Credit: HBO
by Jake Tropila Featured Film Streaming Scene

Ren Faire — Lance Oppenheim

June 5, 2024

If one is to survey a slate of HBO’s flagship programming — say, The Sopranos, Succession, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, and now House of the Dragon — a clear commonality emerges: these shows are all about power: desiring power, attaining power, losing power, fighting for power, or even wresting power straight out of an opponent’s grasp, be it by gun, sword, or multi-billion-dollar Gojo deal. Whatever the case may be, power is king, a notion that is completely literalized by the end of Ren Faire, a brand-new three-part documentary series produced by HBO. The latest challenger to the aforementioned roster of Best Show about Power-Hungry Despots — albeit one with far humbler origins, and a comparatively more modest budget to boot — Ren Faire is the latest work from documentary filmmaker Lance Oppenheim, previously of Some Kind of Heaven and Spermworld, with the latter already staking a claim as one of the best films of 2024 thus far. Having been granted unprecedented access to the Texas Renaissance Festival, the largest of its kind in the United States, Oppenheim explores the behind-the-scenes operations of the fest as well as the machinations of its current king, co-founder George Coulam, and the various adjutants vying for control of his throne once he retires. Despite operating within a world that is infinitesimally smaller than that of Westeros, Ren Faire is no less compelling to watch, thanks in large part to Oppenheim’s signature filmmaking style and the exuberant personalities who run the fest, each of them craving the same end goal no matter the cost.

Established in the small Texas town of Todd Mission (roughly 55 miles outside of Houston) in 1974, the Ren Fest regularly enjoys a healthy amount of patronage, amassing an annual attendance of over half a million guests despite being open only during the fall season. Having enjoyed life as the king since opening day, Coulam also happens to be the mayor of Todd Mission, holding city council meetings as often as he holds court. This is all about to change when Coulam announces his retirement to focus on his dating life, having produced no heir in his 86 years of living and leaving a mad scramble for who will ascend the throne. The first immediate candidate is general manager Jeffrey Baldwin, a lifelong actor and sweet-natured man who acts as Coulam’s right hand, despite Coulam’s own doubts that Baldwin is the man for the job. Baldwin’s immediate competition is “Lord of Corn” Louie Migliaccio, an eccentric, energy drink-guzzling vendor who comes backed with his own wealth of client connections and a go-getter attitude. As these two men clash, a third opponent enters the fray in the form of elephant trainer Darla Smith, whose level-headedness and pragmatic business outlook might just be what Coulam is looking for. Meanwhile, Coulam has his personal profile posted on no fewer than fifteen dating websites — most of them appealing to “sugar daddy” seekers — allowing us to revel in the awkwardness of his dating life as potential partners heroically laugh off his iconic opening line: “Are those your natural breasts?”

With a premise as outlandish as Ren Faire‘s, there may be an inherent urge to gawk and point at the madness that ensues, but Tiger King this ain’t; Oppenheim keeps us earnestly engrossed in the fest’s communalism, offering a too-little-seen glimpse into the lives of those beholden to the machine of capitalism under the guise of medieval pageantry. It also helps a great deal that Oppenheim favors a much more expressionistic approach to this material, making fine use of the fest’s gorgeous colors and costuming to paint an aesthetically vivid portrait of the Texas Renaissance Festival. In fact, Ren Faire is almost indescribably beautiful to watch at times, even indulging in a few fantastical moments that are very much in character with its themes. Oppenheim, who thinks in images first, further sets himself apart from his contemporaries by eschewing 99% of the banalities that comprise most documentaries, with nary a drone shot nor a talking head in sight, resulting in one of the year’s best experiences of pure cinema. As for the battle of the ren fest throne itself, suffice it to say that alliances are forged, backs are stabbed, and deals are sabotaged in order to gain purchase over enemies. Who will take the throne and get the power? The answer lies in one of most thrilling new series to air in quite some time, a true sensory saga more epic and satisfying than even George R. R. Martin could deliver. Do not miss this.

DIRECTOR: Lance Oppenheim;  DISTRIBUTOR: Max;  STREAMING: June 2;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 53 min.