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“Never Goin’ Back” Offers a Breezy, Convincing Portrait of Female Friendship

Never Goin’ Back, a day-in-the-life tale of two misfit teenage girls desperately trying to make some quick cash and escape their Dallas suburb, possesses an appealing blend of crudeness and charm. BFFs Angela (Maia Mitchell) and Jessie (Camila Morrone), a pair of high school dropouts who live together and work as diner waitresses, see their lives further disrupted by an acquaintance’s harebrained crime scheme. Writer-director Augustine Frizzell, making her feature directorial debut, is attuned to the giddy intimacies of female friendship, and Mitchell and Morrone are a charismatic pair. Watching them interact, whether in an embrace or with punches to the face (long story), it feels like you’re watching real friends, like these girls have known each other for years. Stories of young women are often too polished, but this one feels lived-in: The set design of Angela and Jessie’s bedroom, piled high with junk, is spot on, and the pair’s manic energy (and their love of weed) is reminiscent of Abbi and Ilana on Broad City.

The film might benefit from a touch of added backstory regarding how these girls ended up in their precarious situation, but Never Goin’ Back’s main missteps come when it relies too much on gross-out humor. An exaggerated puking scene doesn’t add much, beyond reminding viewers that indie films are weirdly obsessed with vomit as a quickie source of realness or a cheap laugh. Still, it’s a breezy watch, and even as Angela and Jessie run around lawlessly, making poor decisions at every turn, it’s hard not to root for them.

Never Goin’ Back
Written and directed by Augustine Frizzell
A24
Opens August 3, Angelika Film Center

 

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“Finding Oscar” Digs Into a Heartbreaking Guatemalan Mystery

“Usually we’re looking to identify the dead, but here we’re looking for the living,” says a forensic anthropologist early in Finding Oscar, a documentary seeking to do just that.

Looking back to Guatemala’s 1982 Dos Erres massacre, director Ryan Suffern focuses not on the nearly 250 villagers who were murdered by commandos working for the government, but on a child who is said to have survived and been raised by one of the soldiers who carried out the atrocity. This was one of many bloody events in Guatemala’s decades-long civil war (started, of course, with an assist from the United States), the effects of which are still being felt today.

Throughout Guatemala, murals depicting similar incidents serve as graphic reminders of the untold dead, bringing to mind a line from playwright Griselda Gambaro’s 1985 Antigone update Antigona Furiosa, written about the Argentine Dirty War that likewise saw thousands of citizens disappeared: The living are the great sepulchre of the dead.

A mix of archival footage and interviews with surviving family members of the victims guide the way toward Oscar, not that the search is easy; still, you don’t call your movie Finding Oscar if you never actually do so. Suffern strikes a respectful, not entirely hopeless tone throughout, allowing those affected by the civil war in general and the Dos Erres massacre in particular to speak at length about their experiences. Their words are often more powerful than the filmmaking, but Suffern wisely allows them to do most of the talking.

Finding Oscar
Directed by Ryan Suffern
FilmRise
Opens April 11, Angelika Film Center

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A Vampire Wannabe Comes of Age In the Unsettling “The Transfiguration”

George A. Romero’s Martin is the most overt inspiration for The Transfiguration, with writer/director Michael O’Shea, like Romero, stripping out the supernatural elements of the usual vampire movie for a stark realism. Making his feature debut with this urban horror yarn, O’Shea rather unwisely lays his influences on the table, having his troubled main character, Milo (Eric Ruffin), explicitly cite Martin — as well as Nosferatu, Let the Right One In and many other predecessors — and daring us to find his film lacking in comparison.

Still, while The Transfiguration doesn’t reach Martin’s heights, O’Shea’s Brooklyn-set film does exert its own queasy pull. At the film’s opening, Milo’s fascination with vampirism has already crossed over into homicide; we discover that this turns out to be his perverse way of dealing with his and brother Lewis’ (Aaron Clifton Moten) mother’s suicide. Only Sophie (Chloe Levine) — herself a woman with a suicidal streak who lives with an abusive grandfather in the same housing project — feels comfortable on this taciturn teen’s oddball wavelength. Naturally, they strike up a tentative relationship.

