Review: ‘Sometimes I Think About Dying’ (2024), starring Daisy Ridley, Dave Merheje, Parvesh Cheena and Marcia DeBonis

January 26, 2024

by Carla Hay

Daisy Ridley in “Sometimes I Think About Dying” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“Sometimes I Think About Dying” (2024)

Directed by Rachel Lambert

Culture Representation: Taking place in Oregon, the dramatic film “Sometimes I Thing About Dying” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A very introverted woman with an almost non-existent social life has to decide how much she will open herself up to love when a co-worker begins courting her.

Culture Audience: “Sometimes I Think About Dying” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Daisy Ridley and low-key, independent films that have observations about loneliness and personality disorders.

Dave Merheje and Daisy Ridley in “Sometimes I Think About Dying” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“Sometimes I Think About Dying” is a unique portrait of social anxiety and depression. This quiet and slow-paced drama won’t appeal to everyone. However, viewers with the patience to watch the entire movie will see an interesting awakening in the painfully shy protagonist, who has to learn to get out of her head and experience more of life.

Directed by Rachel Lambert, “Sometimes I Think About Dying” is based on the 2019 short film of the same name. Stefanie Abel Horowitz, Kevin Armento and Katy Wright-Mead wrote the screenplays for both movies, but Horowitz directed the short film. The feature-length version of “Sometimes I Think About Dying” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The movie was filmed in Oregon and the city of Longview, Washington.

In the feature-length “Sometimes I Think About Dying” (which takes place in an unnamed city in Oregon), the central character is Fran Larsen (played by Daisy Ridley), a depressed introvert whose life is a bland routine. Fran, who is in her late 20s, works at her office for a small business called CB Port Authority. Fran does administrative work (whatever she does in her job, she uses a lot of spreadsheets) in a non-descript cubicle. There are less than 15 people who work in this office. After her work shift, Fran usually just goes home to her modest house and doesn’t communicate with anyone.

Fran has a secret interior life where she thinks about scenarios in which she is dying or is already dead. The movie is punctuated with glimpses of these morbid fantasies. In one scenario, a snake is on the floor in the office, with Fran’s back to the snake, as if she’s unaware that the snake could pounce at any moment. In another scenario, Fran is a corpse on a beach. In another scenario, she’s dead in a wooded area.

Fran is very shy and keeps mostly to herself at work. In the beginning of the movie, a co-worker named Carol (played by Marcia DeBonis) is retiring, so the co-workers have gathered in the break room for Carol’s going-away party. Carol gives away some of her office supplies and says in a gloating voice, “I’m going on a cruise!” In a retirement greeting card signed by all the co-workers, Fran’s written message inside the card is a very basic “Happy retirement.”

Other people who work in the office are cheerful supervisor Isobel (played by Megan Stalter), nerdy Sean (played by Sean Tarjyoto), eccentric Doug (played by Jeb Berrier), self-assured Garrett (played by Parvesh Cheena) and eager intern Sophie (played by Brittany O’Grady). After Carol now longer works at the company, the dynamics in the office change with the arrival of Robert (played by Dave Merheje), who is Carol’s replacement.

Robert, who is in his late 30s or early 40s, seems to be almost immediately attracted to Fran, who is slow to pick up the social cues that Robert wants to start a conversation to get to know her better. In text messages, Robert asks Fran some questions about office supplies. He confesses that he’s never had a job before. Most people would be curious to know why, but Fran doesn’t ask.

Eventually, Robert establishes a little bit of rapport with Fran when they find out that they both like cottage cheese. Fran shows she can be nitpicky when she corrects Robert and says that cottage cheese is technically not cheese. “It’s a curd. I Googled it,” she states matter-of-factly.

Robert asks Fran out on a date. She says yes. Robert and Fran see a movie and then have dinner on this first date. Over dinner at a restaurant, Robert says he’s a big fan of movies, and he liked the film that they saw. Fran admits she didn’t like the film.

The waitress who serves them at the restaurant is named Amelia. She invites Robert and Fran to a small get-together that she has on Saturdays. It turns out to be a murder mystery game, which is somewhat ironic because Fran spends a lot of time thinking about herself dying in gruesome ways.

It’s very difficult for Fran to open up about herself to anyone. The most that she will tell Robert is that she grew up in Hawaii, she likes to cook, and she’s never been in love. Meanwhile, Robert tells her that he’s been divorced twice and that he hasn’t figured out marriage yet.

“Sometimes I Think About Dying” doesn’t have a big, sweeping plot. There are several scenes in the movie that show how isolated Fran is when she’s at home. And even when she’s with people (such as in her office job), she still seems very alone because she’s lost in her thoughts and not sociable. She’s not rude, but she doesn’t seek out people’s company, and she rarely initiates conversations with other people.

“Sometimes I Think About Dying” does not follow a predictable formula that’s usually in movies about lonely single people, so this film will simply be too boring for some viewers. However, Ridley gives a very good depiction of how people who feel invisible (by choice or by circumstance) often behave. This is not a typical story where someone is going to swoop in and “rescue” Fran from her social anxiety. Instead, the movie excels at showing in nuanced ways how human connections can be terrifying to people who are also afraid to confront their own insecurities.

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “Sometimes I Think About Dying” in select U.S. cinemas on January 26, 2024.

Review: ‘Eileen’ (2023), starring Thomasin McKenzie, Anne Hathaway, Shea Whigham, Marin Ireland and Owen Teague

December 9, 2023

by Carla Hay

Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie in “Eileen” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Eileen” (2023)

Directed by William Oldroyd

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1964 in an unnamed city in Massachusetts, the dramatic film “Eileen” (based on the 2015 novel of the same film) features a cast of predominantly white characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A shy administrative assistant at a juvenile detention center becomes enamored with a newly hired psychiatrist at the same job, and the two women do their own kind of pushback on what society expects from women. 

Culture Audience: “Eileen” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, the book on which the movie is based, and movies about repression and mental illness that take an unexpected turn.

Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway in “Eileen” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

Much like the movie’s namesake, “Eileen” appears to be going one way and then goes in a very different direction. The cast members’ intriguing performances are the main reason to watch this psychological drama, which takes a very dark turn near the end. The movie is weakened by a vague ending that doesn’t give the closure and answers that were given in the book.

Directed by William Oldroyd, “Eileen” is based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2015 novel of the same name. Moshfegh and Luke Goebel co-wrote the adapted screenplay for “Eileen.” The movie had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

“Eileen” takes place during a bitterly cold winter in 1964, in an unnamed Massachusetts city not far from Boston. (“Eileen” was actually filmed in New York and New Jersey.) Eileen Dunlop (played by Thomasin McKenzie) is a 24-year-old bachelorette, who lives a dreary existence with her alcoholic, widower father Jim Dunlop (played by Shea Whigham), who is a former police chief. In addition to his alcoholism, there are indications that Jim has an undiagnosed mental illness.

Jim is verbally and physically abusive to Eileen, who is miserable living with her father, but she can’t afford to move out of the house. Eileen doesn’t report the abuse because she knows that Jim still has friends in the local police force. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that Eileen has a co-dependent, love/hate relationship with her father. She hates his abuse, but she also wants to feel needed, because he depends on her to take care of him.

Eileen has an older sister named Joanne, who is married and hasn’t come by to visit in quite some time. Jim tells Eileen in no uncertain terms that Joanne is his favorite child. During one of Jim’s many drunken rants, he tells Eileen that he wishes that Eileen were as organized as Joanne is. There are hints that Jim probably sexually abused Joanne as a child, which would explain why Joanne is keeping her distance from him as an adult.

For the past three or four years, Eileen has been working as a secretary/administrative assistant at Moorehead, a boys’ juvenile detention center, which is essentially a prison. It’s mentioned at one point in the movie that Eileen is a college dropout. At her job, Eileen isn’t very well-liked by the other secretaries in the office, because she’s quiet and keeps mostly to herself. Mrs. Murray (played by Siobhan Fallon Hogan) and Mrs. Stevens (played by Tonye Patano) are the two of the nosy co-workers who speak in gossipy and condescending tones to Eileen.

The beginning of the movie shows that Eileen is very introverted, but she’s not as prim and proper as she appears to the outside world. Eileen is kind of a kinky voyeur: She puts ice down her underwear after watching a couple’s makeout session. Eileen’s love life is non-existent, but she has vivid sexual fantasies about having sex with a Moorehead guard named Randy (played by Owen Teague), who’s about the same age as Eileen.

However, someone else on the job arouses Eileen’s sexual interest even more than Randy. Her name is Rebecca St. John (played by Anne Hathaway), who is Moorehead’s newly hired prison psychologist. Eileen is entranced with Rebecca from the moment that she meets this new co-worker. Rebecca, who is originally from New York City, looks and acts more like a glamorous movie star than a psychologist.

At one point, Rebecca tells Eileen that although she’s had plenty of boyfriends, she’s never been married. Rebecca says her dating relationships are “just for fun” and never last. Rebecca comes across as a progressive (she believes that psychedelic drugs should be used as therapy) and independent (she say she loves living by herself), which is the opposite of the conservative and stifling lifestyle that Eileen feels she is being pressured to live.

Eileen is infatuated with Rebecca’s sophisticated ways and seems to be fascinated with everything that Rebecca does. Rebecca notices this admiration and makes an effort to befriend Eileen, who is very flattered by the attention and the compliments that she gets from Rebecca. It’s obvious that Eileen wants her relationship with Rebecca to be more than a friendship, but does Rebecca feels the same way?

