The 74th annual Cannes Film Festival (which took place in Cannes, France) has announced its award winners. The event took place from July 6 to July 17, 2021, with the prize winners announced on July 17, 2021. The awards were voted for by appointed juries.
Culture Representation: Taking place in in Tehran, Iran, the dramatic film “Ballad of a White Cow” features an all-Middle-Eastern cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and upper-middle class.
Culture Clash: A widowed mother, whose wrongly imprisoned husband was executed for murder, gets unexpected financial help from a man whom the widow does not know was directly involved in the outcome of her husband’s murder case.
Culture Audience: “Ballad of a White Cow” will appeal primarily to people interested in movies about Iranian culture, injustice in a criminal court system and the toll that big secrets can take on a relationship.
“Ballad of a White Cow” delivers a quietly devastating portrait of what happens in the aftermath of a wrongly convicted prisoner’s execution and how good intentions can be poisonous if they’re based in deceit. Maryam Moghadam is the star, co-director and co-writer of this impactful drama that takes place in Iran, but its themes are universal and have no national boundaries. It’s far from an upbeat film, but it has glimmers of hope that the people in this tragic story might one day find a way to heal.
Moghadam and Behtash Sanaeeha directed “Ballad of a White Cow,” whose screenplay was written by Moghadam, Sanaeeha and Mehrdad Kouroshniya. The movie had its European premiere at the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival and its North American premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Viewers of this movie get glimpses into the Iranian criminal justice system and how it shrouds in secrecy from the public the identities of judges who decide the fates of defendants.
“Ballad of a White Cow” opens with a distraught Mina Parsa (played by Moghadam) spending time with her imprisoned husband Eghbali “Babak” Parsa for the last time before he’s executed for murdering a man during a fight. Babak confessed to the murder, but it was a false confession because, unbeknownst to Babak, the victim (whose name was Rashedi) was still alive when Barak ran away, and another man came along and murdered Rashedi. (There are no flashbacks to the crime.) Mina has always believed that Babak was innocent.
After the execution (which is not shown in the movie), Mina is so grief-stricken that she seems somewhat detached from reality. She still goes to her job working on an assembly line at a milk bottling factory, but her demeanor is of someone whose emotions are numb and her mind is elsewhere. She’s still able to take care of her loving 7-year-old daughter Bita (played by Avin Poor Raoufi), who happens to be deaf. But Mina doesn’t have the energy to do things (such as go to the movies) with her daughter that Mina used to have before Babak died.
Babak’s imprisonment and execution has brought such shame on Mina that she can’t bring herself to tell Bita the truth. Instead, Mina lies and tells Bita that Babak is on a trip somewhere far away and she doesn’t know when Babak will come back home. Bita can sense her mother’s sadness and asks her one day, “Why are you frowning?” Mina tells Bita, “I’m just tired.”
Meanwhile, Bita has been struggling in school. She tells her mother that she doesn’t like the people there, and Bita says that her teacher is mean to her. Bita doesn’t want to go back to school and doesn’t want to do any schoolwork. It’s later revealed that Bita’s problems in school mostly have to do with people at the school knowing what happened to her father, but Bita (because she was lied to) insists to everyone that her father is still alive and traveling somewhere.
A year after Babak’s death, Mina is in dire financial straits because Babak had no pension or life insurance, and her factory job doesn’t pay enough to cover all of her expenses. Mina applies for government assistance and is told that she’s entitled to 200,000 tomans a month (which is about $47.50 in 2021 U.S. dollars), including any benefits because Bita is a special-needs child. Mina’s apartment manager (played by Lili Farhadpour) is understanding about Mina being late with the rent, because she feels sympathy for Mina being a widow with a young child to raise on her own.
One person who doesn’t believe that Mina is financially struggling is Babak’s aggressive brother (played by Pouria Rahimi, also known as Pouria Rahimi Sam), who doesn’t have a name in the movie. Babak’s brother visits Mina one day and tells her that Babak’s father believes that Babak secretly left a stash of money for Mina and Bita. Mina vehemently denies it. Babak’s brother has power of attorney over his father, who is in ill health, and so Babak wants this imaginary stash of money to take control of it.
While Mina is grieving over the loss of her husband, something unexpected happens. The real murderer confesses to the crime, and it’s proven that he was the real culprit. A government official meets with Mina and makes a private apology to Mina about Babak’s execution. The government gives Mina a settlement of 270 million tomas (or a little more than $64,000 in 2021 U.S. dollars) for the execution mistake.
But that’s not enough for Mina. After she reacts with shock and horror that her husband was wrongfully executed, she gets angry. She tries to find a way to get the government to make a public apology, but she encounters many roadblocks. She also wants some type of justice for slander, because she believes the government ruined Babak’s reputation.
It’s during this time that Mina gets a surprise visit at home from a stranger, who identifies himself as Reza Esfandiari (played by Alireza Sani Far) and who says that he was a friend of Babak’s. Reza tells Mina that he owed 10 million tomans (or about $2,375 in 2021 U.S. dollars) to Babak. Mina says she doesn’t want the money, but Reza insists on writing her a check for that amount. Reza also tells Mina that if there’s anything else she might need, she shouldn’t hesitate to ask for his help.
Shortly after Reza’s visit, Mina’s apartment manager tells Mina that Mina has been evicted, because the manager saw this male stranger visit Reza in her home. In Muslim culture, it’s taboo for a single woman to have an unrelated man in her home. Mina has a limited amount of time to find a new place for herself and Bita to live before the eviction goes into effect. And it’s very difficult for Mina to find a new place to live because many apartment buildings will not rent to widows or other unmarried women.
Just when it looks like Mina and Bita will become homeless, Reza comes to the rescue. He happens to own an apartment that he isn’t using. And he offers to let Mina and Bita live there rent-free, as long as they keep the apartment in good shape. Why is Reza being so generous to Mina and Bita?
It’s because his real name is Reza Shallal, and he was on the judging panel that decided that Babak would be sentenced to death. It’s a panel of judges whose identities are kept secret from the public, out of concerns that the judges will be retaliated against. Reza feels an enormous amount of guilt over the wrongful execution of Babak, so he wants to make amends. However, Reza is afraid of telling Mina his true identity. Reza’s secret isn’t spoiler information to viewers, because it’s in the movie trailer for “Ballad of a White Cow.”
Reza’s first experience in judging a death-sentence case was Babak’s case. It’s revealed in the movie that Reza had previously worked in the civil courts system and had recently transferred to the criminal courts system when Babak’s case came his way. Reza deeply regrets becoming a criminal court judge, and he wants to quit. “Ballad of a White Cow” has tension-filled scenes of Reza discussing his disillusionment with a colleague (played by Farid Ghobadi), who advises Reza not to resign from his position.
Adding to Reza’s personal turmoil, he has a son in his late teens or early 20s (Reza’s only child) named Maysam, who despises Reza. Maysam has been living with Reza, who is either divorced or widowed. Reza and Maysam’s scenes together have a lot of unspoken backstory, but based on what they say to each other, it seems as if Maysam has a lot of resentment toward Reza because Maysam feels that Reza was a neglectful father. It’s implied that Reza was a workaholic for most of Maysam’s life, and now Reza regrets it, especially when Maysam abruptly tells Reza one day that he’s moving away to join the military.
There’s more tragedy in this story, which will keep viewers guessing on how long Reza can keep his secret from Mina and how long Mina can keep her secret from Bita. Over time, Reza befriends Mina, who thinks it’s a little odd that Reza is going out of her way to help her. She takes his word for it that Reza was a friend of Babak. When she asks Reza questions about Babak to see how how well Reza knew him, Reza is able to give vague answers that sound convincing.
Mina is also a little suspicious of Reza at first because she thinks he might have ulterior sexual motives for being so generous to her. But when she sees that he really wants nothing in return, she relaxes around him and even lets Reza get close to Bita, almost as if he’s a surrogate uncle to Bita. Because Mina trusts Reza to be around her child, it adds an extra layer of burden to Reza’s lies.
“Ballad of a White Cow” never really shakes the feeling of heartbreak, because even though Mina’s problem about her living situation has been resolved, it’s under deceptive circumstances on Reza’s part. Even though Reza seems to be a kind and caring new friend to Reza, at a time when she really needs a friend, he can never reveal his true identity to her or he would lose the friendship. And when Mina is dishonest to Bita about what happened to Babak, it’s another betrayal that might have had good intentions but is ultimately damaging.
All of the acting in “Ballad of a White Cow” is convincing and nuanced, but the movie’s biggest strength is in making viewers think about what they would do if they were Mina or Reza. There’s also a level of suspense over how or if Mina and Reza will be able to continue their deceptions. It might be easy to judge and say they made bad choices, but both Mina and Reza are both emotonally hurting in different ways that could certainly cloud their judgment.
The movie’s writing, acting and direction are solid for this type of movie, which makes good use of its low budget. As for why the movie is called “Ballad of a White Cow,” it has to do with a memorable image in the film of a white cow standing in the middle of a courtyard, as men stand on one side of the courtyard, and women stand on the other. Is this cow about to be milked or will it be slaughtered? The same question could be posed about the complicated friendship of the two lonely people at the center of this melancholy story.
Culture Representation: The documentary film “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” features a predominantly African American group of people (with some Latinos and white people) discussing the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place over six non-consecutive days in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood and was attended by an estimated 300,000 people.
Culture Clash: Even though the Harlem Cultural Festival had superstar music artists and was filmed (some people called it Black Woodstock), TV networks and movie distributors at the time refused to be associated with the event, which celebrated ethnic pride for black people and Latino people.
Culture Audience:“Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” will appeal primarily to people interested in music and culture from the late 1960s, particularly as related to civil rights and ethnic heritage for people of color in the United States.
In the summer of 1969, there was a free music festival that took place in New York state, was attended by hundreds of thousands of people, and featured performances by several hitmaking artists. There was no outbreak of violence, no unsafe overcrowding, and no one died during the event. There wasn’t a food shortage, there were no weather problems, and there was no difficulty getting to the concert site. In other words, this event wasn’t Woodstock. It was the Harlem Cultural Festival, an event that was filmed but largely ignored for decades by mainstream media because it was a festival that had mostly African Americans performing at and attending the event.
The excellent documentary “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” shines a well-deserved spotlight on this important part of American cultural and music history. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (who’s best known as a DJ, the drummer for the Roots, and as the band leader for NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”) makes his feature-film directorial debut with “Summer of Soul,” which has a plethora of previously unreleased Harlem Cultural Festival footage and insightful commentary from a variety of people. “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the U.S. Documentary Competition.
The Harlem Cultural Festival took place at Mount Morris Park (now known as Marcus Garvey Park) in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, over six days: June 29, July 13, July 20, July 27, August 17 and August 24, 1969. The event featured a “who’s who” of mostly African American artists, including Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Fifth Dimension, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, the Staples Singers, Professor Herman Stevens & the Voices of Faith, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, the Chambers Brothers, former Temptations singer David Ruffin and the Edwin Hawkins Singers featuring Dorothy Morrison.
Other celebrities who performed at the event included interracial funk band Sly and the Family Stone, South African singer Hugh Maskela, Puerto Rican band leader Ray Barretto, Jewish jazz musician Herbie Mann, Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaría and Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji. Non-musical celebrities who appeared on stage included civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, comedian Moms Mabley and ventriloquist act Willie Tyler and Lester. “Summer of Soul” has electrifying performance footage of all of the above artists and celebrities. And there’s not a bad performance in the bunch.
The Harlem Cultural Festival was such a big deal that an estimated 300,000 people attended over the six days. And after the Woodstock Music Festival (attended by an estimated 400,000 people) happened from August 15 to August 18, 1969, on a farm in upstate Bethel, New York, some people gave the Harlem Cultural Festival the nickname Black Woodstock. (This documentary was originally titled “Black Woodstock.”) Both festivals had superstar acts on the bill, but Woodstock got most of the media attention and praise for being a groundbreaking festival in 1969.
The Woodstock Music Festival, which had a lineup of predominantly white hitmaking artists, went on to be celebrated as a major event for the “counterculture/hippie generation” of the 1960s. Woodstock got massive media coverage, including the Oscar-winning “Woodstock” documentary. The Woodstock Music Festival has also been hailed as the most influential music festival of all time, despite the event’s many problems, such as lack of food, shelter, medical facilities, sanitation and other safety issues. Woodstock was originally a paid ticketed event but quickly became free after too many people showed up. The overcrowding caused big problems with safety and traffic jams, to the point where the governor of New York state was monitoring the festival and was ready to call in the National Guard military force if the situation got really out of control.
Meanwhile, the Harlem Cultural Festival, which had no major safety problems, was filmed for a potential documentary, but the event was mostly ignored by national and international media. Most of the media coverage was limited to local news outlets in New York City. Movie companies and national TV networks turned down pitches for years to have a documentary on the Harlem Cultural Festival. And so, according to a prologue in “Summer of Soul,” the Harlem Cultural Festival footage just “sat in a basement for 50 years.”
“Summer of Soul” doesn’t waste a lot of time complaining about the obvious reason why the media and entertainment industries treated the Woodstock Music Festival differently from the Harlem Cultural Festival. It isn’t until toward end of “Summer of Soul” that it’s mentioned how a proposed documentary on the Harlem Cultural Festival was rejected for years by all companies that were pitched on this documentary. “Summer of Soul” shows why the Harlem Cultural Festival was so important by being the documentary this event deserves.
Longtime TV director/producer Hal Tulchin directed the footage that was filmed of the Harlem Cultural Festival. Before he died in 2017, at the age of 90, Tulchin signed over the rights to the footage to “Summer of Soul” producers Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein. “Summer of Soul” director Thompson was Fyvolent and Dinerstein’s first choice to direct the film because of his “encyclopedic knowledge of film” and because he’s someone “who understood music and its history,” according to what Fyvolent and Dinerstein say in the “Summer of Soul” production notes.
