my music-video directing career off. I did that for the next six to eight years, before features.

You’ve made sports movies before, but nothing quite comparable to Uncle Drew and its peculiar casting mixture of athletes and comedians. What was it like navigating those two extremes?

It hearkens back to what we just talked about — all the different things I was doing in college. When I speak to students, I always say, “A director should understand all the various avenues of making a movie.” It’s only going to help your performance, in terms of getting what you want. With regards to the stand-up comedians, I’ve done stand-up, so I’m sensitive to the talent that they have, which is typically improvisational. In comedies, it’s not only the storyline: You want to maximize the jokes. [It should be] within the structure of the script and the story and the character development, but still, that can be sculpted in the edit. For me, it’s about allowing them to really run and explore the idea. We did 25- to 30-minute takes of J.B. Smoove and Mike Epps — crazy, crazy stuff. They’d go way over the deep end. [Laughs] But the point is to allow for that to happen.

With the basketball players, each of them had a different level of experience in terms of muscle development in acting. I spent time with the NBA players, separately — because we didn’t have a lot of rehearsal — just talking about their life. Because my thought is to maybe have [them] draw on life experiences in order to get into character or define an emotional moment. We also had an acting coach: Adam Lazarre-White, who’s an actor himself, and used to be an athlete. He was a quarterback for Harvard back in the day. He spoke the language of athletes. So it’s just respecting each person’s level of acting ability and using certain tactics to get them to realize the characters.

Uncle Drew is structured as a kind of road movie. It has multiple delightful scenes set at gas stations, one in which the squad of geezers gets blown out by a state-champion girls’ team. How did you approach the road-movie concept?

Yeah, the structure of the story is basically a road trip of sorts, but we expanded it. I always wanted to do a road-trip movie because they allow for focusing in on one or two characters. It’s intimate. They’re in a car — in this case, a van — and they’re traveling long distances. A lot of the character interaction happens in a very closed, intimate space. [Also] typically road trips involve the main character or co-leads having fish-out-of-water experiences. For Dax [Lil Rel Howery’s character], definitely: The first guy he meets is a fiery preacher who’s going to slam-dunk a baby. [Laughs] And he has a cantankerous wife. The next dude is blind. These are the people that are supposed to be on the super-team. The next [guy] can’t fucking walk. So the joy of doing a road trip is that they experience new things, and that fish-out-of-water element makes it funny, especially if you have interesting actors. I think Rel’s a funny bouncing board. When he’s in a situation where he’s not in his element, he’s funny just in his reactions.

What’s also important about a road-trip movie is that there is a definite progression — things get more intense. In this case, things became more outlandish — from a literal preacher to someone who’s blind to someone who is a paraplegic, or appears to be. The last person is a giant who’s angry at the guy who’s bringing them all back together and knocks him out in the kung fu studio. Then they go into a crazy chase with a car going backwards. That’s important: that there be a dramatic and comedic progression, that things expand and enlarge and get more animated or emotional. Because you’re trying to get to a certain point and [make] sure that the stakes are building and getting heavier, like a ticking clock.

Going back to Paid in Full, in which Ace (Wood Harris) argues with dry cleaner owner Pip (Chi McBride) over taste in music, your movies have toyed with humor from a generational perspective. Even Mr. 3000 wrings comedy from the scenario of a pushing-fifty man returning to a baseball league of twenty- and thirty-year-olds. Can you pinpoint why you’ve been drawn to this sort of material?

Definitely [with] my upbringing with relatives, I have a fondness for those sage folk. Everyone’s done that: Eddie Murphy, in his first big debut, Delirious, talks about his uncles and parents and all of that. Lil Rel is inspired by his uncle in a lot of his work. I’m also very much in tune with my generation, with what I like. With Mr. 3000, having all that Earth, Wind & Fire music that represents [Stan]. Same thing with Uncle Drew. And that was something I pitched to the producer and the writer: that I wanted to magnify the generational differences. I designed the concept of [Dax and Drew] arguing over a song based on generations. And what better to use than hip-hop that samples from the past? I love my generation’s music, and I love and respect my relatives, the Sixties and Fifties, as well. It goes both ways.

