At its most fraught, to be Black is to feel as if locked in constant battle with the external forces committed to devaluing your life and interpretation of your experience. Often Black life on film, when Black people do not control their own narratives, is reduced to stories of trauma and subsequent triumph, an American underclass palatably refashioned into an underdog. So when a Black creator like Jon-Sesrie Goff finds himself behind the camera, the result is a piece of resistance filmmaking that can only be described as lyrically emancipatory. His latest work, After Sherman, traces the lives of his father and other Black South Carolinians as they all strive to live fully and honestly within communities freighted with slavery’s various legacies. His film is a multidisciplinary exercise in truth-telling, infusing his expressionistic visual poetry with an ethnographic attention to detail.
When the Civil War concluded, field orders from General William Tecumseh Sherman deeded the low-country lands to the Gullah people, the newly freed Blacks in the region. Of course, subsequent discriminatory legislation and state terror greatly undermined that promise, leading to the intergenerational cycle of struggle and resilience that links the past to the present. But After Sherman isn’t overstuffed with scenes of marches and protests. Living while Black is framed as an act of defiance. Black people farm chickens, weave baskets and nets, reminisce about football games, boil at-home remedies, go fishing, and go to church. There are no blood and tears, but family photographs and friends with wine debating spiritedly. Goff goes for broad strokes, threading together these capsules of Black life without any linear thematic logic, in the hope that this sequence of intimacies will supply the texture, the specificity, in and of themselves. Moments when he trains the focus on his father, Reverend Doctor Norvel Goff, loosely provide After Sherman with waypoints, as do the stylized chapter breaks — each introduced in an eerie whisper as if to invoke the memory of departed souls. It’s quite easy to get lost in all the layers. The lack of narrative direction builds an air of intrigue while discarding any sense of comfortable coherence. Sections that ought to land more impactfully — families attempting to reclaim their land at bidding auctions and activism addressing the Kodak company’s pay inequities immediately come to mind — feel airless. After Sherman beautifully articulates a holistic vision of Black life in its wide coverage, yet would likely benefit from a “less is more” approach.
Jon-Sesrie Goff, who has an MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts from Duke University, does let his film lean into experimental elements. Moments of subtly frenetic overlapping narration conjure impressions of Black communal experience that is collective but not monolithic. Archival documents briefly spring to life with the help of 2-D animations. Goff plays with filters and framing, whether it’s to add a personal touch to images of the past or underscore sentiments of joy. One scene based in the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church spotlights speakers at the lectern, their distinguishing features disappearing into silhouette and the setting behind them a roiling blend of water and cloud — a depersonalization that stretches toward the metaphysical, allowing the ordinary to arrive at a level of transcendence. Watching After Sherman involves negotiating issues of format. What seems better suited for a museum installation instead exists in this mode, alternatively — sometimes simultaneously — eclipsing documentary conventions to achieve something freshly revelatory, and failing to meet its own ambitions. Goff’s breadth of interest is fully on display, impressive yet unwieldy to the point of periodically obscuring the meanings of some of the film’s most penetrating artistic conceits.
Noticeably glossed over is what, in different hands, would have been the film’s featured tragedy. Dylann Roof’s June 17th mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is alluded to, yet neither his face nor his carnage are directly shown. Goff informs the viewer that his parents left that very church twenty minutes before the killings. But this visual omission has a purpose: a marked refusal of turning the ills of white supremacy into spectacle. Aside from a reference to the Ku Klux Klan about eighteen minutes in, whiteness is effectively absent from the film, at best an amorphous “other” existing at the margins. Goff is dedicated to depicting an unabashedly Black space, one where forced migration, disrupted families, and threats of violence do not define the story. They should not. After Sherman richly communicates Goff’s passion for his people, and that should be commended, even if the film elicits more of a detached appreciation from the viewer at best.