One day, Eileen notices Rebecca having a counseling session with an inmate named Lee Polk (played by Sam Nivola) and his mother, who is identified in the movie only as Mrs. Polk (played by Marin Ireland). Lee is in prison for murdering his father by stabbing him to death in the father’s bed. The father was a police officer who worked in the same police department as Eileen’s father Jim.

Eileen can see the counseling session through glass windows, but she can’t hear what’s being said behind closed doors. However, Eileen knows that the session ended badly because Mrs. Polk storms out and shouts, “Filthy, nasty boy!” Meanwhile, Lee smirks in reaction to seeing his mother upset.

Shortly after the session ends, Rebecca asks Eileen if she thinks Mrs. Polk is an angry woman. Eileen doesn’t know enough about Mrs. Polk to give an opinion either way. However, Eileen tells Rebecca that she thinks Lee is intelligent and that he doesn’t seem like the type to be a cold-blooded murderer.

A turning point in Eileen’s relationship with Rebecca happens when Rebecca asks Eileen to go with her to a local bar. Rebecca says it’s because she’s new to the area and wants to meet more new people. But as far as Eileen is concerned (based on how excitedly she gets ready for this meet-up), Rebecca has asked her on a date. At the bar, Rebecca will only dance with Eileen and literally shoves a man away who tries to cut in on Rebecca and Eileen dancing together.

One of the strengths of “Eileen” is how all of the principal cast members make their characters very believable. Even when not much is happening in certain scenes, the performances of McKenzie and Hathaway make viewers wonder what Eileen and Rebecca might be really thinking, compared to what they’re saying out loud. That’s an example of the compelling acting in this movie.

Viewers who don’t know what’s in the “Eileen” book or don’t know what happens in the last third of the movie probably won’t see the plot twist coming. The “Eileen” book is told from the perspective of a middle-aged Eileen looking back on her life. The “Eileen” movie does not give that retrospective context and therefore brings up questions that remain unanswered by the end of the film. However, the movie has an impeccable buildup to its most suspenseful moments, even if the ending won’t be as satisfying as some viewers hope it will be.

Neon released “Eileen” in select U.S. cinemas on December 1, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on December 8, 2023.

Review: ‘Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project,’ starring Nikki Giovanni

November 11, 2023

by Carla Hay

Nikki Giovanni in “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project”

Directed by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson

Culture Representation: This biographical documentary film of activist/poet Nikki Giovanni features her first-person perspective, as well as commentary from African Americans and white people who are connected to her in some way.

Culture Clash: Giovanni, an outspoken critic of white supremacist racism, discusses overcoming an abusive background, family conflicts and resistance to her activism.

Culture Audience: “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching documentaries about unusual political activists.

Nikki Giovanni in “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” is a journey into a unique life and perspective that might not be for everyone, but it stands firm in its authenticity. This documentary about poet/activist Nikki Giovanni is bold and somewhat unconventional, just like Giovanni. The movie evokes outer space travel as an apt metaphor for how ideas and influences can transcend boundaries.

Directed by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary. The movie is told almost entirely from the perspective of Giovanni, with narration of some of her poems by actress Taraji P. Henson. The movie has the expected mix of archival footage and interviews conducted exclusively for the documnetary. However, “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” has added elements of atmospheric scenes of outer space, since Giovanni talks a lot about space travel and Mars.

The movie opens with a quote from Giovanni, “The trip to Mars can only be understood through black Americans.” If that sentence intrigues you, then this documentary might be your type of movie. Giovanni says in the documentary’s opening remark: “I don’t remember a lot of things, but a lot of things I don’t remember, I don’t choose to remember. I remember what’s important, and I make up the rest. That’s what storytelling is all about.”

In voiceover narration, Henson can be heard saying a line from Giovanni’s writing: “I think I’ll run away with the ants and live on Mars.” In another voiceover, Giovanni says: “I’m a big fan of black women, because in our blood is space travel, because we come from a known through an unknown. And that’s all that space travel is. If anybody can find what’s out there in the darkness, it’s black women.”

During a public Q&A with journalist/writer Touré, to promote her 2017 non-fiction book “A Good Cry: What We Learn From Tears and Laughter,” Giovanni comments on the enslaved black female slaves who were kidnapped in Africa and forced to live an enslaved life in the United States, where they were often raped by their white enslavers: “Being forced to have sex with aliens, whatever they put in us, we held it, and then we birthed it, and then we named it, and then we loved it. Why wouldn’t we do that on Mars?”

Giovanni was born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni on June 7, 1943 in Knoxville, Tennessee, but spent much of her childhood living in Ohio. Sometime in her childhood, she was given the nickname Nikki. Her parents Yolande Cornelia Sr. and Jones “Gus” Giovanni (who were sweethearts at Knoxville College) worked in public schools. Nikki graduated from Fisk University in Nashville in 1967. She has been a professor of writing and literature at Virginia Tech since 1987.

Nikki first came to national prominence as part of the Black Power movement that rose in the late 1960s. The documentary includes many archival clips of her appearances on TV shows, including “Soul!,” where she was a frequent guest. “Going to Mars” has has footage of several of Nikki’s speaking appearances, including at the 2016 Afropunk festival.

She also gets candid about her parents’ volatile marriage and says that her father often beat up her mother. Nikki says in a voiceover: “It was a stormy relationship at various points, but we know that deprivation gives us stormy relationships.” Later, she is shown saying during a WHYY radio interview about how she felt about her abusive father at the time she lived with him: “It was clear I was going to have to kill him, or else I’d have to move.”

Nikki’s complicated emotions about race and gender includes admitting to her prejudices. In a “Soul!” interview she did in 1971 with writer/poet James Baldwin, when she was at the height of her Black Power fame, she confessed that her biases were affecting her personal life: “I don’t like white people, and I’m afraid of black men. What do you do? That’s a cycle. And that’s unfortunate, because I need love.”

Nikki found love with her wife Virginia Fowler, who recruited Nikki to work at Virginia Tech. The two women are both cancer survivors: Nikki battled lung cancer in the 1990s. Fowler is recovering from lung cancer and breast cancer. Fowler talks a little bit about her cancer journey, but Nikki doesn’t really discuss her own cancer experiences in the documentary.

Nikki’s selective memory is also shown when someone named Tom calls her to ask Nikki to discuss her time at an unnamed magazine, but she declines to be interviewed. Nikki says it’s because she had a seizure and “doesn’t remember much.” She also chooses not to go into details about the relationship that resulted in the birth of her only child Thomas Govanni, who was born in 1969, and she raised him as a single mother.

Nikki doesn’t talk about the turbulent relationship that she’s had with Thomas, but Fowler comments that Nikki and Thomas were estranged for a number of years and have since reconciled. Thomas and his daughter Kai Giovanni appear briefly in the documentary, which shows Kai going to Nikki’s house for the first time.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of this documentary is that the most candid comments from Nikki are not things she said in exclusive interviews for the documentary but things she talked about in archival clips. Much credit should be given to the documentary’s research and editing teams for including a lot of this rarely seen footage. The documentary’s editing artfully weaves outer-space footage with the rest of the footage so that viewers feel like they are taken on a cosmic journey through Nikki’s life.

Most of the documentary’s original footage of Nikki consists of her at her home (such as a scene of her doing some gardening), hanging out with friends such as performer Novella Nelson, or making public speaking appearances. The most vulnerable that Nikki gets in the documentary is toward the end, when she copes with the grief over the death of her beloved aunt Agnes, who passed away at age 94. The documentary shows Nikki getting the news of the death and later speaking at Agnes’ funeral. Nikki comments during a moment that she is now the oldest living person in her family.

Nikki’s outlook on life can be summed up in two of her speaking appearances that are featured in the documentary. In a Q&A at the Apollo Theater with educator/actress Johnetta Cole, Nikki says: “I honestly think the most important word for me is ‘duty.’ … Our people have a great history, and it’s our duty to tell that story.” At another speaking appearance at a library in front of children, Nikki (who has written several children’s books) says: “I’m very fortunate that I just don’t care what people think about me.”

HBO released “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” in select U.S. cinemas on November 3, 2023. HBO and Max will premiere the movie on January 8, 2024.

Review: ‘Radical’ (2023), starring Eugenio Derbez, Daniel Haddad, Gilberto Barraza, Jennifer Trejo, Mía Fernanda Solís and Danilo Guardiola

November 10, 2023

by Carla Hay

Eugenio Derbez in “Radical” (Photo courtesy of Participant/Pantelion)

“Radical” (2023)

Directed by Christopher Zalla

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2011, in Matamoros, Mexico, the dramatic film “Radical” (based on a true story) features an all-Latin cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A charismatic teacher uses unconventional methods to transform a primary school where more than half of the students fail or drop out.

Culture Audience: “Radical” will appeal primarily to people who like watching “against all odds” stories about teachers who make a difference in the lives of troubled or underestimated students.

Danilo Guardiola and Jennifer Trejo in in “Radical” (Photo courtesy of Participant/Pantelion)

“Radical” tells an impactful story about how inspiration can be found in unorthodox ways. Credible performances elevate this drama, which is based on real people—even when there’s a familiar formula about a charismatic teacher who changes students’ lives. There’s enough grit in “Radical” to prevent it from being an overly sentimental story. “Radical” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Festival Favorite Award, a prize voted for by the festival’s audiences.

