In a perfect world, it wouldn’t matter who made a particular film. Of course, a perfect world would be one in which the voices of women, LGBTQ folks, and people of color hadn’t been systematically marginalized or silenced. Institutional sexism, racism, transphobia, and homophobia are arguably even greater barriers in an art form that relies so much on capital investment and access to technology. In our imperfect world, it’s incumbent on a critic to spotlight the emergence of individuals who have managed to succeed despite these societal hurdles.
And yet, not knowing who made a thing can yield its own pleasures. Take Spring Blossom, the delicate, barely-feature-length French drama that’s streaming via the Kiggins Theatre. It tells, in broad strokes, a familiar tale, and one that carries plenty of risks if not told well: a teenaged girl who doesn’t fit in with her peers develops a crush on an older man, leading to an inevitably fraught relationship between the two.
I noticed in the opening credits that the film was directed by Suzanne Lindon, and anticipated that a female director would be more likely to tell this story informed by personal experience and less infused with a male gaze. That turned out to be true. Our protagonist is sixteen, with a contented home life and a wry, bemused take on the ordinary rituals of teenage life. She tries attending parties, but they bore her. She then, one evening, spots a handsome actor (Arnaud Valois) two decades her senior outside the theater in her neighborhood where he’s rehearsing a role. Smitten, or at least curious, she insinuates herself into his presence and they become fast friends.
Fairly early on in the 73-minute film I realized that the girl’s name was Suzanne, and a light bulb went off: Aha! The film must be based on its director’s actual experience, in classic roman a clef style. That would explain the preternatural sensitivity that permeates it. But it was only as the end credits rolled that my creaky brain noticed something extraordinary—the lead actor was also named Suzanne Lindon! So that must mean…wait for it…the movie was written and directed by a teenager?
Some quick Googling confirmed that, yes, Suzanne Lindon wrote Spring Blossom when she was fifteen, and then starred in and directed it at the age of twenty. This was the point where I realized that I was glad I hadn’t had that information when I started watching it. I was impressed when I didn’t even know it was a debut film, much less the work of someone who couldn’t even legally order a beer in America. I suppose I should apologize for spoiling this fact, but if the prodigal nature of Lindon’s achievement gains it attention, then it’s worth it.
Of course, one might ask how a twenty-year-old with no previous apparent experience in the film business gets the green light to make even a modest film such as this. The answer likely lies in the fact that Suzanne is the daughter of French screen actors Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain, both respected industry veterans. So, yes, there’s some nepotism involved, but ultimately it’s what one does with one’s privilege that matters, and Suzanne Lindon has marked herself as a triple-threat talent to watch for, perhaps, decades to come. And if that weren’t enough, the movie gets bonus points for a scene in which a character wears a Langlitz Leathers tee shirt. (Streaming via the Kiggins Theatre)
Josephine Decker: Speaking of promising female directors, the Criterion Channel is featuring a valuable retrospective of the early work of Josephine Decker, who garnered widespread and merited acclaim for 2018’s Madeline’s Madeline and then directed Elisabeth Moss in Shirley, a fascinating quasi-biography of author Shirley Jackson. Prior to that, she directed two solo features and co-directed a third, and they reveal a gloriously unconventional, fiercely brave talent who, judging by her more recent efforts, has yet to compromise in pursuit of mainstream access. Butter on the Latch (2013) is a largely improvised story about two close friends who attend a Balkan-music-themed forest camp after one of them has a painful breakup. Thou Was Mild and Lovely (2014) features mumblecore icon Joe Swanberg as a seasonal worker who finds himself entwined in a relationship with the flirtatious, menacing daughter of the farmer who employs him. And Frames (2017), which Decker co-directed with Zefrey Throwell, is a shockingly intimate documentary portrait of their five-year relationship. And by shockingly intimate, I’m referring to its emotional content, rather than the explicit sexual activity that’s also captured—one of the themes of the film seems to be that physical exhibitionism is less revealing, and requires less, than the other kind. All three, as well as a selection of earlier shorts, are worth exploring in detail. (Streaming on The Criterion Channel).
Cruella: Memorial Day Weekend is, of course, the traditional start of the Summer Movie Season, when Hollywood begins the process of hurling its franchises, sequels and reboots at the wall and seeing which ones stick. (At least, it used to be Memorial Day Weekend, until a surplus of high-octane content forced the definition of “summer” to creep closer and closer to the beginning of spring.) This year, it feels very much like the biggest step yet toward a normal moviegoing environment, with a pair of pop-culture artifacts opening more widely, at least around these parts, than any film has in quite some time. One of them is A Quiet Place II, the sequel to the 2018 horror hit. The other is Cruella, the latest Disney effort to cannibalize its intellectual property by making a live-action origin story for a villain from one of its animated classics. This is known as the Maleficent Gambit, and, as in the case of that 2014 Angelina Jolie starrer, it must be admitted that it kind of works.
Here we have Emma Stone gamely smarming her way as Cruella (nee Estella) De Vil, best known until now for harboring an unnatural hatred for dalmatians and being the inspiration for one of Montgomery Burns’ vilest plots. Estella, in typical Disney fashion, loses her mother at a young age and has to earn her keep on the mean streets of 1970s London. (Yes, the original 101 Dalmatians came out in 1961—stop nitpicking!) She’s taken under the wing of an enormously successful, and equally tyrannical, fashion designer called The Baroness (Emma Thompson, vamping on Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada), before eventually branching out and becoming her mentor’s Vivienne Westwood-esque rival. The movie is, as you’d expect, a front-runner for a Best Costume Design Oscar next year, and director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) leans into the camp elements. If you’re looking for the perfect movie to inaugurate your own personal return to movie theaters, this probably isn’t it. But you could also do quite a bit worse. (Playing at area theaters; also available for streaming rental to Disney Plus subscribers for $29.99)
Tiny Tim: King for a Day: It’s hard to imagine a more perplexing pop-cultural sensation than the ukulele-playing, falsetto-voiced Tiny Tim, who shot to a very 21st-century version of stardom in the last 1960s. This documentary strives to rescue Tim (born Herbert Butros Khaury) from the novelty act dustbin and remind us that figures such as Bob Dylan and John Lennon took him seriously. Unfortunately, despite interviews with filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Jonas Mekas (who shot priceless early footage of Tiny Tim performing in a Greenwich Village club), director Johan von Sydow (no relation to Max as far as I could tell) fails to show what exactly, other than a sort of morbid musical curiosity, made him so compelling a figure. It does provide some insight into his odd and tortured mind, thanks to excerpts from his journals which are read aloud by Weird Al Yankovic. (Streaming via the Kiggins Theatre)
Drunk Bus: Michael (Charlie Tahan) graduated four years ago, but he’s still stuck in his college town, driving the late-night campus shuttle carrying hordes of unruly, intoxicated students. See, the endless loop he drives is a metaphor for the rut Michael is stuck in. Get it? Anyway, he’s content to pine for his ex-girlfriend and clean up vomit until he’s assigned a security guard named Pineapple (Pineapple Tangaroa). Pineapple is a heavily tattooed and body-modded Samoan who strikes fear in the hearts of frat bros, and who provides Michael with the nudge he needs to start finding his way. Pineapple also gives the most authentic performance in this cleverly conceived but poorly executed movie. (Streaming via the Kiggins Theatre)