But the deeper Milo dives into his obsession with the vampire lifestyle, the more disturbed he becomes by the violence he commits. The Transfiguration gradually reveals itself to be a coming-of-age tale, one whose central figure reaches a point at which he’s forced to reckon with the evil lurking within himself. Whether the conclusion Milo ultimately reaches is a moment of clarity or simply the tragically inevitable endpoint of his demented obsession is something O’Shea leaves unsettlingly open.

The Transfiguration
Written and directed by Michael O’Shea

Strand Releasing

Opens April 7, Angelika Film Center

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Stellar Debut ‘Donald Cried’ Makes Urgent Drama Out of Things Getting Awkward With a Friend From Back Home

The exquisite discomfort of Donald Cried, Kris Avedisian’s bracing first feature, arises from the incompatibility of former best friends. Peter Latang (Jesse Wakeman) left Warwick, Rhode Island, for college, retooling his working-class past into the model of Wall Street success. Donald Treebeck (Avedisian) stayed put, in mind as well as body. He remains an aimless high school stoner twenty years later, and still yearns for the treasured friend who made the mundane tolerable.

Cloaked in his own concerns, Peter doesn’t realize what he’ll unleash by turning up on the Treebecks’ doorstep. Donald makes him cringe, fighting back waves of regret and revulsion; he’s a living, wheezing reminder of what Peter escaped — and escaped being.

In a bitterly funny performance, Avedisian lets Donald’s freak flag fly, a big-toothed grin lighting up his face, framed by a shaggy haircut not deliberate enough to be a mullet. He can also subtly shift from awesome positivity to slumped sadness in a heartbreaking gesture of resignation.

Wakeman and Avedisian created these characters for a 2012 short and collaborated on a storyline (with Kyle Espeleta) for the feature, shot while Rhode Island was smothered in knee-deep snow, a wintry playground for frustrated men to revisit misspent youth. A cruel incident from the past that provides the film’s title reveals complicated power dynamics in Peter and Donald’s friendship, which shaped their personalities. The unsettling day they spend together reminds them of how much each affected the other’s life — even after they took diverging paths.

Donald Cried
Directed by Kris Avedisian
The Orchard
Opens March 3, Angelika Film Center

 

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‘Manchester by the Sea’ May Be Kenneth Lonergan’s Most Powerful Film Yet

Eventually, there will be so many films about a sullen or damaged man returning to his provincial town to face the demons of his past that Netflix will make a separate category for them. At their worst, these movies are navel-gazing vanity projects for their writers and directors (Cameron Crowe, so help me…). At their best, they’re like Chris Kelly’s off-kilter, emotional, and funny Other People (2016). What’s often grating, though, is these films’ insistence that their protagonists are self-aware enough to understand their mental maladies, and that all each of these sad dudes needs is one positive person to inspiration-porn him back to health — so that’s how we think grieving works?

A master at creating the exceptional sad-sack prodigal son, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan asked this question in 2000’s sibling drama You Can Count on Me: What if the depressed guy doesn’t actually know he’s depressed? In that film, he inventively circumnavigates the genre to find an original entry point by building reality-based characters and by showing the story equally through the eyes of the woman who had to deal with the returned man. Now, in Manchester by the Sea, he again paints the portrait of an emotionally stunted guy who hasn’t processed a painful death. Only now Lonergan’s asking: What if no one in this story even knows what depression is? The result is a poignant, surprisingly hilarious depiction of death, grieving, and small-town life.

Snow piles on the dirty-brick colonial buildings of a Boston neighborhood, and Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a maintenance guy, shovels the walkway again and again. He’s mechanical, emotionless, as he enters into little everyday-living tableaux of the people in an apartment complex. In one micro-scene, he’s unclogging a disgusting toilet, the tenant shyly apologizing before getting on the phone in the other room to proclaim, “I think I’m in love with my janitor” — with Lee in earshot.