Written and directed by Christopher Zalla, “Radical” has a screenplay adapted from Joshua Davis’ 2013 Wired magazine article “A Radical Way of Unleashing a Generation of Geniuses.” There have been plenty of movies and TV shows about schoolteachers who shake up a problem-plagued school to make vast improvements in the classes that they are teaching, but Latin/Hispanic people are rarely at the center of these stories. “Radical” focuses entirely on people in Mexico and keeps the language in Spanish.

“Radical” takes place in 2011, in a crime-ridden and low-income part of Matamoros, Mexico. The main location in the story is Escuela Primaria José Urbina Lopez (José Urbina Lopez Primary School), a public school where more than half of the students are dropping out or failing in the beginning of the movie. The school is ranked last in Mexico’s ENLACE (Engaging Latin Communities for Education) test scores, a standard national exam in math, science and Spanish required for all students in third, fourth, fifth, sixth, ninth and 12th grades.

A new teacher has arrived at the school on short notice to replace a teacher named Mrs. Alvarez, who was out on maternity leave and has decided to quit to become a full-time mother. The new teacher is Sergio Juárez Correa (played by Eugenio Derbez), who makes an unforgettable first impression on his students o his first day of teaching at the school: He has overturned all the tables and chairs in the classroom. Sergio then tells the students (whose ages are about 11 and 12) to pretend that the room is an ocean, and the tables and chairs are boats.

Sergio pretends to drown, while the confused students stare at him. What the students don’t know yet but will soon find out is that this is Sergio’s way of teaching them about the physics of floating in water. He enthusiastically takes them to the school library, but when Sergio finds out that this underfunded school has outdated encyclopedias, decides to teach his students math and science in ways that don’t require books.

His first goal in the physics lesson is to motivate the students to get the correct answer to ths question: If two people (one fat, one muscular) who weighed the same were in the water, who would float better? You can easily guess what happens next when there’s a hot-tub-sized crate on the school property.

The school’s principal, whose name is only revealed as Chucho (played by Daniel Haddad), sees himself as a traditional disciplinarian. Chucho is taken aback and skeptical of Sergio’s unusual teaching methods. Sergio is frustrated by Chucho’s somewhat overbearing attitude and the underfunded school’s lack of resources. (The school’s only computer is in Chucho’s office.) It should come as no surprise that Sergio and Chucho have clashes, but their uneasy working relationship eventually evolves into a respectful friendship.

Sergio has several students, but three get the focus in this movie: brainy Paloma Novola (played by Jennifer Trejo), fun-loving Nico (played by Danilo Guardiola) and shy Lupe (played by Mía Fernanda Solís). All three of these students face obstacles from people in their lives who discourage them from graduating or getting a good education. Sergio somewhat acts like he wants to rescue them, but even he knows there are limitations on how much a teacher can get involved in the personal lives of his students.

Paloma is the smartest student in Sergio’s class, when it comes to math and science. She’s also one of the financially poorest students in the school and gets bullied by some of the students because of her poverty. Paloma lives near a garbage dump with her single father (played by Gilberto Barraza), who doesn’t have a name in the movie and who makes money by recycling trash. Her father discourages Paloma dream of becoming an aerospace engineer, because he thinks she shouldn’t get her hopes up too much from what to expect out of life. He even goes as far to burn the science magazines that Paloma has been reading.

Nico has a crush on Paloma and is insecure about showing her how he feels, because he thinks Paloma is too smart for him. There are a few endearing scenes where Nico seeks advice from Sergio on how to talk to a girl he likes. Sergio immediately knows that Nico is talking about Paloma. Nico’s education obstacle is that his older brother Chepe (played by Victor Estrada) is in a violent, drug-dealing gang that wants Nico to drop out of school and join the gang. The gang has already been using Nico to smuggle drugs.

Lupe has an interest and talent in philosophy. She loves to read. However, when she goes to a library to ask for certain academic books, a librarian tells her she’s too young to be reading these books. Eventually, a kind librarian gives Lupe the books she’s looking for, but Lupe’s biggest education obstacle comes from her own parents (played by Ermis Cruz and Viridiana López), who don’t have names in the movie. Lupe is in a large family that’s struggling financially. Lupe’s mother has gotten a new job with daytime work hours, and she expects Lupe to quit school to look after Lupe’s younger brother, who’s too young to go to school.

As for Sergio, who is he and what’s his story? The movie shows briefly that he’s married and has a baby son. And there are hints that Sergio has had a troubled past that has to do with his mental health. Things happen in the movie that test Sergio and his willingness to help his students thrive when getting pushback from many doubters and naysayers. Some of what happens takes a toll on his mental health and emotions.

“Radical” hits many of the same beats that movies have about a special teacher who transforms the minds and attitudes of students whose parents or communities have given up on them. Derbez (who is one of the producers of “Radical”) gives a magnetic performance that is a combination of Sergio being eccentric but relatable.

Sergio enthusiasm for teaching goes beyond wanting his students to get high test scores. It’s about changing the way they look at life and giving them the confidence to believe that they can accomplish things that other people say that they can’t. As time goes on, it’s obvious that Sergio understands his students because he’s gotten the same negative attitudes from his teaching peers and supervisors.

Guardiola and Trejo are also very good in their roles as Nico and Paloma, who start to see themselves as the individuals they are all instead of what other people in their lives expect them to be. Sergio obviously gives them encouragement to pursue their dreams, but the movie shows that Sergio alone isn’t responsible for the development of Nico and Paloma, since a lot of their personal growth comes from within themselves.

“Radical” isn’t a preachy movie about a know-it-all teacher. Sergio has moments of self-doubt and isn’t afraid to admit to his students when he doesn’t have all the answers to their questions. The biggest lesson that Sergio teaches these students are those that they can apply in and out of the classroom: Be curious, be bold in trying new things, and be yourself.

Pantelion and Participant released “Radical” in U.S. cinemas on November 3, 2023.

Review: ‘All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,’ starring Charleen McClure, Moses Ingram, Reginald Helms Jr., Zainab Jah, Sheila Atim and Chris Chalk

November 5, 2023

by Carla Hay

Kaylee Nicole Johnson, Jannie Hampton and Jayah Henry in “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” (Photo by Jaclyn Martinez/A24)

“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt”

Directed by Raven Jackson

Culture Representation: Taking place from the 1970s to the 2020s, primarily in an unnamed rural part of Mississippi, the dramatic film “All Dirt Roads Taste of Saly” features an all-African American cast of characters representing the working-class.

Culture Clash: The story of a rural family struggling with poverty and grief in Mississippi is told across generations and mainly from the perspectives of the females in the family.

Culture Audience: “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching artistic and experimental movies about rural American families.

Sheila Atim and Kaylee Nicole Johnson in “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” (Photo by Jaclyn Martinez/A24)

As the title suggests, “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” is not going to appeal to everyone, it’s not entirely comfortable to experience, and it’s probably an acquired taste. It’s a cinematic poem that is best appreciated by viewers who are open to watching slow-paced movies that don’t follow a traditional narrative structure. This unique and atmospheric drama shows the connection between nature and a rural Mississippi family.

“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” is the feature-film debut of writer/director Raven Jackson, who has a background as a poet and photographer. These talents are evident in the often-abstract way that the story is told in “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” and how this movie uses visuals to tell much of the story, which has very little dialogue. “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and made the rounds at other film festivals in 2023, including the New York Film Festival.

“All Dirt Roads of Salt” is told in non-chronological order and presented as pieces of a puzzle that challenges viewers to put these pieces together to see the bigger picture and the overall story. The rural Mississippi family who’s at the center of the movie is a tight-knit clan that has to cope with poverty, heartbreak and sudden tragedy. The family consists of spouses Evelyn (played by Sheila Atim) and Isaiah (played by Chris Chalk), who are happily married and live in a modest home with their daughters Mackenzie (nicknamed Mack) and Josie.

Mack (who was born in 1970) is about three years older than Josie. Mack is slightly rebellious and more outspoken than mild-mannered Josie. Kaylee Nicole Johnson has the role of Mack as a pre-teen. Charleen McClure, who makes her feature-film debut in “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” portrays Mack as a teenager and adult. Jayah Henry has the role of Josie as a pre-teen. Moses Ingram depicts Josie as a teenager and as an adult.

It’s not mentioned in the movie how the parents make money, but it’s clear that the family members get a lot of their food from the land where they live. The movie’s opening scene shows Isaiah patiently teaching Mack how to fish, while Josie watches nearby. Another scene shows Evelyn teaching Mack how to skin a fish. Isaiah and Evelyn are loving parents who are strict. At one point in the movie, Evelyn tells Mack, “Don’t speak until you’re spoke to.”

Evelyn and Mack also spend some mother/daughter time together by digging for clay dirt, which Evelyn puts in a shoebox. Some African Americans, especially in the Southern part of the U.S., follow a tradition of eating clay dirt, in order to commune with nature. This tradition originated in West Africa.

Because “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” does not tell this family’s story in a linear manner, it’s up to viewers to pay attention and figure out what this family’s story is. Without giving away too many details in this review, it’s enough to say that this family goes through many difficult challenges. In one scene, Isaiah and some local men frantically try to put out flames on the family home as it’s being burned, while the other family members stand by and watch with sadness and fear. (No reason is given in the movie for how or why this fire occurred.)

There’s also a death in the family that drastically changes the childhoods of Mack and Josie. Their maternal grandmother Betty (played by Jannie Hampton) comes to visit during this time of grief. Like many grandmothers, Betty is able to hold the family together and be a source of comfort during overwhelming sadness. Betty also tells Mack and Josie some family history that these grandchildren did not know.

