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The opening night premiere of United 93 was a real knockout at the festival (both critically and emotionally), but it’s not exactly a feel-good family affair. As a nice break from the influx of 9/11 films, Tribeca offers some lighter alternatives that keep it all in the family.
For Part 4 of our coverage, we’ve got Lassie coming home again, Akeelah flaunting her wordplay at spelling bees, a terminally-ill teenager wishing for a supermodel, and a world-renowned photographer hanging out with her schizophrenic mother. Hey, what fun are family flicks without a little dysfunction?
Lassie (Tribeca Family Festival: Drama)
Writer/Director: Charles Sturridge
Cast: Jonathan Mason, John Lynch, Samantha Morton, Peter O’Toole
“It’s not stealing when she comes back herself.”
Brief Summary: Lassie, everyone’s favorite adventurous collie, is back for a new big-screen journey from writer/director Charles Sturridge. Her stories have been relayed many times in novels, TV shows and several other movies, but they’ve never been told quite like this before. The Carraclough family lives in a mining town pre-WWII in Yorkshire, England. When they fall on tough times financially, they are forced to sell their beloved pooch to a wealthy duke and his granddaughter, much to the dismay of her young owner Joe (Jonathan Mason). Lassie escapes countless times (showing super-hero smarts as she digs under and climbs over huge fences), but when the new family moves to Scotland, will it keep her in her place? Ha, fat chance.
My Thoughts: Lassie is a surprisingly good family flick loaded with stunning visuals of the countryside as she dashes across it. Even though the film deals with an adorable dog and very young children, it avoids bombarding us with a constant string of ‘aw shucks’ moments. In fact, it’s pretty darn depressing for a lot of the way, which is something that never would have happened if it were made in the U.S. (which thankfully it wasn’t, or we may have wound up with a singing, CGI dog version).
The cast is amazing: Samantha Morton, Peter O’Toole, John Lynch, and Steve Pemberton all have prominent parts, and there are great cameos including Kelly Macdonald (Trainspotting) as an avid dog-lover and Peter Dinklage (Station Agent) as a traveling dwarf performing puppet shows. There are some really solid laughs (Lassie invents many clever ways to outsmart the humans), and also an ample supply of downers (one small dog gets beaten to death; Joe’s dad has to join the army to feed the family). In the end, Lassie steals the show, with her vivacious spirit and ability to exude grace while frolicking from one country to the next. She is one stubborn canine, but she always has style.
Tierney Gearon: The Mother Project (Discovery: Documentary)
Directors: Jack Youngelson, Peter Sutherland
Cast: Tierney Gearon and her attention-grabbing family
“I think these photos are all portraits of myself.”
Brief Summary: Controversial photographer Tierney Gearon turns the cameras onto her eccentric family and herself, in a startling new documentary about her life. In 2001, she caused quite a stir in a London gallery by displaying pictures of her children—Emilee, 6 and Michael, 4—nude, in masks, and urinating on the beach. Protestors complained that the pictures were pornographic and lewd, but Tierney laughed off these absurd charges and luckily so did the authorities. The movie spans a few years, and Tierney uses photography to zoom in on her manic depressive schizophrenic mother, and her beautiful children growing up. If you’re looking for the Brady Bunch, look elsewhere.
My Thoughts: Incredibly raw, personal, and at times disturbing, Tierney Gearon: The Mother Project explores a strange, close-knit family that will make yours seem normal by comparison. The title, which runs a bit needlessly long, sets the stage for Tierney’s unstable mother—she lifts her dress up randomly, has erratic fits, and makes such offbeat declarations as, “I died and the homeless people in the woods brought me back”—but also shows her own insecurities as a parent. She may have good reason for occasional self-doubt: in a particularly troubling scene, her son starts crying after being kicked by his sister, and Tierney’s first impulse is to grab the camera and start clicking.
Even with their clear-cut issues which are dangling mid-air for us to scrutinize, the family undeniably loves each other and the kids are surprisingly open and well-grounded considering their circumstances. Maybe it stems from growing up in front of cameras, but they seem incredibly comfortable with themselves and honest about their feelings, especially the unpleasant ones. (Michael, in an introspective scene, expresses concern about his ability to feel and express love properly.) The film sometimes seems like a vanity project and something we’re not supposed to see, but it’s funny, insightful, engaging and unforgettable—much like the schizophrenic grandma herself.