Lee says so little, moves so slowly and without emotion, that he’s a blank slate, a vessel for other people’s projections. Soon, Lee has to return to the small fishing village where he was raised, where he’s told that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died. Rather than an emotional outpouring, he delivers a succinct “Aw, fuck you” and then a “Sorry, can I see him?” He talks in a kind of stilted New England cadence that is the verbal equivalent of a shrug — “Whatcha gonna do,” he says. And then Lee’s delivered some astonishing news: He’s now the legal guardian of his seventeen-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

That prompts a string of flashback sequences, where Lee seems an altogether different man; he’s jovial, physically affectionate, has a wife (Michelle Williams) and three kids. The impact is immediate — we now understand that something has happened to make him so cold, and it certainly cannot be good. Yet Lonergan doesn’t force the revelation these scenes build to into any kind of gotcha moment. Instead, it becomes one thread in the tapestry of grief that neither resolves itself nor descends into madness, and the eerie, stoic calm of these characters as they carry on becomes so uncomfortable that it transforms into humor. Dear god, I kept thinking, I hope Lee just fucking cries and gets into it. But Lonergan’s depiction is more realistic than that.

Meanwhile, nephew Patrick deals with his grief by trying to have sex with his two girlfriends and by hanging out with friends — the teens at least try to gather round in a circle to talk about the death, but the conversation still turns to inane chatter about TV and music. After the funeral, Lee says Patrick can’t have his friends over, and without distraction, he suffers a nervous breakdown when some frozen chicken falls out of the freezer door. As he hyperventilates, barely making sentences, Lee keeps asking, “Is this about the chicken? You don’t want the chicken?” The two fumble around their grief like a pair of three-pronged plugs trying to jam themselves into two-prong outlets. And it’s funny. Patrick deals out sick burns to Lee, and as the two interact, Lee regains just enough energy to be a ball-buster uncle, though Lonergan never lets him go so far that the audience may feel he’s finding redemption. No. He’s a janitor in Boston, and he’s endured unimaginable loss, and this is as good as it gets.

Throughout, the music of a church pipe organ suffuses this film with a robust dreariness. Catholics sure do love to suffer. And Lonergan’s outlook on this pain is moving and completely without pretense, so much like You Can Count on Me, but with even more emotional resonance, if you can imagine that. What Lonergan proves with Manchester by the Sea is that no basic premise must be original to make an excellent film. All you need is honesty and an understanding that real life ain’t like the movies. Well, not most of them.

Manchester by the Sea
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions
Opens November 18, Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

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‘Miss Hokusai’ Is the Anime Biopic of One of History’s Great Erotic Artists

Keiichi Hara’s episodic anime Miss Hokusai is a lovely biopic, even if it never quite picks up and focuses on a single thread. (Then again, neither does life.)

In nineteenth-century Edo, later to be renamed Tokyo, here a magical-realist city populated by demons and the occasional astral-projecting courtesan, Katsushika Hokusai (Yutaka Matsushige) is a famous artist whose woodblock print The Great Wave off Kanagawa you’ve surely seen. He’s also known for his erotica (in some circles, his hentai-progenitor The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife remains a favorite).

As the title implies, Miss Hokusai tells not his story so much as that of his daughter O-Ei (Anne Watanabe), who in a Big Eyes–type arrangement actually produces many of the works credited to him, including the smut.

Miss Hokusai works as a series of moments, mirroring the style of the source manga and driven home by the fact that many scenes fade to black, while the occasional bursts of rock music don’t mesh with the tone other than in one bravura tracking shot of O-Ei frantically running through the streets of Edo.

The most touching narrative involves O-Ei’s blind, terminally ill younger sister, O-Nao (Shion Shimizu); not only is she ignored by their father, she believes she’ll go to hell when she dies. It’s always tough being imperfect.

Miss Hokusai
Directed by Keiichi Hara
G-Kids
Opens October 14, Angelika Film Center

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Sônia Braga Rules Over the Impressionistic Brazilian Memory-Drama ‘Aquarius’

Brazil might not want you to know it, but Aquarius is something special. Writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s follow-up to the similarly exceptional Neighboring Sounds was notably not chosen as its country’s submission to the Oscars this year, a decision that may or may not be linked to a protest the filmmakers lodged against the new Brazilian government during the Cannes Film Festival.

The film’s plot follows an ongoing dispute between the aging Clara (a superlative Sônia Braga) and the company that owns her apartment building; the company wants to demolish it and start anew, a lucrative plan stymied by the widow’s refusal to vacate. This makes her the last holdout in a “ghost building,” as everyone else has moved out.