As a teenager, Mack falls for a local teen named Wood (played by Preston McDowell), and they have a sweet romance. There are clues that their relationship has been on-again/off-again, because by the time they are young adults, Mack and Wood (played by Reginald Helms Jr.) are no longer a couple. Mack is pregnant with Wood’s child, but he is married to a woman named Rita, who is never seen in the movie.

Mack and Wood still have a love connection and find ways to see each other for romantic trysts. Wood tries to show that he wants to be in this baby’s life, but Mack knows that it’s unlikely that Wood will leave his wife for her. Mack’s decision about how the baby will be raised is shown in the movie.

“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” has several scenes that take place outdoors in the woods, especially when it’s raining. The movie’s immersive cinematography (by Jomo Fray) and sound mixing are sensory experiences in this world. The sights and sounds of nature are meant to be intertwined with the human condition that’s presented in this movie.

When Mack gives birth to a daughter named Lily and tells Lily as a baby (played by Naomi Glenn), “You’re made of dirt. You know that?,” it’s not meant as an insult but as a way to tell her child the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” philosophy of the life-death cycle. Lily (played by Robin Crudup) is later shown as a child who’s about 9 or 10 years old.

Because there isn’t much dialogue in “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” the cast members often have to act with their facial expressions and body language. The performances in the movie are capable, but not spectacular. “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” is not about showoff performances but about naturalistic “slice of life” snippets of this family. Mack, the character who gets the most screen time, is the only character who is shown from infancy (played by Mylee Shannon) to middle age (played by Zainab Jah).

Why is eating clay dirt a tradition for some people? By eating the dirt, people who believe in this tradition also believe that they can detect the health of the earth around them. If viewers are patient enough to watch “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” they can see how the movie artfully shows that the well-being of nature can transform over time and can be connected to how people can transform over time as human beings.

A24 released “All Dirt RoadsTaste of Salt” in select U.S. cinemas on November 3, 2023.

Review: ‘Shortcomings’ (2023), starring Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Tavi Gevinson, Debby Ryan, Sonoya Mizuno, Jacob Batalon and Timothy Simons

October 22, 2023

by Carla Hay

Sherry Cola and Justin H. Min in “Shortcomings” (Photo by Jon Pack/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Shortcomings” (2023)

Directed by Randall Park

Culture Representation: Taking place in the San Francisco Bay Area and in New York City, the comedy film “Shortcomings” (based on the graphic novel of the same name) features an Asian and white cast of characters portraying the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After an aspiring filmmaker and his girlfriend agree to take a break from each other while she does an internship in New York City, he and his semi-closeted lesbian best friend have various experiences in the dating scene.

Culture Audience: “Shortcomings” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies about single people looking for love and having a lot of quip-filled banter about their relationships.

Ally Maki and Justin H. Min in “Shortcomings” (Photo by Jon Pack/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Shortcomings” avoids romantic comedy clichés by not focusing on who’s going to be in a happy romance at the end. It’s a mostly entertaining character study of about a cynical grouch and his lesbian best friend, as they navigate the dating scene. “Shortcomings” is neither a classic film, nor is it an awful movie that’s a waste of time. It’s somewhere in between, as a movie that’s a fairly good option for people who are inclined to like movies where most of the scenes are people talking about themselves and their love lives.

Randall Park, who is best known as a comedic actor (he was a star of the 2015-2020 comedy TV series “Fresh Off the Boat”), makes his feature-film directorial debut with “Shortcomings,” a witty and occasionally sitcom-ish examination of unmarried people with a jaded attitude that often masks the hope of finding true love. (Park has a cameo in the movie as a waiter named Ji-Hun.) “Shortcomings” is based on the 2007 graphic novel of the same name by Adrian Tomine, who adapted the book into the “Shortcomings” screenplay. “Shortcomings” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and its New York premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival.

In the beginning of “Shortcomings,” aspiring filmmaker Ben Takanaka (played by Justin H. Min) and his girlfriend Miko Higashi (played by Ally Maki), who are both Japanese American and in their late 20s, are watching a romantic comedy at a movie theater in Berkeley, California, where they live. The movie they are watching is an unimaginative ripoff of “Crazy Rich Asians,” and it’s playing as part of the East Bay Asian American Film Festival. Miko is one of the programmers of the festival, so she’s thrilled that this movie is there.

After the screening in the theater lobby, Miko says to Ben: “As a community, we waited a long time to see ourselves reflected in a …” Ben then interrupts and finishes the sentence by saying, “A garish, mainstream rom com that glorifies the capitalistic fantasy of validation through wealth and materialism?” Miko looks slightly offended, but she’s become accustomed to Ben making cutting remarks when he doesn’t approve of something. Viewers will find out that Ben doesn’t approve of a lot of things.

Miko and Ben live together and have been dating each other for six years. Ben has issues with Miko recently having a political awakening about her Asian heritage and being more outspoken about Asian representation in many aspects of life. Ben (who occasionally talks out loud to himself and the “Shortcoming” viewers) says of Miko’s newfound political awakening: “She’s doing it because it’s trendy.”

It should come as no surprise that Ben and Miko have not been getting along with each other lately. Most of their arguments are about Ben thinking that Miko is some kind of “sellout,” while Miko thinks that Ben is jealous that her career has been advancing in the movie industry while his has not. Ben works as a manager of a local movie theater called Berkeley Arts Cinema.

Ben and Miko also have very different attitudes when it comes to love and marriage. Miko eventually wants to settle down and get married. She thinks that marriage should be the next step in her relationship with Ben. Ben doesn’t think they need to get married to prove anything. They’ve reached a stalemate regarding this issue.

Miko also has a problem with what she thinks is Ben’s sexual obsession with white women, especially pretty blondes. Ben denies it, but Miko gets triggered when she finds out that Ben has been looking at porn that only has white people in it. Ben thinks she’s overreacting and says it’s ridiculous for Miko to think he can only look at porn with Asian people in it. However, Miko is correct about Ben having an attraction to pretty blondes, based on who becomes his two love interests later in the movie.

And so, when Miko tells Ben that she has accepted an opportunity to do a three-month internship at the Asian American Film Institute in New York City, Ben and Miko mutually agree that they should take a break from their relationship. During this break, they can date other people and figure out after Miko’s internship ends if they should become a couple again or break up permanently. Ben sees it as a chance to explore the dating scene and see what he’s been missing.

Meanwhile, Ben’s best friend is Alice Lee (played by Sherry Cola), a Korean American lesbian who hasn’t told her conservative parents about her true sexuality. Alice not only hasn’t told her parents, she also deliberately misleads them into thinking that she dates men. As shown in the “Shortcomings” trailer, Alice pretends that Ben is her boyfriend when she introduces him to her parents (played by Borah Ahn and David Niu), who don’t have names in the movie.

Ben, who is a self-described movie snob, manages a small staff at Berkeley Arts Cinema. The employees he supervises include two self-admitted movie geeks who are concessions workers: talkative Gene (played by Jacob Batalon) and laid-back Lamont (played by Scott Seiss), who have constant debates and other discussions about movies. In a very meta joke, Gene mentions in one of these conversations that he prefers the “new Spider-Man.” (In real life, Batalon is a co-star of the “Spider-Man” movies starring Tom Holland.)

A new employee who has joined the team has caught the romantic interest of Ben. Her name is Autumn (played by Tavi Gevinson), a hipster who works in the theater’s box office. Ben wants to date her, but he’s also aware of how tricky it can be for a supervisor to date someone who reports to the supervisor. Autumn invites Ben to an avant-garde spoken-word performance that she is doing, and it’s Ben’s chance to see if this could possibly lead to a romance with Autumn, or if she wants to keep the relationship strictly platonic.

Around the same time, Ben meets down-to-earth Sasha (played by Debby Ryan) at a house party where Alice is also in attendance. One of the first things that Sasha says to Ben is: “We’re probably the only two people at this party whom Alice Lee has not seduced.” Sasha also confirms that she’s bisexual when Sasha tells Ben that she’s single and available after breaking up with her most recent girlfriend two months ago. Ben and Sasha have an instant attraction to each other, but Alice tells Ben not to date Sasha, whom Alice calls a “fence sitter.”

As already shown in the “Shortcomings” trailer, Alice decides to move to New York City. What’s not shown in the trailer: Alice moves to New York City because she got expelled from grad school for kicking another student in the vagina during an argument. This violent incident is not shown in the movie. While in New York City, Alice’s life changes when she meets another queer woman named Meredith (played by Sonoya Mizuno), and they quickly become involved with each other.

Ben decides to visit New York City, partly to hang out with Alice, and partly to spy on Miko. This is where the movie gets into sitcom-ish territory. Ben gets jealous after finding out that Miko has started dating a guy named Leo Alexander (played by Timothy Simons), who met Miko through Leo’s filmmaker friend whose movie was at the East Bay Asian American Film Festival. (Miko dating Leo is also revealed in the “Shortcomings” trailer.)

There really isn’t much of a plot to “Shortcomings,” whose appeal is mainly in watching how these characters interact with each other. The best scenes, of course, are those with Ben and Alice, who feel comfortable enough with each other to tell each other exactly how they feel. It’s in contrast to how Ben puts on more of a “nice guy” front as being sensitive and insecure when he’s dating someone new. He’s much more acerbic and pessimistic when people get to know him better and he shows his true personality.

