PROVINCETOWN – Some meals leave you in a state of bliss. You set down your fork, lean back in your chair, close your eyes, and feel an overwhelming contentment and happiness. You feel full, in the best sense of the word.
The 24th annual Provincetown International Film Festival is history, and I’m still gratefully digesting the experience.
I saw 10 festival films – one a few days in advance of the event – and enjoyed nine. That’s a mighty impressive ratio.
But there’s much more to the Provincetown fest than the films that form the heart of it.
The town itself, this beautiful burg on the Cape’s tip, is on full display in mid-June. You walk down Commercial Street, or Bradford Street, or one of the side streets, and everyone seems to be smiling. Couples walk together, holding hands; groups of laughing friends, including bachelorette parties (I saw more than one this year), head off on missions to party; families dart in and out of shops; diners fill the tables of outdoor restaurants; visitors and locals relax on benches in front of Town Hall and watch the mass of humanity parade by. Strangers say hello. We’re all in this together.
In the daytime, there’s the warmth of the sun and the buzz of the crowd and the mingling scents of sea air and aromas (seafood, Mexican) of various restaurants. Later in the evening, the streets get quieter, the silence broken by the music and sounds of revelry coming from the bars, and, farther down Commercial, toward the inns and galleries and homes (including the brick residence where Norman Mailer lived) on the East End, you can see lights reflected on Provincetown Harbor. No matter the time of day, you feel so alive in this town, but at night you also feel a kind of bittersweet peace, as if you’re Nick Carraway, more observer than participant, on a solitary stroll in “The Great Gatsby.”
There’s so much to observe, to experience, to feel when out and about in Provincetown, that you almost feel guilty taking the time to go indoors and watch movies. Almost. But the movies (the ones I saw, at least) were so good that, in almost all cases, the feeling didn’t last for long.
Here’s what I caught:
“Emily the Criminal” (set for release in August): Aubrey Plaza is probably best known for her deadpan comedy, but she’s proven in films such as “Black Bear” and, now, “Emily the Criminal” that she’s also a first-rate dramatic actress. Here she plays Emily, struggling to pay off student loans while having limited employment options (long story), who drifts into a life of crime. Writer-director John Patton Ford makes his feature-film debut with this smart, no-frills look at how desperation can lead people to make bad choices while pursuing the American Dream. **** (out of four)
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” (in theaters and on Apple TV+): This funny, warm dramedy might
be the most conventional of the movies listed here, but it’s also the most engaging. Writer-director Cooper Raiff (“Shithouse”) – who looks like he could be Adam Scott’s younger brother – plays Andrew, a recent college grad who returns home as he tries to figure out his next move. He falls into a job as a “party starter” for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and befriends an autistic girl, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), and her single mom, Domino (Dakota Johnson, who’s outstanding). Andrew and Domino are attracted to each other, but there also are obstacles: Andrew’s youth and Domino’s fiance. “Cha Cha” is more than just a romance, however; it’s a celebration of kindness, and that’s what makes it special. ***½
“One Second” (no dates available): A labor-camp escapee (Zhang Yi) and an orphan (Liu Haocun) compete for possession of a stolen reel of film in this recent effort from Chinese master director Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “Hero”). Set in 1970s rural China, in and around the Gobi Desert, during the Cultural Revolution, the film is reminiscent of “Cinema Paradiso” in the way it shows how movies draw a village community together. But the underlying political commentary and human drama (and comedy) in the Yimou make it the superior film. ***½
“Official Competition” (opens June 24 in theaters): Penelope Cruz plays an unorthodox director, and Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martinez are egotistical rival actors, in this clever spoof of the movie business. Argentinian co-directors Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat deliver one good laugh after another as the absurdities pile up. ***½
“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” (on Hulu): Emma Thompson stars as a widow and retired schoolteacher who hires a sex worker (Daryl McCormack) to bring some adventure into her life. A frank, intelligent look at sex and intimacy, this is the film I saw in advance of the festival. My full review can be found at https://capecodwave.com/fest-opener-leo-grande-smart-look-at-sex-play-it-again-tim/. ***½
“Marcel the Shell With Shoes On”: (special June 21 screening at Cape Cinema in Dennis, opens June 24 in theaters). Jenny Slate provides the voice of Marcel, a 1-inch-tall, talking shell, in this sweet-natured animated comedy, directed by Dean Fleischer-Camp. After Marcel and his grandmother (voice of Isabella Rossellini) are abruptly separated from the rest of their shell family, a documentary filmmaker (voice of Fleischer-Camp) arrives at the house where they live and makes Marcel famous. All the endearing young mollusk really wants, though, is to be reunited with his family. Slate, who appeared at the festival to collect a Next Wave Award, said at the “Marcel” screening that it took seven years to get the film made. It was worth the wait. ***½
“Bad Axe” (no dates available): In this compelling documentary, director David Siev focuses on his own Asian-American family as it tries to keep its restaurant afloat in rural Bad Axe, Michigan, while contending with the pandemic, Trumpism and the father’s horrific memories of his youth in Cambodia. Yes, the film makes political points, but it also movingly captures family members working with and sacrificing for each other. ***½
“Both Sides of the Blade” (set for release in July): Juliette Binoche, one of the screen’s greatest actresses for more than 30 years, gives yet another mesmerizing performance in this drama directed by Claire Denis (“Beau Travail”). Binoche plays Sara, a radio-show host who is torn between her husband (Vincent Lindon, also excellent) and an ex-lover (Gregoire Colin). Sara’s apparent indecision becomes frustrating, but that appears to be Denis’ intention. Sometimes life leaves you hanging, and you just keep going. ***
“The Good House” (set for release in September): Sigourney Weaver, as a real-estate agent in a (fictional) town on Boston’s North Shore, breaks the fourth wall as she discusses her work and family issues, and along the way reveals a drinking problem (“Thanksgiving is a lot to ask of a sober person”). Funny, if a bit contrived at times, it co-stars Kevin Kline as the love interest. ***
“Beba” (opens June 24 in theaters): The one disappointment in this bunch, this autobiographical documentary delves into the life and family history of Afro-Latina director Rebeca Huntt. Intended as an in-depth look at the complicated world of a minority woman who embraces her identity – certainly a worthy subject – the film comes off as unfocused, as if Huntt threw together a lot of information about herself in the hope that it would add up to more than it does. **
** Click here for Tim Miller’s previous movie columns for Cape Cod Wave **
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Tim Miller is a Cape-based member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He also teaches film and journalism at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.