The college party movie, usually fronted by a couple smarmy white dudes, gets a challenge with Emergency, a fascinating but ultimately ineffective piece of satire with terrific politics but a flaccid script. Meet Kunie (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler), a couple of Black college seniors on the cusp of graduation and best pals. Science nerd Kunie just wants to make sure his crucial experiments are going along nicely, but Sean is intent on getting them into the hottest parties this weekend. Things go entirely awry, however, when their roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) leaves their door unlocked and the two return home to find a passed out, clearly extremely intoxicated white woman on their living room floor.
Actually, let’s take a step back. Emergency opens with a scene that would seem ridiculous if it weren’t entirely too plausible. Kunie and Sean attend a class during which their white, female, British professor administers a handful of trigger warnings before beginning a lecture about the n-word, which she not only repeats multiple times but projects in huge letters on a screen. In response, everyone, of course, looks at the only two Black students in the room. It’s probably the most uncomfortable scene in the entire film, providing crucial context for what’s to come. But it also sets the stage for a movie that’s more interested in exploring the politics of its contrivances rather than generating either suspense or comedy.
But back to the passed out white chick. Kunie immediately wants to call 911, but Sean stops him, with a not remotely unfounded fear that if the cops show up and find two Black kids with a white girl in trouble, best case they get arrested and worst case they might even get killed. Instead, they decide to try to “help” this stranger and hopefully still make good on Sean’s party plans. You can imagine how well that’s going to turn out. It’s a potentially rich premise, one that would allow writer K.D. Davlia and director Carey Williams (expanding a short film) the opportunity to deconstruct a full-on modern day Animal House-style campus epic, taking on college speech politics, race and gender dynamics, ideas of Black excellence, and so forth, while still delivering on the comedy. The injection of very real fears of police violence could — but crucially doesn’t — serve as a huge needle scratch, a dire issue that, for these characters, terrifyingly supersedes all of those other concerns. But here, it merely consumes the narrative, pushing all the other stuff to the side.
Not only does this premise derail the comedy, but the sheer logic of it derails the tension. The guys’ fears of being accused of a crime and potentially even losing their lives over it are nothing if not agonizingly believable. What everyone, in front of and behind the camera, fails to notice, though, is that they’re in a lot more trouble if the girl dies, which she’s gonna do if she doesn’t get medical attention. Certainly the extremity of the idea here is meant to be a catalyst for the film’s satire, but it has the blowback effect of only leaving you frustrated with the characters’ blatant stupidity and reckless behavior. An ambitious but unfortunately relatively toothless satire, Emergency makes a valiant effort in depicting characters whose feelings of systematic dehumanization might cause actual loss of human life, but its focus skews a little too broad, its thrills too slight, and its laughs too scarce.
Writer: Matt Lynch
There’s a furious call to revolution at the heart of Mariana Bastos’ Raquel 1:1, a sneaky-smart exploration of institutionalized misogyny masquerading as a vaguely “elevated” horror film. Still dealing with the emotional fallout from the recent death of her mother, Vera (Valentina Herszage) and her father, Hermes (Emílio de Mello), have left the city to return to his familial home in a small Brazilian town. Hermes has lost their family bookstore, accruing massive debt in the process, and has decided to move himself and Vera into his mother’s home and try his hand at being a grocer. As they settle in, Vera walks around town and meets a group of evangelical girls involved in the town’s church, led by the pastor’s daughter Ana Helena (Priscila Bittencourt). They’re eager to welcome someone new into the flock, and for her part, Vera seems genuinely pious, excited to make friends and celebrate Christ. She attends some youth meetings, enjoys a karaoke party, and is introduced to a local spot where people gather to swim. It’s here that Vera finds herself alone one afternoon, deep in the secluded forest, when a faint voice seems to beckon her to a cave. She tentatively enters, and the film cuts to black.
