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Tribeca Review: 'Lily' Is A Modest But Genuinely Affecting New York Picture

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by Gabe Toro
April 25, 2013 9:56 AM
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The Tribeca Film Festival is designed to explore different areas of the world, providing a mouthpiece for filmmakers and regions that normally would not have representation at a more celebrated fest. But Tribeca has also discovered the importance in finding expressive and interesting voices locally, placing an importance on films that speak to New York and capture the specific rhythms of the city, the way the streets seem to pulse, the subways scream, and the passersby have enough personality to fill a city block. It takes a particularly astute filmmaker to perfectly capture those vibes: so many films have made the city appear anonymous, generic, without personality. But director Matt Creed clearly gets the appeal of a place romanticized by locals and visitors, and how the drama experienced in the city is given an added dimension by our environment, in "Lily." To watch the film is to witness that famed image of a flower growing from between two slabs of concrete, to see beauty blossom in a unique environment.

The story of “Lily” is fairly familiar, and the suspicion is that Creed and co-writer Amy Grantham are not trying to re-invent the wheel (though, frankly, we can’t think of a filmmaker who tried to re-invent the wheel; it’s kind of a classic). Grantham, a pocket-sized supernova, stars as the title character, an urban city girl undergoing treatment for cancer. While no longer an ingénue, she’s certainly younger, so at a point where she’s meant to have developed connections in her personal and professional life, she’s been undergoing radiation treatment instead. At a moment where life begins to seriously speed up, she’s been left behind, and friends and relatives seem like distant stars closer to a far-off planet.

There’s a moment in our twenties (and often early thirties) where we realize we have nothing to say to others at the party. Not only has Lily reached that point, but she’s also become an object of pity to others. It’s difficult enough to ensure that cancer does not define her, to keep others from qualifying her as a pity-case is a challenge, as she attempts to apply for work at any place that will accept her once the treatments reach their final effective stages. Her cancer becomes the elephant in the room, as Big Issues usually are for undefined acquaintances, providing a button for those around her to push. “I have now become a part of this person’s narrative,” the gesture says, before these people retreat to the rest of their lives.

“Lily” doesn’t deal with cancer as much as it deals with the “what now?” question that dogs those that escape death. Our heroine takes up tap dancing with earnest glee, and her newfound mortality gives her a deeper appreciation of such a craft, though the rest of the world isn’t so precious: Lily is thoughtfully mindful of others (she is no Manic Pixie Dream Girl), but when a neighbor comes upstairs and firmly requests that the dancing stop, it’s an indication that her survival is much less important than her death would be to certain people.

With her health turning a corner, however, “Lily” conveys that sometimes recovering from illness can be like jumping onto a moving treadmill. Lily’s relationship with her French boyfriend is a particular point of contention, as it feels like his pubescent sons are closer to her age than she is their father’s. This is something of a misstep, sadly: it’s hard to see any chemistry between the lovely Grantham and the worldly blowhard played by Simon Chaput. He has a penchant for bloviating that seems like the antithesis of Lily’s more flighty intellectualism: he prefers discussing famous dictatorships while she roams Washington Square Park, looking for a timeless image to squeeze into her heart. It’s maybe the film’s biggest misstep to introduce these two as not being on the right page in their first scene together: his cruel dismissal of her cooking starts this relationship on the wrong note with the audience, and after three or four subsequent scenes of affection between the two it’s puzzling that she would be interested in his somewhat pompous, talky worldview. It’s also something of a mystery why he would be drawn to this impulsive artist’s soul of a woman, but let’s be on the same page here: whether she’s squeezed underneath one of her cancer-treatment wigs, or bouncing around in her short blond hair, Grantham is a looker and a half.

Of course, that’s the sort of designation that will allow some to label the film as a Hollywood story about a pretty girl with an awful disease, a Magazine Cover version of a story that is horrifying to thousands of adults who experience this trouble nationwide on a daily basis. That would be missing the point of Matt Creed’s purposefully-slight survivor’s story, because the main character is actually the city itself. Without romanticizing it, the city itself seems to heal Grantham, whether it be the studio apartments, the seedy areas of the park, or the cluttered intersections where angry drivers beep their horns. One such scene has a car almost take Lily out. She reacts angrily, turning her emotions into a conversation with onlookers, who also respond incredulously. Neither are talking to each other (Grantham appears to be saying something completely different to the extras, who are generally talking traffic), but this possibly-improvised scene is indicative of the film at large: it doesn’t matter if she’s connecting with the people around her, because she realizes, and appreciates, that she’s a part of this community. When she walks off in the final scene, away from the camera, it’s like the city street is swallowing a part of itself. [B+] 

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