Writer: Travis DeShong
With his 2019 debut Saint Frances, Alex Thompson offered up a strong resume. It wasn’t a film that entirely worked, but it was rich in empathetic discourse about motherhood and womanhood, intelligent when it wasn’t papering over its themes and characters with lo-fi indie affectation, a common affliction among first-time filmmakers that’s hardly preclusive to future success and growth. Thompson’s sophomore effort, Rounding, arrives to reasonable expectation then, particularly as the director moves into genre territory, an arena often more amenable to singular artistic expression than the world of low-budget dramedy. The film also occupies the rarely used space of hospital horror: the genre is no stranger to asylums or nefarious psychiatrists, but fewer films have embraced the medical side of healthcare — body horror excepted — and particularly from the perspective of a benevolent doctor. Which is to say, there’s some implicit novelty to Rounding’s framework.
James (Namir Smallwood), a second-year resident coming off some sort of mental breakdown at his previous hospital, transfers to the rural Greenville where he quickly becomes fixated on asthmatic patient Helen (Sidney Flanigan), questioning prevailing opinions about her condition and suggesting House-like that something far more labyrinthine is going on than her current diagnosis. (James gets some pushback from his supervisor about how such Sherlockian investigation is not their responsibility, but any larger indictment of the medical industrial-complex is left undeveloped.) He comes to suspect something fishy is going on with Helen’s mother (Rebecca Spense) — which the film visually articulates well before James comes to this conclusion near the film’s end — and begins to defy orders and generally unravel while pursuing this “lead.” In theory, it’s not a bad approach: the film indeed shares more DNA with the lineage of psychologically spiraling detective films than anything else, with James quickly falling into dangerous obsession.
Unfortunately, it’s all superficial gloss. James is never established as a particularly adept doctor — despite a few lines that outright tell us he is — or a reliable protagonist; he instead scans as damaged goods from the outset, the only reason to trust him being the established literary and cinematic narrative history that tells us to trust the paranoiac. No real depth is built into the character, relying on a last-minute admission to provide explanation, but the film has become far too flat by that point for any of the emotional weight of his disclosure to register. Elsewhere, Spense is cheaply villainized, vacillating only between open antagonism and wide-eyed anxiety as James’ odd behavior escalates. In fact, Helen is the only character here who doesn’t behave as if aware that she’s in a psychological horror movie, her limited screen time offering the few moments that manage to cut through the film’s intentionally oppressive mood.
But Rounding’s most glaring issues come in Thompson’s efforts to add genre texture to the fairly rote narrative beats. The result is a veritable bingo card of recycled horror tricks that hold little meaning and almost zero cogency. Most notable is the film’s saturation of hallucination sequences, the crutch of all weak psycho-thrillers, few of which bear any internal logic or visual appeal: in a particularly cheap moment, James imagines getting obliterated by a semi while jogging on the country road, which only serves to illustrate his general distress and connects to nothing else. Some practical, lo-fi visual effects are also sprinkled throughout James’ hallucinations, which at least suggest a bit of personality beyond the aggressive anonymity found everywhere else, but like all the religious symbology permeating the film to no payoff, serve absolutely no functional purpose. And then there’s the ankle James injures, which seems to desiccate and rot across the film’s runtime, and likewise serves no purpose other than to underline his wholesale disintegration. The whole thing is just a logic-less grabbag of garbled horror signifiers with no organizing principle or guiding thematic interests, the kind of film an A.I. might produce if fed a sampling of the genre’s past couple decades of content. There’s obviously some intimation of trauma and workplace stress inherent to the material, but like everything else here, it’s not meaningfully explored enough to even align Rounding with the metaphorical wave of films dominating horror these days. Given the utter lack of anything to latch onto, the film is simply dead on arrival. It’s a psychological thriller void of any actual psychology; a medical “whodunnit” without either meaningful science or mystery; a horror that has no idea how to enunciate the horrific. Consider that Rounding’s autopsy.
Writer: Luke Gorham
Director Monia Chokri’s dark comedy Babysitter establishes a very specific tenor from its opening moments, as a trio of lecherous businessmen debate the shapely attributes of an Instagram model. Disorienting close-ups collide with an editing style so frenetic that Michael Bay himself might blush. The introduction of two random females invites uncomfortable shots of cleavage, asses, and crotches, while a UFC match that serves as the uniting force rages on, its participants pummeling one another with animalistic ferocity. Before long, bright red blood stains the white canvas, sex and violence converging to offer a meta-commentary on the ideals and affections of entertainment in modern society. Unfortunately, Babysitter isn’t nearly as pointed in the rest of its observations, an absurdist take on misogyny, female empowerment, and toxic masculinity that exhausts the viewer long before its end credits.