The people interviewed in the film—many who attended the Harlem Cultural Festival and some who did not—all have something substantial to say about the cultural context in which the festival took place, as well as the lasting impact on those who understand the importance of this event. This isn’t a documentary with a constant stream of talking heads over-glamorizing what the festival was, because the movie addresses the realities of civil unrest, poverty and other social issues going on for people of color in America at that time. It was a different kind of “peace and love” at this festival, which had the tone of ethnic pride and cautious optimism for the future.
“Summer of Soul” begins and ends with testimonial from Musa Jackson, a longtime Harlem resident who attended the Harlem Cultural Festival when he was 4 years old. Jackson, who has worked as a fashion model and a filmmaker, is now considered an unofficial ambassador of Harlem. He says what impacted him the most about the Harlem Cultural Festival—aside from his admitted big crush on Fifth Dimension singer Marilyn McCoo—was that he had never seen so many black people in one place at the same time and having fun. Musa Jackson remembers, “This was the first time I saw so many of us … It was like seeing royalty.” It was quite a different image from what was constantly shown in the media that black people only gathered in large numbers to protest racism.
Contrary to racist beliefs that large numbers of black people gathered in one place automatically means crime and violence, the Harlem Cultural Festival was a peaceful event where people had a good time. The festival had the support of then-New York City mayor John Lindsay, who attended and was introduced on stage to cheers from the audience. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton, who’s interviewed in the documentary, describes Lindsay as a “liberal Republican” who felt comfortable being around black people and who supported the civil rights movement.
Not all of New York’s public servants were supportive of the Harlem Cultural Festival though. Most of the New York City Police Department refused to work at the event, so the Black Panthers provided security for the festival. In the end, there was no violence and no one died because they were there. The same can’t be said of the Woodstock Music Festival.
Also in contrast to Woodstock, at the Harlem Cultural Festival, people weren’t stranded with a lack of food or lack of sanitation on the premises. It was so easy to enter and leave the festival site, that many of the Harlem Cultural Festival attendees could walk or take the subway there in just 30 minutes or less from their nearby neighborhoods. And although the attendees had to deal with sweltering summer heat, there were luckily no rain storms that caused dangerous lightning, wind gusts or widespread mud.
In 1969, the civil rights movement was hurting over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. the previous year. Protests over racial injustice and the Vietnam War led to violence in many cities. Sharpton says of the political and social climate in 1969: “People were afraid of the anger and rage spilling over.” Harlem Cultural Festival attendee Darryl Lewis comments: “So, the goal of the festival may very well have been to keep black folks from burning up the city in ’69.”
The Harlem Cultural Festival was the brainchild of promoter Tony Lawrence, who was also a nightclub singer. Through sheer persistence and showbiz hustling, he was able to get a lineup that was one of the best to showcase contemporary R&B music and other music with roots in black or Latino culture. The festival was funded by sponsors, most notably Maxwell House Coffee. Lawrence was the festival’s charismatic (and often flamboyantly dressed) host who introduced people on stage.
Allen Zerkin (a former assistant to Lawrence) and Margot Edman (a festival production assistant) are interviewed in the documentary. Edman describes Lawrence as an “ebullient guy,” “always on the move” and “very positive.” Lawrence wasn’t the type to lose his temper easily, but he had the gift of persuasive sales skills. Zerkin says, “Tony talked a big game, and he delivered.”
In an archival interview, Tulchin remembers the challenges he had to direct film footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival: “There was no budget, no money, no lights. So, the stage had to face west because I had to use the sun.”
Because the performances took place before nightfall, the artists on stage could have a better view of the audience. Mavis Staples of the Staples Singers says in an audio interview for the documentary: “I saw so many black people, and they were having a good time. And I started celebrating with them.”
While the Woodstock Music Festival had a very male-dominated lineup of artists, female artists had much more of a presence at the Harlem Cultural Festival. Because gospel music was a big part of the festival, many of the acts on stage were a solid mixture of men and women. Charylane Hunter-Gault, formerly of The New York Times, comments on the importance of gospel to African American culture: “Gospel is part of our DNA. It’s deep in the recesses of my consciousness.”
And anyone who sees “Summer of Soul” will probably say that the women lead singers are many of the performance highlights. Among the most noteworthy are Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson (especially her duet with Mavis Staples on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”) and Gladys Knight of Gladys Knight and the Pips, who are shown performing the group’s 1967 hit “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Simone performs “Backlash Blues,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and “Are You Ready?” like an iconic artist in full command of the stage and her craft. Sharpton comments on Simone’s performance: “You can hear in her voice our pain and our defiance.”
After Mahalia Jackson performs “Lord, Search My Heart,” Jesse Jackson goes on stage to give a poignant speech about the last time he saw his civil rights mentor King. “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” was one of King’s favorite songs. Staples says of performing this gospel classic with Mahalia Jackson: “That is still my biggest honor: to sing on the same microphone as Sister Mahalia Jackson.”
Sly and the Family Stone performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival and at the Woodstock Music Festival—and they were standouts at both events. In “Summer of Soul,” Sly and the Family Stone are seen performing their hits “Sing a Simple Song,” “Everyday People” and “I Want to Take You Higher.” At the time, they were considered a highly unusual band because the musicians consisted of black men, black women and white men. Sly and the Family Stone also defied musical genres by blending R&B, rock, pop and some jazz, thereby helping pioneer a hybrid musical genre called funk.
With today’s successful bands, not much has changed in terms of how bands are still mostly segregated by race and/or gender. Looking at today’s current hitmakers, it’s still very rare to see a chart-topping band with the type of racial and gender diversity that Sly and the Family Stone had. The exceptions might be vocal groups, but not a full-fledged band that plays instruments.
Greg Errico, former drummer of Sly and the Family Stone, comments in the documentary: “Sly [Stone] wanted to address everybody and everything. Music was the common denominator. Everybody wanted to do their own thing. And we did.” Writer/journalist Greg Tate observes: “Sly and the Family Stone was a game changer on so many levels.”
Breaking down racial stereotyping was one of the reasons why it was important for the Fifth Dimension to perform at the Harlem Cultural Festival, say former Fifth Dimension singers McCoo and her husband Billy Davis Jr. in the documentary. At the time, many people thought that because the Fifth Dimension performed pop music, the group was “too white” for black audiences and “too black” for white audiences. “Back then, music was segregated,” says Davis. “We were caught in the middle.” The documentary includes the Fifth Dimension performing “Don’t Cha Hear Me Callin’ to Ya” and “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” the group’s biggest hit.
McCoo and Davis are shown reacting with joy and nostalgia when they watch the long-lost footage of the Fifth Dimension performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival. McCoo gets teary-eyed and emotional when she says, “How do you color a sound? That was one of the reasons why performing in Harlem was so important to us, because we wanted our people to know what we were about, and we were hoping they would receive us. We were so happy to be there.”
Knight, who is also interviewed in the documentary, also remembers the feeling she had being at this very unique event: “When I stepped on stage, I was totally taken aback because I didn’t expect a crowd like that.” As writer/journalist Tate says in the documentary: “At the Harlem Cultural Festival, you got an audience that was radicalized.”
The documentary includes news footage of the civil rights protests that were affecting life for people of color in the United States. “Summer of Soul” also doesn’t gloss over the problems facing disenfranchised people of color, besides racial injustice. Drug addiction (especially addiction to heroin) was an epidemic in Harlem. Harlem Cultural Festival attendee Roger Parris, who describes heroin as a “plague on the black community,” says in the documentary that he was a heroin addict for 16 years who lost everything—including his home, his marriage and his family—because of his drug addiction.
Poverty was also very much on people’s minds. There’s some news footage from 1969 showing black people in Harlem being asked what they think about NASA’s historic Apollo 11 voyage that had the first man to walk on the moon. The interviewees say that Apollo 11 didn’t matter much to them because they think the government should have used the money to help poor people instead. It’s a very different perspective than the usual praise of NASA and Apollo 11 that gets shown in documentaries about 1969.
“Summer of Soul” even discusses the changing fashion for African Americans in 1969, when the Black Power movement was starting to gain momentum. Jim McFarland, a former tailor at Orlies Custom Tailoring, comments on how more black people started to wear Afros and dashikis at that time. Hiphuggers were popular. And it was also in style for men to wear vests without shirts.
Wearing dashikis and Afros were part of a larger cultural movement of African Americans expressing pride in their African roots. Hugh Maskela’s son Selema “Sal” Masekela comments, “My father realized that there was this real hunger for black Americans to feel and see and taste what it would be like to be African.” It was around this time in the late 1960s when people began to re-examine what was being taught in American history classes and how the contributions of people of color were being wrongfully erased. There was a movement for school classrooms, the media and the government to give more recognition to African and African American culture and historical contributions made by people of African/African American heritage.
African Americans were the majority of artists and attendees at the Harlem Cultural Festival, but the event was also embraced by people in the Latino community. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wasn’t even born when the festival happened, nevertheless weighs in with this comment in the documentary: “The power of music is to tell our own stories. We had a mirror to ourselves. We write the music that comes from inside us. And then other people say, ‘That’s me too!'” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s father Luis Miranda adds: “The festival is a political statement to black and brown communities.”
Grammy-winning legend Wonder (whose performances of “It’s Your Thing” and “Shoo-Bee-Doo-Bee-Doo-Da-Day” are in the documentary) remembers what it was like to be alive in 1969: “I had a feeling that the world was wanting a change.” Wonder was a prominent figure in the civil rights movement. Actor/comedian Chris Rock, who grew up in New York City and was 4 years old in 1969, says in the documentary that it would have been easy for Wonder to rest on his laurels and just be a pop star, but Wonder took the riskier path of speaking out and doing something about social issues.
Other people interviewed in “Summer of Soul” include music executive Alan Leeds, musician Sheila E., Black Panther Party member Chris “Bullwhip” Innis Jr., former Edwins Hawkins Singers member Adrienne Kryor, Young Lords co-founder Denise Oliver-Velez, Max Roach’s son Raoul Roach, Operation Breadbasket Orchestra band leader Ben Branch and Harlem Cultural Festival attendees Dorinda Drake, Ethel Beatty-Barnes and Barbara Bland-Acosta.
“Summer of Soul” is an apt title because its a very soul-stirring film. Rather than just show the concert footage and sticking to talking about the music, the documentary does an exemplary job of putting everything in a cultural context that can be taken to heart by people of any generation. The film editing sometimes veers a little off track when people who weren’t at the festival talk about their lives, but it’s not so off-topic that it becomes an annoying distraction.
The sound mixing for the concert footage is done so well, it feels like you’re almost transported back to the festival. The documentary feels more inclusive and relatable to more people by adding in the perspectives of people who weren’t at the festival but who understand its relevance to social issues. On another level, “Summer of Soul” is also a time capsule of a bygone era when it was more possible for a relatively unknown, independent promoter to create this type of all-star festival.
And the filmmakers cared about details, such as putting the artists’ names and song titles on screen during each performance. Many concert documentaries don’t list song titles until the end credits. Anyone who watches “Summer of Soul” should experience it on the biggest screen possible. It’s the type of documentary that will inspire meaningful discussions and repeat viewings.
Searchlight Pictures released “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised”) in select U.S. cinemas on June 25, 2021. The movie expanded to more U.S. cinemas and premiered on Hulu on July 2, 2021.
Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Sparks Brothers” features a nearly all-white group of people (and one African American) discussing the career and influence of the American experimental rock/pop duo Sparks, including Sparks members Russell Mael and Ron Mael.
Culture Clash: The highs and lows of Sparks’ career included the Mael brothers’ sibling rivalry; relocating to England during a pivotal time in the duo’s career; parting ways with filmmaker Tim Burton on a movie musical that was supposed to be a big comeback for Sparks; and dealing with the fickle nature of the music business.
Culture Audience: Aside from die-hard fans of Sparks, “The Sparks Brothers” will appeal mostly to people who are nostalgic or curious about influential pop/rock musicians who never became superstars.
“The Sparks Brothers” documentary director Edgar Wright makes it abundantly clear that he’s a massive fan of the pop/rock duo Sparks, so this film is more of a tribute than a well-rounded biography. At 140 minutes long, “The Sparks Brothers” can be an endurance test for people who aren’t die-hard Sparks enthusiasts. And since the documentary only interviews people who are either fans of Sparks or have worked with Sparks, the non-stop praise for Sparks can be a bit repetitive. However, the documentary is a fascinating look at the longevity of Sparks and the brotherly dynamics of Sparks members Ron and Russell Mael.
“The Sparks Brothers,” whose exclusive interview footage was filmed in black and white, is a documentary that makes some attempt to not completely follow the typical film biography format of mixing archival footage with new footage that was filmed exclusively for the documentary. Sparks is known as an experimental and offbeat act that never hit superstar mainstream status. And so, there are moments in the film that are nods to the quirky image of Sparks.
For example, director Wright can sometimes be heard talking to the Mael brothers off-camera in a cheeky manner to make a joke or set up a sight gag. When he asks the Ron and Russell why they decided to do an authorized documentary at this time in their lives, older brother Ron says, “We didn’t want to do a standard documentary full of talking heads.” Russell adds, “It would become too dry.” And then two buckets of water are thrown on the brothers.
It’s a facetious moment, because this documentary is actually full of talking heads—so much so that numerous people’s comments about Sparks take up at least 40% of the movie. Some of the best moments of the documentary, which tells the Sparks story in chronological order, is near the beginning, when it reveals photos and details about the early years of Ron and Russell being musicians.
Ron (who was born in 1945 in Santa Monica, California) and Russell Mael (who was born in 1948 in Culver City, California) are the only children of Meyer and Miriam Mael. Meyer was a commercial painter, graphic designer and caricaturist, who tragically died when Ron was 11 and Russell was 8. Miriam was a librarian. Ron and Russell were raised primarily in Pacific Palisades (an affluent suburb of Los Angeles), and the brothers performed in talent shows when they were school children.