Aquarius intrigues most when the realities of that conflict — vaguely intimidating visits from company officials, a bizarre sex party thrown in the unit above Clara’s — give way to impressionistic glimpses of her recollections and dreams: a successful battle with breast cancer that left her scarred in more ways than one; the maid who stole jewelry from her family decades earlier.

Aquarius is the name of this building, which takes on the role of a memory palace. The film that takes place in and around it is a strange brew of class divisions, sex on the beach, and physical media that you’ll want to keep downing, especially with Braga tending bar — her performance is exactly the kind of late-career showcase you might wish all your favorite underutilized actors would receive. She anchors almost every scene across a 142-minute runtime that can’t hope to contain her immense talent.

Aquarius
Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho
Vitagraph Films
Opens October 14, Angelika Film Center

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Engaging Courtroom Drama ‘Denial’ Puts the Holocaust on Trial

Adults in 2016 know not to feed the trolls. If you have to, though, you need to come on hard and strong, publicly glutting them on so much truth that they just curl up and die under their bridges/in their comment threads. So it goes in Mick Jackson’s patient, heartening troll-killing courtroom drama, Denial. With chatty urgency, Jackson dramatizes the 2000 trial in which a flinty Brit Holocaust denier sued Penguin Books for libel.

At issue, technically: whether American historian Deborah Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz in an agreeable gabber-from-Queens mode) libeled the Hitler-adoring hate-clown David Irving (Timothy Spall) when she pointed out in her book Denying the Holocaust that Irving’s arguments, in speeches and his own books, are built upon flagrant distortions of history. At stake, more generally: whether established historical truth must continually be re-argued in courts of law every time a troll abuses the legal system.

Outside of the courtroom and a couple montages of Weisz out for a jog, Denial plays as a series of consultations, many fascinating and detailed, but some curiously repetitious. Director Jackson and screenwriter David Hare often find irony and pathos in the legal wrangling, especially in the slow, stupid grinding of the British court system, which encourages a very English dispassion. There’s little doubt about the outcome of the case, so the filmmakers goose their story with a couple of unconvincing moral conflicts. Lipstadt, here a warm and sharp-elbowed presence, agonizes over her solicitors’ choice not to put any Holocaust survivors on the stand for fear that Irving — who stands as his own advocate in the trial — would then be free to hector them with questions.

The logic is sound: The thing deniers are best at is hammering away at small details of historical or scientific evidence until just one thing seems to give way. Then they insist that they’ve actually smashed an entire edifice of truth. But this Lipstadt occasionally gets confronted by a survivor who can’t understand why voices like hers aren’t being brought into a hearing that turns on the fine points of practical fact and historical approach. Irving published a spurious tract claiming that Auschwitz’s gas chamber was in fact not a gas chamber at all, an argument based upon the amount of cyanide residue extant in the walls.

Before a judge, such trollish evidence is best countered by science; still, Weisz’s Lipstadt jogs in some agony over this. She airs the issue with solicitor James Libson (Jack Lowden) a time too many, at last accepting the decision with an unfortunate speech about the value of a second kind of denial. She also has to find her way to forgive gruff barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) for his focus on crime-scene details during a trip to Auschwitz. The complexity of the real Lipstadt’s responses to all this, laid out in her book Denial: Holocaust History on Trial, are continually simplified and flattened by the script. Lipstadt is often a couple of steps behind the audience, learning lessons the film has already imparted. The movie is fascinating in its approach to legal arguments, forensic evidence, and the uses and abuses of history — but, like the courtroom at its center, it doesn’t have much feel for the feels.

Denial
Directed by Mick Jackson
Bleecker Street
Opens September 30, Angelika Film Center, City Cinemas 1 2 3, AMC Lincoln Square

 

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The Dopes Saying the Movies Are Dead Haven’t Seen the Moving, Tender ‘A Man Called Ove’

Movies about grumpy old men learning to lighten up thanks to colorful neighbors are hardly novel. And yet A Man Called Ove (based on Fredrik Backman’s 2012 novel) works its well-worn conceit to effective heartstring-tugging effect.

