In Defense of Tribeca: Closing Notes from the 2017 Film Festival

Despite continually struggling to define itself, the Tribeca Film Festival this year offered many strong discoveries.
Elissa Suh

For Ahkeem

Established in 2002, the Tribeca Film Festival has had a bit of trouble defining itself during the course of its 15-year run. It lacks the grit and quirk of SXSW or the finesse of Sundance, but like the latter, it serves a springboard with its own lab for first time directors. Tribeca's ambitious programming has evolved to encompass much more than movies. A Virtual Reality sidebar is innovative and conveniently forward-looking, the television slate, chock full of hotly anticipated premieres, is opportunely adaptive, and the Talks section is fascinating in its pairings, both expected (Noah Baumbach and Dustin Hoffman, whose work together will be showcased at Cannes) and funkily improbable (Barbra Streisand and Robert Rodriguez). There's even a curation of interactive media in the Games section.

While the festival is often unfairly maligned, there are many decent offerings, including spillover from the international film festival circuit and a premieres of some more well-known titles, arbitrary and varied, as well as a wealth of documentaries. Indeed, the documentary selections are one Tribeca’s stronger points. One such entry, For Ahkeem, poignantly unfolds with all the accouterments of a narrative film. The inciting incident, so to speak, is a public school expulsion and the court mandate that forces 17-year-old Daje Shelton to finish out her education at an alternative school while narration from her diary or the eloquent advice from her mother or teachers flow forth as platitudes ready-made for the camera. While working towards her G.E.D., Daje must contend with all that works against her as a black American in a marginalized community, here in St. Louis, Missouri, where soon Michael Brown will be shot in nearby Ferguson. Despite its likeness to a narrative film, with its easily identifiable parts, For Akheem does not necessarily translate to a picture-perfect tale. Neither condemning in its judgement of its characters nor prescriptive in its conclusion, it is careful not to champion any solution. It is cautiously hopeful, only asserting the basic urges of its subjects to build a better life for future generations.  It’s completely absorbing, a humanist piece of work presenting a life and showing that it matters, no matter how a portion of the country might feel to the contrary. 

While For Akheem provokes unassumingly, City of Ghosts works urgently.  The latest from Cartel Land director Matthew Heineman narrows in on the leaders of RBSS, or Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered. This group of citizen journalists spread news, otherwise suppressed, of the horrific deterioration of their Syrian city, which endures and suffers massive violence at the hands of ISIS. Armed with cameras and cellphones, the young men, mostly from upper-middle class families, upload crude photo and video of protests and beheadings, much of it hard to watch in its stark reality.  Necessary and timely, the documentary’s sense of urgency grows in a way unexperienced in Cartel Land, as the RBBS members, threatened for their lives, flee to Turkey and Berlin, where much of the film takes place. The grainy and grisly images contrast deeply with the Islamic State’s own slick filmic efforts that ironically and blatantly mimic the language of Hollywood movies with unsettling efficiency. Their well-edited propaganda videos feature explosions and gunshots that look much like an action movie trailer or an ad for a video game taking place in a war-torn land. The disparity in the two styles highlights the deception and the lies one organization, and the fight to expose the truth of the other.


A more traditional documentary, no less riveting, finds itself in Shadowman, a biography of the artist Richard Hambleton. Oft-referred to as the predecessor to Banksy, Hambleton brushed silhouetted figures around crime scenes and dark alleyways in downtown, pre-Giuliani era New York, only to recede from view of the art world and public entirely. Talking head interviews with those closest to him are eminently listenable, describing an intellectual self-taught painter with a GQ-worthy style. The age-old tale of an artist’s drug-related downfall doesn't have much of a new spin, but Hambleton is an indelible, fascinating figure who survived his contemporaries Jean Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Just when the film feels too adulatory, it catches up with Richard at the present—his moody temperament, poor work-ethic, and squirrely evasions threaten to derail his second act as new-school art dealers attempt to revive his work—forcing a reconsideration and balancing of the portrayal of his legacy.

The fictional storytelling at Tribeca runs the gamut from distribution-less titles to hot properties the latter of which includes The Circle among its the world premieres. James Ponsoldt’s film is an egregious adaptation neutered of all the chilling entertainment of the Dave Eggers novel on which the film is based.  Mae (Emma Watson) lands a highly coveted job at The Circle, a monopolistic uber-tech company that has combined and surpassed the efforts of Google and Facebook, along with everything else. The campus, teeming with young, diverse, employees in aspirational Mark Zuckerberg hoodies, sloppily mimics those of Silicon Valley. Design seems to have fallen by the wayside with The Circle’s rise, and Steve Jobs’ aesthetic sensibilities trashed. The orange-red software apps resemble beta versions of a heart rate monitor and sharp-edged computers look like particleboard slats posing as iMacs. There is a lack of finesse in this film, or perhaps budget. Ponsoldt does, however, make one of the better and appropriate uses of on-screen text messages (although unimaginatively swiped from Apple’s Helvetica universe), as messages flit on and off screen simulating the notion of having an unwanted comments section at your disposal. 