Charles Stone III (left) and Bernie Mac on the set of the baseball comedy “Mr. 3000.”

Mr. 3000 is one of my favorite sports movies, in part because of its core teamwork-over-individuality theme. Many sports-movie heroes  like Robert Redford in The Natural  tend to be ostracized by their greatness or their loner mentality. But the arc of the Bernie Mac character in Mr. 3000 is all about discovering humility. Can you talk about that?

First of all, [with] sports movies in general, the sport is interchangeable. I respect basketball, I enjoy it, but I’m not fanatical. Whereas Jay Longino, the writer [of Uncle Drew], played semi-pro and international ball. He loves it. To me, he created a love letter to basketball in this script. But for me, you can switch out the sport. Or it can be a war. Like, wherever main characters have their mettle being tested, it’s important to me. As a filmmaker, I love to tell stories about incredibly talented people who are incredibly flawed as well. And incredible doesn’t necessarily connote complexity — just tremendous superpowers [and] then a flaw that is holding them back from fully realizing themselves. Devon in Drumline is this kid who has this amazing talent, but also he has this amazing hubris and ego. He doesn’t read music, which is an Achilles’ heel, but his talent expands to [hearing] something once and then being able to play it right back. He’s got a level of mental acuity that’s pretty high. He’s got this fire that comes with it. But the fire also fuels his ego, and, sure enough, he struggles to learn how to become a selfless team player.

And Mr. 3000: I first fell in love with that script because of the fucking title [laughs]. Like, anybody who calls himself by a [big-name] number like that…I’ll tell you what: This was during the period where Terrell Owens was on fire in the NFL. Owens was autographing footballs in the end zone, having a Sharpie in his sock. That’s fucking amazing — not positive or negative, but just in the neutral sense of the word. It’s incredible that there was that level of showmanship in the professional game. And ESPN, who’s been in a myriad of my films — Drumline, Mr. 3000, Uncle Drew — was, during that period, the stage that added fuel to the egotistical fire of these players. I remember Bryant Gumbel did a segment about linebackers in the NFL — it might have been college, but I’ll be safe and say the NFL — where they were trying to do flagrant sacks and hits because they were trying to get on the ESPN highlight reel. There was a mechanism that promoted solo acts of athletic ability as opposed to the collective.

This Mr. 3000 character also had this ability that a lot of great baseball hitters do, which is that he could read a pitch. I had a lot of cats tell me about being able to read the pitch based on seeing how the pitcher holds the ball. In the movie, he’s at bat, and he’s jawing it up with the pitcher who can’t stand him, the catcher who can’t stand him. The umpire doesn’t like him [laughs]. But he’s watching the pitcher, and then he sees the pitcher take the ball — first cradling the ball, then [putting] it behind his hip. He’s watching that. And it’s literally a close-up between his eyes watching [the pitcher] and a close-up of the pitcher’s hand on the ball. There’s some adjustment — the muscle in between the finger and the thumb just slides underneath the ball. And the slightest of smiles cracks the corner of Bernie’s mouth.

These [players] were telling me stories about batters who could do this. We had a consultant who played for the Mets. He was a pitcher, and he was explaining that there was this batter he could never fucking strike out. One day, after they had both left the game, he said to the dude, “You always frustrated me. I could never strike you out.” And the guy said something like, “I would see your finger just before you launch the ball — your finger would slide upward. I always knew when you were going to throw the fastball.” He’s identifying something literally with one finger — it was crazy. Again, it’s the idea that I like these characters that…the bigger they are, the harder the fall is going to be, and the more tremendous the struggle will be to figure it out. That moment when Stan Ross gets the winning ball and throws it into the stands — it gives me goosebumps. To throw it away is very powerful. That’s when I know it’s become an internal victory as opposed to an egotistical victory.

The Mr. 3000 scenes between Bernie Mac and Angela Bassett are remarkable for their banter and romantic energy. One interaction, in which Stan pours a drink for Maureen (Bassett) and the repartee turns into a colossal argument, is the stuff of high melodrama  far from your typical rah-rah sports movie. Can you talk about directing those two and how you captured that vulnerability within a seemingly laid-back baseball comedy?