What she sees there remains a mystery that motivates the remainder of the film, as Vera seems suddenly transformed. She has a gash across the side of her abdomen, a wound familiar to anyone who’s seen an image of Jesus up on a cross, and begins frantically filling the family Bible with scribbles and notes. While attending yet another group Bible study, Vera drops a bomb on the other girls — the Bible is filled with violence against women, and worse, seems to excuse it. Therefore, she believes, it’s up to them to rewrite the holy book with these passages removed. Naturally, some of the girls immediately balk at the idea; the Bible is the word of God, after all, and not for mere mortals to question. To do so would be to deny the very essence of faith. But some of the girls agree with Vera; after all, the Bible was transcribed by men, and has undergone various translations and interpretations over the centuries. This would simply be in keeping with that tradition. And so begins a kind of Cold War between the two factions, a simple disagreement that gradually boils over into full-scale, internecine fighting.
There are some compelling ideas in Raquel 1:1, as well as some bold, unvarnished criticisms of the church. Bastos doesn’t cast aspersions on faith in a general sense, and even goes so far as to introduce the local parish in a positive light, but Bastos is merciless in her critique of how small-minded groupthink and entrenched dogmatism can turn violent as soon as it is challenged. There are nods to Godard’s La Chinoise as these biblical revolutionaries meet in secret to construct their new feminist text, and some plot points echo Rossellini’s Europa 51, where a woman is castigated and institutionalized for daring to question the patronizing men in her life. Hermes is implicated in the generational abuse heaped upon women, while the entire town gradually closes rank and becomes determined to excommunicate Vera. It’s here that the more overt horror elements occasionally undermine the film’s primary focus. Audiences are only too aware of the history of possession films, and the “is it real or is she crazy” narrative games are a bit coy. There are flurries of dream-like images and nightmarish flash cuts that do, in fact, suggest that something more sinister is afoot. Thankfully, Bastos eventually reveals her hand, embracing the supernatural elements of her narrative and inextricably joining them to her celebration of female empowerment. The film’s ending can’t help but recall De Palma’s Carrie, another story of religious fanaticism pushing someone too far, but Bastos builds on that famously apocalyptic climax by suggesting that something newer, and better, can be salvaged from the wreckage. Raquel 1:1 ends with an epigraph, a direct quote from the Bible, that reads “And to the woman was said… on behalf of all that passed and those who are yet to come, a new era must begin.” It’s a powerful notion, and a warning to those who would use an ancient, outmoded text to excuse their subjugation of others.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
A Lot of Nothing
Mo McRae’s directorial debut A Lot of Nothing is — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — a satirical thriller about race relations in America. There are admittedly a lot of those these days, but McRae’s film manages to set itself apart not only for its intriguing premise, but its interplay between characters dialectically but not diametrically opposed. The film concerns an upper-middle-class Black couple beset by a daily barrage of microaggressions who, after learning their shithead cop neighbor killed an unarmed kid, kidnap the man and hold him hostage to give him a lecture. Or at least Vanessa (Cleopatra Coleman) does — her husband James (Y’lan Noel) wants nothing to do with the plan, but goes along with it under some duress. Having a killer cop tied to a chair upstairs is further complicated by the arrival of James’ brother and his pregnant fiancée, whose ideologies and lifestyles are in stark contrast to James and Vanessa’s.
So the film unfolds, part slick thriller and part social satire, depicting the conflicting attitudes of all parties throughout a hectic night. Often vacillating between annoying, on-the-nose lecture and insightful, compelling action several times in a single scene, A Lot of Nothing is largely kept on track thanks to some deft styling. The edit stands out in particular, snappy match cuts and juxtapositions maintaining the rhythm throughout. Best of all, McRae has real chops as a director and clear ideas about where to put the camera, ensuring that even when his film could come to a halt with some clumsy bit of writing, it remains engaging on a visual level.
