Every major film festival struggles to know its strength and identity from the beginning. Sundance kicks off the festival season each year (by crossing over awards season) and sets the indie tone for the calendar year. SXSW embraces its street fair/festival roots while Cannes is a festival of prestige and high class, Toronto labels itself as the people’s film festival, and Telluride has become a secluded festival catering to just the biggest movie fans. Since its inception after 9/11, Tribeca has noticeably struggled to find a true sense of identity. The festival is certainly one of the bigger festivals on the map and results in plenty of buying (not to mention picking up some anticipated titles from previous festivals to premiere in New York). But the festival’s programming has often felt scattershot (sometimes even overstuffed). But one thing noticeable this year– the festival is succeeding in an area other film festivals often struggling– it has become a venue which embraces comedies.
Tribeca has had a history of including a variety of comedy films since their inception, when the first Best Narrative award went to the comedy Roger Dodger. The slate has always found a surprisingly strong number of comedies to play alongside the more serious indie dramas. Their midnight movie selections (normally host to shock drama) have also been open to comedies, such as the sports parody Balls Out and especially comedy-horror films such as Fresh Meat and Zombeavers. Along with their usual slate of low-key indie comedies, the festival has played host to special events honoring classic comedies. Just last year the festival hosted the Monty Python reunion with screenings of their classic films (and premiere of their documentary). And even offered public screenings of silent films, such as last year’s screening of Harold Lloyd’s Speedy with live music.
Continuing and building on their momentum, live events this year have included a multitude of comedies, including a second consecutive live performance against the backdrop of a Lloyd classic; a screening of Safety Last with the music of DJ z-Trip. The first year of Tribeca Hub’s Tune In series have included a remarkably strong mix of comedy television; the season finale of Broad City, season premiere of Grace and Frankie, Castrophe and Odd Mom Out, and series premiere of Time Traveling Bong, along with a special talk for Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal. Still set to premiere are special screenings of the comedy Geezer, starring Billie Joe Armstrong, Fred Armisen and Judy Greer, work-in-progress screenings for the Ghostbuster fan documentary Ghostheads, the premiere of Ricky Gervais’s Netflix original Special Correspondents, and the premiere of Tom Hanks return to comedic material with the much anticipated Hologram for the King.
As for the film slate this year, the features and shorts sections (a must-see section if you are looking for the next generation of comic filmmakers), the strong output and variety of comedy selections has been remarkably high. In the midnight section this year, the two best bets were comic-genre mash-ups; the horror parody Fear Inc and thriller-comedy Rebirth. Fear Inc, a movie clearly taking inspiration from the meta-comic trend of the early 90s, about a slacker (Raising Hope’s Lucas Neff) who wants nothing more than to be so scared he cries. A company specializing in providing such elaborate scares are available for hire, and the meta-experience of surviving a horror film begins. While the film may not generate big scares, the movie is surprisingly effective as a type of slacker comedy and parody…including more than a few references to David Fincher’s “underrated” The Game. Rebirth also has clear connections to Fincher films as well, both The Game and Fight Club, but arguably works better than Fear Inc thanks to strong performances across the board, especially lead Fran Kranz, and the films ability to keep you on edge by continually shifting from thrills to comedy to build tension. Kranz plays as a suburban dad who dared to attend a self-help retreat given by his weird former college buddy (a frantic performance by Adam Goldberg). The high tension satire about cults costars Harry Hamlin, Pat Healy, and comic Steve Agee (The Sarah Silverman Program) in a brief but memorable performance which should lead to bigger roles.
Healy, quickly becoming the indie world’s go-to weirdo, also costars in the tragicomic Poor Boy, as the cop in charge of a nearly deserted western town. Among the few residents are poor brothers raised without parents and no adult supervision, who have become hedonistic fools that only care about each other. As a short cut description, the movie feels something like a weird view of the parentless world of Gummo, through the visual style of Cops, and much, much dirtier. It’s resulted in plenty of walkouts, but audiences who stayed seemed into the weird comedy which might earn the movie the title of strangest movie Tribeca ever premiered. The movie starts out as a surprisingly funny (and truly bizarre) movie about two dumb brothers trying to get rich, which gets progressively darker, sadder, and meaner. Helped by Lou Taylor Pucci’s stunning transformation as the more outgoing brother, alongside Dov Tiefenbach’s appropriately low-key performance as the other brother, first time director Robert Scott Wildes has created a near impossible to describe directorial debut, which is unexpected to say the least.