Chokri and writer Catherine Leger clearly have a lot to say here about 21st-century gender politics, but do so in a manner so haphazard that it soon becomes impossible to determine any precise messaging or point of view. Canadian engineer Cedric (Patrick Hivon) is one part of that aforementioned trio, who, in a drunken stupor, forcibly kisses a female reporter outside of the UFC venue live on television. His actions deemed as sexual assault, he is suspended from his job and forced to reconsider not only his behavior on that fateful night, but what lead him to attempt something so brazen in the first place. Cedric’s brother, Michel (Steve Laplante), convinces him to write a letter of apology to the reporter, which inspires Cedric to examine his misogynistic ways, the results of which he wants to publish as a novel. Meanwhile, Cedric’s wife, Nadine (director Chokri), is at her wit’s end when it comes to caring for their newborn daughter, inspiring Cedric to hire a comely nanny named Amy (Nadia Tereszkiewicz). It’s Amy who ultimately changes the lives of all three of these participants, forcing them out of their comfort zones to question their place in a post-#MeToo society.
Or something like that. It’s frequently difficult to make heads or tails of what Babysitter is actually trying to accomplish. Michel, who fancies himself both an intellectual and a feminist, is ultimately revealed to be an even bigger misogynist than his brother, because isn’t that ironic? Cedric is essentially removed from the central action, because apparently Chokri and Leger clearly had no idea what to do with the character after the inciting incident, while Nadine finally considers her own agency as a woman after initially thinking nothing of her husband’s actions or the resulting controversy. This involves her becoming a proxy Disney princess by wearing a giant purple cape and donning a strap-on to potentially peg her husband, because maybe then he will understand what it means to be objectified in today’s society. It’s all very broad and very stupid, and not nearly as clever or substantive as it intends to be, mostly the result of its lack of focus. Babysitter is the type of film that forces Amy into a sexy maid’s outfit and deems it empowering, while also acknowledging how inappropriate it is considering the situation, a development which is evidently supposed to make the viewer question their initial reaction. Anything who finds that level of agitation may find the whole ordeal worthwhile, but there’s simply too much empty pomp and spectacle masquerading as insightful social commentary to get on board with this broad attempt at satire. And that’s not even mentioning the inclusion of Peaches’ subversive anthem “Fuck the Pain Away,” a sort of key to the register the film is operating on. The film proceeds to end on a note of hope for the next generation of women, but they deserve more than something as over-caffeinated and underwritten as Babysitter.
Writer: Steven Warner
“You are now entering my universe. I am the lens, the subject, the authority.” So begins Beba, Rebeca Huntt‘s cinematic self-portrait, which employs an incantatory voiceover and a chaotic swirl of 16mm imagery to interrogate her family history, a navigation of her identity as an Afro-Latina with a Dominican father and Venezuelan mother, and how this impacted her development as an artist. Huntt goes on to state, “I carry an ancient pain that I struggle to understand,” and that “violence lives in my DNA.” This sets up the boldly confrontational yet mesmerizingly contemplative tone she strikes in her piece, creating an entrancing spell with her words and images.
The film consists of four chapters, and the first, “The Curse,” delves into the story of her parents’ emigration to New York and their eventual settling into a small, one-bedroom apartment near Central Park, their family also including Huntt’s brother and sister. This section of the film contrasts Huntt’s relationships with her father and mother. Her onscreen interview with her father demonstrates their warm and easy rapport, as he talks of his early years working in the Dominican sugarcane fields, and his escape from the violent regime of the dictator Trujillo. Her interview with her mother is far more thorny and confrontational, as she interrogates her mother about what it was like raising Black children, their talk soon devolving into Huntt accusing her mother of microaggressions, and eventually mutual angry silence. Later, Huntt tells the story of how she once choked her mother during an argument, making it quite ironic that she titles her film after her mother’s childhood nickname for her.
