Tribeca 2019, Part 1: Into the Woods

There are certain types of indie movies I’ve seen a lot in seven years or so of Tribeca Film Festival coverage: the gritty coming-of-age movie, the would-be scrappy rom-com (more on that in a future dispatch!), the slow-burn thriller. But it was still a little surprising that at Tribeca 2019, I saw no fewer than three movies in a row that featured following shots of its characters traipsing through woodsy environs. The movies had very little to do with each other. Sometimes it’s just one of those things.

On paper and sometimes on screen, The Place of No Words (Grade: B) resembles the kind of maudlin junk that tends to do well in the Academy Award category of Best Live Action Short: It’s about a small child coming to terms with his father’s terminal illness—or at least doing the best he can, given that he’s only three years old. This is communicated through alternating scenes of lived-in reality and whimsical fantasy, where the dad (Mark Webber) takes his long-haired little son (Bodhi Palmer, Webber’s real-life kid) on a quest dotted with fairies, creatures, and magic. But Webber, who also wrote, directed, and edited, doesn’t seem interested in conventional catharsis. It sounds like a Monster Calls-style weepie, but it’s more akin to a low-budget version of Tarsem Singh’s remarkable The Fall, with a similarly (and sometimes scarily) unaffected performance from its child performer, who—playing opposite his dad and mom (Teresa Palmer)—may not be doing much performing, per se. (I can say as a parent of a three-year-old that Bodhi’s thoughts and inflections were uncannily familiar.)

This also means that Place is allowed to ramble a little. Webber’s abrupt, unsparing cuts between fantasy and reality (and the way the fantasy sequences blur into realism, perhaps accounting for the way a child’s imagination can be enormous but also, in its own way, limited) mean that the movie doesn’t exactly proceed in neat scenes, and 95 minutes of toggling between affecting fragments with the dominant voice of a real-deal toddler can be a little wearying. It’s the kind of movie that seems like it might be about to end two or three times before it does. What makes it valuable is how the three-year-old’s fantasy perspective only complicates the narrative, rather than giving it a neatly comprehensible hero-quest arc. It’s a deeply sad movie, but it feels almost uncomfortably personal.

Only (Grade: C) is more polished, using its presumably low budget toward a fairly convincing simulation of a worldwide pandemic. Though the movie begins at “day 400” of this plague, it quickly establishes that it will periodically cut back to a timeline starting at day 1, following a couple (Leslie Odom Jr. and Frieda Pinto) as they attempt to weather a quietly apocalyptic event. It begins with black ash falling from the sky; it ends with the majority of the world’s female population dead. Men can carry the plague but don’t appear to suffer physically from it (commentary!). Ava (Pinto) is unaffected, which makes Will (Odom) redouble his efforts to keep her safe, sometimes, seemingly, against her will. The “day 400” timeline sees them venturing outside their home, where they’re eyed suspiciously; the earlier-set scenes focus more on stir-craziness and preparedness and the thin line between the two.

That’s pretty much the movie: Will is humorlessly overprotective but entirely rational, while Ava understandably chafes at Will’s strict paternalism, yearns for greater human connection and, it must be said, does some pretty stupid stuff, chiefly not cutting her hair to better blend in with a mostly-male population. All in all, they’re a pretty disagreeable couple to spend a movie with, and writer-director Takashi Doscher only allows a few moments of chemistry to make them believable as a couple.

This creates a potentially provocative hook: What if something apocalyptic happened, and you were stuck with a partner you weren’t so sure you wanted to spend your life with? (Ava and Will don’t live even live together until the pandemic hits.) That’s not exactly what Only is after, though, and I’m not sure what points it’s trying to make in absence of such a boldly blackhearted supposition. Is Will a secret control freak, let loose by this disaster? Is Ava lost in a world where she might suddenly have far more responsibility than she ever asked for? Is making reaping what it sowed by making the world such a hostile place for women? Instead of answering any of these questions, or even asking them directly, Doscher makes a competent and, at times, surprisingly dull thriller. It has some tense scenes, like the opening where heavily armed police accost Will at his home while Ava hides in a secret compartment within their bed. But like No Words, it suggests material that might have made sense as a short. Unlike No Words, it doesn’t offer much reason for a feature-length expansion.

Low Tide (Grade: B+) is the least otherworldly of these three; the woods its characters run through are on a peninsula, just across the bay from a Jersey Shore beach town. But they keep coming back to the woods for buried treasure—a sack of gold coins that Alan (Keean Johnson) and his more responsible little brother Peter (Jaeden Martell) find when ransacking the home of a recently deceased old man out on the peninsula. This is routine for Alan, who robs rich tourists’ summer homes with his miscreant buddies, and new for the upright Peter, who is replacing an older kid who broke his ankle escaping the cops.

The hunt for gold coins, and the offhand, sometimes desiccated loveliness of a Jersey beach town, recall David Gordon Green’s underseen Undertow. There’s also a little David Robert Mitchell in wavering timeline (probably sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s, but if the movie puts an exact date on it, I missed it), and a splash of ’80s adventure movies. But writer-director Kevin McMullin isn’t really making a pastiche of his VHS faves; like Green, he adds little pulpy and/or lyrical touches to the material that make it both beguiling as a mood piece and compelling as a more traditional story.

McMullin errs on the side of traditional, with a rich-girl love interest, a member of the boys’ gang who turns out to be more menacing than the rest, and a final stretch that runs out of surprises a little earlier than I would have liked. But Low Tide is terrifically entertaining, made with an enormous confidence that’s visible within in the first five minutes—the kind of skill that’s cause for enormous sighs of relief at a film festival. McMullin cuts together the group’s first B&E session perfectly, capturing details more than action, and keeps the story moving without shortchanging the atmosphere. The kids are all effective, and he even gets Boardwalk Empire Shea Whigham to stick around Jersey as a lawman who’s sympathetic to these screw-ups, but not infinitely patient (and it’s indicative of the movie’s sureness that it even mixes some informant drama into a coming-of-age thriller). So many festival titles wander around the woods; Low Tide keeps sprinting.