The good news: several of this year's standout films at the Tribeca Film Festival are by women. The bad news: some of the fest's worst misfires are also by women.
The good news first. Your Sister's Sister by Lynn Shelton (Hump Day) is pure delight, from its opening scene to its teasing wrap-up, and with any justice should cross over from art house to mainstream. It beats Hollywood at the rom com game, nimbly dodging the usual pandering character of studio product.
The set up: Jack (the inimitable Mark Duplass) makes a toast at his brother's memorial that sounds perilously close to a nervous breakdown. To the rescue comes his best friend Iris (Emily Blunt), who persuades him to chill out at her family's country house on the Puget sound. On arriving, Jack discovers the house has been already claimed by Iris's sister Hanna (Rosemarie Dewitt -- and are all these Hannas, with or without the "h," a salute to Woody Allen?). Sister #2 is holed up there knocking back the tequila after a breakup with her girlfriend of seven years. Jack helps her polish off the bottle and in a 'why not?' spirit they hit the sack. Iris, meanwhile, has somehow figured out that she's in love with Jack and appears the next morning for a meeting of the hearts.
A chamber piece with a candidly contrived premise, Your Sister's Sister offers nary a hint of a world beyond the groins of the characters (like most Amerindie films, alas). But what makes this one a must-see is the way Lynn Shelton has honed improvisation to a fine art. Sister boasts dialogue so spontaneous and true, it makes most of what you currently hear on movie or TV screens sound wooden and canned. Emily Blunt and Rosemarie Dewitt ride with the improv spirit -- "you are freaking me out on so many levels," says Hanna in response to Jack's come-on.
But the master of this game -- and irresistible -- is Mark Duplass. Let's hope he's not co-opted, ground up, and spat out by Hollywood. LOL funny throughout, Duplass's "seduction" scene with Dewitt -- complete with a well-timed "ta da!" -- is a comic gem. Seemingly spun from the conversation you just finished, this film demands a second viewing just to watch how Shelton and Duplass work their magic.
Make a 360 degree turn and you'll bump into Polisse by beautiful French multitasker Maiwenn. Winner of the Jury Prize at last year's Cannes, this hit from France follows the daily lives of a tight-knit team of men and women working in the Child Protection Unit of the Parisian police. With Hurt Locker Kathryn Bigelow demonstrated that women can make ballsy "men's films." Similarly, Maiwenn wades right into a lot of gritty, nasty stuff involving child molestation and exploitation, while exploring the inevitable stresses the work places on individual members of the team.
The film is not all grim; the unit's rambunctious evenings and a hot love affair diffuse the daily horrors. The acting is aces all round -- and includes a turn from director Maiwenn (her beauty almost distracting ) as a photographer assigned to document the unit's work. Particularly fine is Karin Viard, a naturally elegant actress who here reinvents herself as a vice cop.
Two other notable films by women at this year's TFF include Future Weather by Jenny Deller about the superhuman resilience and resourcefulness of a 13-year-old girl (Perla Haney-Jardine) abandoned by a trailer trash mom. You'll root for this preternaturally wise teen who surmounts emotional abuse through her talent for science and passionate concern for the environment, nurtured by an empathic teacher (Lili Taylor). Nisha Pahuja, another female director, weighs in with the illuminating The World Before Her, which lays out two equally dismaying avenues for women in India looking to better their situation. Docs such as this are truly, in the words of fest founder Jane Rosenthal, "mind-blowing."
Now for the misfires. According to the TFF catalog, Elles by French-Polish director Maigoska Szumowska is about the "entangled female experience" and conflicting imagery of female sexuality. Entangled is the operative word here. Nothing makes an iota of sense in this farrago about a journalist (Juliette Binoche) with a seemingly happy domestic life, who goes into erotic freefall as she researches a story on female college students working as prostitutes. Essentially porn gussied up as insightful drama, the film exploits the superb Juliette Binoche, who somehow toughs it through. Explicit scenes with the production values of an internet jerk off site are punctuated by excerpts from Beethoven's 7th!
Equally vile is the doc Sexy Baby by Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus, which purports to expose the extent to which sex saturates American culture by focusing on a pole dancer, a pre teen girl, and a kindergarten teacher about to undergo plastic surgery of a highly intimate nature. Ladies, thanks but no thanks for sharing. This smarmy baby is enough to make you join the Republican war on sex -- or at least move to Canada.