In her second dispatch of NewFest, Sara Clements reviews Cowboys, Rūrangi, The Strong Ones and Tahara. Don’t miss her first round of reviews of Dating Amber, Forgotten Roads, Monsoon, Two of Us and Uncle Frank here.
Set against the backdrop of the breathtakingly lush Montana wilderness is a western in perhaps its most modern and revisionist form. A father flees with his child in the hope of a better life for him. The lengths he takes lend sympathy and understanding, and not only transforms the film into an adventure about two famous outlaws on the run, but provides a sensitive look at the dynamic between conservative parents and transgender children.
We are introduced to Troy (Steve Zahn) and his son, Joe (Sasha Knight) on a camping trip that’s leading them to Canada. It may be seen simply as a good bit of bonding time, but as they traverse across the backcountry, the reason for this trip becomes clear. As the film explores everything leading up to this, we are introduced to a Joe in the gender he was assigned at birth. We see a young girl incredibly uncomfortable in their own body but becoming more aware of themself and in tune with who they want to be. Their fixation with cowboys is seen as a tomboy phase, something “normal” many girls go through, but that’s not the case for Joe. They know they’re in the wrong body, feeling like an alien has put them there. You can’t help but think of Celine Sciamma’s Tomboy in these moments. Another film about a child’s struggle with their gender identity and the alienation that comes with that. Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys isn’t as masterfully crafted, but it’s certainly as hard-hitting.
Joe’s eventual declaration that he’s a boy is dismissed by his mother Sally (Jillian Bell) as pre-adolescent confusion. In these moments, we are given a glimpse at the conflicting mentalities between parents when faced with this revelation. Troy is more sensitive to his child’s struggle, whereas Sally is adamant in molding Joe like clay into the image she wants him to be. In an act of desperation, Troy takes Joe on the road hoping for a better life for him, but a manhunt soon follows.
Cowboys is full of layered performances from an impeccable ensemble. Zahn is the hyper, wholesome, scruffy dad you low-key always wanted, but whose struggle with addiction threatens to derail his plan. Bell plays a mother who’s easy to dislike. She’s unsympathetic and unwilling to understand her son, but in his absence, she thankfully experiences an emotional bout of regret. For many, realizing your mistakes may come too late, but realizing them at all provides optimism for trans youth. Ann Dowd is featured in a small role as a detective leading the charge to find Joe and his father, but it feels like a chunk of her narrative is missing. And what would the film be without Knight, a bright young talent in a bold role that only a few get to experience.
Cowboys is a heartfelt and honest film about family, and one that’s also hopeful and full of love – something that community always needs.
A man is in tears as he drives down a road at night. He pulls himself together just enough to make a call. He calls his father, but as he speaks, his father doesn’t recognize his son’s voice. The last time Caz (Elz Carrad) spoke or saw his father was 10 years ago. But back then, he was his father’s daughter. Being from a small dairy town whose knowledge extends only to how to raise the best cow, he couldn’t come out to his dad as trans. Suffering from severe depression, feeling stuck in a town where he couldn’t be himself, he escapes to the big city. While in Auckland, New Zealand, he successfully transitions and we get a glimpse at the difference in experience between trans men and women in big cities versus rural communities. In the big city, he connects with others in the LGBTQ community. He advocates for trans rights and becomes a spokesperson for queer mental health. But he’s a man still broken in a way, and he can’t help anyone until he helps himself.
Caz decides to return to the titular Rūrangi, his home town, in an attempt to rebuild a broken relationship with his father. It’s interesting seeing Caz having to re-introduce himself to people he grew up with, a best friend, an old boyfriend, and witness their reactions. However, when they pass the initial awkwardness, they find that their connections are still the same. They reminisce about the old days, have tough conversations, and learn something new about their sexuality in the process. His best friend Anahera (Awhina-Rose Ashby), in particular, is an important character in the film because she too is on a journey to find a missing piece of her identity. While Caz has come back to mend a piece of his old life, Anahera is attempting to become more in touch with her Indigenous roots. The Maori people were (and are still) discriminated against and were shamed for embracing their culture, the film explains. Now, with reconciliation in place, they’re relearning everything. This is touched on subtly, like Anahera putting post-its around her house of Maori words for everyday things, but also powerfully as she recites a little mantra in her native language every morning before she starts the day.
Rūrangi is a film about grief, forgiveness, and a heartfelt, sensitive, and nuanced look at identity through a trans lens. It looks at the positive aspects of trans lives – not solely making their struggles the focus. We are also given a refreshing glimpse of trans people in romantic relationships – in love instead of fetishized. While it does have some faults like its abrupt ending and an incoherent narrative structure, Carrad is the anchor holding everything down in an incredible, authentic performance. A true breakout star. Rūrangi fully embraces the philosophy of telling the stories through the perspective of those with lived experience. It’s not filtered through the inaccurate cis understanding of trans and Indigenous experience. It proves how moving and powerful these kinds of films can be if they are told by the right people. Hollywood, pay attention.
