Saturday, March 26, 2011

2011 New Directors/New Films Review Round-up

The 40th edition of New Directors/New Films screens at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s (FSLC) Walter Reade Theater from March 23 through April 3.  Below are reviews of some of this year’s selections.

Belle Epine (Rebecca Zlotowski)

Prudence (Lea Seydoux), the 17-year old girl at the center of Rebecca Zlotowski’s Belle Epine, is left adrift and rootless after the recent loss of her mother.  She lives in their house with her older sister, and their father is far away, in Canada, and his only presence in the film is an occasional voice on the phone.  Numb from the loss, she casually gets into petty thievery; in the opening scene, she is caught shoplifting and forced to strip, along with Marilyne (Agathe Schlenker), who has also been caught, and whom Prudence befriends shortly thereafter.  The two make a decidedly odd, yet compatible, pair: Marilyne is worldly and sexually aware, while Prudence is more shy and withdrawn.  Eventually Prudence is pulled into the orbit of Marilyne and her friends, and their world of nocturnal, illicit motorcycle drag races.  However, her unresolved issues of loneliness, isolation, and aimlessness prevent her from using her new friends to escape from her circumstances.  Belle Epine nicely evokes a moody atmosphere, and is intriguingly vague about its specific time period, lending the film a timeless quality.  Unfortunately, the subtly exploitative nature of the visual fascination with these nubile and sometimes nude young girls sits rather uncomfortably with the more thoughtful and sensitive aspects of the scenario.

Curling (Denis Cȏté)

Curling revolves around an isolated father and daughter who most live in self-imposed hiding from the rest of the world.  Jean-Francois (Emmanuel Bilodeau), the father, when questioned by an eye doctor about her daughter not attending school, curtly replies, “That’s our business, sir.”  Jean-Francois carefully constructs a cocoon to protect his daughter Julyvonne (Philomène Bilodeau) from what he perceives as dangerous influences from others.  However, the strain of this situation is subtly evident at first, but becomes more pronounced as events slowly unfold.  Julyvonne seems a rather impassive girl, nearly autistic, due to her lack of interaction with other children her age.  Her discovery of dead bodies in the snow early in the film frightens her at first, but transforms into a rather morbid curiosity and fascination.  Jean-Francois works at a bowling alley, where his boss Kennedy (Roc Lafortune) constantly exhorts him to become more outgoing and take up some kind of interest or hobby.  Jean-Francois also works at a nearly deserted motel, which is about to be closed by the older couple who runs it because of the lack of customers.  Jean-Francois comes upon a grisly discovery of his own, when he comes upon a room whose floors and walls are covered in blood.  In most other films, these murders would be the focus, but luckily for us, Curling isn’t most films, and is far more mysterious and intriguing.  The characters of the father and daughter, played by an actual father and daughter, are central, especially the father, as interpreted by Bilodeau’s moody and restrained performance, through whose prism the film offers a penetrating psychological portrait.  Jean-Francois’ retreat from the world, broken somewhat by his nascent interest in the titular sport, is indicative of a deeper trauma, which the film doesn’t fully explain.  Curling’s wintry and beautifully shot landscapes also powerfully illustrate the protagonists’ isolation, and the film’s refusal to spell everything out in the characters’ back stories creates an enigma at its heart that draws us in even deeper.

Pariah (Dee Rees)

Coming-out stories are a common and familiar staple of gay-themed films, and many of them follow similar trajectories.  Dee Rees’ debut feature Pariah, an expansion of her 2007 short film, while on the surface adhering to these patterns, elevates itself by vividly rendering a very specific milieu, and accompanying its scenario with stunning visuals courtesy of cinematographer Bradford Young, who won a prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.  Pariah itself won the U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance.  Alike (Adepero Oduye), a 17-year old high school girl, is open to her friends and very secure in her lesbian identity.  However, she is compelled to hide this fact from her parents, especially her religious mother Audrey (Kim Wayans).  It’s clear that they both strongly suspect the nature of her sexuality, but her mother is in stubborn denial, telling her at one point, “God doesn’t make mistakes.”  Alike confides in her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker), who drags Alike to lesbian clubs, even though this is not really her scene.  Alike is a burgeoning poet, and the film is punctuated by scenes of her reading her poetry.  Audrey’s quest to feminize her daughter leads to Alike’s meeting Bina (Aasha Davis), a daughter of one of Audrey’s friends.  Alike is at first resistant, resenting this forced friendship, but soon she warms up to Bina, when they discover common interests.  What’s more their friendship goes in a direction that would definitely not please Alike’s mother.  Alike’s romantic entanglements and her eventual confrontation with her mother compel her to seek a path to a new life, one in which she can be herself more freely.  Pariah is clearly and consciously meant to be an inspirational film for gay teens, but it succeeds in being much more, due to its beautifully drawn sense of place (the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn), and impressive performances by both Oduye and Wayans.

For more information on these and other festival films, and to purchase tickets, visit the New Directors/New Films website.

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