Ron says that these talent shows were the first experiences that he and Russell had in getting a taste of the “addicting” thrill of affecting an audience. People unfamiliar with the Mael brothers’ teen years might be surprised to find out from this documentary that Russell (who’s known for his thin physique) was the quarterback of his high school football team. Russell says that he got the same adrenaline rush from playing in football games that he later got when he performed on stage as an entertainer. The Mael brothers say that the 1955 dramatic film “Blackboard Jungle” was a huge influence on them as children.
Ron and Russell attended the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where they started to play in rock bands that never really went anywhere beyond the local music scene. Two of those bands were Moonbaker Abbey and the Urban Renewal Projects. The Mael brothers say they first started getting serious about music when they began working with Earle Mankey, a founding member of Halfnelson, the band whose name was later changed to Sparks. Sparks’ 1971 eponymous debut album was originally titled “Halfnelson.” Mankey is one of the people interviewed in the documentary.
At UCLA, Ron and Russell both studied film, which would influence the types of music videos that they made and their tendency to sometimes reinvent themselves with various images and costumes. But throughout their career, one image of the band remained true and constant: Russell as the extroverted lead singer (who was also a heartthrob in Sparks’ heyday) and Ron as the introverted keyboardist/songwriter/producer.
It’s repeated several times in the documentary that Ron had private struggles with being overshadowed by Russell, even though Ron was the one creating the band’s songs. It’s a common situation with musical duos and groups, because the lead singer is usually the one who gets most of the attention. But adding in sibling rivalry makes it a more emotionally complicated issue. Someone can stop working with a sibling, but that sibling will still be a family member.
Russell describes the early years of developing his stage persona as trying to emulate Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger and The Who lead singer Roger Daltrey. “I was off by a few thousand miles,” he quips. The Mael brothers say other musical influences on Sparks were French New Wave bands. Given the brothers’ background in studying film, it’s not surprising that French New Wave in music and film had an effect on them, because there’s a very European style to the Mael brothers’ art.
Becoming a superstar act was never Sparks’ goal, but this documentary makes it clear that Ron and Russell Mael have wanted enough commercial success to be famous and to be wealthy enough to able to self-fund their projects in case no companies or investors were interested. There’s no question that Sparks has a very devoted fan base, but this documentary wants to bestow “legendary” status on Sparks. It’s a description that gives the movie a very fan-worship tone that exaggerates how far Sparks’ influence really went, compared to other non-mainstream arists who influenced a wider variety of people.
“The Sparks Brothers” documentary gives a comprehensive overview of the Sparks album discography, up until 2020, when the movie was completed. There’s a mention at the end of the film about the 2021 movie musical “Annette” (directed by Leos Carax), which features original music by Sparks, as well as the Mael brothers in supporting roles as actors. “Annette” (which stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard) is set for release by Amazon Studios in August 2021, thereby making it the second movie of 2021 (after “The Sparks Brothers”) to feature Ron and Russell Mael. “The Sparks Brothers” world premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and the world premiere of “Annette” is at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival,
“Annette” is the culmination of years of the Mael brothers’ dream to do a movie musical. “The Sparks Brothers” documentary includes their version of what happened when they parted ways with director Tim Burton on a movie musical called “Mai, the Psychic Girl,” based on the 1985-1986 manga series written by Kazuya Kudō and illustrated by Ryoichi Ikegami. The Mael brothers worked on the movie during a time (the late 1980s to early 1990s) when the duo’s career was in a slump, and they say they needed a hit project to keep them financially afloat.
Although the Mael brothers don’t give too many details on what led to Burton’s departure from the project, they make it clear that Burton was the one who walked away, and the Mael brothers were heartbroken over it. (According to numerous reports, Burton chose to instead work with Disney for 1993’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and 1994’s “Ed Wood.”) The Mael brothers invested several years and most of their personal fortune into the “Mai, the Psychic Girl” movie. And once Burton was no longer involved in making the movie, all the other investors backed out. The rights to make the movie eventually went to other people, but so far, attempts to make “Mai, the Psychic Girl” into a movie have not come to fruition.
Another crossroad in Sparks’ career that’s discussed in the documentary is when the Mael brothers decided to relocate to England in 1973, after growing frustrated by their lack of commercial success in the United States. They fired their American band mates to start over in a completely new country. It was in England that Sparks began to blossom artistically and found a bigger fan base than ever before. Sparks’ popularity eventually spread all over Europe (mainly in western Europe), where Sparks had their biggest hits. The Mael Brothers moved back to the Los Angeles area in 1976.
Although Sparks has plenty of fans in other continents, Europe is where Sparks has been glorified the most. Sparks became so associated with England in the 1970s, that many fans who discovered them back then incorrectly assumed that the Mael brothers were natives of England. Sparks’ biggest string of hit songs were in the 1980s, including 1983’s “Cool Places,” from the album “In Outer Space”; 1986’s “Music You Can Dance To,” the title track of Sparks’ 1985 album; and 1989’s “Just Got Back From Heaven,” from the 1988 album “Interior Design.”
“The Sparks Brothers” documentary has plenty to say about the Mael brothers’ music, but very little to say about their personal lives, except for Russell mentioning that he was quite a playboy when he was young. The Go-Go’s co-founder/rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin, who’s interviewed in the documentary, says she dated Russell in the early 1980s, but their brief romance was more one-sided on her part. And in the early 1970s, Russell used to date a well-known groupie named Miss Christine, who was part of a short-lived all-female singing group called the GTO’s, whose first and only album was produced by Frank Zappa. Pamela Des Barres, a member of the GTO’s, is interviewed in “The Sparks Brothers” documentary.
There’s no mention if Ron or Russell ever married or if they have children—something they’ve refused to publicly talk about for years. However, it’s clear that even through their ups and downs, the brothers have remained close. The documentary shows that Ron and Russell have a routine of going to their favorite cafe in the Los Angeles area before going back to their home studio to work.
There’s some footage of the brothers creating music in their home studio. The documentary needed more of that type of behind-the-scenes footage and less talking heads giving Sparks testimonials. It’s fair to say that this documentary is overstuffed with people talking about Sparks and doesn’t show enough current footage of what the lives of the Mael brothers are like. The archival footage is good enough, but avid Sparks fans have probably seen a lot of it already.
A constant theme in “The Sparks Brothers” documentary is that Sparks has been very underrated in how much Sparks has influenced musicians in pop and rock music. What the movie ignores—although it’s pretty obvious when you see who’s interviewed in the documentary—is that when fans and other admirers talk about Sparks’ influence, they’re really talking about influence on mainly white people. Pop music nowadays is a lot more diverse than it was in the 20th century, so if Sparks really had as wide of an influence range as this movie claims, then there would be more diversity in the people being interviewed, not just in terms of race but also nationality and age.
With the exception of Icelandic singer Björk (who is not interviewed on camera), the people interviewed in the documentary are British and American people who were born before 1985. They include musicians such as Beck; Duran Duran co-founders John Taylor and Nick Rhodes; Franz Ferdinand lead singer Alex Kapranos; Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea; Todd Rundgren; Faith No More keyboardist Roddy Bottum; Jack Antonoff; Bernard Butler; Erasure members Vince Clarke and Andy Bell; “Weird Al” Yankovic; former Visage drummer Rusty Egan; Electric Prunes singer James Lowe; former Haircut 100 singer Nick Heyward; Martyn Ware, co-founder of pop groups Human League and Heaven 17; DJ Lance Rock; New Order members Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert; and former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones.
Past and present Sparks associates interviewed include former Sparks drummer Tammy Glover; former Halfnelson tour manager/photographer Larry Dupont, former Halfnelson manager Mike Berns; former Halfnelson/Sparks drummer Harley Feinstein; former Sparks drummer Hilly Michaels; former Sparks manager John Hewlett; former Sparks road Richard Coble; former Sparks drummer Christi Haydon; former Sparks bassist Ian Hampton; former Sparks drummer David Kendrick; former Sparks guitarist Dean Menta; Sparks manager Sue Harris; and Sparks drummer Stevie Nistor.
And several people known for their work in movies, television or stand-up comedy weigh in with their thoughts. They include “The Sparks Brothers” director Wright; actor Mike Myers; actor Jason Schwartzman; actor/comedian Patton Oswalt; TV producers/writers/spouses Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino; actor/comedian Jake Fogelnest; actor/screenwriter Mark Gatiss; comedian April Richardson; actor/comedian Scott Aukerman; and comedian/TV host Jonathan Ross, who jokes that Ron and Russell Mael “don’t really look like a band. They look [institutionalized] people who’ve been let out for a day.”
Media people interviewed include broadcaster/columnist Katie Puck; journalist David Weigel; radio host Michael Silverblatt; and poet Josh Berman. Other admirers who have soundbites in the film are Sparks superfans Madeline Bocchiaro (president of the Sparks Fan Club), Julia Marcus, Vera Hegarty and Ben House. And behind-the-scenes music industry people interviewed include producer Tony Visconti and former Island Records A&R executive Muff Winwood.
If you’re exhausted or annoyed just by reading this list of names people interviewed for this documentary, that’s kind of like how it feels to watch this too-large number of people chiming in with their soundbites about Sparks and sometimes interrupting the flow of the movie. “The Sparks Brothers” director Wright clearly wanted to show as many people as possible who profess their adoration of Sparks, but the “less is more” approach would’ve served this movie better. And it certainly would’ve lessened the movie’s overly long run time.
“The Sparks Brothers” also has a bit of a pretentious tone in how it tries to make it look like people who aren’t fans of Sparks must have something wrong with them. Quite frankly, as talented as Ron and Russell Mael are, their music will never be a lot of people’s cup of tea. In fact, what this movie could’ve used is at least some perspective from people who are music experts but aren’t worshipful fans of Sparks and were never on the Sparks payroll. It would go a long way to explain why Sparks never caught on with a massive, worldwide audience.
Despite the overabundance of fawning over Sparks in this documentary, anyone who appreciates unique artists in music can find something to like about “The Sparks Brothers.” The movie also succeeds in presenting Ron and Russell Mael in their most candid on-camera interview spotlight. And the joy that Sparks has brought to so many people is obvious, so it’s a delight to watch in this movie.
Focus Features released “The Sparks Brothers” in select U.S. cinemas on June 18, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. state, the dramatic film “Catch the Fair One” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Native Americans, African Americans and Asian Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class.
Culture Clash: A former boxing champ goes on a dangerous vendetta to find out what happened to her missing younger sister.
Culture Audience: “Catch the Fair One” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in suspenseful thrillers that explore issues of human trafficking, race and social class.
How far would you go to search for a missing loved one? It’s question that viewers will think about when watching the dramatic film “Catch the Fair One,” which is about a tough boxer who goes on a difficult and often-violent journey to look for her missing younger sister, whom she believes has been kidnapped by human traffickers. Anchored by a memorable performance by Kali Reis, “Catch the Fair One” is more than just a crime vendetta story. It’s also about inequalities in race and social class, told from a Native American perspective that’s rarely shown on screen.
“Catch the Fair One,” written and directed by Josef Kubota Wladyka, had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. And it’s easy to see why the movie won the festival’s Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature. What could have been a very formulaic and predictable story is really a taut thriller that takes a few unexpected twists and turns along the way while letting viewers see the world through the viewpoint of a very unique character.
Some viewers might have a hard time believing that Reis’ Kaylee Uppeshaw character can be capable of doing some of the extreme things that she does in the movie and still keep going. But viewers who might be put off by any seemingly improbable moments have to remember that Kaylee is someone who’s desperate and feels like she’s got nothing left to lose. It goes a long way in explaining many of her reckless actions.
Kaylee, whose nickname is K.O., used to be a boxer until a back injury essentially ended her boxing career. The movie doesn’t mention where in the U.S. that this story takes place, but “Catch the Fair One” was actually filmed in New York state. Kaylee now lives in a women’s shelter and works as a waitress at a small diner. And she’s apparently so financially desperate that she steals food from the diner’s kitchen. The diner’s manager Missy (played by Faye Lone) is aware of this theft, so she discreetly tells Kaylee that if Kaylee ever needs food, she can tell the kitchen workers before her shift, and they will set aside food for her.
Kaylee used to be an International Boxing Association middleweight champ (just like Reis in real life), but was never super-famous. Kaylee did well-enough in boxing that she became a local hero of sorts. (There are flahsback scenes of Kaylee boxing, so viewers can see how talented she is.) While working at the diner one day, a teenage boy approaches Kaylee and asks to take a selfie photo with her. She politely obliges. When the fan asks Kaylee why she doesn’t box anymore, she says it’s because of her bad back.
There’s a lot more than an abbreviated boxing career or her back injury that bothers Kaylee. She’s haunted by the disappearance of her younger teenage half-sister Weeta Uppeshaw, who has been missing since November 23, 2017. (Weeta, who is shown in photos and flashbacks, is played by Mainaku Borrero.) Kaylee attends a support group for loved ones of missing and murdered children, but it doesn’t really ease much of her pain.
Kaylee is biracial: Her mother Jaya (played by Kimberly Guerrero) is Native American, while her father (who is not seen or mentioned in the movie) is of Cape Verdean heritage. Although she is biracial, Kaylee identifies as Native American, and almost everyone in her social circle is Native American, including her closest friend/trainer Brick (played by Shelly Vincent), a very butch-looking lesbian. However, Kaylee has a strained relationship with her mother.
There are several different reasons why mother and daughter could be estranged from each other, but one of the main reasons seems to be that Jaya might blame Kaylee for Weeta’s disappearance. It’s assumed that Weeta has been kidnapped, because she’s described as a good and obedient teenager who wouldn’t run away. The question that haunts Weeta’s family and other loved ones is: Is Weeta dead or alive?
Kaylee also happens to be a lesbian or queer woman, and there are hints that Kaylee’s mother doesn’t approve of Kaylee’s sexual identity. There’s a scene in the movie where Kaylee meets with her mother to reluctantly ask to for some money. Kaylee mentions that she broke up with a girlfriend named Megan two years ago, while her mother doesn’t seem to care to discuss Kaylee’s love life.