I love that you’re bringing this up. First of all, I wanted Angela Bassett’s character to be this tomboy of sorts. I wanted it to be a role reversal, where she’s the one that’s trying to get that ass. Whereas Stan’s not doing that anymore. Which I love; I love that scene. First of all, it’s Angela Bassett. She’s classically trained, she’s an amazing actress. It was an honor to even work with her. But how that scene played out…I remember liking it, especially in the edit, because it made me feel weirdly uncomfortable. It’s seeing a man in a vulnerable position. I don’t just mean like, “He’s lost, therefore he’s vulnerable, or he’s sad.” You know what it’s like, to be honest? It’s like you’re having sex and then suddenly he loses his erection. It’s this weirdly embarrassing moment that’s also physically personified because they’re kissing and all of that and then something triggers him. His ego gets involved, and then his figurative erection drops real fast. Then he’s like, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” And she’s laughing. He looks embarrassed. I’m obviously channeling, I’m connecting to that. I’ve had a moment or two like that. To see such a strapping man — such as Bernie — with a booming voice and a larger-than-life energy suddenly be diminished to a little kid with his pants down is trippy.

I always thought, when Bernie Mac was attached, that he had a dramatic underpinning to his spirit. People said to me, “He’s a comedian, but he’s not really an actor.” I thought, “Yeah, but the stories he tells me resonate in an emotional way.” He was very much connected to his past, his childhood, and what went around in his family. I knew he could access it. It’s actually quite ironic that he and I didn’t get along while shooting. Well, from my point of view; he has a point of view as well. But he was not comfortable having someone direct him. This is coming off The Bernie Mac Show, where he’s basically running the show. I told him at one point in the preproduction period, “Part of the process of becoming the character is to strip away who you are to become this character.” I found this out later from his manager, who said, “He really took offense to what you said.” Bernie said, apparently, “Who’s this person telling me to throw away 36 years of being a successful entertainer?” But if you tell this to an actor, they get it: This is what they do. They leave who they are at home, and they become this person. But Bernie was like, “You’re not going to fucking tell me to discard all that I’ve been successful doing.” So it was like pulling teeth a bit. But obviously it all worked in the end: My intent, and his intent, shows through.

By all measures, you’ve had an interesting 2018: a Netflix release in Step Sisters, a sort of Drumline companion piece of college-aged group dynamics; and Uncle Drew, a mid-budget studio comedy. Do those two poles give you any particular insight into where the industry is right now?

What you’re talking about, in terms of today’s media distribution, I find it to be incredibly humbling. I find it to be egotistically frustrating. [Laughs] Because I’m a person who loves experiencing movies in the cinema. I’m used to going to the event. And television — and it’s not even just television — but watching shows on a cellphone is commonplace now. It’s great, because content is content, and that’s what I mean about it being humbling. It doesn’t matter what the platform is. We’re still going to need to tell stories. That’s probably the good aspect of it. But Step Sisters was originally supposed to have a theatrical release. Then, unfortunately, we couldn’t make that happen, and Netflix was really into it, made us a great offer. Again, it hit millions of people. It’s a powerful distribution mechanism. It hit more people quicker than theaters. You can download it, and boom, you’re there. But it’s a smaller screen. It doesn’t mimic 250 people collectively experiencing an event at the same time, in the same room. That gets missed, obviously. Storytelling is storytelling, regardless of the medium. But I love the movie theater experience.

The thing that movies don’t do all the time that television can do incredibly well is get closer to what it feels like to read a novel. Because you’re living with the characters over weeks and you’re growing with them. If you do it craftily, and with a deft hand, it’s incredible. For me, Six Feet Under is probably the first series I remember watching all the way through [where], when the end came, it was resonant for me emotionally. It completed its arc. The best version of that is Breaking Bad, [for] which, frankly, Vince Gilligan knew where his character was going to go in the end. It just depended how long it was going to take him. But he understood that. I think when you understand that, the arc can be as long as you want, but you always have your eye on where the character ultimately has to go. I like television for that, and I’d love to be involved in designing a series, because I want to have that experience of living with characters [over] multiple chapters. Great movies are great movies, but it’s hard to achieve that level of intimacy.

