(This dispatch is part of our coverage of the 2019 Chicago International Film Festival.)
Just like Rebecca Black sang back in 2011, “Yesterday was Thursday, Thursday / Today it is Friday, Friday.” Yep, after being home for 10 hours (and sleeping for seven of them), I came back for day three of the festival, which first brought me The Apollo. Directed by Roger Ross Williams, this doc tracks the history and impact of Harlem’s 1,506-seat theater that remains a nexus for black culture and entertainment. There’s a lot of strong stuff here. That said, while it works for stretches, it doesn’t really coalesce beyond feeling like a rough cut.
One thing’s for sure: this thing has archive footage to spare. From interviews to performances and 70-year-old B-roll beyond that, Williams knows how to instill a sense of time. He appreciates the more innocuous moments, and when he contrasts them with unbroken takes of some of the theater’s most heartbreaking works… Let’s just say you’ve got a few whirlwinds ahead of you. (After all, I didn’t expect to start my day tearing up at Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” directly after footage of people jamming out on stage.)
But Williams’s film also shows itself as double-edged. The trajectory of The Apollo goes for chronology from its foundation to today, but it’s uneven in how it examines shifts in the culture that informed the arts that came out of it. (One aside about The Beatles alludes to cultural appropriation, but it’s all too brief.) Some stretches feel like amorphous blobs of time; some are specific. Then he’ll cut to present day to look at developing works in the late 2010s in lieu of, say, showing how Harlem changed when the theater shut down for eight years.
Looking back, The Apollo had more pathos than my next film of the day: Fabrice du Welz’s Adoration. With a story by du Welz, Romain Protat, and Vincent Tavier, it focuses on Paul (Thomas Gioria). He lives in the forest with his mother (Charlotte Vandermeersch), a nurse for a mental hospital right by their house in the middle of the forest. Enter Gloria (Fantine Harduin): she’s an orphan who’s escaped, telling Paul that the clinic just wants to keep her so they can get her uncle’s money. And you know what? It actually works on the boy.
From a narrative level, Adoration mostly gets attention through its missteps. You’ve got a main character who’s by and large nothing more than an audience conduit. Next to him is a girl—“alluring,” as untrustworthy as she may be—with whom he goes on the run. Plus, their relationship plays as strictly platonic in a childlike sort of way—that is until partway through when she jerks him off as they make out. He’s blank. She’s a (grimmer) manic pixie dream girl. Even though the movie tries to recontextualize its tropes, their journey can’t help but feel banal.
That said, it isn’t offensive in its treatment of mental illness, per se. That’s mostly because the treatment of everything is so detached. That said, Manuel Dacosse’s 16mm cinematography is quite good and becomes grainer as the movie gets less ambiguous in its content. Benoît Poelvoorde gets a nice scene towards the end too, and that helps flesh out the tone.
Next was a more difficult movie, not just because of content, but also because of quality. César Díaz’s Our Mothers follows a man in pursuit to find out what happened to his father. He died during the Guatemalan genocides that struck the nation from 1960 to 1996, and while Ernesto (Armando Espitia) knows this, he’s not sure when or why. Hell, he works as an exhumer now, literally digging up and dusting off the past. It’s not that the movie is overt—it’s quite subtle most of the time—but the writer/director’s script doesn’t live up to his direction.
Despite his intentions, it plays like Díaz didn’t know exactly how to work around the inevitability of such a story. It’s clear that Ernesto’s mother, Cristina (Emma Dib), knows who his father really was. It’s also clear that this closure will be wildly different for both of them. Rather, it focuses too much on the buildup instead of the resolution; there are scenes where our protagonist searches for answers, which play more like asides than progressions. It’s only later on that Díaz steps it up as if he had to treat some earlier stretches as padding.
Scenes become much more intimate, and the mother-son relationship begins to reveal its codependency. Conversations flow from soft to harsh and back to soft in the matter of a minute, and Díaz’s languidness as a director starts to match up with his script. In retrospect, it kind of plays like the first half was drawn out in order to reach a feature length. (The movie is only 78 minutes with credits.) At least Espitia and Dib make it feel more consistent than it is.
Last but not least of the day was Hala. This one comes from Minhal Baig, and while it’s something to check out, I can’t say it’s because it totally works. Rather, Baig is a storyteller who hasn’t hit her stride yet.
Geraldine Viswanathan stars as a high school senior and only child to her Pakistani parents (Azad Khan and Purbi Joshi). She practices Islam willingly, but that doesn’t mean she’s fine with her family’s conservatism; there are more than a few bumps there, which grow as she starts seeing skater dork Jesse (Jack Kilmer). What struck me, though, is how supporting characters come and go. Even her friends fade away for stretches. But while that works, Baig tries to blend a fluid narrative with a three-act structure, and she can’t quite stick the landing.
This isn’t just a movie about coming of age, but of realizing and confronting chauvinism. Some of it’s more casual, like her classmates’ bouts of entitlement. Some of them come from religion and, in effect, family itself, and these arcs are a big part in giving the script its identity. What could feel contradictory—namely in how Hala copes with her traditionalist upbringing while never questioning her individuality—work because there’s a grey area at play here.
It’s a shame, then, that the rest of the film doesn’t benefit from those refreshingly grey areas. Baig relies way too much on the “people talking about literature but actually talking about their own problems” cliché, and characters can act in ways that feel either too sudden or forced. Even though the relationships play out differently than I expected, Hala jams in a subplot here or a plot-subservient character there. I came to wonder if it’s an adaptation of a short film. As it turns out, it is.