Good Girl Jane
Writer-director Sarah Elizabeth Mintz’s debut feature, Good Girl Jane, treads a well-worn path in its portrayal of an innocent teenage girl’s eventual corruption at the hands of “subversive” classmates. The year is 2005, and the titular Jane (Rain Spencer) has recently transferred schools after being the victim of substantial bullying. Understandably guarded in her everyday actions, Jane walks the school halls in a large hoodie that functions as both a literal and metaphorical suit of armor, even as she longs for some sort of human contact and friendship. Her mother (Andie MacDowell) is distracted and borderline antagonistic in a way that only mothers can be, while dad (Gale Harold) is barely part of the picture, unable to consistently fulfill his role of joint custody. When, one day after school, a group of kids asks Jane to borrow her lighter, she perks up like an excited puppy, thrilled with the fact that someone — anyone — is showing her the slightest bit of attention. She joins them for an impromptu gathering that includes drinking and cocaine, although she wisely shies away from the casual drug use. It’s only at a party days later that she is taunted into giving ketamine a try, plunging Jane down a path that sees her life spiraling out of control, ultimately being groomed and manipulated by a 21-year-old drug dealer named Jamie (Patrick Gibson) who takes advantage of her low self-esteem and desperate need for acceptance.
Story-wise, there are no real surprises to be found in Good Girl Jane. Anyone who has ever seen the likes of Thirteen or Euphoria knows exactly where this train is headed, and Mintz does little to shake up that familiar dramatic structure. It’s in the filmmaker’s directorial choices, then, that the film finds purchase, elevating above more pro forma works of this ilk. By this point, the utilization of both handheld camerawork and intricate long takes in an effort to breathe authenticity into a film has become a tired cliché, but the camera here never stops moving, finding new terrain to sweep across in spaces as intimate as vehicle interiors and motel bathrooms. The ever-present potential of such formal flourishes to distract is mitigated by how organically Mintz uses them to convey the interior life of her troubled protagonist, the jittery restlessness and elation she feels when enveloped within her new friend group. When Jane finally gives in to James’ sexual pursuit, the camera first moves in rhythm with their bodies, a reflection of the sensuality Jane feels in this moment, before giving way to jagged and erratic pans that articulate the horrors that Jane is unable and unwilling to see. Sound design is also utilized effectively, with music playing a crucial role as Jane’s savior when times are tough, but slowly fading into silence whenever she is experiencing the human contact she so desperately craves, only occasionally breaking through in muffled bursts.
Unfortunately, at 117 minutes Good Girl Jane is too long by half, a repetitious slog of indiscriminate drug use and bad behavior that becomes numbing long before the end credits. It’s not unlikely that this modality was indeed intentional, a mirror of the deadening effect this new lifestyle imparts onto Jane — a not uncommon strategy that has been used to expressive effect in many a film before — but here it merely saps the film of any sort of dramatic tension. The good news is that Mintz gets stellar work from her entire cast, with newcomer Spencer proving the stand-out, able to ping-pong effortlessly between the various polarities of mood and emotional contradictions her character endures on a loop. What both she and Mintz prove with Good Girl Jane is that they possess considerable take-note potential. They should have no trouble devoting it to a project not quite so shopworn next time out.
Writer: Steven Warner
The Integrity of Joseph Chambers
[NOTE: This review contains spoilers.] After having made three no-budget features with co-director Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck, Robert Machoian broke through in 2020 with The Killing of Two Lovers, a psychological portrait of a man (Clayne Crawford) desperate to keep his crumbling family together. Set in a nondescript suburb in Utah, Two Lovers suggested that Machoian had evolved into a true regionalist, someone attuned to the social ambience of middle America but also able to articulate human universals within that particular atmosphere.
In his follow-up, The Integrity of Joseph Chambers, Machoian announces his intentions right in the title. This is a morality play of sorts, the gradual realignment of a man seemingly too foolish to realize who is, and above all who he is not. Crawford stars once again as Joe, a middle-class family man in small-town Alabama who, like many of us, has become unsettled due to too much right-wing doom-scrolling. Fearful that he may not be able to provide for his family in the event of some unforeseen social collapse, he insists on setting out on a solo hunting trip.