It’s through the characters of Ben and Alice that viewers see how people often present themselves one way to certain people and another way to other people. Min handles his role as the often-unlikable Ben with considerable aplomb. Ben is not a “villain,” but he’s deliberately portrayed as a very flawed, self-sabotaging individual who hasn’t figured out yet that he’s going to have a hard time finding true love if he doesn’t love himself.

In the role of Alice, Cola has impeccable comedic timing and makes her banter scenes with Min have creative sparks of energy that are enjoyable to watch. The friendship between Ben and Alice is more meaningful than many of the romantic relationships shown in the movie. Overall, “Shortcomings” can be an amusing and realistic look at people’s personality quirks and insecurities that often get amplified (or covered up) when they go through the ups and downs of dating. It’s the type of movie that succeeds in its intention of making viewers laugh and feel uncomfortable at the same time, with an ending that is entirely authentic.

Sony Pictures Classics released “Shortcomings” in select U.S. cinemas on August 4, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on September 14, 2023, and on Blu-ray and DVD on October 17, 2023.

Review: ‘Cassandro,’ starring Gael García Bernal

October 17, 2023

by Carla Hay

Gael García Bernal in “Cassandro” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Content Services)

“Cassandro”

Directed by Roger Ross Williams

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Mexico, from 1988 to 1993, the dramatic film “Cassandro” (based on a true story) features a predominantly Latin cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Openly gay wrestler Saúl Armendáriz changes his name to Cassandro, and he becomes a wrestling star, but he faces challenges inside and outside the ring because of his sexuality.

Culture Audience: “Cassandro” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Gael García Bernal and anyone interested in unique stories about wrestlers.

Gael García Bernal and Perla De La Rosa in “Cassandro” (Photo by Alejandro Lopez Pineda/Amazon Content Services)

The dramatic film “Cassandro” isn’t a comprehensive biopic because it only focuses on a period time when luchador Cassandro (whose real name is Saúl Armendáriz) had a career that was on the rise. Even though Gael García Bernal doesn’t look like the real Cassandro, he does a pretty good job of embodying his essence. This lucha libre biopic isn’t as interesting as the documentary “Cassandro, the Exotico!,” but it’s a fairly compelling drama.

Directed by Roger Ross Williams (who co-wrote the “Cassandro” screenplay with David Teague) “Cassandro” glosses over or leaves out some things that were in the 2019 documentary “Cassandro, the Exotico!,” which told much more of Cassandro’s life story. The dramatic film “Cassandro” (which had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival) is more like a few chapters in a biography. Bernal’s performance is the main reason to watch, because some of the movie gets repetitive.

The real Cassandro was born and raised in El Paso, Texas. As an adult, he relocated to Mexico, where he made his name as a luchador. His birth year was 1970, and the “Cassandro” movie takes place from 1988 to approximately 1993, when he was in his late teens and early 20s. Bernal was born in 1978, which means that he was in his early 40s when he made “Cassandro” but portraying someone who is supposed to be in his late teens and early 20s. Bernal is also much thinner than the stocky Cassandro, and their faces have no resemblance to each other.

Despite these discrepancies in physical appearance and age, Bernal immerses himself in the character of Cassandro. People who know what the real Cassandro looks like might not be able to get past how different Bernal looks from the real Cassandro. However, for those who can appreciate seeing a wrestling movie with good acting, there’s plenty to like about “Cassandro.”

The movie is told in chronological order and begins in a dressing room before a wrestling match. Cassandro, whose wrestling persona at the time was wearing a mask, is being taunted by the wrestler who will be his opponent in the ring: a brute named Gigántico (played by real-life wrestler Murder Clown), who is nearly twice the size of Cassandro.

“Do you like digging holes, or do you like getting your hole dug?” Gigántico asks Cassandro. Cassandro then places a photo of his mother Yocasta (played by Perla De La Rosa) on his dressing room table. Gigántico then tells Cassandro: “You should take off your mask and become an exotico.” (An exotico is a luchador who dresses in drag or wears heavy makeup un wrestling matches and does exaggerated moves that are meant to depict someone who is a flamboyant gay man.)

Gigántico continues to needle Cassandro: “What’s with the shitty moustache?” Cassandro answers, “I grew it for you, honey. I heard you like the way it tickles.” Cassandro loses the match against Gigántico. And then, Cassandro is even more disappointed when he hears he has to fight Gigántico again in Cassandro’s next match.

At the time, Cassandro is on the low end of the professional wrestling hierarchy. Like most athletes, he wants to become a champion. As luck would have it, Cassandro finds the trainer he needs. She’s a wrestler named Sabrina (played by Roberta Colindrez), who uses the wrestler name Lady Anarquía.

Sabrina has been observing Cassandro for a while and has become an admirer who thinks Cassandro has a lot of potential. When she offers to train Cassandro, he tells her he won’t be able to afford what she charges. Sabrina replies, “Don’t worry about it.”

Saúl/Cassandro is very close to his mother Yocasta and is unapologetic about being a “mama’s boy.” Yocasta, who works as a housekeeper/maid, is accepting of Saúl/Cassandro being openly gay. The movie shows that Yocasta gets some prejudice from two maid co-workers who make derogatory remarks about Yocasta being a single mother of an illegitimate son.

Saúl/Cassandro is estranged from his religious father Eduardo (played by Robert Salas), who does not accept Saúl/Cassandro being gay. Saúl/Cassandro and Eduardo have not seen each other since Saúl/Cassandro came out as gay when he was 15 years old. Eduardo and Saúl/Cassandro later have a conversation, which is one of the best scenes in the movie.

The movie alternates between showing Cassandro’s rise as an exotico in the lucha libre circuit and showing things that happen in his personal life. He starts using cocaine with a drug buddy named Felipe (played by Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, also known as music star Bad Bunny), who seems to be sexually attracted to Cassandro, but Felipe (who has a girlfriend) presents himself to the world as being heterosexual.

Cassandro has a more emotional connection to a fellow wrestler named Gerardo (played by Raúl Castillo), who is married to a woman and has two underage kids with her. Cassandro briefly met Gerardo’s wife and kids when he and Yocasta were at a diner and happened to see Gerado and his family at a nearby table. Soon after Cassandro and Gerardo meet each other, they have a secretive romance. But considering that Gerardo is deeply closeted and has no intention of leaving his wife, it’s easy to predict what will happen to the affair that he’s having with Cassandro.

“Cassandro” shows glimpses of the business wheeling and dealing that takes place in lucha libra industry. Cassandro’s agent/booker is Lorenzo (played by Joaquín Cosío), who introduced Felipe to Cassandro. Lorenzo’s ethics are very murky, since he knows and almost encourages Felipe to supply Cassandro with cocaine. Cassandro experiences a lot of homophobia from people in the wrestling industry and in the general public, but Lorenzo doesn’t seem to care too much, as long as Cassandro is making money for Lorenzo.

Because “Cassandro” takes place over an approximate five-year period, which consists of Cassandro’s earliest years as a pro wrestler, it’s not depicted in the movie how Cassandro’s cocaine addiction escalates and nearly ruins his life and career. This part of Cassandro’s life story is in “Cassandro the Exotico!” documentary. Perhaps the filmmakers of “Cassandro” didn’t want to do a typical “rise-fall-comeback” story arc that is often used in celebrity biopics, but it still feels like the movie doesn’t have a realistic portrayal of the down sides of Cassandro’s cocaine addiction.

“Cassandro” has some areas that come across as a bit dull and too talkative. The wrestling scenes are entertaining, but the movie’s most emotionally resonant moments happen outside the ring. The mother/son relationship that Cassandro and Yocasta have is enjoyable to watch. However, the character of Sabrina seems underdeveloped in the movie, which makes her dialogue quite generic. Even when the movie has some weak moments of banality, Bernal carries the movie with emotional authenticity and charisma.

Amazon Studios released “Cassandro” in select U.S. cinemas on September 15, 2023. Prime Video premiered the movie on September 22, 2023.

Review: ‘King Coal’ (2023), starring Lanie Marsh and Gabrielle Wilson

August 21, 2023

by Carla Hay

Gabrielle Wilson and Lanie Marsh in “King Coal” (Photo courtesy of Drexler Films/Cottage M/ Fishbowl Films)

“King Coal” (2023)

Directed by Elaine McMillion Sheldon

Culture Representation: Taking place in the central Appalachian region of the United States, the documentary “King Coal” features a group of predominantly white people (with some African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class and who are connected to the coal mining industry in some way.

Culture Clash: People in this region rely on coal for their economies and lifestyles, even though the coal mining industry is on the decline.

Culture Audience: “King Coal” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in watching a documentary that offers a specific point of view of American traditions but the documentary doesn’t follow a traditional format.

Lanie Marsh in “King Coal” (Photo courtesy of Drexler Films/Cottage M/Fishbowl Films)

“King Coal” is a visually artistic and poetic achievement in documentary filmmaking. In telling this intimate story about Appalachian coal mining culture, director/narrator Elaine McMillion Sheldon gives a cinematic equivalent of an entrancing mosaic. “King Coal” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Sheldon (who is not seen on screen in “King Coal”) wrote the bulk of the documentary’s voiceover narration, which sounds like a combination of an ode and an observation. The documentary is about the region where Sheldon was born and raised, so she admits her bias up front but also has enough clarity to see and describe things for what they are. A caption in the beginning of “King Coal” states: “This film takes place in Central Appalachia, filmed in parts of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Eastern Kentucky, Southwestern Virginia, Western North Carolina, East Tennessee, and every square inch of my home state of West Virginia.”