And there’s another reason why Kaylee and her mother have tension in their relationship: Kaylee is a recovering opioid addict (heroin was her drug of choice), so when she asks her mother for money, Jaya responds by saying that she won’t give Kaylee any money unless she’s certain that Kayla is really clean and sober. It’s an emotionally charged scene, filled with simmering resentments that partially come to the surface. Kaylee angrily blurts out to her mother to admit that Jaya wishes that Kaylee, not Weeta, should be been the daughter who went missing. Jaya never admits it, but this outburst is an example of how, even before Weeta’s disappearance, Kaylee felt like her mother treated her as inferior to Weeta.
Early on in the movie, a private investigator tells Kaylee that he has reason to believe that Weeta has been kidnapped by sex traffickers. Brick knows some shady characters, and one of them is a blonde prostitute named Lisa (played by Isabelle Chester), who secretly meets with Brick and Kaylee because the word is out that Kaylee is desperate to find Weeta. Lisa says that she recruits prostitutes for a thug named Danny (played by Michael Drayer), who uses the nickname The Bird. Lisa shows Kayla a picture of a teen prostitute who looks like Weeta, and she tells Lisa that this teenager currently works for a pimp named Bobby (played by Daniel Henshall), who is Danny’s boss.
This information sets Kaylee off on quest by herself to find Bobby, because she figures that once she finds Bobby, she might find Weeta or at least information on where Weeta could be. The rest of the movie shows what happens on this treacherous journey, which also involves Bobby’s other family members: his wife Linda (played by Tiffany Chu); their underage son Bobby Jr. (played by Wesley Leung); Bobby’s father Willie (played by Kevin Dunn); and Bobby’s mother Debra (played by Lisa Emery).
Danny and Jeremiah (played by Sam Seward) are among the henchmen who come up against Kaylee, who is a formidable opponent. One of Kaylee’s quirks is that she keeps a razor blade hidden in her mouth, even when she’s sleeping. There’s a lot of brutal violence in the movie, including a home invasion that involves kidnapping, torture and murder. However, no matter what Kaylee does that can be considered heinous, Reis never loses humanity in her portrayal of Kaylee, who feels that she has run out of options. Kaylee might seem to be gritty and stoic, but her vulnerability is never far from the surface.
Kaylee does not have any plan except to find her sister, so she gets caught up in extreme situations that she does not anticipate. Although it’s not said outright in the movie, the context of her desperate search is that Kaylee has taken the law into her own hands because the police don’t care about finding a Native American girl, even a “good girl” like Weeta. If you consider that countless Native American females go missing, but their disappearances are rarely covered by the media, it’s easy to see why Kaylee feels that she’s not going to sit around and hope that law enforcement or the media will help in her search for Kaylee.
The 2017 crime thriller “Wind River” touched on this problem of U.S. law enforcement often sidelining Native American female crime victims, compared to white females who are victims of the same crimes. There’s no political preaching in “Catch the Fair One,” but the overtones about race and social class are there when it’s shown who are the men in charge of this human trafficking ring and why they feel so emboldened. “Catch the Fair One” does not offer any simple solutions to this systemic problem, because simple solutions realistically and tragically often don’t exist.
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramatic film “The Novice” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class and who are connected in some way to a well-known university.
Culture Clash: A newcomer to a prestigious university’s women’s rowing team pushes herself to her physical, emotional and mental limits.
Culture Audience: “The Novice” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in movies about blind ambition, self-esteem and how women interact in traditionally male-dominated sports.
“The Novice” takes a harrowing and effective look at the dark side of being an overachiever. Isabelle Fuhrman gives a noteworthy performance as a college student who finds out the hard way that winning isn’t worth it if you lose yourself in the process. At times, “The Novice” (which takes place over the course of one academic year) can be a bit too repetitive in hammering this point into the movie’s plot. But through some striking cinematography and sound design, “The Novice” succeeds in building a very specific world, told from the protagonist’s point of view, where the protagonist’s raw emotions and single-minded ambition can be felt by viewers on a visceral level.
Written and directed by Lauren Hadaway, “The Novice” is Hadaway’s feature-film directorial debut, after several years of experience working in film sound. Her extensive background in sound can be experienced all over “The Novice,” which often uses a technique that depicts how someone often tunes out sound around them because they are focused on something else. “The Novice” had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. The movie won three prizes at the festival: Best U.S. Narrative Feature Film; Best Actress in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film (for Fuhrman); and Best Cinematography in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film (for Todd Martin).
If there’s a lot of “tune out” sound techniques in “The Novice,” that’s because Furhman’s Alex Dall character in “The Novice” does a lot of tuning out in her life, so that she can have a single-minded focus on whatever goal is her current obsession. Alex is in her second or third year of an unnamed East Coast university in the U.S. (the movie was actually filmed in Peterborough, New Hampshire), where she is a physics major. When she joins the university’s Ravens rowing team for women as a novice, it sets her down a self-destructive path where she becomes consumed with the goal to be the best rower on the team, no matter what happens.
Just to give you an idea of what type of person Alex is, at one point in the movie, a physics teaching assistant named Dani (played by Dilone) points out to Alex that physics is Alex’s worst subject in school. However, Alex has chosen physics as her major. Why? Because Alex is the type of person who likes being an underdog and who can prove skeptics and naysayers wrong when they underestimate her.
Alex also believes that the people who deserve the greatest rewards in life are the ones who work the hardest, not necessarily those who are the most naturally gifted, the smartest, or those with the best personalities. It’s why she continues to push herself in her physics classes and won’t switch majors, even though she’s struggling with mediocre grades in physics.
Whereas most university students would choose a major in a subject that they truly enjoy, that’s not Alex’s way of doing things. After a while, observant viewers will notice that Alex doesn’t have a passion for physics. However, she won’t change her major because she’s the type of person who thinks that once she chooses to do something, she has to be the best at it. If she changed her major, she would consider it a “failure” in judgment and “failure” in persistence.
Alex has the same mentality when she joins the novice crew of the university’s women’s rowing team. The novices train with the knowledge that only a select few will be chosen for the university’s varsity rowing team, which is the team that competes in the official rowing matches. It’s mentioned early on in the movie that this unnamed university is an elite institution, where most of the students were top achievers in high school and probably for most of their lives.
Even though Alex has no previous experience in rowing as a sport, she approaches her training with the same “I have to be the best no matter what” attitude. For someone like Alex, she doesn’t just want to win and be the best. She wants to break records.
The trainer of the novices is an easygoing and friendly leader named Coach Pete (played by Jonathan Cherry), while the trainer of the varsity team members is Coach Edwards (played by Kate Drummond), who is more aloof and rigid than Coach Pete. A woman named Erin (played by Charlotte Ubben) is an assistant coach who works directly with Coach Edwards. Erin has a similar no-nonsense attitude as Coach Edwards, but Erin is more approachable to the students on the team than Coach Edwards is.
Alex’s best friend at school is fun-loving Winona (played by Jeni Ross), who seems as content with her life as Alex is restless with her own life. There are a few scenes where Alex and Winona hang out together, but their friendship eventually fades into the background as Alex becomes more obsessed with being the best on the rowing team. Alex does take time to have a social life, but nothing is more important to Alex than being considered a success at whatever she does.
There’s a scene early on in the film where Alex and Winona go to a party, Alex meets a guy there, and they have sex that ends too quickly because of his “performance issues.” Alex cringes and half-jokes about it when she and Winona talk about it the next day. Dating is not a major priority for Alex, and she doesn’t put a label on her sexuality.
Later on in the movie, Alex and Dani, who’ve been having a mild flirtation with each other, become lovers around the same time that Dani has moved on from being Alex’s teaching assistant because Dani got accepted into another graduate program. Dani is very sarcastic with Alex in the beginning of their relationship. But as they grow closer, Dani shows a more sensitive and caring side, and she becomes the closest thing that Alex has to a therapist.
Dani also moonlights as a singer. She and her band perform moody, somewhat experimental pop/rock music. The only reason why this aspect of Dani’s life is shown in the movie is because Dani invited Alex to see her perform at a nightclub. It’s during this date that Dani and Alex acknowledge their sexual attraction to each other, and they sleep together for the first time as as a result of that date.
Alex stands out from the other novices because she’s the one who works the hardest. And so by October, which viewers can assume is just a month or two after Alex joined the team of novice rowers, Alex is selected to be on the varsity team. The varsity team will be doing a regatta in the following week. It’s not a lot of time to prepare, but Alex is up for the challenge.
In every sports team, there’s rivalry among the team members. And for Alex, her biggest team rival is Jamie Brill (played by Amy Forsyth), another novice who was selected to be on the varsity team. Jamie has an athletic scholarship to attend the university, and her participation and achievements in the row crew are a condition of keeping her scholarship. Therefore, the stakes are very high for Jamie on how well she does in these rowing competitions.
Early on in the movie, Jamie confidently accepts Alex’s praise that Jamie is the best novice on the team. Jamie is also so self-assured that she defiantly ignores the attempts of the varsity team members to haze and belittle the novices. For example, during a bus ride, she refuses some varsity team members’ orders that novices have to sit at the back of the bus. When Jamie notices that Alex wants to outshine everyone, their relationship becomes a lot less cordial.
Jamie openly expresses her resentment of the rowing team’s most privileged students, whom she calls “silver spoon bitches,” because they don’t have to worry about how they’re going to pay for the school’s tuition. Because of the way that Alex guns so hard to be the top person on the team, Jamie assumes that Alex is driven by the same motivation that Jamie has: to keep an athletic scholarship. When Jamie finds out how Alex’s tuition is being paid, it leads to an explosive confrontation between Jamie and Alex that’s one of the best scenes in the movie.
“The Novice” shows plenty of ways that Alex pushes herself to be the best on this rowing team. During the first meeting of the novices, she’s the only one to take notes. She continues to take notes throughout her entire training. And she repeats mantras to herself, sometimes out loud. Her obsessiveness eventually alienates her from the other team members, a few of whom openly call Alex a “psycho.”
Her über-competitiveness takes a toll on her physically. Like any intense sports movie, there’s plenty of blood, sweat and tears. And whether queasy viewers like it or not, there’s urine. Alex pushes herself so hard during a training session, that when she collapses out of physical exhaustion, she’s so tired that she can’t get up, and she urinates on herself. In this scene, the camera pans up so that viewers can see Alex sprawled on her back, on a locker room floor, as some her teammates watch uncomfortably when Alex’s urine starts to form in a puddle around her.
The movie makes the point over and over that no one is harder on Alex than Alex herself. She doesn’t have a sadistic or overly demanding coach. She doesn’t have parents who are pressuring her to be number one in everything she does. (Alex’s parents aren’t even seen or mentioned in the movie.) And she doesn’t have a bullying rival (who’s usually the chief villain in a lot of sports movies) on another team or on her own team.
“The Novice” depicts Alex’s single-mindedness in many of the scenes where the loudest sounds are of her heavy breathing, even when she’s surrounded by other people. In the rowing competition scenes, the cinematography and Alex Weston’s musical score often have a frantic and jagged intensity, similar to a horror movie, in order to take viewers inside Alex’s increasingly disturbed mind.
Alex’s training scenes often evoke a sense of grimness and gloom. And yes, there are predictable scenes of Alex screaming at the top of her lungs when she’s by herself, just to make sure that viewers see the anguish that she’s feeling inside of herself. A pivotal scene toward the end of the movie is an example of the deep fear of failing that drives Alex to put her own safety at risk.
The movie also has several scenes of her running to get to certain places on time, as if her schedule is so packed that she barely has time to go where she needs to go. Meanwhile, there are other scenes where people such as Coach Pete or Dani gently and tactfully tell Alex that she shouldn’t be so hard on herself. She ignores any and all advice to “lighten up” and have some fun with her rowing activities. This repetition all makes it very obvious that Alex is headed for some kind of meltdown.
“The Novice” will be best appreciated if viewers know before seeing the movie that it’s more of a psychological drama than a sports drama. Whether or not Alex and her team become champions is not the point. It’s a story about what can happen to someone who thinks failure is not an option because that person wants to shut out the harsh reality that failure is a part of life.
Culture Representation: Taking place various parts of China, the cinéma vérité-styled documentary film “Ascension” features an all-Asian group of people at work and at leisure in this examination of how capitalistic consumerism works in Communist China.
Culture Clash: In a culture where the government enforces Communism/socialism and consumers embrace capitalism, the Chinese Dream is presented as an aspirational lifestyle of attaining wealth through hard work, but the dream remains out of reach for most people and is accessible to a small, elite percentage of the population.
Culture Audience: “Ascension” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in minimalist, “slice of life” documentaries about contemporary China, with no interviews, narration and analysis.
How does a system of capitalistic consumerism work in China, a country controlled by a Communist government? The cinéma vérité-styled “Ascension” shows different layers of this system and lets viewers make up their own minds about it. It’s a documentary that’s more than just a compilation of “slice of life” footage, because the movie is presented as a mosaic of a culture.
People in the movie are rarely identified by name and absolutely no one interviewed for the film. Therefore, don’t expect any deep analysis or commentary about what’s in the movie. However, just like a mosaic, it’s up to viewers to look at all the different segments that are presented and see what the big picture is.
“Ascension” had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. It won the Tribeca Film Festival jury prizes forBest Documentary Feature, while “Ascension” director Jessica Kingdon received the festival’s 2021 Albert Maysles Award for Best New Documentary Director. It’s a documentary whose storytelling style is not going to be everyone’s liking, especially for people who prefer documentaries to tell as much as show. showing. “Ascension” take a more subtle “show” approach and doesn’t try to make anyone a star of the movie with manipulative editing.
In order to fully appreciate “Ascension” (directed by Jessica Kingdon), it helps to have this synopsis from the movie’s production notes: “‘Ascension’ is an impressionistic portrait of China’s industrial supply chain that reveals the country’s growing class divide through staggering observations of labor, consumerism and wealth. The documentary portrays capitalism in China across the levels of its operation, from the crudest mine to the most rarefied forms of leisure.