Early on, Mae sarcastically concedes to “drinking in the Kool-Aid,” but her actions run the contrary, fluctuating from emphatic endorsement, to pensive mistrust, eyes narrowed, and brow furrowed. The Kool-Aid, it seems, has only a sporadic effect. But in the novel, she sips it slowly, her intoxication transforming her from naive follower to frighteningly dedicated employee, loyal to The Circle’s mission, even as that mission is revealed, little by little, increasingly sinister. (Privacy is Theft!) Indeed this is the greater problem with the movie.. Ponsoldt, who is credited for adaptation with Eggers, truncates the novel to its biggest moments, mechanically moving from one set piece to the next, presenting a tame, glossed over effort.

Starring Tracy Letts and Debra Winger as two unfaithful halves of a marriage, inverted infidelity picture The Lovers might seem like an odd entry for the intrepid distributors known as the millennial’s Miramax, A24. However, director Azazel Jacobs allows his superb actors to graciously and emphatically usurp the stage. Even their nagging sidepieces Aiden Gillen and Melora Walters, sweet and spurned, honorably allow themselves to be eclipsed by their co-stars.  Letts’ abilities hearken to his voice, Winter’s settle on to her visage. He advantages his theater-friendly baritone to assert every syllable of fresh excuse to his wife or girlfriend, while Winger telegraphs hurt and anticipatory lust with her eyes, fatigued with clement resignation. They're perfect complements whose respective plans for a split, long delayed, are stalled by an impending visit from their college-aged son. A curious spark emerges between them abiding by the laws of delayed gratification. The tango is draggy, shrouded by an endless grandiose score, before they amble into bed with one another.  The Lovers is a film of empty parking lots and the safe spaces of cars, offices cubicles, and of course, the bed. Sex is plentiful but not gratuitous. It serves as  tender comedic fodder that proves the greater biting point the film makes about infidelity and monogamy. The film eviscerates the Hollywood sheen of middle-aged marrieds or the post-midlife crisis twilight of the films of, say, Nancy Meyers, making it clear why A24 picked it up.

Embodying both the sharp wit of Anna Kendrick and the comedic stylings of Leslie Mann, Zoey Deutch is a serious talent that vibrates off the screen in Flower. Thus it is a shame that Max Winkler’s debut, with its muddy gender politics, isn’t a better film. Deutsch gamely portrays a sassy high school teen engaging in murky brand of promiscuity feminism as Erica. She and her friends—though we only ever see Erica taking part—extort money from older gentlemen by  threatening to publicize photos of their sexual hijinks, all in the name of fun, pocket change, or in Erica’s case, bail-dad -out-of-jail money. Winkler finds his character’s naiveté, dysfunctional family situation, and daddy issues sufficient explanation for her phallic obsessions.  Viewers must momentarily shelve any reservations   about the film while it wildly careens from admittedly spot-on teenage pitter-patter (credit to younger actresses Dylan Gellula and Maya Eshet as Erica’s facetious besties) to jostling suspense halting to a crawl when least desired during scenes of sexual entrapment.  Flower uniquely touches on Hard Candy, River’s Edge, and of course Mean Girls. Winkler may have an ear for millennial dialogue and lifestyle (Big Gulps and glibly serious sartorial choices), but is blindly presumptuous of their values.

While Flower exploits its character’s foibles to disappointing effect, Rock’n Roll seizes upon those of its character to hilarious ends.  There are interjectionsof farcein the film,, but not even a Celine Dion lip-synching dream sequence can quite anticipate what Guillaume Canet has prepared, transforming his docu-comedy into outright slapstick at the halfway mark. Director and star Canet plays a heightened version of himself, an actor/director approaching middle age and newly anxious that the diminished stance of his masculine vigor threaten to leave him out of the spotlight.  When his younger co-star (Camille Rowe as herself) elucidates his downgraded fuckability status, lowered with the rise of Gaspard Ulliel or Gilles Lellouche, who also appears in the film, Guillaume tries to inject a note of that fetching menace into the comfortably sedate life he shares with real-life partner Marion Cotillard.  Roiling in a newfangled comedic sensibility, Cotillard plays herself up as the top-notch actress, gracefully unhinged in her pre-occupation with her craft. Prepping for the new Xavier Dolan, the lovingly inattentive bread/ César winner of the family natters away in harshly unintelligible Canadian.

To be clear, Canet withholds remarks on aging or ageism in the industry in favor of laughs. The film lets him exorcise his own creeping image-obsessions and reckon with the movie stardom standards—which it might be added, are faced by women under the spotlight all the time.

The films of Angus MacLachlan are not unlike the books of Marilynn Robinson in that they both survey an underseen America. Dabbling not into subculture or exposing fringe societies, their works dwell on a dwindling culture of traditional values and conservatism without politicize their characters. With Abundant Acreage Available, MacLachlan revisits themes of familial and generational clashes explored in his debut feature script Junebug. After the death of their father, siblings Tracy and Jesse (Amy Ryan and Terry Kinney) contend with three eccentric brothers from the East Coast whose father once owned their land. The squirrely nature of the uninvited visitors ward off any proper unscrambling of their desires, but the ambiguity in the film overrunneth, to the point where it seems unintentional. Sparely set between yard and house, the film might have been better served for the stage. MacLachlan has a way of reducing his characters and, by his extension, viewers to children, as a way to keenly elicit our empathies, but at the risk of having his film feel too rudimentary.