In telling this region’s story of how coal mining is essential to this Appalachian culture, Sheldon chose not to have “King Coal” follow the usual documentary formula of mixing archival footage with exclusive new footage. Instead, “King Coal” has glimpses into the lives of the residents who are shown in the documentary. No one in the documentary has captions identifying them by name when they’re on screen. Their names are listed in the end credits.

An active and inquisitive girl named Lanie Marsh (who was 12 years old when she was filmed for “King Coal”) is shown throughout the documentary. Marsh (who has red hair, just like Sheldon) was obviously chosen because she probably reminds Sheldon of herself when Sheldon was that age. Sheldon pretty much admits it in a part of the voiceover narration when Sheldon wonders out loud if Marsh is thinking the same things that she used to think when she grew up in that area. Sheldon remembers that in her own childhood, the first time she heard Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” she “welled up with pride” because she thought Lynn has written the song for her.

Marsh has a best friend named Gabrielle Wilson (also 12 years old when “King Coal” was filmed), who is quieter than Marsh but no less attentive to her surroundings. The documentary shows them taking walks in the area, dancing in various places, looking for coal in a creek, or hanging out in each other’s homes. Wilson and Marsh not only represent Sheldon’s wistful look back at her youth but also represent the generation coming of age in this region that will experience more phasing out of fossil fuels for energy, as the climate change crisis alters the environment.

The parents of Marsh and Wilson are not part of this story, although one scene briefly shows a hint of what their families are like. Marsh and Wilson are talking at someone’s home when Marsh asks Wilson if coal mining is important to Wilson’s family. Wilson hesitates and says, “I don’t know.” When Wilson asks Marsh if coal is important to Marsh’s family, Marsh says without hesitation, “Yes.”

“King Coal” begins and ends with a funeral, as a way to remind viewers that coal mining is a dangerous job. A funeral procession is seen from a distance in the movie’s opening scene, while the outdoor funeral ceremony is shown up close during one of movie’s last scenes. These are somber but realistic bookends to a cinéma vérité-styled documentary that also shows people enjoying their lives as best as they can in the area that they call home.

Death is a hovering presence in “King Coal.” Coal is presented as a source that can give economic life but can take human lives as a result of mining for coal. The only deaths mentioned in this documentary are the deaths of coal miners. Sheldon mentions that her brother is part of the fourth generation of coal miners in her family. Her grandfather (who is shown in the documentary) is a retired coal miner who is now a gravedigger—yet another reference to death.

Sheldon describes in the voiceover narration what it’s like to mine for coal: “Going underground is like going to space: You’re the first person to touch that piece of earth.” She also says that miners, more than most other people, are attuned to the sights, sounds and smells that can kill them. Later in the documentary, it’s shown what some of the region’s rituals are when a coal miner in a community dies: Stop the clocks, turn the mirrors around, open the windows, toll the bells, and build the casket.

One of the documentary’s scenes takes place in a tattoo shop, where a tattoo artist is shown engraving a tattoo on a customer who is a coal miner. The tattoo artist tells his customer that he was briefly a coal miner, but couldn’t take the stress of knowing that the job could kill him. The tattoo artist said he lasted only three days on the job as a coal miner before quitting, because he says he was unnerved when he saw an enormous roof on a mine shaft collapse near him.

“King Coal” gets its title from Sheldon repeating in her narration that in this region, coal has been the king that rules people’s lives. This king has lost a lot of its power, but it is still feared and needed, she explains. “He’s not dead or alive—he’s a ghost,” she adds. Sheldon says that from an early age, she learned not to speak out publicly against King Coal, or else she would be considered an ungrateful traitor.

Sheldon comments, “For most, coal is a dirty polluter, an unglamorous black rock. But for those of us who grew up with it, coal is intrinsic.” The documentary shows how coal is inescapable as part of people’s everyday lives in this region. A man is shown being tested on his shoveling skills, as he shoveling coals from one pile to another in front of a small crowd, in what appears to be a job audition. In another scene, during a running marathon, contestants have coal soot thrown at them by bystanders, as part of a tradition.

A retired coal miner—dressed in a coal mining outfit and his face smeared with soot for dramatic effect—is shown giving a speaking appearance about coal mining in a school classroom of children who are about 9 or 10 years old. The documentary also shows a snippet of the Miss King Coal Beauty Pageant, where eager young women talk about being role models and having pride for their coal community. There are also scenes of families and other people enjoying themselves at the 28th Annual West Virginia Coal Festival. And yes, there are the expected scenes of coal miners doing their work.

“King Coal” has stunning cinematography, especially in the outdoor scenes that show the natural beauty, as well as some of the environmental scars, of this region. This is not a documentary that goes in-depth about the business of coal mining. Some viewers might be bored with “King Coal” if they’re expecting to see a lot of personal drama, big conflicts or some kind of investigative documentary. If “King Coal” is a love letter to Sheldon’s native Appalachia and coal mining culture, then it’s a love letter that acknowledges the flaws along with the strengths.

Drexler Films, Cottage M and Fishbowl Films released “King Coal” in New York City on August 11, 2023. The movie has a weekly expansion to cinemas in more U.S. cities throughout August and September 2023.

Review: ‘Landscape With Invisible Hand,’ starring Asante Blackk, Kylie Rogers and Tiffany Haddish

August 19, 2023

by Carla Hay

Asante Blackk and Kylie Rogers in “Landscape With Invisible Hand” (Photo courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“Landscape With Invisible Hand”

Directed by Cory Finley

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2036 to 2037, in an unnamed U.S. city, the sci-fi film “Landscape With Invisible Hand” (based on the 2017 book of the same name) features an African American and white cast of characters (with a few Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After an alien invasion leaves most people on Earth destitute and desperate for money, a teenage aspiring painter artist agrees to fake a romance with a classmate, in order to be paid to livestream their relationship, but problems occur when the teens are sued by an alien for fraud.

Culture Audience: “Landscape With Invisible Hand” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the book on which the movie is based, as well as movies that have commentary about social inequalities and cashing in on voyeurism.

Tiffaany Haddish and Asante Blackk in “Landscape With Invisible Hand” (Photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“Landscape With Invisible Hand” is a mixed bag of quirky science fiction that sometimes gets boring and repetitive. However, the story is presented in a memorable cinematic way, and the performances do justice to the source material. “Landscape With Invisible Hand” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The movie’s title is explained in the movie’s last scene.

Written and directed by Cory Finley, “Landscape With Invisible Hand” is based on M.T. Anderson’s 2017 novel of the same name. It’s a movie with a low-key satirical tone that might not be appreciated by anyone expecting more comedic material. There’s some pointed commentary (in a “show, don’t tell” way) about colonialism, social class prejudices and the role that technology plays in people making money off of their private lives. Some of the commentary is right on target, while other commentary is a little too tame and should have been more impactful.

“Landscape With Invisible Hand” (which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city from the years 2036 to 2037) is told primarily from the perspective of 17-year-old introvert Adam Campbell (played by Asante Blackk), a very talented painter artist who wants to do his art for a living. In this story, Earth has been taken over by outer-space aliens called Vuvv, which have tentacles on their heads and have hands that look like oar paddles. When the Vuvv creatures talk, they rub their hands together, which makes a sound similar to sandpaper being rubbed together. The Vuvv creatures can speak human languages, but they do not have human emotions and are fascinated by anything that shows human emotions.

The Vuvv invasion of Earth has left almost everyone on Earth desolate and desperate for money, because the Vuvv creatures want humans to be at their financial mercy. People aren’t wandering around looking dirty and starving and dressed in raggedy clothing. The desperation is more subtle: People in this area have enough to eat and drink, and institutions (schools, hospitals, etc.) are still running smoothly, but the cost of basic living has become increasingly too much for most of the population.

There’s a constantly hovering Vuvv “mothership” in the sky where some people have chosen to live, in order get “elite” and “special” treatment from the Vuvv creatures. But choosing to live on this enormous spaceship means that the selected humans often have to leave loved ones behind on Earth. There are signs of the apocalypse everywhere, including areas that look they were hit by a bomb. At one point in the movie, Adam tells a new classmate who becomes his love interest that he had a chance to live in this mothership, but he chose not to go.

Adam lives in a middle-class but increasingly run-down house with his mother Beth Campbell (played by Tiffany Haddish), a lawyer who can’t find work as a lawyer and has been struggling to pay the bills with the low-paying job she currently has. In this post-apocalyptic society, Beth is considered very lucky to have a job and a home, since many people on Earth are currently unemployed and have lost or are close to losing their homes. Adam’s quiet younger sister Natalie (played Brooklynn MacKinzie), who’s about 12 or 13 years old, also lives in the household.

Beth’s husband (played by William Jackson Harper), a real estate developer who doesn’t have a first name in the movie, left the family to find better job opportunities on the West Coast. Mr. Campbell eventually stopped keeping in touch with his wife and kids, who have all assumed that he abandoned them. They have no idea where he currently lives.

The main thing that gives Adam comfort during this bleak existence is his passion for painting. He usually paints portraits and landscapes on various surfaces. Throughout the movie, several paintings are shown (most of them are Adam’s paintings) which describe the title of the painting, the type of paint used, the type of surface and the year that the painting was completed. Natalie’s source of comfort is tending to a garden in the family’s empty backyard pool. Natalie is a very underdeveloped and forgettable character in this movie.

