“She really is so hard on herself,” remarks a relative of the titular character in Kent Jones’ Diane. A gaggle of cousins have come to Diane’s rescue after a drink to unwind for self-care spirals into raging drunkenness. Diane can easily attend to the needs of others, but when it comes to treating her own needs, she’s a wreck.
The aforementioned line could refer to any number of parental figures who paraded across the screens at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. A common thread emerged among the 15 films I screened as a part of Tribeca’s 17th edition, that of mothers and fathers (both biological and surrogate) thrust into precarious situations requiring their utmost care and attention. The difference between success and failure could literally be the difference between life and death.
Diane was the closest thing to a breakout at this year’s Tribeca, a festival without much of a reputation for launching prominent titles. The debut narrative of Kent Jones, a figure known to many Gothamites as the director of the New York Film Festival uptown, gives a starring role to well-known character actor Mary Kay Place. That kind of setup now seems to be synonymous with vanity projects for aging actors, but there’s very little glamour in either her performance or the film itself. Diane asserts agency by spending her time helping out bereaved or besieged friends and family members, but the tragedy of the film unfolds in showing how much of her life becomes monopolized by the suffering and pain of others. She’s no saint or Madonna figure, as Jones takes pains to illustrate, yet Diane has taken it upon herself to make tremendous sacrifices of her time and resources to devote her life in service of others.
One relationship that is not a two-way street, though, is with her junkie son Brian, played by Jake Lacy. He’s utterly resistant to any kind of intervention she suggests, so Diane resigns herself to accepting that one day she will get a call informing her that he has died. Quite the opposite occurs, fortunately, yet the appreciation she so deeply desires (but dares not request) does not accompany his remarkable turnaround. Diane is, among many things, a portrait of the thanklessness of parenthood. It’s a job where you get none of the credit when things go right and all of the blame when things go wrong.
Parental sacrifice knew no genre boundary at the festival, as evinced by the heavy themes in Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke’s Cargo, a post-apocalyptic zombie thriller with bite. After his wife gets infected scoping out an abandoned boat for supplies, Martin Freeman’s Andy makes an executive decision to try and ferry her to treatment and recovery. The choice puts both Andy and his infant daughter in imminent danger since she could turn on them at any moment. Their ensuing journey sees them confronting various foes of both the human and non-human variety, but neither is quite as frightening as the existential dilemma Andy faces from the outset. Where do his duties as a husband end and his duties as a father begin?
A similarly fluid parental boundary looms large over Alex Pettyfer’s directorial debut Back Roads, where the Magic Mike star also appears in front of the camera as Harley Altmyer. He’s been forced into the role of surrogate father for his three younger sisters as his mom sits in jail presumed guilty of his dad’s murder. The responsibilities of caregiver do not come naturally or easily to Harley, who allows personal trauma to go unaddressed while strapped to provide for everyone.
His only release valve comes in the form of an affair with Jennifer Morrison’s Callie, a neighbor struggling with her own boredom as a wife and mother. While Harley might think their trysts are only for his own benefit, the lack of subtlety for his dalliances inspires an odd blend of emotions in his sister Amber (Nicola Peltz). Old demons come raging back to life for the two eldest siblings and end up debilitating Harley altogether. Pettyfer handles his character’s regression to a childlike state with the utmost sensitivity, both in his performance and direction. The film shows just how tough it can be to force paternal obligations onto someone who never stopped being a kid himself.
Siblings forced to be parents also features prominently in Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods, winner of the festival’s Nora Ephron Award given to a female writer/director who embodies the spirit of the late artist. DaCosta’s bleak neo-Western is worlds apart from Ephron’s sunny Manhattan rom-coms, yet the prize certainly went to a fiercely feminine film.
Little Woods follows two North Dakotan sisters in desperation with few easy or legal options to stay above water. Already struggling to manage their recently deceased mother’s estate, their situation gets worse after Lily James’ Deb winds up with an unplanned pregnancy from her do-nothing ex. The matriarchal duties to keep the house in order falls on the shoulders of Tessa Thompson’s Ollie, which thwarts her plans to escape their small town for a better life elsewhere. She has the choice of staying on her current trajectory or changing course to help her estranged sister, and Ollie takes the more challenging, selfless path. The film struggles with pace and tone issues here and there, but Thompson’s performance transfixes throughout. Watching her agony as the life she imagined for herself slips further and further away with each shortsighted decision from the people around her is a gut punch of the highest order.
Remarkably, none of these films stoop to the level of easy moralizing, a kind of “think of the children” panic that so often infects tales of a similar nature. These stories are not so much praising the act of parenting in peril as they are acknowledging the unique burdens of responsibility for another’s well-being. It’s interesting to consider these films out of the hermetically sealed festival against the backdrop of the latest (organic) studio smash, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, which circles similar anxieties about heading a family in a frightening world. On multiple scales of filmmaking, we can observe an emerging cultural fear of failing not only ourselves but the people we love most in a fraught era.