After canceling its 2020 edition due to the then-worsening COVID-19 pandemic, New York’s Tribeca Film Festival returned with a bang this year to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Combining last year’s lineup with some impressive new selections for this year — and in an unprecedented move, spotlighting several splashy, red carpet premieres (Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights and Steven Soderbergh’s No Sudden Move, for example) — the 2021 Tribeca Festival stretched across a week and a half, treating film-hungry viewers (both at home and in person) to a variety of features, shorts, TV shows, podcasts, games, and immersive experiences.
Given the timing, it’s no surprise that the festival played host to several narrative features that made reference to the pandemic. But more impressive was the fact that many of these films didn’t feel unbearably cringy in the way recent TV shows like Love in the Time of Corona and Coastal Elites did. Perhaps that was a symptom of time — even if the pandemic is still on-going in parts of the world, we are at least living in a post-vaccine society — but I’m more inclined to believe that it has to do with the diverse perspectives found at the center of them.
In fact, diversity was a key feature of this year’s expansive lineup, with many films telling entertaining stories about Black people and other people of color, LGBTQ+ people, people of different abilities, and combinations of all the above.
Below, find a list of seven of our favorite feature films from this year’s Tribeca Festival, including an Indian rom-com, a FaceTime-centric pandemic parable, an immersive documentary about a legendary musician, a dramedy about polyamory, and a complex drama about playing God.
One of my favorite films of last year was Natalie Krinsky’s The Broken Hearts Gallery, a hilarious yet warm rom-com about two people finding love with each other after recently experiencing heartbreak with others. And while there was plenty to love about the neon-lit charmer, much of its appeal hinged on the undeniable charisma and screen presence of star Geraldine Viswanathan (Blockers, Bad Education), a rising name who immediately made a case for herself as Hollywood’s next rom-com leading lady.
Viswanathan makes another case for herself in the COVID-era 7 Days, where she plays Rita, an Indian girl who begrudgingly goes on arranged dates in exchange for her mom paying her rent. One of these dates finds Rita at an empty reservoir to share a picnic with Ravi (Deadpool’s Karan Soni), a traditional, by-the-book Indian man seriously looking for a wife with similar interests. While their date seemingly goes well — with both parties expressing their desire to follow in their parent’s footsteps and enter into an arranged marriage — things quickly take a turn when the country issues its first official stay-at-home order, forcing Ravi to shack up with Rita now that he has no way to travel back home. It doesn’t take long for Ravi to realize that the version of Rita he met on their date is a lie; rather, she is anything but traditional: she regularly eats meat, chugs beer for breakfast, keeps a vibrator on her sink, and has a sexual relationship with someone she hornily calls “Daddy.” (Ravi, on the other hand, has barely kissed another girl.)
As the two opposites share quarters, they naturally butt heads thanks to their clearly different opinions of how an Indian-American should “properly” act. But expectedly, they also develop a bond as the constant facetime forces them to peel back the layers of the other they might have once been in a rush to ignore. An excellent opposites-attract rom-com that centers the perspective of two people very rarely spotlighted in this genre, 7 Days will make you laugh, cry, and then laugh while crying. If it helps Geraldine Viswanathan continue her inevitable path to becoming the next Jennifer Aniston or Julia Roberts, then, well, that’s just the cherry on top!
as of yet
To some, the idea of a “pandemic film” in 2021 may seem gauche. After all, despite many cities across the United States reopening, the pandemic is still very much ravaging other parts of the world. But if a case needed to be made for how a pandemic film could be made with grace, I can’t think of a better example than as of yet. Written and directed by The Onion editor Taylor Garron (alongside The Things We Do When We’re Alone’s Chanel James), as of yet tells the story of Naomi (Garron herself), a Black girl braving the pandemic alone in her New York apartment. When she isn’t recording her own thoughts about the pandemic, Naomi spends her aimless days hopping from one FaceTime call to the next: with her white roommate and best friend Sara (Eva Victor), who escaped New York to go live it up back home in Florida; a few of her family members and friends; and Reed (Amir Khan), a boy she met on a dating app but has yet to see in person.
Told primarily through FaceTime video calls and self-recorded video diaries, as of yet is, for one, formally inventive, but it also uses that format to its advantage — showing how we present different versions of ourselves to different people, depending on situations. When Naomi tells Sara that she wants to arrange a socially-distanced date with Reed, Sara objects, citing COVID-19 safety concerns — even though she’s been going to Florida bars with her childhood friends. But when Naomi relays this interaction to her Black girlfriends (Quinta Brunson and Ayo Edebiri), they are quick to point out how much they’ve always disapproved of the slack Naomi cuts Sara. (Sara is also the kind of white girl to refer to Black Lives Matter protests as “riots.”) Though it’s unmistakably a comedy, as of yet isn’t afraid to tackle difficult topics — interracial dating, performative white allyship, social responsibility, crumbling friendships — and with one of the most perfect film endings I’ve seen in recent memory, it’s no surprise the film went on to win Tribeca’s prestigious Nora Ephron Award, which honors bold storytelling by women writers.
Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James
“He was interested in being a rock star,” says one talking head in Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James, a new documentary about the titular late musician. A sprawling retrospective, which tracks James’ life from his birth in 1948 to his untimely death in 2004, Bitchin’ tells an immersive story about one of music’s most enigmatic figures. Directed by Sacha Jenkins (who also helmed Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men), Bitchin’ dives deep into topics that are key to understanding the funk legend’s enduring legacy: the racism he experienced growing up in the “ghetto” of Buffalo, New York, his time spent reexamining his relationship to white people in Canada, his controversial but impactful stint with Motown, the revolutionary power of his hit single “Mary Jane” (no one was making music about weed back then), his groundbreaking work with R&B group The Mary Jane Girls, and his war with MTV over the music channel’s racism.
