By Caryn James | James on Screens April 22, 2014 at 8:59AM
The challenge and the magic of navigating any festival is discovering films that play differently -- sometimes better and often worse -- than their descriptions lead you to expect. Here are three lovely, beautifully-realized, low-key films worth catching at the Tribeca Film Festival. Two have well-known actors (though no superstars) and another none at all, but all three surprised me by making familiar ideas or approaches feel excitingly alive on screen.
'ALEX OF VENICE'
In the first feature directed by Chris Messina (Danny Castellano on The Mindy Project and the brother/son in a gazillion movies), Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Alex, a wife, mother and environmental lawyer in Venice, CA who is stunned when her stay-at-home husband, George (Messina), announces he has to leave. The world is full of break-up stories, but when George explains why he's leaving, the scene feels so devastatingly honest and true that you know the film will soar above any predictable plot.
The actors are terrific, especially Winstead as the woman
who was always the good girl, and suddenly sees her life fall apart. She is left to deal with her son and her father
-- Don Johnson as a once-quasi-famous actor
whose memory lapses are troubling -- and a sexy, sometimes irresponsible sister
(played by Katie Nehra, who co-wrote the screenplay).
Messina said at a Tribeca Q&A that he let the camera run
for 27 minutes at a time to give the actors freedom to talk and find the
characters -- a nightmare for the editor. The result was worth it. Visually,
the film takes advantage of its vibrant Venice setting, modulating the
sunniness with a sometimes overcast look. But its freshness comes from those nuanced
relationships. People screw up right and left, Alex as well as George, yet no
one is demonized. A break-up film with moments of exuberant humor and no
villains – that is something rare. Behind its too-cute title, Alex of Venice is a subtle wonder.
Lucky Them sounds as
if it might have been Almost Famous, the Gender-Switching
Sequel. Toni Collette plays Ellie, a rock critic at a struggling magazine,
who is sent by her editor (the wonderful Oliver Platt, mischievously playing the
Jan Wenner-like role) to discover what happened to her former boyfriend, a
music genius who disappeared a decade ago. Ellie has enough problems; she's
always throwing herself into rotten relationships with obscure (but cute) young
singers. But she heads off to report the story with an unlikely sidekick: Thomas
Haden Church as an uptight millionaire she once dated briefly.
Director Megan Griffiths and Collette handle this road-movie rom-com with such a light, appealing touch that it becomes a joyful escape. And there is a late surprise: a cameo too perfect to reveal.
First-time director Garrett Bradley spent months riding a bus between New York and New Orleans, listening to stories of people in their 20.s Then she moved to New Orleans and cast non-actors to play fictional characters based on those stories, weaving together three separate strands united only by the city.
Shot with documentary-style immediacy and roughness, the film depicts: Leann, a single mother who arrive in New Orleans with four children and no place to go except her own unwelcoming mother's; Elliott, a middle-class New Yorker who has arrived without the woman he loves; Jamaine, a New Orleans native, a convicted felon trying to catch a break and stay out of trouble.
Bradley's approach might have led to a pretentious, arty mess, but Below Dreams is a graceful, direct look at lives in flux.
Elliott's story is less wholly realized than the
others, but the film gracefully creates a world of shadows and light where art
and reality meet.