Films like Poor Boy and Rebirth are two examples of films which could have easily taken the more serious approach regarding tone, but are all the better for making the choice to embrace the weirdly funny sides of life. The entertaining Brooklyn comedy-thriller Women Who Kill also takes that approach by merging urban relationship comedy in the tradition of Woody Allen with thriller elements. Ingrid Jungermann wrote, directed, and stars in the movie about a podcaster with a show about murderers, who fears commitment. When she meets a mysterious woman (Sheila Vand, from Girl Walks Home Alone At Night), her imagination and suspicion take over, fueled by her research about serial killers, including conversations with an incarcerated female murderer (a very funny performance from Annette O’Toole). Jungermann feels something like an older Lena Dunham, and Women Who Kill has an impressive debut.
One of the films which flips the more traditional indie drama approach is the very funny, very low-key family comedy Little Boxes. Focusing on a bi-racial family’s move from Brooklyn to a suburb in Washington State, the racial, class, and educational culture shock is handled from a humorous perspective. Son Clark finds himself in a new town where he’ll be the only black kid in the school, Dad feels isolated as the only black man in town, and Mom suddenly finds herself having to address her family’s racial identity. The film, produced by True Detective/Beast of No Nation’s Cary Fukunaga is as interested in racial issues as any dramas addressing the subject matter, but open the doors to the conversation more effectively by using humor to catch people off guard. The film is only aided by Rob Meyer’s almost sunny directorial approach and Annie Howell’s clever script, alongside a cast including 12 year old Armani Jackson, Melanie Lynskey, and Nelson Ellis, who showcases a previously untapped comic side in this film.
This is just one of two comic family movies at the festival, the other being the Sundance holdover Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the new movie from What We Do in the Shadow’s Taika Waititi. While Hunt for the Wilderpeople already pushed him even higher up the ladder as one of New Zealand’s best directors, its US release has been met with near universal acclaim as one of the funniest movies in years. A New Zealand blend of Rushmore and Attack the Block, the movie follows orphan Ricky (Julian Dennison) a supposed “juvenile delinquent” sent to live on a farm in the wilderness with the world’s sweetest foster mother and her curmudgeon of a husband (Sam Neill). Like Neill’s role in Jurassic Park, he’s required to give up his hatred of children to find Ricky when he goes missing in the forest, but they are gone so long they eventually find themselves at the center of a manhunt. It would be hard to imagine a funnier movie this year, making it one of the festival films whose release is already eagerly anticipated, but still worth seeking out at film festivals.
But That’s Not the Only Import Worth Looking For.
One of the most exciting finds at the festival this year would probably be Rachel Tunnard’s oddball comedy Adult Life Skills. Starring Jodie Whittaker (Attack the Block), Anna is a woman on the verge of turning 30 who lives in her mother’s shed, works at a camp, and makes movies starring her thumbs as philosophical astronauts. Really though, all this has something to due with her grief over the loss of her former artistic collaborator, her twin brother. And like Wilderpeople, angry Anna has to contend with the needs of a child dealing with similar loss and anger at an even younger age; in this case a neighbor child named Clint. If the movie’s concept seems a bit precious, the strong and specific voice of Tunnard saves the movie from becoming just another low-budget movie about delayed adulthood. Whittaker’s approach to Anna, as a clumsy and sometimes thoughtless young woman, brilliantly turns her into an instantly lovable character despite her frequently unlikable behavior. Tunnard’s script is witty, her directorial approach quick, and all the actors turn in very funny and honest performances in this delightful movie.
Another comedy worth seeing from a previous festival (South By Southwest) is My Blind Brother, starring Nick Kroll, Jenny Slate, and Adam Scott. Written and directed by Sophie Goodhart, good-natured sad-sack Kroll feels an obligation to be in service of his blind brother (Scott) as he tries to accomplish a multitude of athlete goals…even though Scott has become an egotist with a mean streak. Slate is at the center of the brother’s eventual love triangle, and the broad comedy proves to have consistent laughs which soften the more serious moments about disability, shame, and brotherly love Goodhart peppers in throughout. The film is especially helped by Zoe Kazan and Charlie Hewson’s hilarious performances as Slate and Kroll’s blunt best friends.
