While the locale of every festival is as much a source of pride as its keen selection of films, Tribeca offers an advantage its sister festivals, located in picturesque postcard towns, simply cannot: well wrought infrastructure. This means, of course, that in addition to the number of films making their debut in New York, Tribeca is also the ideal occasion to catch up on those you’d otherwise have to hike a mountain in full Sherpa mode to see (I’m looking at you Sundance) or fly halfway around the world to witness (that’s you Cannes).
In particular, this year’s Tribeca Film Festival offers an excellent (and comfortable) chance to catch up on two of Park City’s most talked about comedies.
Industry vet Paul Weitz brings to Battery Park his hit Grandma, a stripped down, unplugged little indie that nonetheless channels some serious wattage from Lily Tomlin’s acid smile. Tomlin rightfully generated buzz from this wry but poignant performance as a battle-ax lesbian poetess whose attempts to help her granddaughter round up money for an abortion become a referendum on her own life’s knotty path. Basically, Grandma sets out to prove the self-evident theorem that any of us should be so lucky to have a grandmother like Tomlin. She storms through the movie, beating deadbeat boyfriends with hockey sticks and doling out salty wisdom like hard tack on the choppy seas of life. Tomlin’s pure moxie enlivens Chris Weitz’s occasionally stiff blocking and stolid framing, which might otherwise stilt her quips with a set-up-and-pay-off feel. Only a performer with the sardonic gravitas of a lifetime in comedy’s trenches could tames scenes on film that feel like they’d rather play out onstage: notably when Tomlin hits up an old flame (Sam Elliot, a bottomless well of grit in his own right). After some knowing banter, their painful past boils over in a calculated manner but Tomlin’s unflinching gaze and Elliot’s graceful baritone keep the scene flying high. Marcia Gay Harden and Julia Garner also hold up well as her daughter and granddaughter respectively, but this is definitely Tomlin’s show. And considering how safely pre-digested summer comedies usually are, Grandma is clearly several cuts above most anything else out there.
In a slightly more salacious spirit, Patrick Bryce’s The Overnight gives Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling their shot in the treacherous arena of awkward comedy against a gladiator of the form: Jason Schwartzman. Scott and Schilling play wide-eyed young parents who worry about making friends after transplanting their nascent family to Los Angeles. Fortunately, their son makes friends with another boy whose trendy, hipster parents (Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche) immediately invite them over for a long night of parental unwinding while their two sons play themselves to sleep. Schwartzman being Schwartzman, you quickly realize that Schilling and Scott are lambs being led to comedic slaughter. Parodying L.A.’s Silverlake setting isn’t rocket science—Schwartzman designs water filters for the third world and serves Scott repurposed sewage; she’s a French actress in kinky breast-feeding videos—but Bryce manages to sustain the awkward tension of potential swingers feeling each other out well past its typical breaking point. The Overnight even brushes up against quasi-Lynchian heights of unsettling absurdity before returning to more conventional altitudes. There is, of course, a fundamental misunderstanding that lends the plot an air of Shakespearean sex comedy but to the film’s credit, it dares to push past the boarders of predictability in the end.
Another one of Tribeca’s brightest highlights comes not from Sundance but Berlin. Radu Jude, a scion of the Romanian new wave, won Best Director at the Berlinale this year for the wholly original, delightfully bawdy, and slyly moving Aferim!. The plot is digressive and simple, but profound in its profanity; it evokes as much The Canterbury Tales and Gogol as it does cinema classics like The Searchers and 12 Years a Slave. Set in the wild, wild east of early 19th-century Wallachia (and beautifully shot in 35mm black-and-white film), Aferim! follows a rural constable (Teodor Corban) who brings his adolescent son (Mihai Comanoiu) along to imbibe hard-earned life lessons as they hunt down a runaway gypsy slave (Cuzin Toma) for a local lord. At first, as Corban spouts his racist paternal platitudes, you dismiss his character as a pompous Eastern European Polonius. However, once father and son recapture the slave and trek back home all the while listening to the slave’s increasingly desperate pleas, you realize Corban’s constable hides deep wells of wisdom and decency behind that ribald fatalism. The buffoonish jokes soon gain power and meaning from that undercurrent of universal sadness until all three, father, son, and slave, have you alternating between hearty laughter and quiet tears. The exquisite, dexterous performances, backed by beautiful cinematography and keen production design, make 19th-century Wallachia spring to life with a vivid immediacy that often evades high-gloss dramas set in the present day. But this alone doesn’t do the film justice: Jude also offers an essential meditation on how the astringent brutalities of the past pave the way for the comfort and securities of the present we take for granted. It’s the seamless skill and joyful creativity with which the film unfurls those themes make Aferim! a true work of art.