Tribeca is a great showcase of women-directed movies with nearly a third of its selections helmed by female filmmakers. In Marta Savin’s short Viola, Franca, the beautiful colors and mountain countryside belie the horror that happens in 1600s Italy where a law mandated women marry their rapists. The documentary A Suitable Girl doesn’t upbraid or rail against the practice of arranged marriage that is its central subject, but rather employs it as the context to foreground the romantic state of affairs of three young Indian women. It questions not, instead offering a clear-eyed and empathetic look into the process. Julia Solomonoff's demure Nobody’s Watching is deceptive in its levity, slyly addressing immigrant struggles by meshing them with those of creative types. Nico (Guillermo Pfenig, excellent) bittersweetly leaves behind his soap opera stardom in Brazil to try his hand at New York, where he picks up the habits and markers of starving artisthood (a service industry job, crashing on an uncomfortable couch, nannying for an old friend), none of which are played for laughs. The lows of urban isolation are rendered startlingly clear in this quietly formidable piece of work.

Buster’s Mal Heart evokes both the sinister mystery and doomsday underpinnings of the fabled Donnie Darko, giving us a few iterations of Rami Malek in Jake Gyllenhaal’s stead. Under the dawn of Y2K, Jonah (Malek) endures the nightshift at a remote Montana hotel, while a bearded mountain man (Malek again), trawls the woods for vacant vacation homes. Director Sarah Adina Smith teasingly dips to sci-fi, only to haphazardly scatter it all for the sake of philosophy. In lieu of a rule-bound universe, we get a smattering of quantum mechanics, apocalypse myths and a shaking fist at God and the Bible. But Smith has deft visual hand, with plenty of match-cuts to connect the threads, and Hollywood would do well to scoop her up, provided they give her the right script.

With high potential to ruffle with its solipsism, Flames turns out to be cathartic and timely piece of performance art that might be the most representative of our society. Filmed over the course of 6 years, it charts the rise and fall of the relationship between artist Zefrey Throwell and filmmaker Josephine Decker. (Butter on the Latch). In the digital age where breakups often lack a sense of finality, Zefrey and Josephine’s relationship is forced into overtime for the sake of art. After its crashing demise, the film turns into a documentation of the-making-of of this sometimes documentary. The filmmakers themselves don’t quite agree on whether Flames is fact or fiction, an issue touted as its premise, but the film is far more compelling as seen as the story of Decker. Though both Throwell and Josephine are equally in the spotlight, the movie is hers. This is summed up best in a scene of strip poker played in a glass storefront upon which all of Manhattan might gaze: Strangers and passersby begin to gawk, some cheering, others nearly salivating at this piece of Throwell’s performance art. The mood inside the window is exhilaratingly awkward and tense, with Decker expecting none of it, growing visibly upset.  It’s an apt metaphor for the film, a grueling work in many ways, which leaves Josephine raw and exposed, but at least by co-authoring Flames she is offered some additional agency.

Nathan Silver is no stranger to docu-art hybrid, but his latest directorial effort Thirst Street is decidedly not that. His most visually audacious work to date, co-written with C. Mason Wells, evokes the textures of the past, of Walerian Borowczyk and Andrzej Żuławski at once sharpened and softened into something playful. Sean Price Williams lends an excellent eye, dousing grainy video in boudoir reds and louche neons in thisappealing pastiche whose pretentiousness maintains a high degree of accessibility. There’s a sprinkling of the Fassbinderian melodrama and some French film notables (a cameo from Françoise Lebrun and contempt from Esther Garrel, delightfully snippy). Reeling from the death (suicide) of her boyfriend, flight attendant Gina (Lindsay Burdge) becomes appallingly determined to turn a one-night stand with a French club owner (Damian Bonnard) into something more significant.  She reaches the pantheon of delusional female obsessives of the screen, though with frequently hilarious results.With lurid credits and a slangy title, songs with on the nose lyrics and a wry narration supplied by Anjelica Huston, Silver is clearly in on the joke. However, Burdge proves an exceptional marvel, imbuing Gina with much more than her character, on paper, had perhaps allowed. She inspires our empathies, causing us to question her treatment and ultimately complicating the director’s vision.The film bestows us the opportunity for dialogue, as the best of cinema and many titles at Tribeca often do.

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


TribecaTribeca 2017Festival CoverageLandon Van SoestJeremy S. LevineMatthew HeinemanOren JacobyJames PonsoldtAzazel JacobsMax WinklerGuillaume CanetAngus MacLachlanMarta SavinSarah Adina SmithZefrey ThrowellNathan SilverJosephine DeckerLong Reads
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.