Machoian and Crawford thread a tight needle with the character of Joe. He is a mild-mannered “organization man” who feels out of step with the masculine codes around him, and feels he has something to prove, more to himself than to his family or community (who seem to appreciate Joe for who he is). As Joe treks through his best friend’s private land with a borrowed rifle, we see that he is an untrained buffoon who has no business wielding a firearm. He barely knows how to load it, and when he does he swings it around like a toy, more than once pointing the barrel to his face. In this moment of acute anxiety regarding the number of firearms in America, Joe is someone that both gun-control advocates and diehard NRA members can agree should never hold a deadly weapon.
What happens is fairly easy to predict, although the fact that an accident occurs is not nearly as important as how Joe responds to it. He may lack the skills of an outdoorsman, but he seems to be fairly conversant with crime dramas, and so after some initial shock and disbelief, he goes into self-preservation mode. The ultimate question is, can Joe figure out what the right thing to do actually is, and if so, can he bring himself to do it? The Integrity of Joseph Chambers suggests that many different things can make you a man, but the ability to kill isn’t one of them.
Writer: Michael Sicinski
A Wounded Fawn
There’s not much left to do with serial killer narratives these days, but that hasn’t stopped writer-director Travis Stevens from trying anyway. With A Wounded Fawn, his follow-up to last year’s fairly well-received Jakob’s Wife, Stevens has created a phantasmagorical horror film that renders a killer’s subjective interiority as an expressionistic nightmare of mythological proportions. It’s a low-budget effort, and obviously shot under Covid restrictions. But the sparse locations, minimal cast, and inventive cinematography (either 16mm or a fine digital approximation of it) add a lot to the overall ambience. The film begins with a prologue; alongside extreme close-ups of a unique sculpture, The Wrath of the Erinys, voiceover narration details the history of these three figures — “Megaera, the grudging, Alecto, the unceasing, and Tisiphone, punisher of murderers,” the narrator helpfully informs us. We are in fact at an auction house, the voiceover revealed to be the auctioneer, and a bidding war for the sculpture breaks out. A woman wins the bidding, and as she returns home to inform her employers of their victory, a man rings her doorbell. She reluctantly opens the door to Bruce (Josh Ruben), who apologizes for disturbing her in the middle of the night and explains that he represents clients who will pay her double what she just spent on the sculpture. She’s cautious, but intrigued by the offer and the stranger’s unassuming good looks. But as soon as he enters her home, Bruce begins hallucinating visions of a large figure with an owl head that seems to induce a paroxysm of uncontrollable urges. In the first of many nods to classic Giallos, he murders the woman with a spiked glove, then absconds with the sculpture into the night.
Chapter 1 opens with museum curator Meredith (Sarah Lind) chatting with her girlfriends. We quickly glean that she has been dealing with a bad break-up involving an abusive boyfriend, and after taking some time off is now ready to start dating again. In fact, she’s met a very nice man and is already going away for a romantic weekend with him to a secluded cabin. The man is Bruce, now sporting a slightly altered appearance and a peppy, high-energy attitude. He simply cannot wait to get Meredith alone. The audience knows why, of course, and there’s plenty of dramatic tension as we watch Bruce and Meredith interact, viewers well aware of his nefarious intentions and waiting for Meredith to come to her senses. Stevens wrings maximum discomfort from this slow build-up, as the couple begins their long drive to the woods. Like Hitchcock’s definition of suspense — “when the spectators know more than the characters in the movie” — alert viewers are keyed in to Bruce’s momentary lapses in decorum while waiting for Meredith to notice these red flags. Things continue to escalate once they reach his “cabin,” actually a beautifully-appointed modernist condo full of fine art. Bruce begins having visions of the cowled, owl-headed specter again, while Meredith catches glimpses of unsettling things herself — disembodied voices tell her to flee, while ghost-like figures flit in and out of her peripheral vision. It’s a relief when she finally gets fed up and demands that Bruce drive her to a hotel. He finally acquiesces, agreeing to take her to the nearest town. But while she packs her bags, she spots the missing sculpture just as a friend calls her and tells her about the murdered woman from the prologue. It’s not quite a spoiler to reveal that Bruce finally attacks, spiked glove and all, and that Meredith fights back.