“Accordingly, the film is structured in three parts, ascending through the levels of the capitalist structure: workers running factory production, the middle class training for and selling to aspirational consumers, and the elites reveling in a new level of hedonistic enjoyment. In traveling up the rungs of China’s social ladder, we see how each level supports and makes possible the next while recognizing the contemporary Chinese Dream remains an elusive fantasy for most.”
Once viewers know that “Ascension” has a specific structure, it gives a better context to watching the documentary. Otherwise, for people not really paying attention, the movie might just come across as a bunch of random footage of contemporary life in China. The movie filmed in 51 locations across China, according to the “Ascension” production notes.
Kingdon and Nathan Truesdell provided the movie’s often-stunning cinematography. (The visually majestic outdoor scenes are the documentary’s cinematography highlights.) And the music by Dan Deacon is very atmospheric—sometimes dreamlike, sometimes jarring, sometimes haunting.
“Ascension” begins with a prologue quote from a poem titled “Ascension,” written in 1912 by Kingdon’s great-grandfather Zheng Ze: “I ascend and look far into my heart, only to find everywhere already razed.” It’s perhaps the only clue in the movie about what Kingdon feels is being presented in this documentary’s view of contemporary China: The constant hope of the Chinese Dream (the aspiration to reach the heights of luxury through hard work) is often crushed under the weight of dead-end jobs.
The “factory worker” level of “Ascension” begins with a montage of company recruiters trying to entice people on commercial streets to work at low-paying factory jobs. They use microphones so that their voices can be heard above the noises of the crowds. The places looking for employees can be anything from well-known corporate companies to small businesses.
In this documentary, a phone manufacturing company and a pen factory were among those with recruiters on the streets. A big selling point used by many recruiters is telling potential employees that people can sit while doing the job, since many other blue-collar jobs involve standing for long hours. The salaries mentioned are, on average, 16 yuan (or about $2) per hour.
Also on these streets are large electronic signs with a variety of slogans that read, “Sense of Worth,” “Chinese Dream” and Work Hard. And All Wishes Come True.” But do these wishes really come true? It depends on what those wishes are and who has those wishes.
“Ascension” then gives viewers glimpse in to the types of factory jobs that are the backbone of China’s economy. It’s why so many people around the world have at least one item with the label “Made in China.” The factory locations filmed in this segment of the documentary include a garment factory in Shenzhen; WM Doll (a sex doll company) in Zhongshan; a factory that processes cooked chicken; and a factory that makes pill bottles.
At the WM Doll factory, two female workers focus on how to repair the shoulder of a mannequin. At the garment factory, workers make pants and go through a quality assessment process. Workers at another factory are seen having a cafeteria-styled lunch.
The “middle-class” level of the documentary is the one where people have the liveliest personalities. Rather than having jobs where they’re expected to be “worker bees” and “drones,” there’s a lot more emphasis on being successful entrepreneurs. It’s at this level that the Chinese Dream seems more attainable, and that optimistic hope is more evident in the workforce.
One of the more memorable highlights of this middle-class segment is footage from Star Boss Entrepreneurial Camp, a two-day workshop where the motto is “Monetize Your Personal Brand.” The female leader of the workshop is energetic and enthusiastic in her pep talks and advice on personal sales: “Buying is a choice, one we don’t have to make,” she says. “Why should people buy from you? Because you’re a brand.”
She further notes that people will buy from those whom they like and trust. “We’re in a fan economy era. If you have a large fan base, you have everything.” At the conclusion of Star Boss Entrepreneurial Camp, participants have a “graduation” ceremony, where they get framed completion certificates, go in front of the room, and say their company name and profit goals. The goals are predictably high, with people saying that they want to make millions within the next five years.
“Ascension” also shows how China is part of the boom of entrepreneurs who want to get rich through social media. Just as it is in Western countries, “influencer culture” is huge in China. A woman is shown livestreaming a product demonstration for Yiwu Siwen Shoe Company, so that she can sell athletic shoes. Another woman, who’s a beauty influencer, takes selfies and does a makeup tutorial.
At a flight attendant training program (where all of the participants are women, except for one man), the emphasis is on etiquette and physical attractiveness. Someone who’s not shown on camera says in a micophone to the class: “There’s a saying that every Chinese woman is a pretty Chinese business card. So every Chinese woman, let’s present the prettiest image of China!” When the class completes the training, the graduates pose for a group photo.
The documentary also shows training sessions for jobs that usually attract men. There’s footage of International Butler Academy in Chengdu, where potential butlers are shown how to do proper housekeeping duties, such as bedsheet preparation. Waiters are also shown training at Windows of the World, an upscale restaruant in Shenzhen.
At Genghis Security Academy in Bejing, training looks very similar to a police academy, since the trainees are armed with guns. In a military-styled line of standing trainees, one man makes a mistake, and the instructor shouts at him and kicks him. As further punishment, this trainee is ordered to do push-ups in front of the other trainees.
A documentary about consumerism wouldn’t be complete without footage of people spending money. “Ascension” includes scenes from New South China Mall in Dongguan and New Century Global Center in Chengdu. People are shown gathered at a water park in New Century Global Center. There’s also footage of a computer video game arcade, populated almost entirely by males in their teens and 20s.
The “elite” segment toward the end of the documentary is also the shortest segment. There’s footage of a dinner at Windows of the World, with three men and two women, who are in the late 20s or early 30s. They are all presumably wealthy. One of the women says, “I like the U.S. … because of the freedom.” One of the men says in response, “Personally speaking, I’m a patriot [of China] … China is a global player now.”
This confidence in China’s economy is also expressed at JALA’s annual conference in 2020. (JALA Group is a leading cosmetics enterprise in China.) “Ascension’s” footage of this conference includes a speaker who tells the large audience of hundreds who are gathered for the speech: “Chinese brands must win!”
As much as “Ascension” shows about the Chinese economy and workforce, the documentary can get viewers to think about what’s missing from the movie that would be in a documentary about the American economy and work force. An American documentary would have complaints of employee burnout or exploitation; the minimum wage as it relates to being a “living wage”; employee contracts; taxes and tarriffs; labor laws, etc. The point is that the American Dream and the Chinese Dream might have many things in common, but the freedom to speak out against flaws in the system is another story.
The following is a press release from the Toronto International Film Festival:
On September 9, 2021, the Toronto International Film Festival® (TIFF) will kick off 10 days of exceptional international and Canadian cinema with over 100 films in its Official Selection, unparalleled events featuring acclaimed industry guests, and TIFF’s Industry Conference. Recognized as the world’s largest public film festival, TIFF is poised to bring the theatrical experience back to life and continue its reputation as both a leader in amplifying under-represented cinematic voices and a bellwether for programming award-winning films from around the globe.
In-person screenings at TIFF Bell Lightbox, Roy Thomson Hall, the Visa Screening Room at the Princess of Wales Theatre, and Festival Village at the iconic Ontario Place punctuate this year’s Festival. Festival Village at Ontario Place comprises the Cinesphere IMAX Theatre, Visa Skyline Drive-in, RBC Lakeside Drive-In and the West Island Open Air Cinema. TIFF 2021 highlights also include screenings across Canada, and the return of the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox and TIFF Bell Digital Talks platforms.
The Festival’s public digital experience is presented by Bell, with film screenings on digital TIFF Bell Lightbox available across Canada. In Conversation With…talks and interactive Q&A sessions with actors and creators will be hosted on TIFF Bell Digital Talks, available worldwide. To increase the accessibility of the Festival, all films screened digitally will be closed-captioned.
TIFF is excited to announce the following twelve films as a sampling of what is to come in the Festival’s Official Selection for 2021:
“Le Bal des Folles,” directed by Mélanie Laurent (France) from Amazon Studios
“Benediction,” directed by Terence Davies (United Kingdom) from Bankside Films
“Belfast,” from director Kenneth Branagh (United Kingdom) from Focus Features
“Charlotte,” directed by Eric Warin and Tahir Rana (Canada/Belgium/France) from Elevation Pictures and MK2 Mile End
“Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,” directed by Dave Wooley, David Heilbroner (USA)
“The Guilty” by director Antoine Fuqua (USA) from Netflix
“Jagged,” HBO’s documentary on iconic Canadian singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette, directed by Alison Klayman (USA)
“Lakewood,” directed by Philip Noyce (Canada)
“Last Night in Soho,” directed by Edgar Wright (United Kingdom) from Focus Features
“Night Raiders,” directed by Danis Goulet (Canada/New Zealand) from Elevation Pictures and Samuel Goldwyn Films
“Petite Maman,” directed by Céline Sciamma (France) from Elevation Pictures and NEON
“The Starling” by director Theodore Melfi (USA) from Netflix
The Festival’s Gala and Special Presentations presented by Visa, will be announced on July 20. Films selected for TIFF’s programmes — Contemporary World Cinema presented by Sun Life, Discovery, TIFF Docs presented by A&E Indie Films, Midnight Madness, Primetime,and Wavelengths — will be announced July 28. TIFF Short Cuts and the Platform Programme will be announced August 11.
TIFF is also delighted to announce that award-winning Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” will screen as a World Exclusive IMAX Special Event at the Cinesphere Theatre at Ontario Place. The film, based on Frank Herbert’s seminal novel and featuring an impressive all-star ensemble cast, will be showcased in Toronto and Montreal, in partnership with Warner Bros. Canada and venue partner Cineplex. “Dune,” from Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures, is in theatres nationwide this fall.
“We are so proud of the calibre of the films and the diversity of the stories we will be presenting this year,” said Joana Vicente, TIFF Executive Director and Co-Head. “It is so powerful to be able to share these films with Festival-goers in theatres. And while the world is definitely moving towards a degree of normalcy, many of our industry and press colleagues may not be able to travel across international borders.
In response, we have brought back the TIFF Digital Cinema Pro platform that will host Press & Industry screenings, the Industry Conference, press conferences, as well as the TIFF Industry Selects market. We believe that digital access is an important part of providing accessibility to audiences and will be vital to the future of film festivals. This inclusivity across all our offerings helps to ensure that, no matter where you are located, you can participate in the Festival.”
“It’s been a tough year and we’re so glad to be back,” said Cameron Bailey, TIFF Artistic Director and Co-Head. “We’re thrilled to be presenting the latest by Alison Klayman, Edgar Wright, Philip Noyce, Kenneth Branagh and many more to audiences in our Toronto cinemas, and to Canadians all across the country at home. We can’t wait for September. We’re also honoured to introduce the world to outstanding Canadian debuts such as Eric Warin and Tahir Rana’s Charlotte and Danis Goulet’s Night Raiders. We’ve been inspired by the quality, range, and diversity of the films we’re inviting, and we couldn’t wait to give everyone an early glimpse.”
“We are confident in our planning for a return to in-person screenings as part of TIFF as both the province and country accelerate vaccination rollout,” offered Dr. Peter Nord, Chief Medical Officer, Medcan, and TIFF’s consultative partner on health and safety for the pandemic. “Canada’s first-dose immunization rate has surpassed the US, and recently reached the best rates in the world. As of today in Toronto, more than 75% of adults have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 25% have received their second dose. We fully anticipate that by the time the Festival arrives, all Ontarians will have the opportunity to be fully vaccinated. Public health indicators, such as hospitalizations, ICU occupancy, and case rates indicate that we’re on the right — and safe — path to fully reopening. In addition, audiences will confidently be able to enjoy in-cinema screenings by maintaining a safe physical distance and wearing a mask.”
New this year, audiences across Canada can enjoy the excitement of TIFF in their own communities with TIFF’s “Coast-to-Coast Screenings.” Film Circuit, TIFF’s film-outreach programme since 1995, will host in-cinema screenings in select locations across the country for one evening in each location, to help ignite theatrical exhibition across Canada and celebrate audiences’ return to theatres. Locations and films to be announced at a later date.
“TIFF remains a must-attend festival,” said Vicente. “Last year’s industry offerings led to a record-breaking year in film sales, new highs in Conference attendance, the introduction of TIFF’s pass-gifting initiative for under-represented voices, gender parity across all Industry programming streams, and TIFF’s curated Industry Selects film programme devoted to international sales titles. Our commitment to diverse voices, to removing allbarriers for their work to be seen, to creating an accessible space for business, and to sharing creators’ stories is in our DNA. In 2021, TIFF is ensuring every initiative and event will have diversity, equity, and inclusion woven into its implementation.”
Industry registration for this year’s Festival (September 9–18) and Industry Conference (September 10–14) will open on June 25 and a full outline of this year’s pass benefits can be found at tiff.net/industry-accreditation. More details on the digital Conference programming, Talent Development initiatives, and Industry programmes will follow throughout the summer. TIFF will announce talent appearances and update accredited professionals on in-person offerings for Press & Industry delegates, such as Press & Industry screenings, in late July as government plans for reopening the city and the country are finalized.
Since its inception, one of TIFF’s guiding principles has been to celebrate and amplify the voices of exceptional filmmakers working in Canada. Award-winning filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin’s prolific body of work will be highlighted at TIFF 2021 with a retrospective entitled “Celebrating Alanis.” “Alanis is one of the most important figures in Canadian film, documentary film, and Indigenous film,” said Bailey. “Curated by Jason Ryle, one of the world’s leading Indigenous curators, this retrospective captures a national moment when Canadians are looking for ways to better understand and access how central Indigenous history and culture are to this nation.” “Celebrating Alanis” is co-presented with the National Film Board of Canada.
TIFF will build on its unwavering commitment to greater representation of voices by challenging the status quo, celebrating diverse storytellers and audiences, and making space for Black, Indigenous, people-of-colour, women, and LGBTQ+ creators and other under-represented talent. “TIFF’s programming team works to ensure that the films they curate are reflective of the audiences they serve,” continued Bailey. “Films and film festivals help shape our culture, which is why access and representation are so important. Our team strives to bring under-represented voices to the table, and we build on this year after year.”