Akeelah & The Bee (Showcase: Drama)
Writer/Director: Doug Atchison
Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Keke Palmer, Curtis Armstrong
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate; our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
Brief Summary: Akeelah (Keke Palmer) is a sassy 11-year-old girl living in South Los Angeles. Feeling ignored and dismissed by the world, she takes solace in online Scrabble games and writing extensive word sheets. When the faculty at Crenshaw Middle School realizes her knack for spelling, they encourage her to compete in statewide and national Spelling Bees, hoping she can raise money to improve their educational resources. Akeelah nixes the idea, thinking it will cause the school bullies to rag on her even more, but eventually she warms up to it. With the coaching help of Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), can she finally stand out and find success? (Have you ever seen a movie before?)
My Thoughts: Akeelah & The Bee does not break new ground with its underdog-to-alpha dog storyline, but it’s such an earnest and heartfelt story that you’re likely not to care. The film’s success lies mostly on Keke Palmer’s shoulders: her portrayal of a withdrawn student struggling to find happiness feels truly authentic, and she never hams it up for the camera. Child actors, take note.
Fishburne is commanding and intimidating as her spelling coach, telling her to “leave the ghetto speak” at the playground. There is a real sweetness to watching them develop a father-daughter relationship to cope with their losses in life. While spelling bee movies are becoming a new trend following the documentary Spellbound, this film has everything that the dreadfully pretentious Bee Season lacked—including a soul. It’s easy to dismiss Akeelah as another been-there-done-that inspirational story—which happens to be funded by Starbucks, of all places—but it’s loaded with good moments and just the right amount of sugar.
One Last Thing (Tribeca Family Festival: Drama)
Writer: Barry Stringfellow
Director: Alex Steyermark
Cast: Michael Angarano, Cynthia Nixon, Sunny Mabrey, Gina Gershon
“What’s the point of wishing, if you don’t wish for what you really want?”
Brief Summary: Dylan Jameison (played by Michael Angarano of Almost Famous), a terminally-ill teenager, has limited time left in his life. The United Wish Givers organization gives him an opportunity on live TV to make a final wish for them to grant. Originally asking to go fishing with his football hero, he changes his mind and requests every straight guy’s fantasy: to spend a weekend alone with gorgeous supermodel, Nikki Sinclair (Sunny Mabrey). What does he have to lose at this point? The organization is appalled by his perverse wish and his concerned mother (Cynthia Nixon) worries about his deteriorating health, but Dylan and his two best guy friends head to New York to find Nikki before his time expires.
My Thoughts: For most of the duration, One Last Thing is refreshingly cynical for a film about a young man dying. Dylan, who does not believe in God or an afterlife, uses his medicinal marijuana to his advantage and approaches the topic of death with sarcasm. (He slyly responds to his doctor, “So in medical terms I’m screwed, eh?”) The script generally goes for comedic quips instead of movie-of-the-week depressions, and the story is aided by a great performance by Angarano.
The problem is that the film tries to delve into too many things at once. Nikki is a very complex, self-destructive character which is far from the picturesque fantasy Dylan had envisioned, not that he’s complaining. An unnecessary romance blooms between Dylan’s mom and his football idol, and flashbacks of Dylan’s dead father (Ethan Hawke) pop up far too often. There is just too much death going on in the movie, outside of the already-impending demise of Dylan. Loosen up, guys. Also, the last scene of the film is infuriating, because it takes a wussy step-back from its generally sardonic viewpoints.
On the plus side, Dylan actually looks and acts like someone who is dying—fainting spells, nosebleeds, wan complexion—rather than painting him as a regular person who we are told is soon-to-pass. The film deals with heavy subject matter in an often humorous way (think dark comedy), but the existential jargon is one last thing that should have been cut.
More Tribeca coverage is on the way. Check back regularly at CinemaBlend.com for coverage throughout the festival. We’ve got plenty more in store.