Ove (Rolf Lassgård) is a “nit-picking obstructionist” widower who polices his tiny town like a tyrant and is desperate to kill himself so he can be reunited with his late, beloved wife, Sonja (Ida Engvoll). Those suicidal plans are constantly interrupted by his community’s residents, most notably a just-moved-in family of four led by Iranian-born Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), who shrugs off Ove’s nastiness with preternatural bigheartedness.

As Ove’s icy exterior begins to thaw, writer-director Hannes Holm gives us lengthy flashbacks to Ove’s youth with his own widowered father and to his marriage to Sonja — alternately sorrowful and joyous incidents that deepen the character, casting his senior-citizen gruffness as the natural byproduct of accumulated experience.

It’s never in doubt that the film is headed in an uplifting direction, but whether through Ove and Parvaneh’s relationship, his and lifelong friend Rune’s (Börje Lundberg) rivalry (rooted in their respective allegiance to Saab and Volvo cars), or Ove’s role in a young Muslim boy’s coming out, A Man Called Ove — preaching tolerant togetherness as the key to happiness — earns its sentimentality by striking a delicate balance between barking-mad comedy and syrupy melodrama.

A Man Called Ove
Written and directed by Hannes Holm
Music Box Films
Opens September 30, Paris Theatre and Angelika Film Center

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‘White Girl’ Suggests Its Heroine’s Suffering Is All Her Own Fault

It’s hard to watch White Girl without experiencing a creeping sense of anxiety. Loosely based on the adolescent life of writer-director Elizabeth Wood, the film follows Leah (Morgan Saylor), a college student who parties all night and snorts prodigious amounts of cocaine. She and her roommate, Katie (India Menuez), live in Ridgewood as members of the hipster gentrification class. Early on Leah meets Blue (Brian Marc), a drug dealer hanging outside her apartment, and the two begin the tumultuous relationship that drives the narrative as they party, fuck, and push the product.

It’s dispiriting that the first nonwhite people Leah encounters are dealers, but a scene in which she and Blue mark up their drug prices while partying with a white crowd winks at this racial divide. Blue doesn’t seem too much like the usual movie cliché of a hustler (though plenty of stereotypes can be found in his orbit) — he has a delicate quality, with long lashes and fine bone structure, and is less wild than his girlfriend. He ends up getting busted by an undercover cop just after promising to take Leah out for a fancy dinner. His moment of earnest sweetness, hoping to impress Leah with a romantic gesture, is shut down by a system that’s convinced he’s a threat.

In order to get Blue out of jail, Leah enlists a lawyer, George Fratelli (Chris Noth), who is too expensive but plies her with his understanding of discrimination in a world of police who inordinately punish nonwhite men for drug possession. The relationship between Leah and the older, slightly sleazy Fratelli ultimately moves in a disturbing sexual direction that viewers with an inherent distrust of powerful men might not find surprising. Wood is attuned to the ways America’s power dynamics work against young women, yet scenes in which Leah gets money stolen and faces sexual violence feel strangely like some kind of punishment.

You might hope that a film directed by a woman in which an attractive college student constantly uses drugs would identify more with the protagonist than the leering men around her. But Leah is a bad seed, and White Girl won’t ever let us forget it. Wood makes us feel the crowded, pulsing haze of the nightclub, the claustrophobia and the adrenaline, but then Leah takes off her shirt and snorts coke off her internship boss’s dick. This is one of those films that merits a long cold shower afterwards. That might actually be a compliment — Wood wants to provoke.

The glimpses White Girl offers of the relationship between Leah and Katie suggest that the film could have something more to say about female friendship and intimacy. While Katie partakes in many of the same indulgences as Leah, there are moments when she expresses concern for her roommate, and in one of the more affecting scenes, they huddle close in the shower after Leah has a particularly traumatic experience. Saylor and Menuez both have the perfect looks for their roles: Saylor’s baby face and fluffy blond curls impart an angelic quality at obvious odds with her actions, while Menuez has the calm countenance and long red hair of a Pre-Raphaelite maiden. There’s an unspoken bond between these girls. It’s a shame Wood’s film spends so much time on the sleazy forces that might destroy it.

White Girl
Written and directed by Elizabeth Wood
FilmRise
Opens September 2, Angelika Film Center and Nitehawk Cinema