To ensure that under-represented voices and perspectives are sought out and welcomed into its press corps, TIFF’s media team works with outlets and editors around the globe, encouraging a diverse contingent. In addition, TIFF will host the fourth year of its Media Inclusion Initiative (MII), a mentorship programme committed to growing the diversity of the press corps covering the Festival. This year, TIFF welcomes 45 new critics and writers who will offer greater representation in the areas of race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. The MII participants will have access to films, talks, specialized workshops, and one-on-one mentoring opportunities for eligible participants. TIFF is delighted to welcome Rotten Tomatoes as a supporter of this year’s Media Inclusion Initiative.
The 2021 TIFF Tribute Awards, will be co-produced by Bell Media Studios and for the second straight year will be broadcast nationally by CTV and streamed internationally by Variety. More information on the TIFF 2021 Tribute Awards event and this year’s honourees to follow in the coming weeks. Past recipients of the Tribute awards have gone on to win awards on the international stage such as Chloé Zhao, Mati Diop, Joaquin Phoenix, Tracey Deer, Taika Waititi and Sir Anthony Hopkins.
TIFF will once again celebrate outstanding filmmaking with its jury awards: the Federation of International Film Critics (FIPRESCI) and Network for the Promotion of Asian Pacific Cinema (NETPAC) Awards, the Platform Prize, the IMDbPro Short Cuts Awards, the Amplify Voices Awards presented by Canada Goose, and the Shawn Mendes Foundation Changemaker Award. Known for its discerning audiences that predict box-office and critical success, the TIFF People’s Choice Awards series returns, comprising the People’s Choice Award, the People’s Choice Documentary Award, and the People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award. All films in TIFF’s Official Selection areeligible for the People’s Choice Award and are voted on by Festival audiences.
TIFF is more accessible than ever in 2021, and public audiences across Canada can be among the first to make exciting cinematic discoveries. There are several ticket options available to audiences, from single film tickets for in-person screenings to packages for digital film screenings that allow access for up to 20 digital films. Digital ticket package sales start June 30 for TIFF’s Contributors Circle Members and all ticket dates are available at tiff.net/tickets.Ticket sales are serviced online and by phone only.
TIFF continues to work closely with the Province of Ontario, the City of Toronto, and public health officials on the safe execution of the Festival, with its number-one priority being the health and well-being of both Festival filmgoers and residents of the community. Based on the provincial government’s recently announced reopening plan, TIFF is planning to operate at a higher capacity for indoor theatres by September, likely with mandatory mask usage for Festival-goers. To help ensure the safest possible experience, TIFF has once again partnered with Medcan, a global health care leader providing medical expertise, consultation, and health inspiration to achieve its mission to help people “Live Well, For Life.” Based on the pillars of evidence-based care, exceptional client service, and the latest in technology, Medcan’s team of over 90 physicians supports employee health care across the continuum of health, including its “Safe at Work System,” which helps organizations navigate the pandemic.
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About TIFF TIFF is a not-for-profit cultural organization whose mission is to transform the way people see the world through film. An international leader in film culture, TIFF projects include the annual Toronto International Film Festival in September; TIFF Bell Lightbox, which features five cinemas, learning and entertainment facilities; and innovative national distribution program Film Circuit. The organization generates an annual economic impact of $200 million CAD. TIFF Bell Lightbox is generously supported by contributors including Founding Sponsor Bell, the Province of Ontario, the Government of Canada, the City of Toronto, the Reitman family (Ivan Reitman, Agi Mandel and Susan Michaels), The Daniels Corporation and RBC. For more information, visit tiff.net.
TIFF is generously supported by Lead Sponsor Bell, Major Sponsors RBC, L’Oréal Paris, and Visa, and Major Supporters the Government of Ontario, Telefilm Canada, and the City of Toronto.
TIFF Film Circuit is presented in partnership with Telefilm Canada and supported by Ontario Creates.
Culture Representation: Taking place over two days in June 2020, mainly in New York City, as as well as in Florida, Los Angeles, and the United Kingdom, the comedy/drama film “As of Yet” (or “as of yet,” as the movie’s title is sometimes styled) features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with two white people and one Asian), representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: During her COVID-19 pandemic quarantine, a woman in her 20s has dilemmas about two people in her life: her overly possessive roommate (who’s been her best friend since college) and a potential new love interest, who would be the first in-person date she’s had since the quarantine began.
Culture Audience: “As of Yet” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in watching a realistic and minimalist quarantine comedy/drama that explores issues related to dating, friendships and family.
There have been several scripted movies that take place during the COVID-19 pandemic that have attempted to depict authentic quarantine experiences. The comedy/drama “As of Yet” is one of the few that gets it right. It’s a witty, warm and relatable film that doesn’t try to scare people into thinking that someone is going to die at any moment in the movie. Instead, the only fear that’s portrayed in the movie is the fear of letting go of a co-dependent but toxic best friend, as well as how dating a potential new love interest might affect the friendship. It’s a movie that’s filled with various conversations held over Zoom and FaceTime, but the story will connect on a deeper level with audiences who understand that’s it’s really about reflecting on life priorities.
Taylor Garron is the star, writer, co-director and one of the producers of “As of Yet,” which is the feature-film directorial debut of Garron, who co-directed with Chanel James. “As of Yet” is an impressive directorial debut, even if it didn’t have a COVID-19 pandemic setting. Garron’s writing is emotionally intelligent and appealing to anyone who wants to see people in scripted movies act and talk like how college-educated people in the real world talk. The fact that most of the cast members are black is a bonus for the film. “As of Yet” had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Garron and James won the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival’s Nora Ephron Award, a prize given to emerging female filmmakers.
“As of Yet” admirably and skillfully shows a very real and vibrant part of black culture that rarely gets showcased in movies and doesn’t fall into the same, over-used negative sterotypes that movies have of black people. Nowhere in this movie is anyone portrayed as a criminal, poor or a struggling single parent. Portraying black people as second-class citizens is too often the narrative for a movie where the central character is black and living in a big city, even though most black people in America are not criminals, poor or struggling single parents. A movie starring a black woman usually centers the story on either pain or anger, but Garron refuses to go down that road that often leads to exploitation.
Instead, Garron’s Naomi Parson character (the movie’s protagonist, who’s in her mid-20s), is a relatively happy person who’s got a pretty great life, all things considered. She’s an actress who has loving and supportive family members and friends. She’s healthy. She’s college-educated. And she lives in a comfortable apartment in a quiet, tree-lined street in New York City’s Brooklyn borough. She’s staying safe in the middle of a deadly pandemic, but don’t expect this movie to kill her off or for her to get bad medical news—two other over-used negative tropes for black people with prominent roles in movies.
“As of Yet,” which takes place over two days and two nights, begins on Day 83 of Naomi’s quarantine. There are two types of videos in the movie: Naomi’s private video diaries and the video conversations that she has on Zoom and FaceTime. Naomi is an actress on an unnamed TV series that is currently on hiatus due to the pandemic. She’s been receiving unemployment benefits in the meantime. And she’s proud to have a reached a milestone in her finances: She now has about $10,000 in personal savings.
The movie doesn’t mention what college Naomi went to, but it’s mentioned that it was a four-year university in Amherst, Massachusetts. It’s where she met her white best friend/roommate Sara (played by Eva Victor), who is currently and temporarily staying with Sara’s parents in Florida. The movie never mentions what Sara does for a living, but she’s very spoiled, and she talks in that snotty tone of voice that sounds like she watches too much of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and “The Real Housewives.” In fact, after watching Sara and her manipulations in this movie, Sara seems like someone who would fit right in on a reality show about self-centered, catty women.
The first 10 minutes of “As of Yet” could be a little bit of turnoff to viewers who might think this is a movie that looks like any of the millions of social media video conversations made by young people who babble on about potential love interests or what their party plans are. But the movie gets much better as it goes along. It becomes a riveting character study of a woman finding her way through her post-college identity.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a big conversation topic in “As of Yet,” but it’s not the movie’s only focus. Many of the issues brought forth are issues that were going on in Naomi’s life before the pandemic. The pandemic is often used as a reason for certain people’s words and actions. But the pandemic can also force people to evaluate certain things in their lives.
Naomi faces that type of personal reckoning when it to comes to her friendship with Sara. The main dilemma that Naomi has is deciding if her friendship with Sara is worth keeping. It’s a very co-dependent, lopsided relationship where Naomi does a lot of the giving, and Sara does a lot of the taking.
As Naomi says in her video diary near the beginning of the movie: “I really miss Sara.” Sara’s quarantine with her parents is the longest that Naomi and Sara have been apart. This period of time apart has given Naomi some room to relax and some room to worry about what her life would be like without her best friend.
During a video chat, where Sara drones on mostly about herself, she comes up with the idea of hosting a “welcome back” dinner party for herself and Naomi when Sara comes back to New York. Sara describes the party as a way to “celebrate our friendship, but it’s also about me a little bit.” Sara mentions that she can steal some of her mother’s inferior wine and bring it to the party. She also laughs when she pictures her mother finding the wine missing and how it will be fun to think about how annoyed her mother would be if her mother knew what happened to the wine.
One of the ways that the movie shows how different (and incompatible) Sara and Naomi are is when they talk about the Black Lives Matter protests over the deaths of George Floyd and other black people who were victims of police brutality. Naomi has been participating in these protests on the streets of New York City. She mentions that she always wears masks when she’s out in public.
Sara has a slightly disgusted and annoyed expression on her face when the Black Lives Matter protests are brought up in the conversation. She asks Naomi if it’s scary to be part of the protests. Naomi says it’s not scary. But later, in another conversation with two of her black female friends who are protesters in Los Angeles, they candidly discuss witnessing police brutality at the protests.
Naomi and Sara talk about the difference between peaceful protesting and rioting. Sara is inclined to think that rioters are part of the protest movement, while Naomi says that most rioters are not part of Black Lives Matter and other activist movements. Naomi does concede that when it comes to activism, she thinks, “You have to be a little violent to get things done.” The awkward silence and expression on Sara’s face say a lot after Naomi makes that comment.
During Naomi and Sara’s conversation, they also talk about a man in hs 20s named Reed, whom Naomi has been talking to online for the past four months. Because of the quarantine, Naomi and Reed haven’t been able to meet in person for a date yet, but they hope to do so in the near future. It would be Naomi’s first in-person date since the pandemic lockdown began. Instead of being happy for Naomi and telling her to be safe, Sara acts as if Naomi is going to put Sara’s life in serious jeopardy by being in contact with someone who doesn’t live in their household.
Sara puts up such a fuss about it that it unnerves Naomi. The rest of the movie shows Naomi debating with herself and other people if she should meet Reed for a date in person and if she should tell Sara about it. It’s not a problem that’s as superficial as it sounds. Viewers will see that how Naomi handles this date dilemma is a manifestation of how she’s been handling a lot of the control issues going in her friendship with Sara and how Naomi feels about herself.
“As of Yet” has a very small number of people in its cast, which will make this movie very easy to follow. Besides Sara, the other people Naomi talk to about Sara and Reed are:
Reed (played by Amir Khan), a geeky, long-haired “nice guy” who works in some kind of computer tech job. Since the quarantine, he’s been working from home and rewatching “Survivor” reruns.
Sadie (played by Paula Akpan), Naomi’s British cousin who’s openly queer, very outspoken and someone who definitely doesn’t approve of Sara.
Naomi’s parents, who are unnamed in the movie but are played by Taylor Garron’s real-life parents Colleen Pina Garron and Christopher Garron. Naomi talks to her mother longer in their conversation (her dad briefly pops into the conversation), and Sara’s close and loving relationship with her parents is very evident.
Lyssa (played by Quinta Brunson) and Khadijah (played by Ayo Edebiri), two of Naomi’s friends in Los Angeles. They both don’t like Sara because they think she makes Naomi feel insecure and anxious. Khadijah is more blunt and forthcoming than Lyssa in giving advice to Naomi on what to do about Sara.
An unnamed neighbor (played by Anthony Allman), who Naomi talks to randomly when he pokes her head out of her apartment window and sees him walking down the street.
During these conversations, viewers find out more things about Naomi. Her family has origins in Cape Verde. Her parents are passionate about social causes, and Naomi got her interest in being a civil rights activist from her parents. She’s a very loyal, funny and caring person. Her willingness to put the needs of others before her own needs is a virtue, but it can also be a fault because people like Sara have taken advantage of it. Naomi hints at past romances and heartbreaks because she made the mistake of trusting the wrong people.
Naomi loves to talk and has a very quick-witted, self-deprecating sense of humor. Reed is quieter and more laid-back. Reed and Naomi both like watching TV and they appreciate each other’s off-beat geekiness over TV shows. Naomi has an interesting quirk of having only watched one movie in her life: the 1995 comedy “Heavyweights,” starring Ben Stiller and Kenan Thompson, about a group of overweight teens sent to a weight-loss camp that’s run by a psycho fitness instructor.
Naomi and Reed’s conversations in the movie show that they have a comfortable rapport with each other, and they can make each other laugh. However, viewers will wonder how well Naomi really knows Reed. Have they had meaningful conversations that go deeper than joking around and talking about what TV shows they like to watch? Are they compatible, in terms of lifestyles and life goals? This movie offers no real answers to those questions, because it’s just a glimpse into Naomi’s life over a two-day period.
One of the most outstanding things about “As of Yet” is how all the conversations look authentic, almost like a documentary. It’s one thing for the screenplay to be well-written (and it is), but the cast members should also get credit for delivering the lines in a very naturalistic and convincing way. There isn’t one moment in this movie that looks overly staged and overly rehearsed.
And there are many details that add to the authenticity. Naomi isn’t afraid to be shown from some unflattering camera angles. At one point in the movie, her armpit hair is showing (but not during her conversations with Reed), and her mother reminds Naomi to shave her armpits before she meets Reed in person.
The movie also doesn’t shy away from the topic of race. When Naomi tells her family members and black friends about Reed, one of the first questions they ask is if Reed is black. Naomi talks about the Black Lives Matter protests in a different and more unguarded way with her black friends than she does with Sara. Naomi’s mother also tells her a great anecdote about her childhood experiences with the Black Panthers.
