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There are more ways than ever for us shut ins to enjoy brand spanking new movies, and in many cases, help out the cinemas we miss so terribly. Here is this week’s crop of brand new streaming films, most of which you can view via Gateway Film Center and Wexner Center for the Arts websites, which not only allows you access to fresh and generally excellent fare, but also generates a little profit to help those local cinemas offset this catastrophic box office dry spell.

The Other Lamb

by Hope Madden

Streaming this week on major platforms.

The first step toward freedom is telling your own story.

Writer C.S. McMullen and director Malgorzata Szumowska tell this one really well. Between McMullen’s outrage and the macabre lyricism of Szumowska’s camera, The Other Lamb offers a dark, angry and satisfying coming-of-age tale.

Selah (Raffey Cassidy, Killing of a Sacred Deer, Vox Lux) has never known any life except that of Eden, the commune where she lives with the sisters, the wives, and the Shepherd (Michiel Huisman, The Invitation).

Szumowska doesn’t tell as much as she unveils: Selah’s defiant streak, Shepherd’s unspoken rules, what puberty can mean if you’re a good follower. She strings together a dreamlike series of visions that horrify on a primal level, the imagery giving the film the feel of gruesome poetry more than narrative.

Selah’s first period and the group’s migration to a new and more isolated Eden offer the tale some structure. Like many a horror film, The Other Lamb occupies itself with burgeoning womanhood, the end of innocence. Unlike most others in the genre, Szumowska’s film depicts this as a time of finding your own power.

The Other Lamb does not simply suggest you question authority. It demands that you do far more than that, and do it for your own good.

Selah’s emotional arc plays itself across Cassidy’s face, at first all eyes, piercing blue and eager. But restlessness and defiance outline every expression. Soon Selah’s painterly beauty gives way to the hardness of anger—a transformation Szumowska celebrates.

Grade: A-

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

by George Wolf

Streaming via the Gateway Film Center website.

With her 2013 debut It Felt Like Love, Eliza Hittman brought a refreshing honesty to the teen drama. Zeroing in on the summer days when two girls began their sexual lives, the film was an exciting introduction to a writer/director with a quietly defiant voice.

At its core, Never Rarely Sometimes Always could be seen as Hittman’s kindred sequel to her first feature, as two friends navigate a cold, sometimes cruel world that lies just beyond the hopeful romanticism of first love.

Autumn (Sidney Flanagan) is a talented 17 year-old in Pennsylvania whose crude father berates her for an ever-present foul mood. She’s worried, and when a visit to her local health clinic confirms her fears, Autumn confides only in her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) as she weighs her options.

In Autumn’s home state, those options are severely limited, so the girls scrape together as much money as they can and hop a bus to New York, encountering more hard realities along the way.

The over-reliance on metaphor that sometimes hampered It Felt Like Love now feels like that awkward school picture from just a few grades back. NRSA shows Hittman in full command of her blunt truth-telling, demanding we accept this reality of women fighting to control their own bodies amid constant waves of marginalization.

Flanagan, a New York musician making her acting debut, is simply a revelation. There isn’t a hint of angsty teen caricature in Autumn’s dour moodiness, just a beaten down worldview born from all that is revealed in her beautifully brutal interview at the New York clinic.

As an off-camera social worker asks Autumn to give the titular response to a series of questions, Hittman holds tight on Flanagan and she never shrinks from the moment. It’s a devastatingly long take full of hushed experience that may easily shake you.

Just three films in, Hittman has establish herself as a filmmaker of few words, intimate details and searing perspective. NRSW is a sensitive portrayal of female friendship and courage, equal parts understated and confrontational as it speaks truths that remain commonly ignored.

Given the subject matter, the film’s PG-13 rating is surprising, but hopeful. This film deserves an audience, much like the conversations it will undoubtedly spark.

Grade: A-

Vitalina Varela

by Cat McAlpine

Streaming on the Wexner Center for the Arts website.

Vitalina Varela travels to Portugal to sift through the ashes of the life her husband led there.

“There is nothing for you here.” Someone on the tarmac whispers upon her arrival, gripping her by the shoulders with a robotic intensity.

But Vitalina marches forward.