But for all A Lot of Nothing has going for it, it buckles under the weight of a host of ill-advised narrative avenues, stylistic choices, and at least one semi-infuriating twist. McRae and co-writer Sarah Kelly Kaplan use the same dialogue style that defines most bad 21st-century satire, the heightened, stilted sort of talking that usually sounds more like a Twitter thread than the way anyone actually speaks. Your mileage on this may vary, but more often than not it feels tin-eared and grating rather than cogent. This tellingly slips away when characters address personal issues instead of politics — perhaps an indictment that some aspects of these politics are put on rather than come by earnestly — as they do in the film’s second half where a lull in the thriller upstairs leads to more interpersonal clashes downstairs. Here, there are heated reveals enough to fill their own drama, and their inclusion feels like a clear attempt to meld the personal with the political, a dialectic of lifestyle to complement that of ideology. But in practice, it’s too much for the A plot to handle, a web of narrative deviations that distracts from the razor focus the movie almost has.
All of these feel like minor quibbles compared to the film’s knuckleheaded coup de grâce of a final twist. What is probably intended as a complicating wrinkle in the last stretch instead plays like an inflammatory gotcha moment, and a bad faith both-sidesist finger wag that seems beneath the rest of the film. Sure, this is often a satire of a certain strand of upper-middle-class Black liberalism, but it’s a loving one (if rarely gentle) that treats its characters tenderly and never speaks down to them. These are smart people whose differing views are informed by lived experience and whose interior lives are sometimes portrayed strikingly and sensitively. But the film forcefully throws any earned goodwill out the window with smug condescension that colors the film’s prior thorniness with its own dull provocation, leaving only a rancid taste in the mouth.
Writer: Chris Mello
In the Court of the Crimson King
Despite being active for half a century, the legendary, massively influential English prog rock band King Crimson has undergone so many lineup changes that it might be hard for even the most diehard fan to remember all the various individuals who were once members across the band’s prolific history. But there’s certainly one man even the cursorily knowledgeable should be able to point to, the group’s most prominent player and the original co-creator of the act, whose name has been tethered to King Crimson throughout the years: Robert Fripp. An eloquent English gentleman, a cerebral mystic, a restless and perfectionistic virtuoso, a man both enigmatic and charismatic, Fripp has cultivated King Crimson’s unique universe and musical methodology via an overbearing, demanding approach and a peculiar philosophy, which obviously made the creative process intense and challenging for most of his collaborating bandmates. As Fripp himself states, the current lineup “is the first King Crimson where there’s not at least one member in the band that actively resents my presence.”
Toby Amies’ In the Court of the Crimson King arrives as something of a celebration in honor of the titular album’s 50th anniversary, telling the oversized history of this rock act — constructed with Fripp fixed as the focal point — that initially formed in a West London basement and has always been famous for presenting artistic freedom and consistent innovation where all members must leave behind all previous knowledge and always start anew from square one. It seems appropriate, then, that Amies’ documentary begins with shots of empty auditoriums, articulating the necessity of absolute silence for Fripp. Indeed, Amies here seems to more or less follow the same playbook that has defined King Crimson and which is essential to Fripp’s worldview; that’s to say, the goal seems to be to capture some thematic and artistic parallel between the film and KC’s art and music, with Amies regarding spontaneity as the primary forming element. Filmed mainly during the band’s pre-pandemic world tour — and dispensing with any linear biographical structure or overreliance of archival footage or essayistic portraiture of the band — In the Court plays out much more like a series of improvised, organic encounters and one-on-one conversations with both former and current members, an effort to bring each individual’s perceptions and emotions and memories regarding King Crimson to the screen. It’s a sincere, uncalculated investigation into the thoughts of Fripp’s collaborators, about what a relationship with the mercurial artist is and what being part of King Crimson’s creative environment has meant, while also extending to include interactions with various technicians, roadies, and diehard fans, a nun among them. Given this general approach and structuring principle, it makes sense that Fripp chose Amies, who “had no familiarity with King Crimson whatsoever,” to direct this documentary, his explorations lending extra authenticity to the film.