The movie’s one detail about race that might raise questions with viewers is why Naomi hasn’t asked Reed yet what race he is. (He’s American and his family’s ethnicity appears to be South Asian or possibly from the Middle East.) If you’ve been chatting with someone for several months and plan to go on a date with each other, it’s not unreasonable to ask that person what their racial/ethnic heritage is, as part of the “getting to know you” process.
Naomi says she hasn’t asked Reed because she thinks it would be rude to ask. But it kind of contradicts how Naomi keeps bragging to her loved ones about how she knows Reed well enough that she thinks he’s a good guy who would be safe to date. The fact that she’s afraid to ask Reed what race he is will make people wonder what other basic and reasonable questions Naomi hasn’t asked him.
It’s another layer to the story in “As of Yet,” which shows how in the early months of the pandemic, single people were trying to adjust to how dating was affected by the pandemic quarantine. Naomi has to grapple with these questions: What’s the proper etiquette of a first date, when it comes to mask wearing and social distancing? Is it really a good idea to date somene new during a lockdown quarantine?
How do you know who’s really safe and not infected, when COVID-19 test results are only valid for a very limited time? (And keep in mind, this movie takes place before any COVID-19 vaccines were available.) It’s a question that Naomi can’t really answer about Reed, but she makes several comments in her conversations that she’s sure that Reed is “safe,” just because he told her so.
Actually, she doesn’t know for sure if Reed has COVID-19 or not. Taking people’s word for it without proof is one of the main reasons why a lot of people got infected with COVID-19. And lot of people who infected others didn’t know they had COVID-19 because they didn’t show any symptoms at the time.
Naomi’s blind trust in Reed’s COVID-19 status is an example of her trusting nature, just like Sara’s over-reaction to Naomi possibly dating someone new during the quarantine is an example of her jealous and controlling nature. Viewers will find out how much of a loathsome hypocrite Sara is when it comes to COVID-19 safety. (It’s slight spoiler information that won’t be revealed in this review.)
Because “As of Yet” is a movie that takes place mostly on computer screens in people’s middle-class homes, there’s no flashy cinematography, elaborate set designs or fancy costumes. The movie, which is more suspenseful than people might think it would be, excels mainly because of the screenwriting and how well the cast members bring their characters to life. The movie might not satisfy people who want a predictable conclusion, but “As of Yet” will keep viewers entertained with some lively conversations along the way.
Culture Representation: Taking place mainly in the Los Angeles area, the sex comedy “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: A newlywed interracial couple decide to have an open marriage and have to deal with the jealousy and complications that ensue.
Culture Audience: “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” will appeal mainly to people who like watching self-conscious hipster comedies with characters who are foul-mouthed, shallow, and have an annoying tendency to act as if their lifestyles are better than anyone else’s.
“Mark, Mary & Some Other People” is an occasionally funny but very flawed swinger sex comedy made by and for people who want a movie where interracial spouses don’t talk about race, and Hispanics in Los Angeles are underrepresented and don’t speak. The movie is a clumsy mismatch of being very woke and very tone-deaf. The cast members who portray the swinger married couple in the film’s title are talented in their performances, and the movie does have some genuine charm here and there. (The final scene is a highlight.) But ultimately, it’s a movie that comes across as a little too smug for its own good. When it comes right down to it, this is a story about immature people who are so obsessed with appearing to be “open-minded” that they don’t see how self-absorbed they really are.
The word “woke” is often used as an insulting way for conservatives to describe people they think are too politically correct. But in “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” (which is set mainly in the Los Angeles area and takes place over a two-year period), even the “woke” characters call themselves “woke,” and they love to announce how politically progressive they are, every chance they get. But it’s the type of “wokeness” where people, who identify as progressive liberals and live in a racially diverse city, can’t be bothered to have any close friends who are black or Hispanic. To fill their “diverse friendship” quota, they might have one or two Asians in their social circle. That’s exactly what’s going on in “Mark, Mary & Some Other People,” which was written and directed by Hannah Marks. The movie had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.
In this movie, no one is guiltier of this self-congratulatory virtue signaling than Mary Lewis (played by Hayley Law), a motormouth in her mid-20s, who has to spew something politically correct every five minutes to prove how “enlightened” she is. She’s more about platitude posturing than being a well-rounded person. Mary also happens to be African American/bi-racial. One of her parents is white, and one is black, although the movie never reveals which parent is which race. Mary’s mother is dead, and her father is not mentioned at all.
Mary plays bass guitar in an all-female rock trio that keeps changing its name to things that Mary thinks will make the band sound like edgy feminists. It’s a running joke in the movie. One of the band’s names is Butter Cunt, which tells you right there what this movie thinks is funny. Because the band has no talent and can’t get any paying gigs, Mary works at various part-time menial jobs during the course of the movie. She does some speaking-voice work for places that need recordings for outgoing phone messages and PA system announcements. She also works as a housecleaner and a food server.
Mary’s husband is Mark Kenneth Sampson (played by Ben Rosenfield), also in his mid-20s, who is a “beta male” man-child that has become the stereotypical male lead character in mumblecore movies where everyone tries to outdo each other in looking like trendy, progressive hipsters. Mark is the type of person who identifies as a male feminist, which is basically a mumblecore movie way of depicting a man who is whiny, insecure, and so afraid of appearing sexist that he lets his domineering female partner treat him like crap. Mark works with his father in a vague “plastics manufacturing” job, but Mark’s father is never shown in the movie. Mark is never actually shown working at his “plastics manufacturing” job, but he is shown doing his other job as a dog walker. The movie doesn’t give any mention of Mark’s mother.
Mark is white, but the movie unrealistically shuts out any conversations that interracial couples would have about being in an interracial relationship. It’s one of the many flaws about “Mark, Mary & Some Other People,” which goes out of its way to be frank and detailed (often to the point of monotonous vulgarity) about many other aspects of sexual attraction, dating and marriage, except for race. It’s almost as if writer/director Marks and the other filmmakers thought that having an interracial couple as the main characters would be enough to fulfill their racial diversity checklist, and they want to pretend that racism and discussions about race simply don’t exist in a world that they decided to center on an interracial couple.
Mary will lecture people all day long about sexuality and gender politics, but her refusal to talk about race actually makes her look very phony and willfully ignorant. What kind of progressive liberal who’s supposed to care about social justice doesn’t want to talk about race? A hypocrite like Mary, who wants to live in a delusional bubble where she floats through life and doesn’t want to deal with a messy topic such as racism, even though she’s someone who has inevitably experienced racism. It should come as no surprise that Mary doesn’t have any black friends. (Sex partners who are treated like disposable sex toys don’t count as real friends.)
Women of color who are written this way in movies and TV shows are usually written by people who have no idea what it’s like to be a woman of color. And so, in this movie where one of the two main characters is black, “black culture” is avoided, ignored or sidelined. That’s probably why “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” is the type of movie where the only African American people who have speaking roles in the movie (two women) are light-skinned, bi-racial people. There are less than a handful of Hispanic/Latino and dark-complexioned African Americans who get listed actor credits in the movie, and they’re really just extras: They don’t speak, they’re nameless characters in the movie’s many hookup scenes, and they’re on screen for less than 30 seconds each.
And it’s why this movie that tries so hard to look progressive and “woke”—as these swingers accumulate sexual conquests throughout Los Angeles County—is shamefully out-of-touch and backwards when it comes to representing what the population of Los Angeles County actually looks like. This movie is set in Los Angeles County, where 48.6% of the population identify as Hispanic/Latino, according the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010 statistics. That number is expected to be higher when the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 statistics are announced.
But the filmmakers of “Mark, Mary & Some Other People”—who probably want the world to think they’re open-minded and progressive, based on how the movie’s characters talk—couldn’t be bothered to give any Hispanic/Latino actors any speaking lines in this movie that takes place in a county where nearly half the population is Hispanic/Latino. When people say that Hispanics/Latinos are underrepresented in American-made movies, “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” is an example of this problem. Filmmakers who act like they’re progressive liberals need to do better in practicing what they preach.
It isn’t nitpicking to bring up the races/ethnicities of this movie’s cast members, because this entire movie is relentlessly “in your face” about the characters (especially the main characters) being progressive liberals. Therefore, it would be foolish and (quite frankly) irresponsible not to point out this movie’s hypocrisy, flaws and blind spots when it comes to the very same issues. People who live in certain “bubbles” probably won’t notice these flaws, because they’ll be too enamored with the self-approving hipster dialogue and titillation of seeing a swinger lifestyle depicted in a movie.
But “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” has a lot of flaws, such as showing how obvious it is that Mark and Mary are very mismatched from the start. For a movie like this to succeed in resonating with adults (this movie’s intended audience), audiences should be rooting for the couple to be happy and supportive of each other—not spending most of the movie cringing and hoping that the couple will break up, so the couple won’t keep wallowing in the misery of jealousy, power struggles and incompatibility that are all over this relationship.
Every movie about a couple with an “open relationship” ends up being about how they handle jealousy over other sex partners. The trick is in keeping people guessing on whether or not the couple will stay together. Unfortunately, “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” telegraphs very early on how immature and messy Mark and Mary are in relationships, because Mark and Mary don’t even seem to like themselves very much. People with enough life experience will notice this low self-esteem right away, while people with less life experience might have more of a fairy-tale perspective of love and sex.
“Mark, Mary & Some Other People” doesn’t waste time with Mark and Mary’s “meet cute” moment because it’s the very first scene in the movie. Actually, it’s more like a “re-meet cute” moment, because it’s not the first time that they’ve met, although only one of them immediately remembers where they previously met. Mark and Mary, who both live in the city of Los Angeles, see each other at a convenience store. Mark shows an instant interest in her, while it takes Mary a little longer to show she’s attracted to him.
Mark and Mary met before when they attended the same college (which is unnamed in the movie), but Mary doesn’t remember Mark at first because he was a lot heavier in college than he is now. The movie doesn’t have flashbacks. Anything that happened before this story takes place is described in conversations.
At the convenience store, Mark notices that Mary is buying a pregnancy test, but she hastily tells him that the pregnancy test isn’t for her. (It’s an obvious lie.) After Mark checks out Mary’s rear end, he immediately asks her to go to a smoothie place with him on a date.
She says yes, and during their conversation at the smoothie place, Mary admits that the pregnancy test is for her. Mark expresses disappointment that Mary might already be in a committed relationship, but she assures him that she’s very single and available. She also tells him up front that she’s sexually interested in men and women, because she mentions a woman whom she describes as a former lover of hers.
“Mark, Mary & Some Other People” then takes an “only in a movie” turn when Mark tells Mary that it just so happens that he’s working with his father on an invention where pregnancy test results can come from saliva, not urine. It’s a very far-fetched part of the movie that will have viewers rolling their eyes in disbelief if they know anything about human biology. The movie wants us to believe that human salivary glands are somehow connected to the urethra, but it’s just an example of how dumb the filmmakers expect this movie’s audience to be.
Unfortunately, this salivary pregnancy test isn’t a random joke. It’s depicted as very real in this movie, and it becomes a big part of one of the movie’s pivotal scenes. A salivary pregnancy test is actually an unnecessary medical invention for this story, and it’s a bizarre twist to Mark’s “plastics manufacturing” job. Maybe the filmmakers were inspired by Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, because there’s a concerted and almost laughable effort to make this salivary pregnancy test look convincing.
Mark is very nerdy and eager to impress. Mary is very manipulative and notices these personality traits in Mark, so immediately she figures she can have the upper hand in the relationship. When Mark asks her if he can have her phone number, she plays hard to get. Then, she tests Marks boundaries by telling him that he can have her phone number if he goes in the smoothie place’s public restroom with her while she takes the pregnancy test. He hesitates at first, but then obliges. Yes, that it’s that kind of movie.
It should be noted that there’s no nudity in “Mark, Mary & Some Other People,” which might be director Marks’ way of avoiding criticism of being exploitative in a movie filled with sex. However, no filmmaker should get extra praise for not having nudity in a sex-oriented movie. The movie should be judged on other things, such as the quality of directing, writing and acting.
When Mark and Mary go into the public restroom, he shows that he’s a gentleman by not looking at her while she urinates. It should come as no surprise to the audience when Mary finds out that she’s not pregnant, because having a pregnancy would get in the way of the swinger antics that this movie is using as a hook to get an audience. And it’s also not surprising that Mary—who manipulates a guy on a first date to go in a public restroom with her while she urinates for a pregnancy test, just so he can get her phone number—is someone who’s kind of nasty and very insecure.
It sets the tone for the relationship though: Mary is the one who comes up with the ideas that make Mark uncomfortable, and she makes him think he’s too uptight if doesn’t say yes to the ideas. She’s not bossy about it, but she’s very skilled at knowing people’s weaknesses and pushing those buttons. And she’s one of these people who gives off a conceited attitude of “I’m better than you because I’m so woke and trendy.”
It will ultimately turn a lot of viewers off from Mary, who is not a genuine free spirit who will let people be who they are. She won’t back off when Mark expresses discomfort with what she wants to do. She acts like she really won’t approve of someone and that person will make her unhappy unless they conform to what she wants at all times. And for someone like Mark, who’s obviously less experienced at dating than Mary is and desperate for someone to love him, he’s an easy target.
Case in point: When the movie fast-forwards about a year after Mark and Mary’s first date, Mark and Mary are getting married, and Mary has to be the “woke police,” even during their elopement wedding. Mark and Mary are at a cheap-looking wedding chapel in an unnamed city, where they are getting married. In another example of how this movie stumbles on realistic details, the only people at this wedding ceremony are Mark, Mary and the guy who’s marrying them. There are no other witnesses, even though witnesses other than the married couple and wedding officiator would be required to make the ceremony legal.
After Mark and Mary say their wedding vows, the wedding officiator says, “You may now kiss the bride.” Mary starts complaining and asks why that statement is male-centric because it gives the man the power to initiate the kiss. Mary begins ranting that no one ever says, “You many now kiss the groom” at wedding ceremonies where a man and woman get married. The wedding officiator says he doesn’t know the answers, but “You may now kiss the bride” is in his wedding script, and he’s just doing his job. But that answer doesn’t make Mary happy. (Almost nothing seems to make her happy, which is why Mary is so insufferable.)