A later section of the film details her collegiate experience at Bard, and how she navigated being a poor person of color among mostly white, privileged peers; she was simultaneously gregarious and lonely during this period. In this section, Huntt includes an angry confrontation between herself and some clueless white acquaintances pontificating about the efficacy of racial protests, after which Huntt storms out of the room and into the street, a scene which we learn in the credits was staged, the inclusion of which is a dubious decision in a film of such raw, honest confession.
Shot over the course of eight years, Beba is a uniquely fascinating mining of personal history, fully immersing us into its subject’s headspace, weaving sometimes breathtakingly beautiful 16mm imagery, intimately confessional voiceover, and soundbites from James Baldwin and poet Audre Lorde into a remarkable autobiographical portrait of an artist well worth paying attention to.
Writer: Christopher Bourne
The Year Between
The track record of measured, believable — let alone sympathetic — portrayals of mental illness on the big screen is spotty at best, oftentimes veering into outright offensiveness. Writer-director Alex Heller’s The Year Between attempts to course correct with its portrait of a young woman struggling to come to terms with her bipolar disorder, and given the potential (and history) of a histrionic treatment, it surprisingly succeeds more often than it fails. Heller herself stars as Clemence, who, as the film opens, is in the middle of a particularly rough manic episode that sees her taking out her aggressions on an understandably frightened college roommate. In swoops Clemence’s mother, Sherri (J. Smith-Cameron), who drags her daughter literally kicking and screaming back to their homestead in the suburbs of Chicago.
The Year Between takes its title from the period of time that Clemence takes off from higher education in a half-hearted attempt to get her life back in order. An official diagnosis starts Clemence on the path to recovery, one that will require her to take responsibility for her actions — not to mention a shit-ton of medication that has varying degrees of unagreeable side effects. Clemence’s family is, for the most part, unsympathetic to her ordeal, having been obviously worn down by her erratic behavior for years. Mom is the definition of tough love, while Dad (Steve Buscemi) is affable and always there with a kind word, but decidedly distracted. Meanwhile, her two younger siblings, Carlin (Emily Robinson) and Neil (Wyatt Oleff), see their sister as a spoiled, uncaring brat who uses her mental illness as an excuse to be as cruel and selfish as possible.
The truth: they aren’t wrong. The Year Between has no interest in painting Clemence in a particularly flattering light, her disaffected nature and constant putdowns established from the very first frame. It’s quite obvious that Heller, a bipolar filmmaker herself, wants to craft a warts-and-all portrait of mental illness, one that refuses to sugarcoat its devastating effects. And while such an approach is respectable, it also makes Clemence quite unpleasant company, as Heller errs on the side of real more than some audience members might be willing to tolerate. There’s never any doubt that such an approach is intentional, and the fact that it leaves Clemence nearly impossible to empathize with makes for a rather fascinating dichotomy, but one that Heller unfortunately doesn’t consistently explore in dramatically satisfying ways. And then there’s the film’s lazy climax, a high school party that conveniently gathers nearly every person of importance in Clemence’s life, an ending that plays a bit like wish fulfillment and is completely at odds with the emotional authenticity Heller strives for in all other aspects. A sudden plot development involving Clemence’s mother also ends up on the wrong side of melodrama.
Heller gets strong work from her entire cast, although that baseline is easy to hit when you have the likes of Smith-Cameron and Buscemi, who have arguably never delivered a bad performance in their entire careers. Heller the actress has the biggest tightrope to walk, and fairs well enough, even as her disaffected delivery occasionally threatens to cross over into Juno-esque smugness. It’s when it comes to the actual filmmaking, however, that Heller fails miserably, as there isn’t even a hint of artistry to be found in any of the always flat-looking, sometimes even ugly compositions. To her credit, she doesn’t fall into the trap of highly stylized overstimulation like so many films of this ilk, but to overcompensate with this much blandness is an equally unwelcome development. Heller’s attempts to handle mental illness broadly, and portray bipolar disorder specifically, with rawness and unglossed realism is instructive for other filmmakers working with such material, but her admirable aims in The Year Between are unfortunately undermined by deficiencies of cinematic form.
Writer: Steven Warner