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Archive for May 5th, 2017

by Sam Juliano

After each and every Tribeca Film Festival, one tries to speculate which films will ultimately gain wide releases, either by way of Manhattan exclusives or nationwide booking.  More and more films are leaving the Tribeca box – some gain slots in other festivals and others enjoy multi- week runs before securing DVD and blu ray rights.  Unfortunately some languish in cinematic limbo either imminently or indefinitely, and often the matter of quality and strong word-of-mouth is not enough to convince distributors to take the plunge.  It is unfathomable to conclude that Tribeca 2017 will produce few works that will open theatrically, as the best films of the festival include some extraordinary titles from abroad, stateside and in the documentary genre.  The latter has always been a strong suit at Tribeca, and though 2017 for this writer has proven a particular triumph for narrative features, several documentaries by any barometer of measurement must be included among the festival’s creme de la creme.  As of this writing negotiations are underway to pave the path for theatrical releases, and with the right timing and luck we may see the lion’s share of the best films expanding to new audiences.  My wife and I were able to fit in a whopping thirty-eight features during the festival’s eleven day run, and aided by the last days of award winner screenings we managed to see just about all the priority and well-reviewed titles.  As always my Number 10 spot is a tie between two films, meaning my Top 10 is actually a Top 11.

1.  Saturday Church (directed by Damon Cardasis; USA)

The father of a 14 year-old inner-city boy and his younger brother is killed in action as the film opens at the funeral.  “Ulysses” is a sensitive boy who slowly begins to experiment with his own gender identity while under the stern eye of a domineering aunt who is called in to supervise as the kids’ single mother is out working.  Ulysses wears panty hose under his male clothing and at one point his precocious younger brother Abe barges in while he tries on his mother’s heels.  After finding out his indiscretions the uncompromising Aunt Rose issues stern warnings, wielding a bit too much authority,  telling the shy and effeminate boy he is a “man.”  Director Cardasis acutely chronicles the suffocating behavior of ignorant, insensitive adults, a contributing factor in homelessness, prostitution and deep-rooted depression.  To bolster a more masculine image Rose enlists him as an altar boy in local church, but this forced scenario segues into the exploration of the Christopher Street piers, a location long known for gay cruising and drag queens.  The good looking young man immediately clicks with this nurturing second family and they introduce him to the all-inclusive “Saturday Church” which provides a shelter and comforting environment for gays and trans-gendered young people.  For the first time Ulysses feels wanted and appreciated, and he receives his first kiss from a non-tranny gay boy Raymond, one that enhances his self-image and resolve to become what he feels inside.  Cardasis weaves some resonating songs by Nathan Larson that often emanate from the depths of despair in a transformation of the darker reality we saw in Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, and the young actor who plays Ulysses -Luka Kain carries the singing and dancing negotiation of songs written to amplify yearning, captivity and the need to blossom.  The songs are surprisingly effective and they bring exhilarating closure to a film purposely left open ended by the director. After a tearful rapprochement, when Ulysses is escorted home by one member of his new family, his mother finally turns on Aunt Rose and in song tells the son she adores she will accept him for who is is.  The entire cast deliver impassioned turns -particular mention to Regina Taylor as Aunt Rose and Marquis Rodriguez as Raymond- but the film belongs to Kain, who brings a brooding intensity as a boy too long imprisoned who through some inevitable trials and tribulations transforms to wide audience appeal.  Saturday Church is a captivating coming-of age story accentuated by liberating music and lyrics, and driven by the power of community and crossing the finish line to acceptance.  It is the most wholly irresistible feature at Tribeca 2017, and richly deserves wide distribution.  The specter of Rainer Warner Fassbinder is smiling down on this remarkable directorial debut.

2.  Son of Sofia  (directed by Elina Psykou; Greece/Bulgaria)

A Russian mother and son are reunited in Athens circa the time of the 2004 Olympic Games.  The introverted Misha finds to his chagrin that his mom, Sofia has married again, this time to an older man, Mr. Nikos who is resolved to raise the boy as his own, to have him learn Greek and adhere to a rigid discipline.  He expects Misha to accept him as his father, but the boy privately laments to Sofia that he expected their reunion would be only between the two of them.  A fairy tale subplot is played out as a manner of escape for the boy who finds some harsh realities and deceptions in a family dynamic that is anything but benign.  One is reminded of the oppressive atmosphere in Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, but the tonal elements are more in line with some of the wry humor seen in films like the recent Dogtooth and The Lobster.  The film was directed by a talented young woman, Elina Psykou, and she is adept as establishing mood, veering from acute melancholia to visual buoyancy, injecting this oddly alluring tale with subversive elements.  The film is a unique coming-of-age story, and as such it brings the young boy full circle after periods of resentment, and escape.  He briefly shares company with a male Ukranian prostitute who offers the young boy refuge and later returns in the film’s hair-raising finale.  There is plenty both visually and thematically to sink your teeth into, and Son of Sofia showcases another exemplary childhood performance by a markedly cerebral lad named Victor Khomut.  The film was awarded First Place Narrative International feature by the Tribeca jury.  Distributor alert! (more…)

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