Mary nags at the wedding officiator to change the wording to “You may now kiss the groom,” or else she won’t kiss Mark. Just to get this miserable shrew off of his back, the wedding officiator obliges, and probably feels relieved when these newlyweds leave so he doesn’t have to deal with her again. Mary and Mark spend their honeymoon at the Madonna Inn (a famously kitschy lodging in San Luis Obispo, California), where they take psychedelic mushrooms, with a typical mumblecore movie montage of them having drug-induced hallucinations during their honeymoon bliss.
If it was the filmmakers’ intention to make feminism look cool, the end result is just the opposite in this movie. Mary is supposed to embody modern feminism in this movie, but she’s just a pretentious brat who makes real feminists (and women in general) look bad. The only genuinely feminist thing about this movie is that it shows how women can be just as sexually active as men and shouldn’t have to make any apologies for it.
Mark isn’t going to win any Personality of the Year awards either. And he comes across as less-than-smart. After knowing that Mary is the type of person who thinks it’s unrealistic to be monogamous, and he married her anyway, he’s shocked and angry when she brings up the idea that they should have an open marriage. Did he honestly think she would suddenly want to be monogamous, just because they got married? A lot of people make this mistake of thinking a spouse will change fundamental things about their character, just because of a marriage certificate.
Mary pretentiously describes having an open relationship, or swinging, as “ethical non-monogamy.” Perhaps Mark and Mary can contact Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow (who famously called their divorce a “conscious uncoupling”) to come up with some more self-important and pompous-sounding names for relationship situations that can turn messy. And it does get messy, as it always does when couples bring other lovers into their lives.
This is the type of conversation that Mary and Mark have when Mark gets angry at Mary for suggesting that they try an open marriage. As Mark sulks, Mary says, “You’re being immature.” Mark replies, “Well, you’re being a whore.”
Mary wonders out loud if it was the wrong time to bring up the subject of open marriage. Mark tells Mary why he’s so offended that Mary wants to have sex with other people during their marriage: “It’s not about you bringing it up. It’s that you’re thinking about it at all.” Apparently, Mark was under the delusion that Mary would change her “monogamy doesn’t work for me” mindset after they got married.
Mary has, in fact, chosen the wrong time to ask Mark to be swingers, because it’s shortly before they go to a costume party, where a furious Mark decides to show Mary that he’s going to immediately find a new lover. He gets drunk, picks up a pretty blonde named Bunny (played by Kelly Berglund), and goes back to her place. The sexual encounter is awkward because Mark starts crying out of guilt and has some “performance issues.”
At the same party, a jealous Mary sees that Mark is trying to seduce Bunny, so she picks up a willing man, and spends the night with him. That encounter is never seen in the movie, but Mary is shown waking up the next morning in a messy van and getting dressed by herself. She’s crying, with a look of regret and misery on her face.
When Mark and Mary see each other again, they burst into tears and tell each other how sorry they are for what happened. (There will be more tears later in the story.) And they decide to set the rules of this new arrangement in their marriage.
After some hemming and hawing during rules negotiations, Mark and Mary agree on some fundamental rules: (1) No sex with an ex-lover; (2) No oral sex with anyone outside the marriage; (3) Always practice safe sex; and (4) If anyone in the marriage wants to stop having an open marriage, they will stop.
Mark tells Mary that this last rule is the most important one to him. He says of this “open marriage” arrangement: “This is a trial run. This is not forever thing. This is a ‘see if we like it’ thing. And if one of us doesn’t like it, we can go back to being us.”
Easier said than done. There are a few other rule negotiations that aren’t as firmly resolved. Mark and Mary make a tentative agreement to limit their sexual ecounters with other people to four sexual encounters per person, although Mary seems to want to leave it up to negotiation in the future to increase it to five.
Mark and Mary don’t agree on how much they should tell each other about their sexual encounters outside the marriage. Mark doesn’t want to hear details (such as the names of the lovers and what kind of sex they had), while Mary says she wouldn’t mind hearing details. They agree to disagree on that subject.
When the subject of threesomes comes up, Mary refuses to consider having a threesome with Mark, unless there’s gender equality with the third partner. Mary insists that if she and Mark have a threesome with another woman, then at another time, Mark and Mary need to have a threesome with another man. Mark is very reluctant to agree to a threesome involving another man, because he says he’s not comfortable with having any type of sex with a man.
However, Mary shames Mark into thinking that he’s homophobic if he doesn’t agree to these terms. He gives in to her demands and promises her that if they have a threesome, it will be with a man and a woman on separate occasions. In this particular negotiation, Mary isn’t thinking about what will make her and Mark happy. She’s only thinking about herself and getting her way.
This type of sexual manipulation is an example of how annoying and aggressive Mary can be with her “wokeness.” She doesn’t understand that just because someone doesn’t feel like ever having sexual relations with someone of the same gender, it doesn’t automatically make that person homophobic. Mary’s view on this matter is very narrow-minded and ignorant.
It’s simple courtesy and respect among sex partners: Don’t pressure people into doing something they don’t feel comfortable doing. Mary doesn’t have a grasp of that concept when she tries to make her husband feel “old-fashioned” and “uptight” if he doesn’t agree to what she wants.
Viewers won’t feel too sorry for Mary when her plan to show “old-fashioned” and “uptight” Mark how an open relationship works ends up backfiring on her when he starts to like polyamory a little too much for her comfort level. There are some very predictable things that happen regarding pregnancy and STD concerns. And there’s the inevitable jealousy and partner mistrust that a lot of swingers think they’ll be immune to, but it’s a lifestyle hazard of being a swinger that some people are more honest about than others.
One of the ways that the movie shows that Mark and Mary aren’t entirely comfortable with this open marriage arrangement is that they almost always get drunk and/or high to have sexual encounters with other people. Mary brought up the idea of open marriage to Mark only after her band’s lead singer/guitarist Lana (played by Odessa A’zion), who is by far the most obnoxious character in the movie, called Mary a “crusty married person.” Lana made this comment during a conversation where Mary confessed to a fear of being perceived as old and boring, now that she’s married.
The implication is that Mary is so caught up in projecting an image of being a progressive hipster that she lets a stupid comment like being called “a crusty married person” affect her self-esteem. Observant viewers will see that Mary doesn’t genuinely know if she’s ready for a swinger lifestyle. And this is where the movie does have some authenticity: A lot of people don’t have their lives figured out yet in their mid-20s, and this movie isn’t trying to pass judgment. Most of the characters in this movie are in their early-to-mid-20s, which goes a long way in explaining why many of them are so emotionally immature.
The open marriage arrangement has its ups and downs in Mark and Mary’s relationship. As time goes on, it’s pretty clear that this couple’s biggest problem is how ineffectively they communicate. They argue about things that they obviously didn’t talk about before getting married. It’s one of many examples that this couple is a train wreck.
And in one of the screenplay’s big flaws, it never gives any indication that Mary was ever interested in meeting Mark’s father or anyone else in his family, even though Mark works with his father, who presumably lives nearby. Viewers will have to assume that Mary is just too self-absorbed to bother with meeting any of Mark’s loved ones. And based on her actions throughout this entire story, that assessment is accurate.
By contrast, Mark has met the two relatives of Mary who are shown in the movie: Mary’s younger sister Tori (played by Sofia Bryant), who is the drummer in Mary’s band, and Mary’s aunt Carol (played by Lea Thompson, in a cameo), who is depicted as a cynical, eccentric, queer woman with years of experiences as a swinger. Unlike Mary, Tori is down-to-earth and isn’t caught up in trying to look like she’s the queen of the progessive hipsters. Mark admits that Carol intimidates him, but he gets along with Tori just fine.
Tori and Mary briefly discuss their mother in one scene that gives no insight into how long their mother has been dead or her cause of death. It’s hinted that their mother was also a progressive liberal, but Tori and Mary believe that their mother probably would have hated Mark and his unflattering moustache. Maybe this conversation is this movie’s way of saying that even Mary and Tori’s dead mother would know what a mistake it was for Mark and Mary to get married.
Tori and Mary are such a part of each other’s small social circle that Tori ends up dating one of Mark’s two best friends who are shown in the movie. Tori’s boyfriend is AJ (played by Matt Shively), who’s kind of a stereotypical meathead. AJ identifies as straight. Mark’s other best friend is Kyle (played by Nik Dodani), who’s kind of a stereotypical sassy queer guy. Kyle identifies as bisexual. And apparently, Mary’s social circle consists of her husband, her band and her husband’s two best friends.
And that’s why Mark and Mary use a dating app called Crush’d to meet potential new sex partners. They even take photos of each other for their online profile pics, in a photo session montage that’s supposed to make Mark and Mary look adorable. It comes across as trying too hard.
Mark suggests this photo session after he’s alarmed to see the original profile pic that Mary wanted for herself: Mary licking a large knife that appears to have blood on it. Mary thinks she looks hot and unique in that pose. Lindsay Lohan did that whole “look at me, I’m licking a large knife” gimmick back in 2007. Get over yourself.
For a comedy film about a married couple navigating a swinger lifestyle, it’s somewhat ironic that the funniest scenes in the movie aren’t even about Mark and Mary as a couple. Some of the best comedic scenes in the movie are with AJ and Kyle, as they have bickering banter when they’re by themselves. Sometimes AJ and Kyle act more like a married couple than Mark and Mary do.
Fair warning to anyone who hates hearing the derogatory slur that’s used the most against gay/queer men: There’s a scene where Kyle says that “f” word several times, and he says he’s allowed because he’s part of the LGBTQ community. It’s not the best scene between AJ and Kyle. And frankly, hearing that word used so gratiutously is not funny. There are other scenes with AJ and Kyle that are much better-written and should get big laughs.
Someone who’s a lot less endearing is Lana, who identifies as queer and has the maturity of a 12-year-old. There’s a scene that’s a comedic dud where Lana gets into an argument with a next-door neighbor named Chris (played by Joe Lo Truglio), who’s upset because the band is rehearsing too loudly. It’s a valid complaint, especially since this band is terrible. Instead of being reasonable about it, Lana just shouts, “Fuck you!” It turns into a shouting match where Chris and Lana yell “Fuck you” back and forth for way too long. It’s tedious and lazy screenwriting.
The movie is divided into chapters introduced by cutesy and colorful graphics that look like something from a 1990s mumblecore movie that was influenced by the 1970s. It’s all so self-consciously twee. But it’s overly staged when so much of this movie is just gutter-mouthed and raunchy. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be romantic and vulgar, but not many films can successfully achieve a balance of being both.
Gillian Jacobs has a cameo, as Mary’s gynecologist Dr. Jacobs, that’s also amusing, but a little one-note in the gag. Mark and Mary’s sex partners/dates aren’t given enough screen time to show any real personalities, except for the movie’s final scene that involves two people named Alexandra (played by Haley Ramm) and Aaron (played by Pete Williams). Most of the movie is about the neurotic reactions of Mark and Mary when they find out that having a swinger lifestyle creates more chaos in their marriage than they thought it would.
The movie also falls into the same predictable tropes of swinger sex comedies about a man and a woman who decide to have an open relationship: Any queerness almost always has to be from the woman, so the man can get his girl-on-girl sexual needs fulfilled. But when it comes to the man possibly being queer or willing to have a sexual experience with a man, there’s a lot of cringing and hesitation from the man about having sexual relations with another man.
“Mark, Mary & Some Other People” follows this trope too, although one mid-credits scene is a half-hearted and very tame attempt to distance the movie from that trope. Let’s put it this way: The movie spends a lot more screen time making it clear that Mary has sex with other women, while making it very ambiguous if Mark actually goes through with his promise to have sex with a man during a threesome.
People who’ve watched enough of these types of movies can see that the filmmakers seem afraid of alienating the privileged, cisgender, heterosexual male audience that they want to attract to give this movie “indie cred” praise. And that’s why there’s no actual sex between men that’s depicted in the movie. However, the movie’s “woke” characters, such as Mary, sure love to vilify cisgender, heterosexual men as society’s biggest “oppressors.”
Rosenfield and Law show some very good comedic timing in their roles as Mark and Mary. It’s too bad that their characters are such a horrendous mismatch of personalities, it’s kind of repugnant to watch Mark and Mary’s imcompatibility. It also gets tedious to watch two people in a marriage when their relationship becomes a competition to see who can outdo each other in being the more sexually adventurous partner.
Except for sexual attraction, there’s not much that Mark and Mary see in each other, because they sure don’t talk about anything substantial that shows they’re in this marriage for the long haul. Mary is hard to take with her politically correct preaching over the most trivial of things. Mark is just a hypocritical whiner who lacks common sense. Anyone who thinks that Mark and Mary are a great couple probably has a distorted view of what a healthy relationship is.
Here’s an example of how Mark and Mary are terrible at communicating: There’s a scene where, after Mark and Mary have agreed to have an open marriage, Mark notices that the bedsheet on their bed has been stained with sexual activity from Mary and an unknown lover. He rips the sheet off in disgust, as if he’s shocked that Mary could possibly have sex with someone else in their bed.
It turns out that in their first time doing “ethical non-monogamy” rule negotiations, Mark and Mary never discussed where they would be allowed to have sex with other people. And this is after Mark said he didn’t want to know the details of Mary’s sexual encounters outside the marriage. If he had any common sense, it should have led to him to say that they couldn’t bring any lovers to their home, because of the very real likelihood that he’d see things he doesn’t want to see.
Mark finding the stained bedsheet was really just a means to create another cutesy titled chapter about Part 2 of Mark and Mary’s rules negotiations. Yes, Mark and Mary are young, but they’re not children. However, watching “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” feels like you’re watching people who are stuck in a selfish teenage mentality and who are pretending to be emotionally mature adults. No thank you.
Vertical Entertainment will release “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” on a date to be announced.