But the documentary really stands out for the new things it reveals — most of them quite dark, providing proper context for his very well-known eventual downfall from hard drug usage. Bitchin’ doesn’t shy away from discussions about James’ history with mild child “discipline” (abuse), his tendency to test boundaries in a slightly inapproprite manner (particularly in his treatment of women), his desire for “cocaine budgets” in his contracts, and the fact that many of his sexual exploits were of the voyeuristic variety since he didn’t personally like to have sex with strangers and people he didn’t know well. A fascinating piece of biography that pulls back the curtain on a beloved yet troubled cultural icon, Bitchin’ will give you a deeper understanding of the man behind the “Superfreak,” enticing you to reach for your dusty copy of Street Songs.
The God Committee
Who gets to play God? That’s the question at the heart of The God Committee, a holdover from the 2020 Tribeca Festival lineup (before it was canceled), which finally got its premiere this year. Boasting a star-studded cast that includes Frasier’s Kelsey Grammar, Save the Last Dance’s Julia Stiles, Euphoria’s Colman Domingo, and The Usual Suspect’s Dan Hedaya, The God Committee takes its name from the group of people charged with selecting who, out of a list of eligible patients, will be the lucky person to receive an organ transplant when one becomes available. Grammar plays Dr. Boxer, a brilliant transplant surgeon whose research has been deemed invaluable, forever endearing him to billionaire investor Granger (Hedaya). But when an extra heart becomes available right as Granger’s serial drug abuser son Trip gets in an accident and needs one, a clear conflict of interest arises as the titular committee debates who will get it.
Set seven years in the past (2014) and several months into our own present future (December 2021), the sensitively directed film by The Runner’s Austin Stark tells an interesting story about what goes on behind the scenes of a so-called “moral” practice, probing interesting conversations about how money breeds indeterminable power and allows a small few to completely bypass all formal matters of bureaucracy. The dual timeline allows Stark to show our “God” figures working their way towards a decision in the past while simultaneously reckoning with the impact of that decision in the future, making for a brilliantly complex film that resists easy answers.
Mark, Mary & Some Other People
I couldn’t have asked for a better film to kick off my Tribeca experience than Mark, Mary & Some Other People, a delightful comedy that upends expectations at every turn. Directed by After Everything’s Hannah Marks, Mark, Mary & Some Other People rushes through its weird-boy-meets-cute-girl-in-a-convenience-store meet-cute stage, quickly sending Mark (Mrs. America’s Ben Rosenfield) and Mary (Riverdale’s Hayley Law) to the altar so it can get to its real beginning: when Mary, following the advice of her best friend Tori, asks Mark if they can open up their loving marriage. What follows is a slightly edgier exploration of polyamory, trust issues, misplaced anger, and what two people really want out of a romantic partnership.
There have been plenty of polyamory narratives popping up recently (some good, like Ma Belle, My Beauty, one of my favorites from this year’s Sundance; others less impressive, like HBO’s There’s No “I” In Threesome), meaning MM&SOP is entering a market already primed for stories like it. But with its deft understanding of how and why these arrangements work or fail and a supporting cast that often steals the spotlight from their leads — particularly Atypical’s Nik Dodani, playing Mark’s bisexual (and then fully gay) best friend Kyle, who, in my favorite scene, deliberately makes his straight male friends uncomfortable by repeating the f-word slur over and over again — this compelling comedy easily stands out amongst the rest of the pack.
Queen of Glory
A common thread across this year’s Tribeca film lineup was narratives that centered diverse perspectives. Take Queen of Glory, the directorial debut of Nana Mensah, which stars the writer-director as Sarah, an intelligent Ghanaian-American Columbia University doctoral student. Preparing to follow her married boyfriend across the country, from her New York hometown to Ohio, Sarah finds her world upended after the sudden death of her mother, who leaves Sarah with the responsibility of their Bronx-based family Christian book store.
After moving downtown to pursue her degree and never really returning, Sarah is surprised to find that her mom had employed a fiercely loyal face-tattooed ex-con, making it that much harder for the student to follow through with her initial plans to simply sell the store. To make matters worse, Sarah’s estranged father, who left his family to move back to Africa years before, unexpectedly returns to New York, forcing Sarah to patch up their strained relationship all while trying to navigate the obvious complexities that come from dedicating yourself to a man who already has a wife waiting for him at home. An entertaining dramedy about a part of New York not typically shown in film, Queen of Glory is a refreshing update to the millennial first-generation narrative, and marks a truly impressive arrival for writer/director/star Nana Mensah.
Socks On Fire
Many queer people are familiar with the feeling of being a “disappointment” to their families. Which is why, perhaps, Socks On Fire resonated on such a deep level for me, personally. Half-documentary, half-narrative feature, Socks on Fire finds director Bo McGuire reckoning with his own queerness and how it impacted his upbringing through the riveting and heartbreaking story of a years-long dispute — between his staunchly homophobic Aunt Sharon and his flamboyant drag queen Uncle John — over a family home in the small town of Hokes Bluff, Alabama.
While a lot of Socks On Fire takes the form of a typical documentary — first-person interviews with friends and family — much of it also takes place in dramatized form, turning past events into engaging scripted reenactments. These latter sections are expertly directed, providing great visual counterpoints to the more expected elements of the traditional documentary sections. Furthermore, under the tutelage of McGuire, these flashbacks feel unique, spotlighting the specific vision of a queer person’s own perception about their family history. Exploring themes of legacy, love, and the despicable homophobia of the deep South, Socks on Fire is a riveting documentary about a family firmly caught in the past while trying to break through to the present.