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Montclair ’17: Smart Movies for Silly Season

May 7, 2017

If your idea of an edifying night at the cinema doesn’t involve Baby Groot, don’t despair. I just saw three yet-to-be-released movies at the Montclair Film Festival that provide food for thought as well as considerable entertainment value.

Perhaps you heard the deafening buzz about Patti Cake$ coming out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It wasn’t just the high altitude talking. Writer-director Geremy Jasper’s debut feature plays like a Dirty Jersey version of La La Land: the inspirational story of musical dreamers who are a lot less photogenic but no less appealing than Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Danielle McDonald, an Aussie actress of immense charm (think Rebel Wilson with talent), delivers the breakout performance of the year so far as Patti Dombrowski — cruelly nicknamed “Dumbo” by her blue-collar Garden State classmates. She dreams of escaping her bleak reality by dubbing herself “Killa P” (among other hip-hop monikers) and becoming a rap superstar.

She assembles an unlikely crew of collaborators, including her Indian-American pharmacist pal (Siddharth Dhananjay, another major comic discovery), an African-American death-metalhead (the charismatic Mamoudou Athie) and her terminally ill grandmother, played by an all-but-unrecognizable Cathy Moriarty, who could earn her first Oscar nomination in 37 years since her debut in Raging Bull for her heartfelt and hilarious work. She may find herself competing for best supporting actress against Bridget Everett, the NYC cabaret legend who contributes a powerhouse turn as Patti’s alternately cruel and caring mother, whose own dreams of pop stardom were crushed.

A hip-hop enthusiast and music-video veteran, Jasper worked for 10 years on Patti Cake$, two alone with McDonald, who had no music background, muchless rap skills, and it shows. Zoe Lister-Jones spent several years penning the songs for her first film as a writer-director-star, Band Aid, with less transcendent results. Still, there’s much to admire about the film, which Lister-Jones aptly likened to “a John Cassavetes comedy” as well as Woody Allen’s painfully revealing Husbands and Wives.

Lister-Jones currently co-stars on CBS’ sitcom Life in Pieces, and she’s populated her cast with various third or fourth leads from primetime shows: Happy Endings vet Adam Pally plays her husband, a frustrated artist who’s constantly bickering with his failed novelist-turned-Uber driver wife, and there are also appearances by New Girl‘s Hannah Simone, Grey’s Anatomy‘s Jesse Williams, and Lister-Jones’ Life partner Colin Hanks. The unhappy marrieds decide to turn their frequent arguments into songs and form a band with a creepy neighbor, a recovering sex addict delightfully played by Fred Armisen (who lives platonically with a couple of babes portrayed by Once Upon a Time‘s Jamie Chung and Kevin Can Wait‘s Erinn Hayes).

The tonal transitions between wacky scenes, many of them involving the intake of narcotics, and emotionally raw depictions of martial strife, can be jarring at times, and Pally seems incapable of cutting more than skin-deep, unlike the gifted Lister-Jones. The film’s biggest surprise is Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s Susie Essman, who curbs her trademark hysterical screaming and delivers a monologue on the differences between men and women that’s breathtakingly insightful, even as she admits it’s a gross generalization. Commendably, Lister-Jones shot the film with an all-female crew, and her film offers sharp observations about the male and female psyche alike.

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The documentary Strong Island takes its title from a hip-hop nickname for Long Island, but music isn’t its focus. Rather, director Yance Ford’s profoundly personal film investigates why a white man who shot and killed Ford’s brother in 1992 wasn’t indicted by an all-white grand jury. More than just another entry in the burgeoning true-crime genre, Strong Island tackles issues of class and race without reaching any easy answers. As hypnotically paced and beautifully shot as Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, this eye-opener announces the arrival of a formidable filmmaker.

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No wonder the movie won a Special Jury Award for Storytelling at Sundance and has been acquired by Netflix, which will distribute it theatrically as well as on its streaming service this fall. Cinephiles won’t have to wait as long for Band Aid (opening June 2) or Patti Cake$, which starts rolling out July 7. Forget Guardians of the Galaxy: These directors are guardians of a great legacy—truly independent filmmaking.

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