Sundance Dispatch: Emily the Criminal / Happening / Sirens
Emily the Criminal
Aubrey Plaza has become a Sundance darling in recent years (Black Bear, Ingrid Goes West, and The Little Hours all premiered at the festival), which isn’t hard to fathom — her particular brand of sardonic humor, impressively honed since her Parks and Recreation days, meshes well with the festival’s tendency towards slightly off-kilter comedy. Though not without its laughs, Emily the Criminal follows more closely in the footsteps of a Black Bear, with Plaza mostly playing it straight as a young adult forced into a life of (somewhat) organized crime due to debilitating student loans and a preexisting criminal record. Written and directed by John Patton Ford, the film starts strong as it manufactures a steady and mostly believable build for Plaza’s Emily, including some nice chemistry with the talented Theo Rossi. The plot and the atmosphere unfortunately takes a turn towards the blandly generic in the back half, but Plaza’s good enough to keep us invested throughout.
A buzzy title ever since it won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice International Film Festival, Audrey Diwan’s Happening (from the French L'événement) beautifully adapts Annie Ernaux’s memoir of the same name, recounting the harsh realities of a young woman who needs an abortion in 1960s France (where the procedure wouldn’t be legal until 1975). Diwan expertly realizes both the period trappings and the more timeless systems of oppression that manifest in myriad ways — including from one’s own peers. As Anne, the college student at the film’s center, Anamaria Vartolomei turns in a brilliant, fearless performance, brimming with equal parts insecurity and conviction, drawing us into the interiority of her performance before she and Diwan put us through the ringer in the film’s more harrowing sequences. Painful to watch at times, the impressive work on both sides of the camera nonetheless make the searing and moving Happening near-required viewing.
Lebanon and its capital city of Beirut haven’t been immune to the economic, cultural, and political unrest that’s shaken much of the Middle East over the past decade(s), and while Rita Baghdadi’s new documentary ensures that we’re aware of the context that underlies the everyday realities in Beirut, she never loses sight of her subjects: an all-female metal band called Slave to Sirens. Baghdadi focuses primarily on the band’s founders, guitar players Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara, whose sometimes divergent styles and goals cause laughter and angst in varying measures. Well-paced and well-edited by Grace Zahrah, Sirens presents a moving and charming slice of life, with a hint of something more; neither Lilas nor Shery are fully content with where their lives have led or the state of their country, and it becomes clear that their musical careers are merely one aspect of two fully-rounded young women. Politics, religion, sexuality, business, and friendships are all intertwined, making for fascinating character studies — plus the music isn't half bad either.