The preceding synopsis describes roughly the first half of the film, but the confrontation between the two is essentially a foregone conclusion. It’s in Chapter 2 that things get much weirder, and much more interesting. Nursing a head wound, Bruce endures a series of attacks from the now fully corporeal Furies, seeking vengeance for Meredith. Or has she herself transformed into one of them? Or is it all a figment of Bruce’s demented imagination? It’s a thrilling experience, with Stevens and cinematographer Ksusha Genefeld utilizing all manner of analog lighting tricks to turn the forest into a nightmare landscape, full of eerie reds and blues emanating from the darkness. The Furies themselves are delightful lo-fi creations, elaborate costumes that eschew showy special effects — this is a shoestring production after all — for creepy, old-fashioned masks and jittery, off-kilter movements. It’s simply a lot of fun, and all leads to a pitch-black, laugh-out-loud final shot. Between A Wounded Fawn and Jakob’s Wife, Stevens is carving himself out a nice niche of feminist-oriented horror, a welcome change of perspective in a still typically male-dominated genre (although there’s been much progress in this front, to be fair). Hostile men are everywhere, and Stevens’ characters aren’t having any of it. Good for them, and good for viewers.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
My Love Affair With Marriage
Signe Baumane’s films are deeply personal endeavors, peppered with enough humor to grant them an easy charm. Importantly, her animation is distinct, inspired by Stasys Eidrigevičius and Jan Švankmajer, but most readily identifiable as something in the lineage of Bill Plympton. Her works are clearly her own, though, and that was never more clear than in her 2014 debut feature film Rocks in My Pockets, where she tackled depression and suicide as it pertained to five different women in her family. In her follow-up feature My Love Affair with Marriage, she opts for a fictional story that nevertheless culls from events and lessons she’s learned from her two marriages — relationships she has stated had “collaps[ed] spectacularly.” With this knowledge in tow, we follow protagonist Zelma (Dagmara Domińczyk) from her conception to her late-’20s, and the scope is large: Baumane aims for no less than capturing how one’s life is shaped by societal factors, biology, and more through the experiences of this woman. The ambition is palpable.
The problem with Baumane’s films, however, is that they’re easier to appreciate than to feel passionately about. She has a tendency to rely on voiceover narration, which becomes increasingly tedious when tied up with her love for overly direct explanations. My Love Affair with Marriage features numerous examples of how gender roles play out in our daily lives, and relates to prevailing ideologies regarding marriage as some sort of noble end goal meant to satiate everyone on earth. Zelma recognizes the different behaviors girls and boys should have at a young age, then loses her virginity as a teenager, and marries twice to men she eventually divorces. There’s a lot of ground covered, but much of the film’s overlong 108-minute runtime is filled with banal observations and a painfully direct script. “This was not the marriage I imagined — I am not happy,” we hear at one point, and this line represents the full extent to which any emotional weight is placed. It often feels like we’re moving from one life-altering moment to the next without letting the gravity of each situation resonate. It’s a very procedural, clinical film.
Beyond the frequently undramatic line deliveries, My Love Affair with Marriage suffers because each person we encounter functions as little more than a cipher. Baumane aims for a more universal story here, and the little care she puts into characterization makes it challenging to feel invested in anyone, including Zelma — she, after all, is emblematic of an everywoman and the struggles all women face. Even worse is how literal the animation can be: “A woman without makeup is like a rose without the morning dew,” explains her second ex-husband, Bo. We then see that exact image rendered on screen. Even when Baumane’s writing shoots for poeticism, the film’s dearth of imagination sullies it. The animation itself, when not merely blandly literalizing the voiceover, is often enjoyable — mixing hand-drawn illustrations with papier-mâché sculptures—but it’s often a matter of appreciating the craftsmanship of the form more than its utility.
