At Tribeca: Kicks, Vincent N Roxxy and Wolves

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This is Jesse Hassenger’s second dispatch from the Tribeca Film Festival, which continues through this weekend; read his first one here and his second one on Monday.

For film obsessives, big film festivals, especially those with as many under-the-radar titles as Tribeca, offer plenty of opportunities to see movies with almost no advance word. This makes it easy for a movie to surpass or subvert whatever mild expectations come from flipping through a booklet of three-sentence descriptions. For example, based on my quick reading of its festival listing, Kicks, which just won a jury award for its cinematography, sounded appealing: It’s about a shrimpy teenager who goes on a mission to retrieve his beloved Air Jordans that have been cruelly stolen from him days after he scrapes together enough money to buy them. I pictured something like the terrific Gimme the Loot or the delightful Dope; a romp with some grit.

It turns out, Kicks is basically a violent inner-city drama on a very small scale. There are the mildest comic notes when Brandon (Jahking Guillory) introduces his bigger buddies Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace—Biggie’s son!) and Rico (Christopher Meyer). But I hope I don’t sound like the squarest, most sheltered white dude in the world when I say: Wow, this movie is mostly super sad, the kind of movie where fourteen-year-olds spending most of their free time drinking and smoking is one of the least sad elements. Guillory brings pathos to Brandon, whose single mom doesn’t have money for nice, new sneakers—and who is devastated both physically and emotionally when his Jordans get ripped off by Flaco (Kofi Siriboe). His retrieval mission doesn’t hinge on slapstick; it’s more of a guns-in-baby’s-cribs type of affair. I don’t mean to sound flip; it’s just that Kicks is so unrelentingly grim that it’s hard to key into the story beyond generic appreciation of just how fucking tragic this situation and its inevitable cycle of violence is.

The cinematography by Michael Ragen does indeed have a sense of poetry, especially in the shots where Brandon imagines himself as, or accompanied by, an astronaut who could float up far away from the violence and turmoil of everyday life. The cinematography also has the sense of poetry being read very, very slowly; this is an 80-minute movie with an egregious amount of slow motion. In its back half, Kicks skillfully generates tension, but it’s not “fun” enough to feel right as a thriller, yet not really insightful enough to fully work as drama. Doubtless some of this is my fault.

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Some movies don’t need a description to subvert expectations—or to shoot themselves in the gut. I had little idea of what to expect from Vincent N Roxxy going into it (I thought, vaguely and erroneously, that it might have something to do with punk rock), and for an hour or so, I was surprised by the patience of its central love story. The movie starts fast, with Vincent (Emile Hirsch) witnessing a car crash and assault, from which he rescues Roxxy (Zoe Kravitz), before slowing down as Roxxy comes to stay with Vincent at his family’s farmhouse out of town. Vincent helps his brother JC (Emory Cohen) set up his car shop while Roxxy gets a job tending bar alongside JC’s girlfriend Kate (Zoey Deutch).

The director, Gary Michael Schultz, doesn’t seem in a hurry to get anywhere, and allows his camera to explore the environment, as with an unbroken following shot that travels through a dirtbaggy house party out in the sticks. Vincent and Roxxy don’t fall into an immediate romance; Vincent is almost parodically laconic, but this gives his earnest, unpushy desire to reach out to Roxxy plenty of breathing room (the two leads barely touch for the first half of the movie). Hirsch and Kravitz have knocked around plenty of big Hollywood movies over the years, and they’re both touching here.

The dialogue doesn’t always sound quite right, especially when the volume turns up for scenes of confrontation. But a little awkward melodrama between Vincent and JC pales before the movie’s last forty minutes or so, during which Vincent N Roxxy reveals itself as a very different and far less interesting movie. What possessed the director to turn this relationship movie into a pitilessly violent crime thriller (and one that manages to demonize black males to boot)? I can only imagine that he really, really likes Drive, because that seems to be the motivation for this film’s initial quiet: a desire to make a poor man’s Drive. I like Drive a lot, too, but not enough to get psyched to see a movie abandon its characters to imitate it. Vincent N Roxxy disfigures itself, then wants you to be impressed by how badass the wound looks.

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Wolves also takes its time before falling apart. But here it was the movie’s early promise that surprised me, because writer-director Bart Freundlich (Julianne Moore’s husband) made Trust the Man, which in its small way is one of the worst fucking New York indie rom-coms I’ve ever seen. Wolves is a better New York story, concerning the pressures faced by high school basketball star Anthony (Taylor John Smith), who needs to lead his team into finals to have a decent shot at Cornell. He and his mother (Carla Gugino) have become experts at navigating the emotional minefield of his college professor father (Michael Shannon), who is haunted by an unfinished novel and a major gambling problem. At first, the father seems a little odd and perhaps subtly abusive; gradually, he’s revealed as a full-on Shannon character, engaging in progressively more bonkers behavior. Gugino is excellent as a woman who’s become sadly adept at finding workarounds; the most affecting scenes in the movie are the ones where Anthony and his mother don’t even really object to Shannon’s drunken antics.

Freundlich is still pretty bad at dialogue, whether it’s stilted adult conversation between Gugino and Shannon or the embarrassing Asian-dude comic relief (it’s not enough that the kid is comically bad at basketball; he’s also played as something of an idiot, too. Hilarious?). But Wolves stays involving, even as, slowly but surely, Freundlich works the movie into a soapy lather. Everything is a little more amped-up than necessary: Rather than having Shannon be in deep to a loan shark, he’s in deep to three different competing loan sharks, and after-school special plot twists keep coming well after they’re needed. It’s hard not to think of one of the best basketball movies, Spike Lee’s He Got Game (especially when someone refers to Anthony as “white Ray Allen”), and how that movie didn’t hinge on the final minutes of a big game with cuts to all of the important characters watching in the stands. I can’t blame Wolves for going there, though; at least it doesn’t turn into a bloodbath.

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