 

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“Custody” Spins Unlikely Suspense From Trouble at Home

Xavier Legrand’s Custody opens with an estranged couple presenting before a judge (Saadia Bentaïeb) dressed in neutral white their respective arguments about who should care for their youngest child. Miriam (Léa Drucker) has quit her job and absconded with the family’s two kids — eleven-year-old Julien (Thomas Gioria) and almost-eighteen Josephine (Mathilde Auneveux) — after, she explains, experiences of spousal and child abuse. In the telling of Antoine (Denis Ménochet), however, his purportedly aggressive behavior is as right as rain: What father worth his salt wouldn’t wait outside in his car all night for a chance at seeing the son who has been removed from his daily life? As for the abuse allegations regarding a years-ago injury to Josephine, Antoine calmly counters: “She sprained her wrist at gym. What can I say?” Legrand, who both wrote and directed Custody, unfolds the fifteen-minute negotiation with riveting impartiality, placing the audience firmly in the shoes of Bentaïeb’s unsmiling arbitrator. Neither musical cues nor behavioral detail telegraph which parent is, in the judge’s wording, “the bigger liar.” The only suggestions of authorial judgment arrive when the participants in this legal process go too far with their embellishments — as when Antoine’s counsel confidently but ridiculously strains to clarify that her client’s colleagues consider him “a nature lover who doesn’t drink.”

From there, Legrand continues this dance of ambiguity, keeping us in doubt for approximately half of the 93-minute Custody. (Viewers of Legrand’s companion piece, the 2013 Academy Award–nominated short Just Before Losing Everything, will, however, be privy to the truth of the situation from the get-go; consider this a light spoiler warning.) Antoine emerges from the hearing with privileges to pick up Julien for occasional weekend visitations. Ménochet uses his considerable frame — he at times hulks along, James Gandolfini–like — to suggest both of the story’s possibilities. Seen in one light, his Antoine appears a bitter brute, indignant at his wife and using his child as a pawn in their feud; in another, a source of gentle-giant tenderness, inquiring, “So I hear you’re sick?” after kissing Julien on the forehead. Eschewing orchestral accompaniment, Legrand skillfully locates tension in these driving scenes in the most mundane of noises: a turn signal, a seatbelt alarm. (The sound work is credited to Julien Sicart, Vincent Verdoux, and Julien Roig.) The car rides to and from Antoine’s parents’ home, where father and son are greeted with friendly company and warm meals, are charged with anxiety. Jean-Marie Winling and Martine Vandeville are remarkable in their mini-roles as Antoine’s parents: Their every stab at preserving normalcy for their son and grandson, whether through idle banter or hearty meals, lands with a quietly thunderous desperation.

Custody replicates the achievement of Just Before Losing Everything, in that Legrand has again taken an undertreated subject matter — domestic violence and the systems that perpetuate it — and rendered it vivid via a fascination for cinematic duration. Just Before Losing Everything takes place predominantly in a department store and proceeds generally in real-time fashion. Custody’s final half-hour consists mostly of two scenes: a “Proud Mary”–scored birthday party for Josephine, much of which transpires in roving long takes; and a wrenching, beat-by-beat home-invasion sequence, in which Miriam and Julien cower in the bathtub and wait for the authorities. Legrand demonstrates great skill as a tactician in this closing third, but his overarching framework for Custody — with its considerable reliance on is-he-or-isn’t-he uncertainty — demands that he sacrifice interior perspectives. When Miriam says to Antoine, in one parking-lot argument, that she “won’t talk about the same old stuff,” the line rings hollow, as that “same old stuff” hasn’t been unpacked for anyone but them. The most talkative scene in the movie is the first, where what’s true is up in the air; later, when everyone’s cards are on the table, the prevailing mode shifts to a dialogue-light, high-intensity action. It’s a curious dichotomy that impresses on a directorial level even as it hedges on a psychological one.