Throughout the film, Baumane utilizes sequences in which a talking neuron (Michele Pawk) explains the science behind every emotion and inclination, making dry references to neurotransmitters and the pituitary gland. It both looks and feels like an above average educational film, and while it initially scans as a neat concept that aims to paint how societal expectations can become wrapped up with biological impulses to cause people to think and act in certain ways, it’s alarming how frequently these scenes arrive. At worst, they cause a major disruption to the story’s flow, leaving Zelma’s life feeling almost secondary to Baumane’s unceasing desire to explain why everything is happening from this more unconsidered viewpoint.
But the most confounding aspect of My Love Affair with Marriage arrives in its final 10-minute stretch, wherein Zelma’s now-ex Bo reveals to her that he likes to dress as a woman. Baumane indicates in press materials that her own ex-husband was “gender-bending,” so this is clearly drawing from personal experience, but there’s a peculiar self-satisfied air to this narrative revelation, with Zelma recognizing that she can and will accept this person, and relating her own experiences with Bo’s. As the final act in the film, it seems to want to demonstrate how much every person is continually learning and evolving, but it feels both insincere and haphazardly inserted. As with much of the film, its ideas are too shallow to be stimulating, and both its scientific passages and animation styles try but fail to paper over that reality.
Writer: Joshua Minsoo Kim
Among the slighter entries in the Tribeca line-up is Violet Du Feng and Zhao Qing’s simultaneously debut and sophomoric documentary, Hidden Letters. Taking as its subject the language of nǚ shū (女书, literally “female script/letters”), a provincial spoken and written form of communication that emerged among wives and concubines over the course of several centuries in China’s later dynastic eras and up until the 1949 revolution, the film explores the contemporary meaning, usage, and inspiration the script provides for “women in a modern China” still beholden to a legacy of enculturated sexism and patriarchy (e.g. the phrase in quotation marks just used is the subject of a debate in the film, wherein a local party council — unseen but likely predominantly male — insists a nǚ shū presentation must rather have the title “modern women in China,” presumably to communicate that women are intrinsically part of the course of social and economic development). While not spending a great amount of time introducing the historical setting and women that produced the language and script, the film strongly and expediently communicates its origins in experiences of oppression, domination, and suffering in the domestic sphere, the solidarity a form of expression illegible and of little interest to male figures. The benefits of this rather brisk treatment of history are to the work’s credit, as its interests lie clearly in how, or even if, nǚ shū may function as an analytic for evaluating the present status of women in China.
It’s this present-day analysis that is undoubtedly most resonant and provocative, with the film tracing the predicaments of two subjects: Hu Xin — a nationally and internationally recognized nǚ shū preservationist based in Jianggong, Hunan where the language emerged — and Simu — a Shanghai-based woman inspired deeply by the script to such an extent she calls off her marriage in order to pursue a life promoting it. In particular, the documentation surrounding Hu Xin’s efforts to promote the language draw out the tensions of such a niche and charged dialect being advanced in a highly commercialized and male-dominated society, and throughout the work the editing cuttingly navigates the absurd behavior of or comments made by male interviewees, passers-by, and officials in having vital roles in nǚ shū’s dissemination; challengingly and regularly juxtaposing these actions and comments with the wearied and sullen glances or profound snippets of conversation had by the female subjects. There’s a damning and accurate condemnation of a nation’s superficiality and the male population’s often casual cluelessness that is regularly striking, with Simu’s portions of the work highlighting the practical, everyday consequences of being seized by the ideas of female empowerment and self-actualization the language has come to represent for her — a transformation of long-suffering solidarity into an expression of open protest. No doubt Feng and Zhao could have pressed more clinically into certain aspects of the yearning its female subjects express regarding traditional relationship values, comments made by elderly nǚ shū speakers on the language being entirely different in the present day, and maybe even the class disparities in the women who can latch on to the language as a liberating expression and those who cannot. But all of this would be to demand a different film. As it stands, this is a work as slight as the script it documents and unfortunately worthy of roughly just as much attention.
Writer: Matt McCracken