Women to Watch from Tribeca 2018

Even a brief perusal of the Tribeca 2018 programme reveals an encouragingly high number of works from women directors.  Dominic Corry reports on five to watch out for.

Ondi Timoner—Mapplethorpe

US Narrative Competition, Runner-up: Narrative Audience Award

Ondi Timoner, the celebrated documentarian behind such classics as Dig! (2004) and We Live In Public (2009) assuredly moves into narrative cinema with this evocative and bracing biopic of the controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Shot to great effect on grainy 16-millimeter stock (sprinkled with a little Super 8 here and there), Timoner leans into the grimy romance of 1970s New York as she chronicles how Mapplethorpe’s embracing of photography—which was only beginning to be perceived as an art form—awakened his sexuality and illuminated hitherto underground aspects of gay culture for the wider world. Matt Smith is phenomenal in the title role, providing a nuanced performance that brings Mapplethorpe the man—in addition to the artist—to vivid life. Timoner is great at weaving Mapplethorpe’s photographs into the narrative, and they comprise a significant part of the story being told.

Nia DaCosta—Little Woods

US Narrative Competition, Winner: The Nora Ephron Award

Rising star Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok, Westworld) is a tower of cinematic strength in this often bleak, but never dispiriting, dramatic thriller. It’s an extremely promising feature-length debut from writer/director Nia DaCosta, who finds an aesthetic power in the grim North Dakota location that provides a notable counterpoint to the way the Coens explored the same setting in their 1996 classic Fargo. Thompson plays a resourceful and resilient young woman on the verge of getting her life together as her probation period comes to a close, who is forced back into drug dealing to help her sister (Lily James—Cinderella, Baby Driver) and save their childhood home from foreclosure. James Badge Dale, one of the great modern character actors, is fantastic in scuzzy support. Although very much a success in its own right, this made me hugely excited for whatever DaCosta does next. With Little Woods, named for the town in which it is set, she may have created a new sub-genre—Bleak Noir.

Pietra Brettkelly—Yellow Is Forbidden

Documentary Competition

The latest work from acclaimed Kiwi documentary filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly (A Flickering Truth) chronicles the efforts of Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei to get officially recognized by Paris’s Chambre Syndicate de la Haute Couture, the highest honor in the global fashion industry. Guo Pei—who came to international mainstream prominence when Rihanna wore a flowing yellow gown she designed to the 2015 Met Gala—proves a naturally cinematic subject whose creativity and determination is felt palpably throughout the film. Brettkelly’s portrait is an intimate and illuminating journey into the rarely explored world of high-end Chinese fashion design. The lush aesthetics of Guo Pei’s sartorial expression are easily matched by the film itself, a beautiful, relentlessly uplifting portrait of a creative force whose pure artistry simply demands to be recognized.

Melissa B. Miller-Costanzo—All These Small Moments

Spotlight Narrative

Occasionally coming across as a more grounded take on Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, writer/director Miller-Costanzo’s feature-length directorial debut is a well observed portrait of the enormity of teenage angst. Brendan Meyer (The OA, The Guest) plays a New York high schooler obsessed with the alluring blonde (Girls’ Jemima Kirke) he gawks at on the bus every morning. His angst is amplified by the fact that his parents (Molly Ringwald and Brian D’Arcy James, both emphasizing flawed humanity) increasingly appear headed for divorce. The amusingly awkward Meyer is a welcome guileless alternative to the overly articulate teens that pepper modern cinema. Playing his classmate/fellow misfit, Harley Quinn Smith (daughter of filmmaker Kevin Smith) proves emphatically she has something interesting to offer the acting world. Bodes extremely well for Miller-Costanzo’s future filmography.

Meredith Danluck—State Like Sleep

US Narrative Competition

Meredith Danluck’s neo-noir is set in a location heretofore almost entirely unexplored in the world of thriller cinema: Belgium. It embraces the setting’s other-ness to create a splendidly unsettling film. Katherine Waterston—who recently graduated to blockbuster status with lead roles in Alien: Covenant and Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Themably takes the focus of practically every shot in State Like Sleep as an American photographer dealing with the lingering consequences of the unexplained shooting death of her famous actor husband, played by Michiel Huisman (The Invitation, Game of Thrones). This entails interactions with a skeezy underground club owner played by Luke Evans (The Hobbit) and a travelling businessman played with laconic charm by the always-remarkable Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water). The film’s woozy charms very much live up to its title.

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