Custody
Written and directed by Xavier Legrand
Kino Lorber
Opens June 29, IFC Center

 

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In “Winter Brothers,” Masculinity in Crisis Reaches Remotest Denmark

Emil (Elliott Crosset Hove), the hero of Hlynur Pálmason’s Winter Brothers, works in a forbiddingly austere setting — a chalk-mining factory in a remote enclave of Denmark — and yet he moves through this rigid world with an air of elementary-age mayhem. An employee at the mine for “five to seven years” (he isn’t sure himself), Emil habitually pilfers chemicals from the company’s storage rooms to manufacture homemade booze, which he then transports to work, tucked inside his uniform, to imbibe and sell off to colleagues. (Emil’s questionable mixing methods recall the liquid feats achieved by Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in The Master.) His approach to flirting — his efforts directed at a neighboring girl named Anna (Victoria Carmen Sonne) — involves chucking a snowball at his crush’s window and then fleeing the premises. In one especially ribald on-the-job encounter, he takes out his penis and engages in a literal pissing contest. Emil’s antics seem to be tolerated mostly owing to the presence of Johan (Simon Sears), his more stolid older brother.

Much of the tension of Winter Brothers emerges from this clash of man and milieu: a wiry troublemaker imprinting havoc on a landscape of roiling machinery and perpetual snow. Emil’s isolation grows more intense after a batch of his hooch reportedly leaves a higher-up fatally ill. During a morbidly uneasy performance review, Emil’s boss (Lars Mikkelsen) orders his henchmen to force a bottle of the tainted alcohol down Emil’s throat; the act of intimidation is conveyed by Pálmason with elegant obscurity, the camera panning away to the shadows on the wall just as the bodies start to writhe offscreen. Emil also becomes lost in a series of VHS army tutorial videos, the host of which instructs Emil in the basics of rifle usage. The sight of the rejected Emil alone (and sometimes naked) in his living room, consumed by images of war on the TV, practicing firing positions on the carpeted floor, provokes Taxi Driver–like anticipation of lone-wolf violence. But Pálmason — who comes to this, his feature debut, with a background in visual arts — opts to use Emil’s angst not for a forward-moving tale of vengeance but in service of an increasingly abstract study of environment and interiority.

Dreamlike sequences materialize with intensifying regularity. In one, Emil finds himself suddenly in army slacks, fully acting out one of the drills he’d previously only seen on television. In another, he and Anna — shot from above by director of photography Maria Von Hausswolff with an iris-shaped orb of light surrounding their bodies — lay together in the fetal position, discussing fantasies of making love all day. Pálmason complements these far-fetched visions with striking segments of documentary-adjacent observation. Scenes of the men executing their work underground, with only the bulbs on their helmets to light the rock and terrain around them, transport in a manner that has little relation to the through line of Emil’s plight. Pálmason can occasionally get bogged down in his ambiguous leanings; his impression-based approach doesn’t exactly serve well a potentially pivotal but vaguely treated secondary character like Anna (or even Johan, who, title aside, doesn’t leave much of a mark). But many moments attest to the high ceiling of Pálmason’s abilities — like the on-the-move brother-to-brother talk that transpires in the woods, the substance of the conversation (“Can’t you just be normal like everyone else?” Johan asks Emil) matching in intrigue the tracking-shot majesty of the forest’s snow-blanketed trees.

Winter Brothers
Directed by Hlynur Pálmason
KimStim
Opens June 28, Museum of Modern Art

 

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Don’t Miss “Hide in Plain Sight” at the Queens Alt-Programming Coup the Caan Film Festival