Varela plays herself, in a re-enactment of her journey to Libson in the days following her husband’s death. After more than two decades apart, Vitalina no longer recognizes the man she once knew. She navigates an impoverished neighborhood shrouded in darkness, searching for clues as to the man Joaquim had become.

Director Pedro Costa (Horse Money) co-wrote the script with Varela. Together they weave a tale that asks both “How do we forgive others?” and “How do we forgive ourselves?”

Varela delivers a stoic but moving performance as she seeks a kind of redemption for the years spent waiting for her husband. Costa knows where to place Varela, leaving her constantly teetering on the edge of something, in perfectly lit doorways and windows.

This film is largely about the emotion of light and shadow, both on screen and in our own lives. With minimal dialogue and a cast of non-professional actors, Costa must work harder to visually manipulate his tale. To his aid comes a realistic and heavily layered sound design that pairs the low rumble of a crowded neighborhood with the high-pitched notes of spoons in bowls and the yips of dogs.

Almost every scene seems to be lit with a single spotlight, which brings to your attention how dark the spaces really are.

While this technique illuminates every frame like a luxurious renaissance painting, highlighting the sharp turns of hollowed cheeks and shrouding the crumbling backdrop, after two hours your eyes tire from the strain. Vitalina Varela’s strength is also its weakness.

The film is so slow and so hyper-focused on the silence between emotional revelations, it seems largely detached from anything other than its own dark places.

There is a triumphant return to the daylight, beautifully shot like the rest, but it comes long after the movie should have ended. 120 minutes is simply too indulgent for the pacing and sparse narrative offered.

Grade: B+

Slay the Dragon

by George Wolf

Streaming on the Wexner Center for the Arts website.

Before hitting play on Slay the Dragon, make sure you’re a good social distance away from Grandma’s fine china.

Because you’re going to want to break something.

Directors Chris Durrance and Barak Goodman open their deep dive into political gerrymandering with a quote from Founding Father John Adams about democracies and suicide. They then spend almost two hours making the case that time is running short for America to prove Adams wrong.

The film’s historical context of gerrymandering – or drawing Congressional districts in a hyper-partisan manner – is informative and even entertaining in spots. Who knew the practice got its name from pairing an old Massachusetts governor with a salamander?

But once it digs into the deep pockets and advanced metrics behind “packing,” “stacking” and “bleaching,” the film’s view that this a fight between voters picking winners and winners picking voters does not seem hyperbolic.

The direct, measured approach pushes hardest when reminding us that new district maps are drawn every ten years, so elections in a year that ends in zero – LIKE THIS YEAR – are especially important.

But to make their film a rallying cry for passionate turnout, Durrance and Goodman know that beneath the dirty tricks, blatant hypocrisy, systemic oppression, corporate greed and Supreme Court setbacks, there has to be hope.

We get in the from of Katie Fahey and Voters Not Politicians, a grassroots movement fighting gerrymandering in Michigan that began with a Facebook post. Fahey, a total neophyte diving into vicious waters, is instantly relatable and easy to root for, creating a narrative contrast that’s a bit simplistic but naturally effective.

It does get a bit long-winded in spots, but Slay the Dragon makes its case with enough info, passion and persistence to make it necessary, especially in a year that ends in zero.

Like this year. 2020. An election year.

Did we mention that?

Grade: B+

And Then We Danced

by George Wolf

Streaming via the Gateway Film Center website.

Despite its title, And Then We Danced uses the art form as more metaphor than setting, as a young dancer fights for the freedom to express himself beyond performance stage or rehearsal studio.

Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a dancer in the Georgian National Ensemble, is unsettled by the arrival of Irakli (Bachi Valishvilli), a replacement for a male ensemble member who has been banished amid scandalous rumors.

Irakli is blessed with more natural talent and assured charisma, and a subtle rivalry with Merab soon gives way to a mutual attraction. When a spot in the main ensemble opens up, both men vie to be chosen, even as the danger of their feelings draws increasingly close.

Writer/director Levan Akin unveils the romance in graceful but familiar fashion, keeping the political undertones evident without becoming overbearing. It’s well-crafted and well-acted (especially by Gelbakhiani), but you begin to wonder just when the film will up its ante with a uniquely resonant statement.

