For 15 years, the question of identity has haunted the Tribeca Film Festival. As trailers before every public film showing reminded audiences at the 2016 festival, Tribeca was founded in 2002 — in the wake of the September 11th attacks — to help revitalize Manhattan and bring artists and audiences (and their dollars) back to the city. That’s a financial and social mission statement, not an artistic one. But Tribeca doesn’t feel like it lacks artistic intent. It’s more that it has dozens of competing intentions: it encompasses television, virtual reality, games, celebrity interviews, a street fair, and much more programming, as well as the sprawling film track. With more than 70 movies slated for world premieres at Tribeca in 2016, even the most dedicated attendees couldn’t come close to finding a single consistent, coherent throughline.
But one minor theme emerged in a surprising number of this year’s films: being an adult is hard, unpleasant, scary work.
That doesn’t feel like a deliberate programming choice so much as a sign of the zeitgeist. Life is demanding, especially for millennials — a generation which is slowly becoming the majority in the festival circuit. And in an increasingly self-aware, emotion-sharing society, it’s more acceptable to talk about the difficulties of getting a grip on grown-up life. But the compelling thing about the Tribeca slate is the range of reasons for those difficulties.
Two of the festival's world premieres are about late-onset growing pains, and how they stem from loss. Demetri Martin's directorial debut Dean (which won the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature) stars Martin as a cartoonist dealing with his mother's recent death by stalling his father's attempts to move on. When dad (Kevin Kline) sets out to sell the family home in New York, Dean flees to Los Angeles in denial, and distracts himself with a crush on a wry stranger named Nicky (Gillian Jacobs).
Dean has drawn comparisons to Woody Allen movies, for obvious reasons: like Allen's classic characters, Dean is neurotic, self-absorbed, witty in a plaintive way, and obsessed with death. But the character doesn't follow Allen's habit of nervous chatter. Sincerity comes hard, and he falls back on ironic banter and melancholy cartoons that communicate his frustrations to the audience. That's one of many hints that Dean isn't really a millennial story, no matter how much it feels like one. Martin is 42, and his character has his own apartment, with no hint of debt or even financial struggle. He isn't engaged with social issues, or the world in general — he's an internal character in existential crisis, dealing with his fears of being alone, and his own mortality. But he's also grappling with concrete issues about what it means to be a grown-up: in this case, facing responsibility and hard emotions without sublimating them in endless tempting distractions.
Rachel Tunnard's debut feature Adult Life Skills (which won Tribeca's Nora Ephron Prize) is also about a young adult shutting down after a death in the family, making private art to express her feelings, and incurring a parent's weary frustration. But Tunnard's film is rawer and less mannered, more openly comic, and more agonized. Jodie Whittaker stars as Alice, a 29-year-old woman living the life of a particularly creative nine-year-old girl. After the death of her twin brother, Alice moved into the shed in the back of her mother's garden in rural northern England. She's turned it into a refuge from adult emotions and decisions. Adorning the shed on the outside with cutesy signs ("Right Shed Fred," "Dawn Of The Shed," "Shed Zeppelin") and on the inside with childish art projects, Alice hides and makes little digital movies starring her thumbs as astronauts about to crash into the sun.
Symbolism and dread hang over Adult Life Skills' whimsy. Alice's homemade films are about helpless debate over approaching catastrophe. A young neighbor whose mother is dying hangs around Alice, instinctually drawn to the way her anger, sorrow, and repression parallel his own. (In an amusingly unintended commentary on Dean, he refuses crayons and paper: "I'm not drawing a picture," he says. "People will look at it and see what my feelings are doing inside.") While Alice's emotions become increasingly painful as the film progresses, her childishness — like Dean's — is still a barrier to empathy. The inevitable steps toward mourning and rejoining the human race are hard, but also cloying, because they come wrapped in such naked fantasies about reverting to childhood.
In both Adult Life Skills and Dean, the protagonists' regression is made possible by the fact that they're privileged, middle-class grown-ups in incredibly forgiving environments. The real-life subjects profiled in The Return (winner of Tribeca's Audience Award for Best Documentary) don't have the same luxuries. Directors Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway closely followed two black men who were given heavy jail sentences for minor, non-violent crimes under California's three-strikes guidelines. They were then released in the wake of sentencing reform. Both Kenneth and Bilal received life sentences, and both emerge after more than a decade in prison, uncertain what to expect out of life.
The Return is a stripped-down, observational doc that doesn't spend much time on scene-setting or the larger societal picture. The cameras mostly just hang out with these men — especially with Kenneth's large, wary middle-class family — as they attempt to get jobs, find homes, navigate changes in technology and culture, and reconnect. Billed as an exploration of the impact of mandatory sentencing and long incarceration, The Return just listens to its subjects as they talk, humbly and with a remarkable lack of defensiveness or anger, about how they wound up in their situation, and what they see as the next steps. Then it follows them to see whether California's legal system — which mandates and regulates a return-to-society plan, to avoid recidivism — will help them or fail them.
