Danny Boyle's Yesterdayclosed out the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival this year, and though it technically has some precedent (John Carney's Begin Again, another sorta-musical set for a summer release, closed back in 2014), it stood out as an advance look at a big-studio summer movie, at a festival where the closing night attraction is often one from the archives, often related to founder Robert De Niro: anniversary screenings of Goodfellas, The King of Comedy, or the first two Godfather pictures. This year's Tribeca did indeed hold some anniversary events (for Say Anything and Reality Bites, among others), but otherwise it continued to shape its identity as a more bountiful and eclectic New York film festival than the New York Film Festival, with particular emphasis on female filmmakers, gritty and/or socially aware thrillers and mood pieces, and documentaries. Boyle and Richard Curtis paying starry-eyed tribute to the Beatles felt like an odd, if welcome, tangent, perhaps launching from Tribeca's forays into music docs.
The thing is, other Danny Boyle movies very much fit the Tribeca vibe: his wild thriller Trance, maybe, or even his warm-hearted family film Millions. Yesterday, which held its world premiere on Saturday night with Boyle, Curtis, and star Himesh Patel in attendance, is probably his highest-concept and least tough film ever, a musical-ish dramedy about struggling musician Jack (Patel), who wakes up after a traffic accident caused by a worldwide blackout to discover that no one else around him has any recollection of the Beatles: not his manager/roadie/best friend Ellie (Lily James), not his parents, not even Google (Googling certain worldwide phenomena leads to a series of running jokes I wouldn't dare spoil). Frustrated by his inability to make music-biz inroads (even at a substantial festival booking, he plays to a mostly-empty tent), he impulsively decides to pass off Beatles tunes as his own. He becomes very successful, but at what cost to his soul?
Boyle has always seemed like he had a musical in him, from the electric pop-music moments of Trainspotting (and its underrated sequel!) to an actual song-and-dance number in A Life Less Ordinary to the closing dance in Slumdog Millionaire, his Best Picture winner. Alas, Yesterday is not much more of a musical than any of those movies. It's a biopic-style performance musical—only Patel ever gets to sing—and Boyle drops in halfway through many of the songs, as if wary of audience impatience. It's too bad, because, when he lets a sequence play out, like a montage of Jack, Ellie, and a local record producer jubilantly rocking out to early Beatles hits, he can still jolt 'em with his refined version of music video style. Patel and James are extremely likable, and, of course, the music is great, but it never really soars; it's missing the stretch of madness that usually infects Boyle's films. It's tempting to blame the movie's innocuousness, the way it touches upon a lot of interesting ideas about creativity through its Twilight Zone premise without ever fully exploring many of them, on Curtis, the writer-director of Love Actually. But on the other hand, for a Curtis movie, this one is genuinely sweet, rather than faux-sweet and uncomfortably smug. At the post-screening Q&A, Boyle mentioned that he was eager to do the film, as long as Curtis changed 20 percent of the screenplay. I'm dying to know what that 20 percent entailed, and why Boyle didn't tweak the whole thing a little more.
A more lived-in and far less sunny vision of the music industry is on display in Lost Transmissions, about the relationship—blessedly non-sexual—between a brilliant but unwell former rock star (Simon Pegg) and the wounded but resilient young woman (Juno Temple) he takes under his wing. She stays under his wing for approximately a week; he encourages her singing and her songwriting and also her quitting her medication out of concern that it will interfere with her creativity. As it turns out, he follows his own advice all too well, and it's not long before she's taking care of him. He turns out to be a paranoid schizophrenic, and she becomes less interested in her plum assignment writing songs for a pop star (Alexandra Daddario) than in saving his perpetually out-of-control life. The first half of Katharine O'Brien's film is expertly judged, with naturalistic dialogue where most movies would place awkward, unconvincing exposition. Pegg and especially indie mainstay Temple are quite good. But eventually Lost Transmissions starts to feel like a mental illness PSA, with a tutorial of sorts in trying to help people who are brilliant at wriggling away from those who care about them the most.
One annual Tribeca ritual, at least for me, is observing how the dust settles on the many movies that play here, and noticing what important stuff I missed—inevitably, a couple of highlights. I missed the New England noir Blow the Man Down, a festival screenplay winner, as well as Buffaloed, which did not win major awards but is a Zoey Deutch vehicle set in upstate New York, and therefore right up my alley. But I did catch a screener of Plus One, winner of the festival's audience award. It's an easy layup for that category, a funny and charming romantic comedy that would be Netflix's best rom-com so far, if they happened to pick it up. Tribeca almost always has at least one or two quasi-edgy indie rom-coms (a few years ago, it was a very comedy-heavy festival, though that's shifted recently), and Plus One, from writer-directors Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer, is unusually skillful. Longtime friends Ben (Jack Quaid) and Alice (Maya Erskine) are at that turn-of-30 age where their summer is booked with tons of weddings, so in the wake of various breakups, they agree to accompany each other as needed, serving as each other's wingperson. Does this just-friends arrangement result in something more?!? As with plenty of good rom-coms, the obviousness of the setup is ameliorated by the charm of the performers, particularly the give-no-fucks Erskine (from Hulu's PEN15). There's contrivance in Plus One, sure, but it feels a more relatable and lived-in than the aggressive artificiality that often dominates this genre, even in entries that try to subvert it.
I hoped to find similar pleasures in the college comedy CRSHD, about a trio of college freshmen angling for hookups just as their first year is coming to an end. At very least, it transposes the last-day-of-school narrative to a college campus, which is something I haven't really seen before. Writer-director Emily Cohn also takes an innovative, cinematic approach to depicting the girls' social media-saturated lives, showing Facebook and Instagram posts not through any screenshots but a combination of practical lighting/framing and occasional eight-bit graphics. It's a neat effect—wittier than a lot of the movie's comic business, which has the charm but also the limitations of a student film. Still, Cohn could be a filmmaker to watch.
That's certainly true of Kevin McMullin, whose movie Low Tide was the all-around best I saw at Tribeca this year. The movie's unspecified retro time period (late '80s or early '90s from the looks of it, but never spelled out) recalls David Robert Mitchell, and the boys-on-an-adventure story (which includes actual buried treasure) has a little bit of that old Amblin energy. But while McMullin has a confident visual sensibility that broadly recalls Steven Spielberg and a treatment of the Jersey Shore that recalls a grittier version of that director's suburbs, Low Tide isn't a pastiche '80s-isms. It's a tautly paced, often very funny story about a band of teenage miscreants who have a side hustle robbing rich tourists' summer homes and the divisions between them when the ringleader's younger brother (Jaeden Martell, from the odious Book of Henry) goes along on one of their B&E runs. McMullin and editor Ed Yonaitis cut the movie together at a snappy clip, but still leave time to soak in the beach town atmosphere and find funny little lines and gestures in between the plot turns, which only become a little predictable in the final stretch. To be honest, I was in love with this movie as soon as I realized one of the teenage characters is named Smitty. Though Low Tide isn't as nasty as Shallow Grave or as heart-tugging as Millions, it does, in some ways, capture that Danny Boyle magic (genre-y, stylish, affectionate) in a way that Yesterday doesn't, quite.