Considering the rivalry of the man-children is one of the most familiar indie film subgenres, it shouldn’t be a surprise that another film at the festival shares some structural commonalities with My Blind Brother. Folk Hero & Funny Guy focuses on the varied successes of two best friends, rather than brothers. Wyatt Russell (Everybody Wants Some) and Alex Karpovsky (Girls) play the title characters. Russell’s Jason, is already a famous folk-rock singer/songwriter, who takes his friend Paul, a stand-up suffering from a serious artistic block, on tour as his opening act. The clash between self-effacing stand-up and a good vibes musician only highlight the friend’s growing void as they find themselves in different stages of life…especially when another singer (Meredith Hagner) joins them on tour. Russell and Karpovsky prove to be a fantastic and funny pair of buddies who suggest decades of history. And Hagner gives a star making performance as Bryn, as the film’s beam of light while avoiding love interest cliches. Comedian Jeff Grace makes his directorial debut with a first feature with skill and confidence, developing a movie which could easily become a sleeper hit if given the proper distribution (and my personal pick as the best film to premiere at the festival).
Grace is just one of three comedians with films in the festival this year. Bigger names in the stand-up world Mike Birbiglia and Demitri Martin both wrote and directed their own films, and star as well. Martin is responsible for the dramady Dean, a Woody Allen-esque story of a grieving father and son (Martin and Kevin Kline, giving an outstanding performance). While Martin draws some clear inspiration from films such as Annie Hall (his narration, use of New York streets, and especially his east coast-west coast dichotomy), Martin is certainly not Woody Allen…and as an actor, elicited far more empathy from the audience as he quietly expresses his pain. Martin’s stand-up has always been slightly dry, deadpan and absurd, but the gentle personality he projects works perfectly on screen, especially in a film so clearly personal it would seem uncomfortably intrusive if Martin weren’t such an easy actor to spend intimate time with. It is also worth mentioning that stand-up Rory Scovel gives an outstanding performance in the film as Dean’s best friend.
Costarring in both Dean and Don’t Think Twice is Gillian Jacobs, currently enjoying a career high with these films and the series Love. among an ensemble which includes Mike Birbiglia, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard, and Tami Sagher, Jacobs manages to stand out for her soulful work as a comic unwilling to move on from her improv group, despite them growing apart. But kudos are also owed to Birbiglia for writing 6 characters who manage to feel fully lived in and deeply flawed, especially his own character. While the film is about comedians and set in an improv club (and a fictional Saturday Night comedy show) the movie’s ability to embrace the more serious story elements for extended sections without the pressure to get back to the funny demonstrates why Birbiglia’s signature storytelling style of comedy is enhanced by his growing talents as a director.
But the narratives aren’t the only comedies at the festival. The documentary section has found and embraced humorous documentaries, a rare trend in festival programming. This year the festival has at least four which should appeal to those looking to fill their comedy desires. Tickling Giants documents a political satirist you’ve probably never heard off before, Bassem Youssef, who is so popular he’s referred to as the Jon Stewart of Egypt. The Last Laugh is a psychological documentary asking the question of comedians, “is it okay to joke about Nazi’s and holocaust” and features loads of interviews from celebrity comics and clips from TV and films that actually went there. Another documentary, Pistol Shrimps, tells the story of the winning season of the girls basketball team in Hollywood made up largely of female comics who often offer hilarious interviews (along with the mess of comedy supporters who come to their games).
But the funniest documentary (and one of the funniest films of the year in general) is My Scientology Movie, hosted by Louis Theroux and directed by John Dower. After being denied access to anyone within Scientology, Theroux tries to do the next best thing and goes to a former church official to recreate and understand their methods. The naturally funny Theroux keeps the documentary moving by continually asking questions about some of the absurdities surrounding scientology. From casting session to find the perfect actors to play David Miscavige and Tom Cruise, to simulating scientology methods, and even camera stand-offs between scientology members and Theroux. Even an argument over whether or not a road is public becomes high quality cringe comedy…with never does so by sacrificing the bigger issues about scientology the film wants to ask. The comedy comes out naturally from the subject and Theroux and Dower simply embraced it.
As the indie world continues to see a glut of “indie films” and all the conventions and tropes that means, the comedic films tend to stand out because even narrative similarities vary in comic perspective. While issue dramas can wear their cause on their sleeves and horror can follow narrative conventions, the best indie comedies offer their creators comic perspective. None of the filmmakers mentioned above would be confused for one another, and each off something personal and of themselves to be judged and interpreted by audiences. Tribeca would be wise to highlight the high quality comedy they have to offer New Yorkers.