An American Ballet Story

An American Ballet Story raises important questions about the relationship between money and art. It asks audiences to consider the impact wealthy patrons have on artistic institutions. The engaging documentary follows the Harkness Ballet, a short-lived but subversive New York ballet school founded in 1964.

Filmmaker Leslie Streit elegantly interweaves lengthy, eye-opening interviews with former students and teachers at the school with exquisite archival footage of the dancers’ performances. The intimate conversations explore the gender and racial dynamics during the tumultuous 1960s that impacted the rise of the school and its development. The grainy black-and-white archival clips have a romantic feel. They are awe-inspiring glimpses into the technique and incredible talent fostered at the school. 

An American Ballet Story dives deep into the founder of the school, Rebekah Harkness, a wealthy oil heiress who used her fortune to fund the school. But Harkness was not just a patron providing the cash, she was highly selective of the students chosen to enroll at her school, she insisted that her own music would be used, and she discouraged modern dance performances. Despite butting heads with some of the choreographers and teachers, they had to deal with Harkness because she was solely responsible for keeping the school alive. Streit uses the revelatory interviews to help the audience understand the high-stakes tensions that ran throughout the company.

Through her mix of candid interviews and archival footage, Streit crafts an edifying documentary about ballet as both an artistic craft and business. An American Ballet Story is a beautiful and honest dance documentary that amplifies the importance of women in leadership roles. Streit paints a fascinating portrait of a fleeting but significant part of the dance world.

You Resemble Me

You Resemble Me from the award-winning journalist Dina Amer is split into two disparate halves: a meditative childhood drama and a gritty documentary-esque investigation of ISIS indoctrination. Written by Amer and the film’s cinematographer, Omar Mullick, the potent film draws from the life of suicide bomber Hasna Aït Boulahcen, killed in the aftermath of Paris’ 2015 Bataclan attacks. Using hours of interviews conducted with her family and friends, Amer portrays her journey toward radicalization with an empathetic eye. 

Amer anchors the beginning of You Resemble Me in the innocent perspective of Hasna as a child. The untethered camera bounces at her eye level as she wanders through the intimidating streets of Paris with her younger sister. They wear matching dresses and look so alike that they appear to be twins. The intimate close-ups of the young girls’ sweet, vulnerable faces immerse the viewer in their compassionate and tight-knit relationship. The glimpses we get of Hasna’s home life are gut-wrenching; she lives in a tiny home with several other siblings and a raging mother that loathes her children. Her mother forgets her youngest daughter’s birthday and kicks Hasna out of the house with chilling cruelty. Lorenza Grimaudo perfectly embodies Hasna’s rage, confusion, and impenetrable sadness as she is eventually separated from her sister in a different foster home and struggles to find her place in the world.

After this engrossing opening, the jangly second half of You Resemble Me shows Hasna as an adult who has lost touch with her dear sister. Like many young women who have been through the foster care system, she deals with economic strife and suffers from abuse at the hands of men. During this section of the film, Amer uses the experimental device of having Hasna’s face shapeshift between three different actresses (including Amer herself) at random moments. It is more confusing than a strong visual metaphor for Hasna’s broken psyche. Mouna Soualem mainly portrays Hasna, and she conveys the inner turmoil that makes her eventual change believable. 

Hasna tries to find a sense of purpose and kinship by joining the French army, but she is rejected for being too open-hearted about her traumatic past. Her only solace, lit up by the bright glow of the computer screen, are social media videos of her jihadist cousin. His radical, irate words attach to her pain and loneliness like a leech. You Resemble Me quickly unfolds into a psychological thriller where Hasna spirals further down the ISIS pipeline. 

You Resemble Me is at its most affecting and powerful during the quieter childhood sequences. Despite the disordered second half, You Resemble Me is an audacious work from a first-time filmmaker. This hard-hitting film dares to address the idea that there is more to someone than just their misdeeds—no matter how “evil” they may be. With an artful sensitivity, Amer illustrates how easily someone can be indoctrinated, especially if they are born into poverty and abuse. Her courageous vision forces viewers to mourn their inner child that the world betrays.

Love in Kilnerry

Love in Kilnerry has all the elements of classic British comedies that juxtapose quaint conservative settings with something risque (The Full Monty, Kinky Boots, Calendar Girls, etc.). The film trades an England locale for a sleepy New England town that looks like it belongs in a snow globe, populated with close-knit residents who live quiet and repressed lives. The gorgeous landscape shots are brightly lit: the autumnal colors and green valleys nearly pop off the screen. The town residents are afraid of change and often sweep their unhappiness under the rug, whether from a failing marriage, losing a loved one, or pining after someone but being too shy to confess their attraction. 