Indeed, Amies’ selection further reflects the very mindset which has always worked as a driving force for King Crimson, one that calls for unapologetic and unconventional discipline in one’s march toward the unknown, letting go of prior knowledge and ulterior motivation. In this sense, even if In the Court may not be the kind of film to dole out never-before-heard first-hand accounts, the kind of nuggets that fans admittedly relish, it thrives as an unbiased tribute film, keen in its documentation of the professional and personal spheres of various musicians and smartly platforming their respective voices. In giving such expansive space to these individuals to speak on their experiences with King Crimson, their words of sarcasm, joy, and regret casually but profoundly begin to slide into grander considerations of life and death as the film progresses. In the Court of the Crimson King holds the kind of twofold appeal that such docs too rarely muster: you come for the fascinating and touching moments that KC’s hardcore fandom will eat up, but you stay for a more universal, inspirational study of what it is to work or dream to work as an artist. The hardships, the unwavering dedication, and even the unavoidable heartbreaks that are part of every story of building a lasting, singular legacy are all here and essential, but Fripp also emphasizes the significance of the presence of the experience. To this end, Amies’ celebratory film succeeds in enabling viewers through loose, amiable explorations — a temperament playfully at odds with the formal and rigorous manner of KC — to remain engaged and present while King Crimson here holds court.
Writer: Ayeen Forootan
It Is In Us All
One of the primary pleasures of the film festival experience is encountering lower-profile new films and new creators free from the burdens of buzz or expectations. Beyond the glitzy, studio-backed premieres and established auteurs are a whole range of voices hoping to grab viewers’ (and distributors’) attention. Which is to say, one wouldn’t know what to expect from Antonia Campbell-Hughes’s It Is In Us All from a brief catalog description. Watching it is one of those tiny leaps of faith that winds up richly rewarding. It’s is a film that shifts and undulates in unexpected, fascinating ways as it progresses through one man’s reluctant homecoming to become something altogether deeper. It’s profoundly disturbing and deeply sorrowful, and while it functions formally as a kind of horror film, It Is In Us All ultimately reveals itself to be about more familiar, even quotidian, traumas.
The film begins with Hamish Considine (Cosmo Jarvis) arriving from London to the small Irish town of Donegal. His aunt has passed away, and even though Hamish has never met her, she has left her estate to him in her will. While Hamish plans to simply sell the property, he feels compelled to visit the place before doing so. After all, his mother — also deceased — was born and raised there, before moving to London and meeting the man who would become Hamish’s father. It’s a simple enough stroll down memory lane, perhaps, or maybe a compulsion to reconnect to one’s familial roots. But upon his arrival in town, Hamish is involved in a car accident in the dead of night. A speeding sedan plows into him, sending his car rolling down an embankment. He awakens in a hospital, suffering only minor contusions and a concussion, but is informed that the driver of the other car passed away at the scene of the accident. Campbell-Hughes, an actress and writer making her feature directorial debut, films these proceedings like a slow burn supernatural thriller. The car crash is visualized via two headlights falling through a pitch-black void, and Hamish’s first impression of the hospital is a dank, inhospitable place. Interior spaces are sparsely populated, with figures compressed onto one side of the frame in claustrophobic, symmetrical compositions. Hamish traverses long stretches of desolate roads and empty fields as he travels from place to place, ominous landscapes stretching as far as the eye can see. One is on edge constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Instead, Hamish meets Evan (Rhys Mannion), a teenage boy who was the passenger in the other car and best friends with the boy who was killed. It’s here that the film really begins to take shape, as Hamish begins a slow transformation of sorts. Some early reviews have referred to this metamorphosis as a variation on Cronenbergian body-horror; while that term might create unrealistic expectations as to where the film is headed, it’s not entirely inappropriate. Jarvis