Credit: Cold Iron Pictures/Tribeca Film Festival
by Luke Gorham Featured Film

Jazzy — Morrisa Maltz [Tribeca ’24 Review]

June 19, 2024

Early in Jazzy, Morissa Maltz’s follow-up to her feature narrative debut The Unknown Country, a pair of best friends sit in the sunken center of a trampoline, considering their impending adulthood and lamenting the endless griefs that come with age. After Jasmine, AKA Jazzy, fires off a list of these grievances with the speed of an auctioneer, Syriah responds frankly: “Growing up sounds ugly.” It’s a notably on-the-nose observation that feels mined from a place of adulthood reflection and clumsily shoehorned into an expression of childhood anxiety. Luckily, the director foregoes any of the miserablism that one might anticipate coming in the wake of such a setup, and, in fact, delivers a film unapologetically attuned to this perspective: Jazzy is very much a film hewn from the vantage of maturity, one that looks back with fondness the halcyon days of late youth, that gauzy liminal space where freedom has not yet met consequence and the limited scope of childhood first glimpses and begins to give way to life’s forthcoming expanse. In this way, Syriah’s observation functions something like a thesis for Maltz’s sophomore effort, in that the film seeks to empathetically document and preserve what comes before adulthood’s ugliness.

Fittingly, then, the film’s narrative arrives impressionistically, more a series of waves than any tightly constructed or linear work of storytelling, but it overarchingly concerns Jazzy and Syriah’s friendship, particularly emphasizing its early development — in scenes of wonderfully recognizable interactions, conversations ranging from how many other friends each one has to which stuffed animal is the favorite — and the way Jazzy moves through its absence after her friend’s family relocates. The film’s marketing speak describes it as “a poignant and authentic portrait of childhood friendship,” but while there’s no denying the chemistry and rich authenticity of Jazzy’s child actors, this is misleading. In execution, the film functions more as a sandbox for Maltz to capture a certain aesthetic and spiritual experience of childhood, and the director especially excels at establishing and reveling in the romantic textures of small-town life, the ways that quotidian incident holds potential for the poetic, particularly as it exists in memory. (In its wistful evocations, it’s easy to read Jazzy as cousin to David Robert Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover.) Maltz and DP Andrew Hajek smartly employ intimate camerawork, sticking largely to close-ups and medium-close images that prioritize an experiential quality, capturing the immediacy of youth’s bubble as well as its permeability as adulthood presses down on it. The film’s sound design — few moments in Jazzy remain unscored — likewise reflects the emotional and psychological ebbs of this period of life, moving across the film’s runtime between droning, dreamlike ambient noise and more heavily percussive, upbeat music.

Suitably charming in its own right, Jazzy is also enhanced by literacy with The Unknown Country. The headline of IndieWire’s 4.5-star review of that film read “A Stunning Spiritual Companion to Terrence Malick and ‘Nomadland,’” but the problem with what is ultimately a modest, gentle film is precisely the lack of an established authorial voice that such a headline inadvertently implies. A wending toward Malickian spirituality and artistry is certainly felt in The Unknown Country, but the final product feels more like a copy of a copy, a pure mood piece growing toward something existential but finding only an intimation of depth that is never sufficiently architected. Jazzy, then, reflects a step forward for Maltz as an image-maker. There’s thankfully less overt influence here, with certain visual motifs working to clarify the director’s artistic voice: a series of close-up dolly pushes through fields of flowers and a bevy of low-angle shots of faces set against dusk’s darkening colors are hardly novel compositions and there’s certainly a fair charge to be made unnecessary affectation, but it’s still nice to see Maltz working through reference points toward a personal style, and the mostly handsome results indicate a clear thoughtfulness with regard to form. And when the director manages to marry this to both mood and material, the effect is pure nostalgia catnip; a scene where a young boy details to his friends the rules to Ghost in the Graveyard, their shapes partially lost in the gloaming, is especially memorable.

Jazzy also benefits from its child cast — not a common line of praise. Both Malz’s latest and The Unknown Country heavily (nearly exclusively) utilize a cast of non-professionals, but children’s lack of vanity and self-consciousness help imbue Jazzy with an authenticity that felt too manufactured in the previous effort; few cinematic moments feel truer to life than this early exchange between burgeoning friends: “What do you watch?” “Netflix. Squid Game.” “Did you finish it?” “No.” Occasionally, there’s the disruptive sense of a capital-S script creeping into the proceedings, and there’s a failure of subtlety to the lack of adults in the film (with the exception of Lily Gladstone’s Tana, playing the same character she did in The Unknown Country’s shared universe), executed well early on but becoming more conspicuous as the film begins to cut heads out of frame or hide faces behind bodies and objects in the foreground. But these ruptures are mercifully few, and far more often, in the film’s best scenes, the boundary between performance and genuine interaction blurs entirely. Jazzy can ultimately then be seen as the inevitable, superior second half of a diptych work alongside The Unknown Country. There, we saw a woman moving toward an undefined something, one of that film’s largest failures being its reliance on the lazily preconceived romantic notions of an existential wanderer. With Jazzy, the future is likewise undefined, but Maltz here understands the intuitive ways we know childhood to belong to a before that all we endeavor to preserve, and mostly thrives at communicating that essential romance. 

Published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 3.