At school, Adam has a homeroom teacher named Mr. Stanley (played by John Newberg), who announces to the class that he is going to be replaced by an artificial intelligence hologram. Almost everyone on the teaching staff will be laid off for the same reason—all because the Vuvv creatures want it that way. It’s another example of how the Vuvv creatures abuse their power.

During an art class, Adam meets a new student during her first day at this school. Her name is Chloe Marsh (played by Kylie Rogers), who is smart but very jaded. Chloe is about the same age as Adam. She doesn’t take the art class seriously at all—when the class is asked to draw a portrait of a fellow student, she draws a giant penis instead—but Chloe and Adam have an instant rapport. She compliments Adam on his artistic talent. Adam is immediately attracted to her in a romantic way.

Chloe’s first day at school is jolted by a tragedy. While she, Adam and several people are outside in the front of the school, they see Mr. Stanley walk outside and shoot himself. The suicide is talked about later, but in a way implying that human suicides have become so common in this Vuvv-controlled world, suicide is not as shocking as it was before the Vuvv takeover of Earth.

Chloe tells Adam that she and her widowed and disillusioned father Mr. Marsh (played by Josh Hamilton) and angry older brother Hunter Marsh (played by Michael Gandolfini), who’s in his late teens, are temporarily homeless. Adam is eager to impress Chloe, so he invites the Marsh family to stay in the basement of his family’s house. At first, Beth thinks the Marsh family will only be staying for a few days. But then, over dinner in the family home, Adam tells Beth that he invited the Marsh family to stay as long as they need.

This news does not go down well with Beth, but she has enough compassion to not kick the Marsh family out of the house. Mr. Marsh is unemployed, but he promises Beth that he will start paying her rent when he finds a job. Meanwhile, Adam’s attraction to Chloe begins to grow. He is so infactuated with her, he paints a portrait of her and gives it to Chloe as a gift. She is very flattered, and there are indications she’s starting to be romantically attracted to Adam too.

One of the quirks about this new existence after the Vuvv invasion is that humans on Earth now have new types of food to consume. This food is usually jelly-like versions of solid foods that humans used to enjoy before the invasion. Solid foods in their original forms are considered luxurious delicacies. Hunter often whines and complains about the food that he has to eat.

Chloe eventually gets the idea to make money by getting involved in a livestreaming program called Courtship Broadcast, where people agree to livestream their love lives for the amusement of the Vuvv creatures. Courtship Broadcast works much like today’s social media: The more followers/subscribers someone has, the more potential there is to make money. People who livestream on Courtship Broadcast put detachable nodes on their foreheads to activate the livestream. When they want to interrupt or stop the livestream, they can remove the nodes from their foreheads.

Chloe convinces Adam to join Courtship Broadcast so that they can pretend to date each other and make money from it, in order to financially help their families. Adam reluctantly agrees. He instinctively knows that things could go wrong in faking this relationship. Chloe and Adam tell their families about the plan to fabricate a romance for Courtship Broadcast money.

But after a while, it starts to bother Adam that all the romantic talk and actions that Chloe is showing for Courtship Broadcast aren’t genuine, because she’s only doing it for the money. Adam wants their romance to be real. Chloe has genuine affectionate feelings for Adam, but the movie makes it look like he’s in love with her and wants a serious relationship, while she just likes him a lot and wants a “friend with benefits” situation.

Eventually, one of the Vuvv creatures named Vuvv Shirley—who is watching Adam and Chloe’s “romance” and is a Courtship Broadcast subscriber—figures out that Adam and Chloe are faking it. Chole and Adam are summoned to Vuvv Shirley’s office, where she informs the two teens that she’s suing them for fraud for “millions” in money—enough for the Campbell and Marsh families to be “in debt for six generations.”

Vuvv Shirley offers a solution that involves some bizarre role-playing scenarios where a Vuvv arrrives to live in the Campbell household. Without giving away too much information, these scenarios require Beth to be passive and subservient to this Vuvv creature. And the reaction from outspoken and independent Beth is exactly what you think it is.

Meanwhile, there are some other power dynamics at play that cause tensions in the household. Even though Beth has generously given the Marsh family a place to live (and eventually, Mr. Marsh starts paying rent), Mr. Marsh and Hunter act entitled and privileged toward Beth. A big argument erupts when Mr. Marsh and Hunter use Beth’s computer without her permission and insult her when she politely tells them to next time ask permission to use any of her things.

There’s an unspoken racial subtext to the hostility that Mr. Marsh and Hunter express toward Beth, but the movie seems afraid to fully acknowledge why there is this resentment. Mr. Marsh tells Beth that he’s not used to being in this situation of being financially poor and living in someone else’s house. What he doesn’t say out loud is that it also makes him uncomfortable to be living in a house with a house where a black woman has more money and power than he does.

Mr. Marsh also shows subtle but noticeable racial discomfort over Adam and Chloe kissing, even if it’s for the Courtship Broadcast. Mr. Marsh seems afraid of Chloe developing real romantic feelings for Adam, who is obviously starting to fall in love with Chloe. Mr. Marsh even describes Adam as a “loser,” even though Adam has never shown any indication that he’s a bad person or is forcing Chloe to do anything that she doesn’t want to do. (Remember, it was her idea to fake the romance for money.)

“Landscape With Invisible Hand” seems to want to say a lot about the lengths that certain people will go to make money and what that might do to someone’s pride, ego or dignity. Some of the scenarios get a little tedious. It’s constantly shown that the Vuvv creatures are manipulative control freaks, but whatever mayhem and disruption they’re causing, it doesn’t seem to be doing the Vuvv much good either. Who wants to be in charge of a planet that’s in disarray caused by the very entities that invaded the planet?

There’s a scene where Chloe and Adam are driven by golf cart to an abandoned golf course. The driver (played by Vishwas) tells the two teens that he used to be a surgeon, but he gets much more money from the Vuvv creatures to be a human driver, which is considered a “status symbol” instead of having a hologram driver. Aside from showing that the Vuvvs use humans as pawns for the Vuvvs’ amusement, this anecdote doesn’t serve much a purpose in the story.

What isn’t explained in “Landscape With Invisible Hand” is why the billions of people on Earth seem to have given up on trying to get back control of their lives from the Vuvv. There are never any references to what Earth’s leaders or even leaders of the United States have done about this alien takeover. Adam’s painting talent leads to pivotal part of the movie, but the conclusion of that part of the storyline kind of falls flat.

What makes the movie interesting are the lead performances by Blackk and Rogers, who adeptly convey that despite all the upheaval in the lives of Adam and Chloe, they still want to live their lives in the way that teenagers usually did before this Vuvv invasion. It’s not quite a rebellion against the Vuvv, but it’s a way for Adam and Chloe to forge their own paths and their own identities when they are brink of adulthood. In a world where the Vuvvs are trying to control people though money, the one thing that the Vuvvs can’t control are human emotions.

“Landscape With Invisible Hand” is not the type of movie where the teens have a breakthrough friendship bond with a mysterious alien. It’s also not a post-apocalyptic movie where people are living like feral animals. It’s a movie that gets viewers to think about personal values and staying true to oneself when it might be easier or financially rewarding to be fake about it all.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures released “Landscape With Invisible Hand” in select U.S. cinemas on August 18, 2023.

Review: ‘Kokomo City,’ starring Daniella Carter, Koko Da Doll, Liyah Mitchell and Dominique Silver

August 7, 2023

by Carla Hay

Koko Da Doll in “Kokomo City” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Kokomo City”

Directed by D. Smith

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, in the Atlanta area, and in Hollywood, Florida, the documentary film “Kokomo City” features an all-African American group of people discussing African American transgender women who happen to be sex workers and the men who are their customers.

Culture Clash: African American transgender female sex workers are treated as outsiders in many communities and are targets for a higher rate of violence than many other sex workers. 

Culture Audience: “Kokomo City” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in hearing uncensored accounts of the intersections between race, gender, queerness and sex work.

Daniella Carter in “Kokomo City” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Black trans women who are sex workers speak their truth in the memorable documentary “Kokomo City.” It’s raw, it’s real, and it’s an impressive feature-length directorial debut from D. Smith. The black and white cinematography gives the film a classic look. If you’ve ever wondered what African American transgender sex women think about in their everyday lives, “Kokomo City” is a moving and sometimes painful look into these women’s souls.

Not only is Smith (who is an African American transgender woman) the director of “Kokomo City,” she is also the documentary’s editor, cinematographer and one of the producers. Smith is a self-taught filmmaker who previously worked in the music business as a Grammy-nominated producer. (Her most famous music collaborations were with Lil Wayne.) In the production notes for “Kokomo City,” Smith says she directed the documentary because she got rejected by other filmmakers who didn’t want to direct this project.

“Kokomo City” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the grand jury and audiences prizes for the NEXT Innovator Award, which is given to up-and-coming filmmakers with a bold vision. As explained in the documentary, the title of “Kokomo City” is inspired by blues singer Kokomo Arnold’s 1935 song “Sissy Man Blues,” which openly talks about seeking the sexual company of effeminate-looking men or transgender women.

“Kokomo City” focuses on four transgender women telling their stories. There is no voyeuristic aspect to the documentary by showing the women doing sex work, although the documentary has occasional scenes of actors simulating certain sex acts. People who are easily offended by adults taking candidly about sex and using a lot of curse words will probably have a hard time watching “Kokomo City.” However, the movie is about much more than sex. It’s about people struggling to be themselves when they are often shamed by others for wanting to be themselves.