The Strong Ones
Writer-director Omar Zúñiga Hidalgo’s The Strong Ones opens with a reenactment of a battle between Spanish and Chilean soldiers during the Chilean War of Independence. This particular reenactment takes place in a centuries-old fort nestled on the hills of a small, Chilean fishing village. The film feels, first and foremost, like a celebration of national identity and a film for the Chilean people. To an outsider, you may feel you’re being kept at a distance in some moments; however, at its center is a love story. Gentle and intimate, it’s a romance between two working-class men whose lives are on different paths.
The picturesque beauty of the film’s setting is captured instantly through shots of luscious green hills and misty sea as Lucas (Samuel González) goes to stay with his sister at a rustic home on the seaside. Every frame hence is absolutely breathtaking, perhaps the best cinematography of the year so far. Upon Lucas’s arrival, he meets Antonio (Antonio Altamirano), a boatswain who works at the local shipyard. Their attraction is instant as the camera lingers over Antonio’s shoulder as he drives away, pointing to Lucas whose gaze spells only yearning. Their relationship forms quickly as they kiss under the red glow of brake lights. A passionate love affair ensues, so hot and so full of chemistry that it feels like a kettle ready to explode. But there’s a problem: Lucas is moving to Montreal to go to school. Antonio can’t imagine why anyone would want to leave, but he also can’t imagine being anywhere else. The strained relationship with his parents is what’s causing Lucas to desire a fresh start somewhere else. The question then becomes – will Lucas find a reason to stay? Or will Antonio find a reason to go?
The Strong Ones is a tranquil, slice of life film that looks at two people and their different definitions of success and happiness and the anger and pain it causes. It’s also admirable how Hidalgo manages to create such fleshed-out characters in such a small film. There’s one big flaw, though. It focuses on an ex-lover of Antonio’s too closely. A jealous boyfriend who threatens to ruin Antonio over his love of Lucas, but it’s a role that feels ultimately unnecessary and only there to create conflict that isn’t even needed.
Nevertheless, it’s gorgeous. A film whose score is the ocean’s waves and the call of seagulls. And you can add this to the film canon of gays who sketch by the sea.
Indie films are special. They’re charming and real as they don’t hide behind the Hollywood veneer. Tahara, Olivia Peace’s feature debut written by Jess Zeidman, is such an example. Not only because it gives us a scene with a teenage girl popping a zit on-screen (has that ever happened on film?), but also in the way it tackles grief. Grief is a theme present in almost every film, but rarely, if ever, has a film questioned the sincerity of grief.
The film begins after the death of a teen to suicide. Taking place at a Hebrew school, the ensemble cast all show a kind of awkwardness in the face of their classmate’s death, and it’s weird for the audience to witness grief that feels disingenuous or no grief at all. The film raises many discussions and much reflection on what the point is of grieving someone you barely knew. What’s it all for? Tahara is a coming of age film, first and foremost, and much of this comes from learning to process these heavy emotions. It’s also about the lesson that grieving someone you didn’t know is normal because their death means something. The death of a young person to suicide means the ever-increasing importance of mental health and the flawed system that blocks that access. Grief is complicated and tears can come in the form of regret, too. The characters in Tahara come to terms with what this loss actually means and begin to rethink how they treated that person and those around them.
So much conversation can be had around this film, which is why it’s a must-watch. It’s a sharp dark comedy with fantastic lead performances from Madeline Grey DeFreece and Rachel Sennott. Also seen this year in festival darling, Shiva Baby, Sennott once again performs in a film with girls kissing at a Jewish funeral, but her character, Hannah, is insufferable. She’s incredibly selfish, vain, and constantly seeking attention – her behavior providing the comedy in these “pay attention to me” moments. She’s the total opposite of her best friend Carrie who’s much more sensitive and considerate. She’s the nerdy girl – because all high school movies seem to need one – but she’s also Black, queer, and Jewish. A rarity. They make a great duo especially in the moments where they gossip silently with each other, letting their facial expressions do all the talking.
As it examines grief, Tahara also tackles teenage sexuality. When Hannah wants to know whether or not she’s a good kisser, she asks Carrie if they can kiss to find out. When they do, the 1:1 aspect ratio widens with claymation figures of the characters blend into each other. Discovering your sexuality is one of those life changing experiences, but then reality sets in and the ratio goes back to its original size. This is handled beautifully and artfully, albeit playing on familiar tropes. It’s a unique debut, and with poignancy shows the importance of growing into ourselves and out of toxic relationships.