For both men, acknowledging other people's emotions is the easy step. The challenge is in creating meaningful identities outside of prisons they didn't necessarily expect to ever leave. As unemployed black men, marked as felons, in a state still tinkering with its responsibilities to its ex-cons, the odds are stacked against them. They both risk returning to jail, and they take different routes in fighting that destiny. The Return sometimes feels shapeless, and it walks a clumsy middle course between tracking the larger issues of changing California laws, and sticking to the personal stories. But by the time it finds a gently optimistic note to end on, most of the missing links can be forgiven. Starting over as an adult only seems impossible. The film's real positive statement makes the quirky uplift of Dean and Adult Life Skills feel shallow by comparison.
But neither are as shallow or as grossly intolerable as the mawkish new Eddie Murphy drama Mr. Church. Bruce Beresford directs Mr. Church as though he regrets not piling enough sentiment into his 1989 film Driving Miss Daisy, or as if he misses the accusations of racially tinged paternalism surrounding it. Once again, he has a saintly black character (Murphy, as the titular Mr. Church) devoting decades of his life to caring for a prickly, spoiled, privileged white character. When the film begins in the 1970s, Charlotte is a 10-year-old brat who's shocked and offended when her mother (Natascha McElhone) brings home a chef, as a gift from a dead lover. Mr. Church is mild-mannered, kind, circumspect, a voracious reader, an impeccable cook, and before long, a devoted member of the household. Charlotte, who narrates the movie in wall-to-wall self-satisfied voiceover, is an incredible pill who verbally attacks all the adults in her life, then openly brags about withholding approval from Mr. Church, his delicious food, and his fascinating books.
As a young adult (played by Britt Robertson), she's even more selfish and needy, which she justifies with poetic metaphor and self-pity. And when she's eventually friendless and in trouble, she heads right back to Mr. Church, who literally devotes the rest of his life to taking care of her. Mr. Church is the platonic ideal of a Magical Negro stereotype: he has virtually no past of his own, apart from dark hints about familial rejection. He has no apparent friends, family, or sex life. During Charlotte's lifetime, his hobbies exist only to please, feed, educate, and assist her. When Charlotte angers him by snooping through his dresser, or grilling him about his life, he apologizes to her for his emotions. He could not be more emasculated if he actually exposed a smooth Ken-doll crotch at some point during the movie.
What makes Mr. Church a travesty rather than just an embarrassment is the way it sentimentalizes their relationship. Racial dynamics aside, an adult devoting his life to protecting an incredibly spoiled child from work, decisions, consequences, or basic consideration for others isn't charming — it's horrifying. Charlotte sees her life as a tragedy because the few other people in it didn't share Mr. Church's bottomless generosity and ability to focus on her needs instead of his own. Even watching the childish adults of Dean and Adult Life Skills take clumsy steps toward adulthood is more satisfying than watching Charlotte coast through all life's difficulties on someone else's effort.
There's a much harder push for equal family effort in Roger Ross Williams' light-hearted documentary Life, Animated. As the film begins, autistic 23-year-old Owen Suskind is preparing to move into his first solo apartment. It's the latest step in a long struggle to understand and communicate with other people — a process made possible by his obsession with Disney animation. The characters' broad, well-telegraphed, easily grasped emotions gave him an emotional vocabulary through a difficult childhood.
Throughout the film, Owen reaches for Disney movies that parallel his own life: he watches the circus in Dumbo pack up when it's time to pack for his move. On his first night in his new place, he watches Bambi wandering alone through the forest, crying for his mother. Early in the film, he watches Wendy tell Peter Pan that she's moving out of the nursery: "It's time to grow up," she says sadly.
But while the Disney connection (and some gorgeous original animation) gives Life, Animated a catchy hook, the real fascination of the film is hearing Owen's story from his perspective and his family's, and watching him step carefully and deliberately through getting a job, maintaining a relationship, and generally being on his own. Owen is lively and expressive, but also emotionally immature, and he greets setbacks with childish, unfiltered outbursts: "Why did this have to happen to make my life sad forever?" he asks when his girlfriend breaks up with him. "Why is life so full of unfair pain and tragedy?" He's expressing what plenty of young people have felt around breakups, he's just more honest, vocal, and egoless about it than most.
As beautiful as they are, the animated sequences don't necessarily do Owen any favors. Interpolating his childhood fantasies with his first adult steps is infantilizing, and it works against the movie's overall message. Life, Animated is more satisfying in its patient observation of Owen's capacity for development, his family's hard work in helping him become independent, and his success story in becoming a grown-up, out on his own.
Tribeca is still a teenager itself, and still undergoing its own growing pains. Like all the protagonists and subjects in these five films, it’s searching for an identity, and its founders and organizers are trying to figure out how to define it, instead of letting outsiders impress an identity on it. But if fictional characters and documentary subjects this disparate can all make it to some form of wary, wobbly adulthood, surely the festival has a good chance of following suit.