The four women at the center of “Kokomo City” are:

  • Daniella Carter, from New York City, is the most outspoken and funniest of the four women. Based in New York City’s Queens borough, Carter is a non-stop talker who is the type of person who gives unguarded monologues while doing beauty rituals in her bathroom.
  • Liyah Mitchell, from the Atlanta suburb of Decatur, is the most confident of the four women. She’s the one who seems to care the most about being perceived as “tough” and cares the least about always looking “feminine.” She uses a lot of slang (for example, “trade” means “sex-partner customer”) that might be hard for some viewers to understand.
  • Koko Da Doll, from Atlanta, is the most jaded of the four women, but she is also the one who seems the most emotionally wounded. In the documentary, she says that even though she graduated from high school, she’s been functionally illiterate and doesn’t really have any other job skills except being a sex worker.
  • Dominique Silver, from New York City, is the most reserved and graceful of the four women. She places a high value on discretion and thinks it’s very damaging for transgender sex workers to “out” any of their customers.

Having the majority of the screen time consisting of people talking might seem like a dull way to present a documentary. But the people interviewed in “Kokomo City” are definitely not dull. Some of their stories are harrowing. “Kokomo City” opens with Mitchell telling a story about getting into a physical fight with a customer, who brought a gun with him to their tryst. Mitchell says she felt threatened by seeing this firearm, so she grabbed the gun and found out that the trigger didn’t work. The customer wanted his gun back, so he got into a brawl with her.

“We started tumbling down the stairs together, fighting over this damn gun,” Mitchell continues. The customer eventually gave up the fight, took his gun, and drove away. According to Mitchell, the client then contacted her and texted her a message saying, “You ruined my life.” The customer than explained that he’s a rapper in Atlanta who carries the gun for protection. Mitchell says that she and the customer reconciled and then hooked up for a sexual encounter.

Whether or not this story is true isn’t the point. It’s an example of the literally rough and tumble lives that sex workers live that are discussed in sometimes graphic details in “Kokomo City.” One of the constant things that these sex workers say about almost of their customers is these are men who present themselves to the world as very masculine and heterosexual. Their customers usually have wives or girlfriends who have no idea that their men have a secret desire to have sexual encounters with transgender women. Koko Da Doll says that most of her customers want to be with transgender women who have big breasts and big penises.

The sex workers interviewed in the documentary also say that their customers have a variety of requests and needs. Some customers don’t want to acknowledge that transgender women have male genitals, while other customers very much want the transgender sex worker’s male genitals to be part of the encounter. The sex workers in this documentary say that many of their customers are prominent men, some of them celebrities, who keep their desires for transgender women very well-hidden from the public.

“Kokomo City” also interviews four African American men, with only one admitting to being sexually involved with a transgender woman. A man who is identified only as XoTommy and his transgender girlfriend Rich-Paris are interviewed where they live in Hollywood, Florida. Rich-Paris is also a sex worker. XoTommy and Rich-Paris say they met through “a mutual friend,” but they also give the impression that XoTommy was her customer. XoTommy mentions that most of his family members already know that he likes to be with transgender women.

Rich-Paris says that violence has always been an occupational hazard for sex workers—even more so if the sex worker is a transgender woman of color. “Violence happens after the orgasm,” Rich-Paris comments. “They [the customers] feel like their masculinity is threatened.” She says of transgender women: “A lot of us are way [more like] women than cis[gender] women. The only thing is we have is male parts.”

In a separate interview, Mitchell says: “Most cis women don’t want to date bisexual men. Me, personally, I love bisexual men. There are different guys who are with you for different reasons and different things.”

“Kokomo City” also acknowledges that African Americans are often taught homophobia from a young age, with those in the male gender getting the most pressure to be heterosexual. Black men who do not conform to heterosexual norms are terrified of being shamed by members of the community, which is why the “down low” culture exists for men who pretend to be heterosexual to most people in their lives but who live secret queer lives that often involve hiring sex workers to fulfill those needs.

Atlanta-based songwriter Michael Carlos Jones, nicknamed Lø, says in the documentary that he’s been “talking” online with a transgender woman and has flirted with her, but he hasn’t met her in person. Jones also says he’s never acted on his curiosity to have a sexual encounter with a transgender woman. “I love women,” he states, while adding that he’s also attracted to women whom he considers to be hard to get.

When Jones isn’t name-dropping the celebrities he says he’s worked with (including Sean Combs, Janet Jackson and Beyoncé), or bragging about things no one cares about (“I smoked weed with Rick James”), Jones seems to be a study in contradictions. He wants to give the impression that he’s an open-minded free spirit who loves to party, and he admits he’s sexually attracted to transgender women. And yet, he won’t admit to even kissing a transgender woman. He doesn’t sound very believable about never being in sexual contact with a transgender woman, especially when he says he’s had sexual encounters in various states of intoxication.

Lenox Love, the CEO of Lenox Love Entertainment (based in Atlanta), is shown briefly in the documentary when he talks about promoting a Hush Night for transgender female exotic dancers at a local nightclub. He says that Hush Night is an easier and safer way for transgender sex workers to find customers, compared to looking for customers on the streets. According to Love, many of the men who go to Hush Night are famous and have a very different public image about their sexuality than they do in private.

“Kokomo City” also interviews two men in a car in The Bronx, New York. They’re identified only by the names INW Tarzan and Lexx Pharoah. Tarzan says that African American men “can’t accept being with a trans woman in public because it’s their ego and … they feel like the world is going to belittle them for what they like. If they’re married and have children, that’s something that could compromise the whole situation, whatever job they have.”

Pharoah adds, “I think acceptance is part of the problem.” Tarzan has this advice to men who have “down low” encounters with transgender women: “Don’t live a double life.” Why are Tarzan and Pharoah in this documentary? Were they cruising for transgender sex workers but won’t admit it on camera? (It sure seems that way.)

The fact that most of the men who are interviewed in this documentary have aliases is proof that there’s still a lot of shame and secrecy that African American men have in even associating with transgender women. It’s also important to point out (and it’s also mentioned in the documentary) that not all of the customers of these sex workers are African American. However, the sex workers interviewed in this documentary say that their African American male customers are the most likely to want to hide their sexual activities with transgender women.

Silver says this secrecy is the only way that transgender sex workers can realistically stay in business. She firmly believes that sex workers should not “out” any of their customers. “When you expose them, it dries up the well,” Silver comments. “That doesn’t bring good karma. At the end of the day, they’re suffering because they’re not living in their truth. And that’s punishment enough.”

The issues of secrecy and infidelity are intertwined with sex work, since most of sex workers’ clients are married or are in committed relationships. Prostitution is still illegal in most places in the United States. The customers usually don’t get punished as harshly as the sex workers. These are some of the reasons why sex work will continue to be controversial. “Kokomo City” does not pass judgment but it doesn’t portray sex work as glamorous or “victimless.”

Carter is the most blunt in the documentary when talking about what she thinks about how her customers usually have cisgender women as sex partners at home but still seek out transgender sex partners elsewhere. She believes that cisgender women and transgender women, especially in the African American community, are pitted against each other but actually have more in common than people would like to think.

Carter doesn’t mince words when she says of her trans womanhood: “It hits so close to home that it may be in your home when you’re not there.” But she also says that when it comes to the blame game, it’s important to remember who’s the one doing the most harm to others: “We’re normalizing grown men taking advantage of our bodies,” Carter comments, while she also says of her sex work: “This is survival work.”

“Kokomo City” is not a “happy hooker” movie. Most of the women in the documentary come right out and say that they would rather be doing something else other than sex work to make the type of money that they need. All of the sex workers have similar stories of turning to sex work because many places won’t hire them because they are transgender.

Most transgender people are also shunned by their families. Koko Da Doll is the only sex worker in the documentary who mentions her family. She says that after she was homeless with her mother and sister, they both ended up rejecting her when she started living as a trans woman.

Silver says she got into sex work because it was the only work that she could find that paid enough for the cosmetic surgery that she says she needs to fully transition into the gender she knows she is. Koko Da Doll says she started doing sex work when she was homeless. Koko Da Doll repeatedly tries to put a hard exterior by saying that she only cares about her customers’ money. But she also gets teary-eyed when she says, “All I know is escorting, and I want to try to do something different.”

Sadly, Koko Da Doll never got that chance. On April 18, 2023, Koko Da Doll (also known as Rasheeda Williams) was shot and killed in Atlanta. Her accused killer is a 17-year-old male, who was arrested for murder, aggravated assault and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. As of this writing, the case has not yet been resolved. The epilogue of “Kokomo City” includes an “in memoriam” to Koko Da Doll. Throughout “Kokomo City,” the transgender women say that they always feel they are in danger just for existing, and know they could be murdered just because they are transgender.

Smith’s style of cinematic storytelling for “Kokomo City” is intimate and unflinching, but the documentary also has artsy shots edited in that show appreciation for the surroundings where the interviews take place. There’s some nudity in “Kokomo City” (including a striking visual of Silver toward the end of the film), but the emotional nakedness that these women express is really why “Kokomo City” will stand the test of time as one of the most impactful documentaries made about transgender women. “Kokomo City” is a powerful account of transgender women trying to survive in a world where many people don’t want transgender women and many other LGBTQ+ people to live. It’s a meaningful testament to how people’s bodies and sexualities should not take away their human rights.

Magnolia Pictures released “Kokomo City” in New York City on July 28, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cities on August 4, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on August 15, 2023.

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