Tribeca 2021: Rock and/or Roll

This is the first of a few reports from Tribeca 2021. Some past Tribeca write-ups can be found here.

The Tribeca Film Festival has rechristened itself the just plain Tribeca Festival this year, making official its recent addition of television, VR, and other media into its programming. Those newer additions include podcasts, of course, and there’s something oddly satisfying about this year’s film selections including the in-competition Poser (Grade: B), which has been described, loosely and not entirely accurately, as Single White Female with a podcast. Lennon (Sylvie Mix) does have a podcast, though it’s never clear how many listeners she has—or, thinking back over the events of the film, if she ever actually uploads any of her episodes. As the movie opens, she’s reaching out of her “comfort zone,” a stock phrase that becomes unnerving as she keeps repeating it, by interviewing local musicians in the Columbus, Ohio scene. Her operation is as low-fi as any number of genres floating around said scene (one band identifies as “junkyard bop”): She records on her phone, then re-records the results onto cassette tapes, because she likes the hiss. (The movie isn’t really clear about whether she then re-digitizes those cassettes; again, there’s a little ambiguity about whether these episodes go beyond her library. The finer points of syndication don’t really seem like Lennon’s bag.)

In the process of sidling up to various Columbus scenesters, Lennon strikes up a friendship with Bobbi Kitten, a singer apparently playing a version of herself, who plays in a duo with a guy who wears a wolf mask everywhere. That’s where the Single White Female vibes come in, but Lennon’s neediness is both less disguised and less calculating; Poser is really somewhere between Shattered Glass and Ingrid Goes West as a study of narcissism disguising itself as empathy. Even that may seem like a harsh description of Lennon, even after the movie reveals some of her other forms of flattery that go beyond her starry-eyed interviews. There’s a profound loneliness to this character, beautifully played by Mix, and an arrested adolescence to her desire for belonging. The title, which (IIRC) is never uttered in the film, is perfect; Poser is the kind of wannabe epithet most often spit by the young and authenticity-hungry; Lennon’s adulthood feels appropriately tenuous. Directors Noah Dixon and Orgi Segev clearly know this world—or if they don’t, they do an even better job of faking it than Lennon does. Even when their movie gets laughs, it’s not a grotesque satire of local music scenes, or a portrait of its anti-heroine as a loathsome vampire. It burns slowly—maybe a little too slowly, given how soon Lennon’s quirks emerge—generating a low, impressively discomfiting heat.

Love Spreads (Grade: C-), a selection from the curtailed 2020 Tribeca getting an in-person premiere for Tribeca 2021, feels even more real. It begins with a rock band called Glass Heart, all women, finishing up the tour for their successful first album, and hunkering down to record album number two. To dig into, say, the scrappiness of the Columbus indie scene is rare enough. For a movie to even acknowledge the idea that a band would have to follow up their breakthrough album, and go through the oft-cited difficulty of doing an album in a few months after spending years building to its predecessor, is—within the confines of the rock and roll movie—very nearly revolutionary. Even rock biopics tend to elide the hard work of creating, especially when a band is past their youngest, scrappiest, hungriest days. The realism is further enhanced by writer-director Jamie Adams favoring an improvisational, ultra-naturalistic approach to the dialogue. When the band’s primary songwriter Kelly (Alia Shawkat) hems and haws and refuses to fully acknowledge her obvious lack of workable ideas during an extended holing up at a studio, the verisimilitude is painfully strong. So strong, in fact, that the unpleasant interpersonal dynamics overpower Shawkat’s natural charisma. She commits to Kelly’s grimly arrogant bullshitting so fully that her inaction somehow feels almost monstrous.

Is this supposed to be funny? There are moments where Love Spreads detours into conversational sorta-cringe comedy, especially when the band’s manager Mark (Nick Helm) arranges to swap in new guitarist Patricia (Eiza González) for a departing band member. Patricia’s huggy, effusive style cuts through the sessions’ prickliness, and generates some gently amusing culture clashes and bonds (turns out Kelly and Patricia both appreciate the Spice Girls). It’s also clever that the movie shares its name with a track off the Stone Roses album Second Coming, a famously tortured follow-up. (Less famously, it is an amazing album. Conventional wisdom about this one is dead wrong and I hope that Glass Heart’s third record gets that far into the weeds.) Again: This movie seems to know its stuff.

But none of this really adds up to either comedy or drama. It’s more like a mumblecore movie of the 2004 vintage, with the irritable, fumbling twentysomethings coping with success instead of half-assedly chasing it. It’s a bunch of noodling, only marginally more productive than the scribbling that Kelly goes through. When real music kicks in after an hour of mumbling, there’s a sense of real triumph. But despite the difficulty leading up to it, it doesn’t exactly feel earned; if anything, it neutralizes the psychological issues of Shawkat’s character and positions Patricia as a kind of magical glue. This just isn’t much of a feature film. Maybe this is why no one makes the second-album movie. Love Spreads  keeps striking realistic notes yet ultimately feels like something of a fake—something Poser’s Lennon might fudge together from secondhand accounts.