Tribeca Dispatch: Growing Up and Looking Back

A few days before its conclusion yesterday, the Tribeca Festival announced its 2024 competition winners, and the big one was Griffin in Summer, which took the Founders Award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature, as well as the Best Screenplay in a U.S. Narrative Feature to writer/director Nicholas Colia, who also received a Special Jury Mention for New Narrative Director. This seems, to this viewer at least, a bit of an overreaction to a perfectly serviceable indie coming-of-age comedy/drama of the Rushmore / Rocket Science school, but as I mentioned in this space last week, the narrative choosings at this particular festival tend to be a bit slim.

And Griffin is a good film, once you get past the title character’s aggressive obnoxiousness, which is a bit of a hurdle early on. We first meet him onstage at a high school talent show, performing an excerpt from his newest play, a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-style domestic misery drama; it’s titled Regrets of Autumn, a perfect pretentious-kid play title. He plans to spend his summer mounting a production of it in his small town in upstate New York, to which his exasperated mother (Melanie Lynskey, pitch-perfect as always) sighs, “Sweetie, don’t you want to do anything else this summer?”

Eventually he does, much to his surprise, and ultimately, improbably, you can’t help but feel bad for this poor kid. Griffin in Summer is a little strained in spots, but it’s a genuinely involving narrative that knows from its community theater milieu (Colia and his cast are beautifully attuned to allllll the various strains of bad acting). 

“When do you think we’ll know when we’re grown up?” Jasmine (Jasmine Bearkiller Shangreaux) asks. We first meet Jasmine — or Jazzy, as she and the film about her are called — on her seventh birthday, and spend a bit of time with her before jumping ahead to her tenth. She’s Oglala Lakota, living in a mobile home park in South Dakora, down the way from her best friend Syriah (Syriah Fool Head Means), who is also Native.

There’s no real plot to speak of, just vibes: how it feels to be this age, the purity of the friendships, the blurriness of the days, the utter expendability of adults (who are, almost across the board, heard but not seen). It’s not that nothing occurs. Their friendship is tested, first by a dispute between parents, then by Syriah moving away; Jazzy is asked out by a boy for the first time; she gets her first period.  But these are just things that happen, as they do in real life, and director Morrisa Maltz’s scenes are so keenly observed and casually staged that long stretches (especially early on) play like documentary. (It’s certainly not a coincidence that Shangreaux and Means share their characters’ names, especially since they each get a story credit). But these are genuine performances by charismatic actors — they craft a credible BFF dynamic — and executive producer Lily Gladstone (who starred in Maltz’s earlier The Unknown Country) makes a late but welcome appearance as well. This is a luminous, lovely piece of work. 

On the documentary side, you’re unlikely to see a picture more harrowing and intense, fiction- or non-, than Joshua Zeman’s Checkpoint Zoo, which concerns the Feldman Ecopark, housing more than five thousand species, just outside Kharkiv, Ukraine. The popular zoo hit an immediate crisis when Russian invaded in February 2022, shelling the Ecopark and the surrounding area early and often, leaving the animals to die without electricity or running water. Zeman tells the story of their evacuations to other zoos in those early days of the conflict, initially by daredevil volunteers working with limited resources (like half-doses of anesthetic, which makes for some hairy escapes) until going viral prompted donations and assistance.

Some of the editing and sound choices are a touch shopworn, but the footage is extraordinary, with a you-are-there immediacy that creates genuine high stakes and nail-biting suspense. And it’s a genuinely inspiring story, of dedicated people who risk everything to help animals who probably shouldn’t be in this war zone to begin with.

But the best documentary I saw at Tribeca this year was Kimberly Reed’s I’m Your Venus, which probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, since it’s essentially a follow-up to one of the greatest documentaries of all time, Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning. One of the key subjects of that film was Venus Xtravaganza, a young trans woman coming up through the NYC ballroom scene who was murdered in 1988, before the film’s release. That murder remains unsolved, so Reed follows Venus’s three brothers — middle-aged, half-Italian, half-Puerto Rican tough guys from Jersey City — as they try to get, per the opening titles, “information about how Venus died – and how she lived.”

It sounds like the set-up for a true crime documentary, but that angle is ultimately a red herring; I’m Your Venus is less about the former half of that opening line than the latter. Venus came from an abusive, contentious household, and her brothers initially did not offer her the love and acceptance she needed. She found that from her friends at House Xtravaganza, so they connect with the current members there to make things right, owning up to mistakes and regrets, because “she deserves it.” Those scenes are raw, and thorny, and emotional, making I’m Your Venus less a Paris is Burning sequel than a timely examination of trans acceptance and visibility. I was a sobbing mess through the entire back half of this beautiful documentary, and anyone with a heart and a pulse will likely meet the same fate. 

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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