plays Hamish like an imperious, arrogant captain of industry, his sharp attire, rigid posture, and well-defined, gym-sculpted body that of a man of means who thinks highly of himself. But the accident sets an emotional journey in motion that he is ill-prepared to begin. He becomes more and more disheveled, his posture hunched as if he were trying to close in on himself, and there’s a horrific sequence where he attempts to bandage a wound on his arm that becomes a macabre bit of physical comedy. As Hamish spends more time with Evan, it becomes clear that neither man knows how to process their emotions nor deal with their respective losses — for Evan, his childhood friends; for Hamish, his mother. There are two remarkable sequences that reveal Campbell-Hughes’s gift for symbolically loaded imagery and fascination with the male body; in the first, one of Evan’s friends launches into a breathtakingly beautiful ballet dance, as Hamish and the others sit back and observe. In the other, Hamish joins Evan at a nightclub, where the two are bathed in darkness, illuminated only by pulsating strobe lights, their bodies entwined as they dance themselves clean. There are hints of homoeroticism throughout, and at one point another character asks Hamish if he and Evan are fucking. But sex isn’t the point here; this isn’t necessarily a film about a closeted gay man or his sublimated desires. It’s broader than that, and it’s this emotional journey that reaches a fulcrum in the film’s maddeningly opaque climax, when Hamish visits the leftover wreckage of the accident like it’s a religious altar, or a totem. He’s drawn to it, this symbol of loss, and it becomes a repository for the emotions he’s otherwise unable to express. In only her first outing, Campbell-Hughes has made one of the great films about tortured masculinity, rooted by a remarkable, fiercely physical performance from Jarvis.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
I Love My Dad
It’s easy to see why James Morosini‘s I Love My Dad won the narrative competition at this year’s SXSW. It’s certainly an easy film to like, a crowd-pleaser anchored by an inspired comic performance by Patton Oswalt. But it’s also difficult to watch — for those who are sensitive to uncomfortable comedy or secondhand embarrassment, let it be known that I Love My Dad is a veritable minefield of cringe. And although its premise may seem too ridiculous to be believed, it’s all based on Morosini’s own life.
Working as writer, director, and star, I Love My Dad is clearly very personal for Morosini, and it shows. Playing a version of himself, Morosini stars as Franklin, a clinically depressed young man adrift in life after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Oswalt co-stars as his deadbeat father, a perpetual schlub named Chuck who seemingly has time for everything but his own son, having been habitually absent from Franklin’s life since he was a child. Looking for a fresh start and fed up with his dad’s neverending excuses for not showing up, Franklin blocks his dad’s phone number and all his social media accounts. At a loss, and desperate to make amends, Chuck creates a fake social media profile using photos of a waitress at a local diner and friends Franklin, hoping to find a way to speak with him. But Franklin finds an unexpected connection in this mysterious woman on Facebook — and Chuck has unwittingly catfished his own son, creating an online persona that Franklin finds himself falling in love with.
I Love My Dad is… a lot. But Morosini and Oswalt dive right into the discomfort of the outlandish premise, with the help of Rachel Dratch as Chuck’s perpetually horny girlfriend/boss. The film never attempts to absolve Chuck for the serious lines he crosses here, but there’s also something surprisingly and genuinely endearing about his bumbling attempts to just be a friend to his son. You could call it a 21st-century Mrs. Doubtfire, but it actually more closely resembles a different Robin Williams vehicle, Bobcat Goldthwait’s World’s Greatest Dad, in its general tenor determination to make audiences squirm as much as possible. Such outsized gambits are exceedingly hit-or-miss, but what makes it all work here is that all the gonzo clearly comes from a place of love, even if it seems destined to be the subject of discourse on Twitter. Despite all the faults and foibles, Morosini seems to be telling the truth in his film’s title, and I Love My Dad registers as a darkly hilarious and often poignant tribute to, if not the man who raised him, then the man who showed up late in the most bizarre possible way.
Writer: Mattie Lucas