And then Akin (Cirkeln, Certain People) and Gelbakhiani demand the spotlight with a finale of intimate defiance. As Merab grapples with societal expectations as both a Georgian Ensemble dancer and a man, the film finally reveals Merab’s soul, speaking to the beauty of liberation in just the way you were hoping it would.

Grade: B+      

Saint Frances

by Hope Madden

Streaming via the Gateway Film Center website.

Candid. Messy. Bloody, even. There are a number of adjectives you could use to describe Saint Francis, an indie dramedy from director Alex Thompson and writer/star Kelly O’Sullivan. Precious is not one of them.

That fact in itself is maybe victory enough given that the film concerns a lost, underachieving millennial (“I’m on the cusp!”) who finds her way with the help of the 5-year-old (Ramona Edith Williams, unreasonably cute) she nannies over the summer.

That could have been a recipe for precocious, heartstring-tugging disaster. I can say without reservation that Saint Frances is not that. There’s definitely too much menstrual blood and abortion humor, first of all.

For the bulk of the film, Bridget (O’Sullivan) is a terrible person, a selfish fuck up, which makes Saint Frances groundbreaking in its own way. It’s so uncommon, the Peter Pan effect as embodied by a female. They always make us Wendys.

O’Sullivan’s version is never the uproarious riot of Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, or the introspective yet raucous Obvious Child. And while comparisons to those two crowd-pleasing genre busters are clear, Saint Frances really is its own beast—one that abandons formula in favor of often unpleasant reality and a sometimes delightful mean streak.

O’Sullivan—both as writer and as lead—brings a kind of deadpan wisdom to the already well-worn idea of directionless adult forced to face adulthood by a spunky youngster. Part of the film’s glory is its very untidiness, both structural and visual.

Thompson, showing solid instincts with his feature debut, does cave once or twice to overt convention (let’s call it “the juice box montage”), and the unstoppably supportive Jace (Max Lipchitz) is less a character than he is a vehicle for growth.

Still, for raw, sloppy honesty, you’re not likely to find a better candidate.

Grade: B+

Phoenix, Oregon

by Hope Madden

Streaming via the Gateway Film Center website.

Phoenix, Oregon tells the outrageous story of Oregon hipsters polluting the glorious, white trash game of bowling. $18 pizzas? Organic pilsners?

What does a sister gotta do to get a large pep and a Bud?

That is, actually, the story it tells, but its focus is more on the small town coming-of-middle-age saga of the hipsters.

Journeyman James Le Gros is Bobby, a fiftyish bartender at what passes for a fine dining establishment in Phoenix, Oregon. His best friend Carlos (Jesse Borrego) is the chef who can no longer tolerate the cheapskate ways of whining, entitled restauranteur Kyle (Diedrich Bader).

He proposes that Bobby take the fifty grand his mom left him (along with the Airstream where he’s been living since he downsized after his divorce) and invest that cash in a dream: said hipster bowling alley/pie shop.

Bobby needs to think—wallow, really—the same way he always does, by drawing impressive panels in a graphic novel/memoire concerning the aliens who pre-determine his life.

But really, he mostly draws pictures of his ex-wife.

Gary Lundgren’s direction and production values betray a minimal budget and comfortably limited imagination. Like Bobby, Phoenix, Oregon doesn’t set out to impress anybody, so the fully grown slacker kind of vibe actually suits it.

Le Gros’s slyly low-key performance certainly fits. Quiet and socially uncomfortable, he brings a realism to the life transition, intentionally but not obnoxiously calling to mind the same awkwardness of adolescence.

Lisa Edelstein, also bracingly realistic, enlivens all her scenes with the sexy vitality and charm of world worn freedom.

Characteristically, Kevin Corrigan is a wrong-headed hoot as a repairman with a chip on his shoulder, but even his generally raucous humor feels subdued. Phoenix, Oregon contents itself with a smirk and a shrug. The entire effort’s lack of showiness allows a hometown authenticity to drive the narrative.

Phoenix, Oregon, while pleasant throughout, offers low stakes, low energy, low drama. Rivalries are easily if not tidily overcome and life goes on. It’s sweet and charming in a low key, comfortable way, but it is hardly a thrill ride.

Grade: B-      

Read more from Hope and George at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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