Leslie Waller’s true-crime novel Hide in Plain Sight — about a simple-living Buffalo man whose children and wife disappeared one day in 1967 without explanation — kaleidoscopes eight years of disorganization, deception, and questionable decision-making. Had it been published today, it would likely have been turned into a four-part Netflix documentary within months. In 1980, James Caan released a movie version — to date the only one that that actor has directed. It’s a whopper of a story to condense into ninety minutes. Estranged from his wife, Ruthie (Barbra Rae), factory-worker Thomas Hacklin Jr. (played by Caan; his character’s name, like many in the movie, has been tweaked slightly from real life) sees his children but once a week. This generally occurs when Ruthie calls on him to babysit so she can attend extravagant dinners with her Mafia-connected lover, Jack Scolese (Robert Viharo). After getting booked on a City Hall–robbery beef, Jack audaciously testifies against his gangster superiors to escape sentencing. In exchange, the feds ferret him, Ruthie, and the two kids into isolation via the Witness Protection Program, leaving Tom none the wiser. With occasional, perhaps inevitable clumsiness, director Caan strives to address the manifold strands of narrative interest: Ruthie and Jack’s aversion to the greasy burger joints of rural Michigan; Tom’s harried attempts to get the authorities to connect him with his children; even the bureaucratic employees involved in the cover-up, some of whom question their role.

Caan signals immediately that he has not rejiggered Waller’s fact-based tale into one with an audience-friendly framework: This is no Great Man biopic or straightforward, vengeance-tinged potboiler. (The movie screens this Sunday in the Museum of the Moving Image’s cheekily titled “Caan Film Festival.”) He opens with an omniscient-feeling crane shot (the cinematographer is Paul Lohmann) that peers down at Tom and his fellow factory workers after a day on the job, the 9-to-5 bodies moving across the lot as incrementally as highway traffic glimpsed from an airplane window. After a cut, the camera concentrates on Tom and his pal Matty (Joe Grifasi) talking shop. The two have a casual, well-worn rapport, evident particularly in a later sequence when Matty, escorting Tom to a double date, gives him a Clark Gable–themed pep talk about how to impress women. Here as elsewhere, Cann exhibits no vanity in his double duties as actor-director, ceding the scene to his screen partner. In one crucial encounter — Ruthie’s confession to Tom in a public square that she has up and married Jack — Caan goes further, not only pulling the camera back from Tom and Ruthie but gradually diffusing the soundtrack so that their dialogue gets overlapped by the surrounding noise of passing cars and footsteps. As in the crane shot at the beginning, Caan sees these people — Tom the meek workingman, Ruthie the self-centered social striver — as adrift within larger forces.

Tom doesn’t learn that his kids are missing until after the half-hour mark, so much of Caan’s movie is an earnest, affectionate evocation of small-town Northeastern life, without much in the way of true-crime stakes. (R. Emmet Sweeney has written of Hide in Plain Sight’s Buffalo-accurate detail, from “an old sign for Iroquois Beer” to “the shot of a Bocce’s pizza box.”) After ditching his local’s rowdy Spring Fling, Tom and his date, Alisa (Jill Eikenberry), walk down a deserted shopping street; the second she asks about his children, Tom stops his stride and reaches for his wallet photos like it’s second nature. Caan also draws attention to the complexities of conducting touchy domestic business in a neighborhood where everybody knows your name. One front-porch argument between Tom and Ruthie is deftly composed from a low angle, with Tom and Ruthie on either side, so that a nosy neighbor can be seen up above, in the middle of the frame, listening in from her upstairs balcony.

At times, Caan and Spencer Eastman (who wrote the adapted screenplay) awkwardly downplay the interminable, years-long nature of the true story. Just barely after agreeing to take on Tom’s case at a reduced rate, the lawyer Sal Carvello (Danny Aiello) presents his client with custody papers. Tom reacts with skepticism — “Here’s what I got custody of: this piece of paper!” — but then Caan cuts to a Justice Department official (Josef Sommer) receiving a phone call verifying that Tom is taking the government to court to try to win back his kids. The compression of such significant legal, practical, and emotional maneuvers into mere minutes of screentime has the effect of fast-tracking Tom’s plight. In such moments — which include an improbable climactic encounter involving a shovel beatdown in the dark — Caan loses track of Tom as a man-of-few-words guy in a Yankees cap. Suddenly, the character’s confusion and agony no longer registers as carrying years of heft.