Their picturesque world is rocked when a representative from the Environmental Protection Agency holds a town meeting and explains that a local factory has been dumping toxic byproducts into the water supply. This may cause some side effects such as a ravenous libido that the straight-laced town sheriff Gary O’Reilly (an affable Daniel Keith) must try to control. Keith also writes and directs Love in Kilnerry which allows him to balance such fantastic performances from a large ensemble. Much to the chagrin of Nessa (Kathy Searle in an adorably high-strung role) who has a crush on him, Gary must resist succumbing to the aphrodisiac so that he can stop the townspeople’s crazy antics such as having public sex or riding their bikes naked. 

It’s refreshing to see a film that focuses on older characters, with the majority of them being over 50 years old. The premise of elders spouting profanity-laden zingers and engaging in raunchy sex acts (complete with dominatrix outfits, orgies, and sex dungeons!) is, obviously, played for laughs, but the film never makes fun of them for being sexual at an old age. Rather, the humor is found in the relief these winsome characters feel now that they are free of their inhibitions. The talented ensemble is able to make these silly and exaggerated moments feel genuine. 

There’s a kernel of sweetness in the lewd comedy that keeps Love in Kilnerry from being exploitative, largely drawn from the quaintness of the town and its inhabitants. Occasionally the jokes are a bit too over-the-top and cringy, and the side plots and various characters are hard to keep track of, but overall the film is a delightful whirlwind of a farce. Love in Kilnerry is a quirky, sex-positive tale about opening yourself up to new experiences that is irresistibly charming. 

Coast

Coast has familiar teen-movie themes: disaffected youth who want to escape their hometown, teen pregnancy, an inspiring English teacher, concerns about the future, and parental strife. But it is also an affectionate portrait of a unique and specific agricultural community and its people. The film focuses on the children of Californian immigrants who endure difficult, back-breaking labor in the local strawberry fields or vineyards. Coast centers on a group of bold young girls who yearn to find their own place in the world. 

15-year-old Abby (Fatima Ptacek) longs to know what lies beyond her stifling hometown of Santa Maria, a point of view that is slightly at odds with the painterly compositions of pale skies and lush greens from cinematographer D.J. Harder. She cannot appreciate the town’s rugged beauty because, like most teenagers, she wants to spread her wings and fly somewhere else. Ptacek delivers an electric performance as the rebellious and listless Abby. She fiercely communicates the fire in Abby’s belly for something more, particularly through her love of music. 

Abby butts heads with her hard-working mother, a night-shift nurse played by a staid Cristela Alonzo. She takes care of an ailing woman played by the formidable Melissa Leo, whose side plot is unnecessary but engaging. Abby’s father Blake (Paul McCarthy-Boyington) has been kicked out of their home for getting his secretary pregnant and Abby largely ignores him. A bright light in Abby’s humdrum existence is the enigmatic musician Dave (Kane Ritchotte), a traveling musician who makes Abby believe her dreams can come true. 

Directors Jessica Hester and Derek Schweickart and writer Cindy Kitagawa give Coast a meandering feeling that drags at times but evokes the aimless feeling of the main characters. What is most significant about the film is that it is told through the lens of Hispanic teenagers, many of whose parents are undocumented laborers. There is also the constant thrum of music, whether it be live performances or on the soundtrack that gives Coast vibrant energy, even in its tedious moments. Coast is an earnest coming-of-age film about adolescent discontent with a unique perspective on the pressures of second-generation immigrants.

What We Do Next

What We Do Next is small in scale but tackles wide-ranging issues such as familial trauma, social justice, and moral responsibility. The tense drama focuses on a young woman released from prison after 16 years for using funds donated by community activists to purchase a gun and kill her father. Writer/director Stephen Belber confronts the difficult question of who was responsible for the young girl and if it was wrong to provide her a pathway to crime.

Belber’s film uses an intimate theatrical structure to craft a strained atmosphere. Each scene only includes two or three actors often shot in tight close-ups, occurs in an enclosed space, and takes place in real-time. This filmmaking style amplifies the pressure the characters feel and the impact of the actors’ heated performances.

A pensive and determined Corey Stoll plays a liberal lawyer now doing corporate work who agrees to take the fall for loaning Elsa the money. Karen Pittman is powerful as the conflicted Sandy, an intelligent and ambitious politician who truly wants to help others but unwittingly aided a murder. Michelle Veintmilla deftly captures the pain and trauma that lies beneath Elsa’s blinding rage and manipulation. Elsa has a short fuse that frequently sets off and burns everything in its path. At times Ventmilla’s crackling energy is over the top, but it shows how Elsa is desperately clawing her into an acceptable future.

Despite its title, What We Do Next doesn’t offer any pat answers. Instead, the film challenges the audience to consider the harmful ramifications of political idealism. What We Do Next teaches us that solving the problems of inner-city youth is easier said than done, and there are no tangible solutions for an entire systemic issue. The film approaches such ideas with a thoughtful intensity.