Rickshaw Girl echoes Mulan as the story of a young girl who, because of her patriarchal culture’s traditions, must disguise herself as a boy to support her family after her father falls ill. Naima becomes a rickshaw driver in the chaotic city of Dhaka. Director Amitabh Reza Chowdhury frames the city with an exciting, pulsating energy pace, making the environment an important part of the film. The rickshaw environment is dangerous and aggressive, and the challenges she faces there force Naima to question her role in her family and as a young woman.
Naima transforms her bland Bangladesh surroundings with vibrant paintings on walls, her rickshaw, and other surfaces. Her sari costumes are just as bright as the pictures she makes. Chowdhury manifests Naima’s artistic dreams in fantastical animated sequences with eye-popping colors. These creative montages where Naima’s imagination bleeds into the real world are the highlights of the film.
Novera Rahman’s spirited performance as Naima carries the film; she crafts a well-rounded young girl with determination, artistic passion, and childlike vulnerability. Rickshaw Girl is an empowering narrative for young girls. Naima’s strength and resourcefulness are inspiring to watch, as well as her journey to understanding the world around her. Rickshaw Girl follows familiar coming-of-age beats, but its vibrant atmosphere, uplifting narrative, and strong lead performance make the film soar.
There is a trend in contemporary films, such as Triangle of Sadness and The Menu, to critique the rich and their capitalistic greed. In the short film Day9 written by Damion Stephens and directed by Dastan Khalili, Charles Maze plays an aging millionaire named J.D. Dorboth who hires four people (played by Will Lupardus, Eric McIntire, Kelcey Watson, and Johanna Watts in taut performances) to dig for buried treasure in the sweltering desert. Dorboth promises to reward his laborers no matter the outcome, but he pushes them to the edge of their sanity by giving them little to eat or drink and cruelly insulting them.
Khalili frequently uses split diopter shots, pushing the characters’ faces close to the screen to convey the immense pressure they feel. The desert backdrop is vast and beautiful, but it’s filmed with a pallid color and offbeat images that amplify the uncomfortable intensity of the situation.
The pulse-pounding final confrontation is shot in such a way that it puts you right in the middle of the action. These dynamic visuals combined with the suspenseful story make Day9 a biting short that is well worth watching. Khalili masterfully builds the tension to a shocking ending.
Writer-director Kyle Schadt‘s neo-noir Toxic Impulses opens with a bang. The frenzied close-ups of a screaming man threatening to shoot his captive immediately seize the audience and never lets go. Toxic Impulses is a high-energy film that centers on ex-police officer Mosley (Benedikt Sebastian) who has become a lonely couch potato. His overprotective neighbor Liz (Helene Udy) is his only friend.
One day, Zemira (Olivia Buckle) asks for Mosley’s help to escape the clutches of her handler Boyd (Robert Ackerman Moss). Zemira is a well-written and complex femme fatale that avoids misogynistic cliches. Buckle sensitively captures her struggles with a heroin addiction, desire to still be a good mother, and the bank robberies she commits for Boyd to pay her debt and fund her drug habit.
Jay Habre’s measured performance as Zemira’s ex-husband James adds another interesting layer to her story. But the most notable performer is Moss. He elevates his role as a stereotypical villain with a terrifying intensity and drive. His threats to Zemira are truly spine-chilling. He is a significant part of what makes this tense neo-noir work so well.
If only Mosley was that riveting. The voice-over narration flattens Benedikt Sebastian’s performance. While it is a noir trope, Sebastian sounds like he is trying too hard to have that trademark gravelly, world-weary voice. The voice-overs give too much exposition and distance you from the character instead of immersing you in the noir genre and its shadowy world.
Schadt‘s strengths lie in the sleek visuals. One of the best scenes is a car chase shot with such dynamic excitement that it feels like something out of a Hollywood blockbuster. Toxic Impulses also has an incredible score by Field Observations that takes audiences through a range of thrilling emotions.
Toxic Impulses injects electrifying new life into the well-worn noir genre with its tight editing, slick images, and intense story of questionable morality held together by a captivating cast.
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 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.