But for the most part, Caan sustains an appealing observational approach, and also evinces an exceptional range in his stylistic moves. If the opening shot is an exemplary use of bird’s-eye perspective, Caan also gets close to his characters, as in the movie’s most splendid transition — a match cut from Alisa’s eyes post-kiss to Ruthie’s eyes pressed against prison glass as she updates Jack on the goings-on in her life. Thematically, Caan plays an astute hand, acknowledging but not overstating the cruel irony of Tom — a proud taxpayer with a long-standing belief in order and establishment — getting sucker-punched by the very institutions he holds in high esteem. In his first day in court, Tom declares to the room, “I’m no goddamn hippie who dances around the flag, you know?” The judge asks him to be escorted out. A boring man on most days, Tom is here shown as the government must have seen him all along — as an inconvenience.

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Sadaf Foroughi’s Debut Feature “Ava” Is a Stirring Study of Tehranian Girlhood

Sixteen, socially curious, and with aspirations to be a musician, the heroine of Ava this imaginatively composed first feature by Sadaf Foroughi — rebuffs the expectations of her parents and the norms of the strict society around her. After getting dropped off one morning by her mother (Bahar Noohian) at her Tehran high school, Ava (Mahour Jabbari) cavorts with her friends Melody (Shayesteh Sajadi) and Shirin (Sarah Alimoradi). The three girls shuffle their backpacks on and off as they walk the grounds and dish about classmates, suitors, grades. Later, Ava persuades her father (Vahid Aghapoor) to drive her to Melody’s house for a purported study session; the girls instead dart for the bedroom mirror, where Melody applies mascara and lipstick to Ava’s face. Such acts of rebellion, however seemingly tiny, ignite the rage of the disciplinarians in Ava’s life — in particular her mother, who seeks to halt Ava’s violin lessons and even hauls her to an OB-GYN to find out if she’s been sexually active, and her sternly mannered, white-gloved principal Ms. Dehkhoda (Leili Rashidi), who mixes sugar cubes into her tea when apportioning out admonishments. Following what she views as multiple behavioral infractions, Ms. Dehkhoda embarks on a vendetta to get Ava expelled.

Flashes of Ava’s upbeat, unbridled personality come few and far between: the pluck she exhibits in the schoolyard conversation with her friends, the smile she lets loose upon seeing her made-up face looking back at her. Foroughi’s movie surveys how the mounting external pressures in Ava’s life bring her to a near-breaking point, and the director has devised (with the cinematographer, Sina Kermanizadeh) an explosive visual grammar to approximate the depths of Ava’s isolation and pain. Early on, in an initially mundane marital dialogue at the breakfast table, husband and wife frankly discuss their jobs, their finances, and Ava’s schooling. Foroughi makes clear, in a shot of Ava packing her things in an adjoining room, that the sound of the parents’ ruminations bleeds cleanly through the walls. The topic turns to Ava, and her mom’s searingly personal insights — “I don’t know how to communicate with my own child” — resound over a close-up of Ava obediently tying her shoes. These broken avenues of communication, with adults barking about adolescents in a closed loop without making time for the youngsters’ perspectives or feelings, is a recurring concern of the movie, not least in the form of Ms. Dehkhoda, who thinks it prudent to cut into class time to warn about the menace of overeaters (“They get up at night, while everyone is sleeping, and sneak over to the fridge”).

Even when alone, Ava can’t escape. Foroughi shoots one of her solo practice sessions nearly entirely, and wrenchingly, in soft focus — as if the very idea of her pursuing such a calling were a pipe dream, a paradise lost. Foroughi also (with the help of diligent sound work by Amirhossein Ghasemi) exhibits a resonant command of offscreen space. Some two-person conversations progress with one participant standing fully out of frame — another vivid evocation of the disconnect that can occur in heated shouting matches, with people talking at each other rather than meeting halfway. Foroughi at times sidesteps such cerebral strategies and aims for outright suspense, as with one bracing long take in which Ava attempts to sneak in a sensitive phone call while her mom is in the bathroom. The deft interplay between Ava’s panicked spinning of the phone dial and the softly running water in the other room speaks to the turmoil that even a simple check-in with a friend has for this teenager. At its most gripping, Ava communicates such familiar adolescent agonies through formal detail that makes them smolder anew.

Ava
Directed by Sadaf Foroughi
Grasshopper Film
Opens April 27, Quad Cinema