At New Directors/New Films, the Kids Are Not All Right (Nobody Really Is)

At New Directors/New Films, the Kids Are Not All Right (Nobody Really Is)

The terrific Ukrainian documentary “Intercepted” — screening in this year’s New Directors/New Films festival — is an austere and harrowing chronicle of life, death and indifference. For roughly 90 minutes, it juxtaposes images from everyday life in Ukraine with audio gleaned from phone calls between Russian soldiers and their families. As the camera steadily focuses on the devastations of war, you hear these soldiers talking about what they’re doing, how they’re feeling, what they ate, what they plundered and who they killed.

Directed by Oksana Karpovych, “Intercepted” is tough to watch — and listen to — and it’s also one of the strongest movies in an uneven lineup running Wednesday through April 14. It’s also one of a number of movies that, by turns bluntly and elliptically, either focus on young people or on adults grappling with childhood in some manner. “Intercepted,” for one, includes heart-skippingly upsetting images of Ukrainian tots and teens being just kids, riding bikes and frolicking against a cityscape of bombed buildings, though some of its most indelible and dreadful sections feature snippets from the Russians and their families.

In one clip, as a soldier talks to a woman, presumably his wife, their children cry out, “We love and miss you.” Separately, another soldier details how he helped torture Ukrainian captives. “If I go there, too,” his mother says, “I would enjoy it like you.”

A joint venture of Film at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, New Directors/New Films focuses on emerging filmmakers; it culls from other festivals across the world and, over the years, it has showcased artists as diverse as Wim Wenders, Wong Kar-wai, Spike Lee, Pedro Almodóvar and many others now lost to time. Given that there were relatively few high-profile platforms for younger filmmakers when the event was founded in 1972, its commitment to young talent was laudable; events like Sundance and SXSW, it’s worth noting, didn’t yet exist. There are far more festivals now, and the website for New Directors says its focus is on filmmakers “who speak to the present and anticipate the future of cinema, and whose bold work pushes the envelope in unexpected, striking ways.”

That’s an estimable goal, and while I’m unsure how any movie could foresee the future of cinema, I love the optimism of that statement. There has been some worrying chatter about the health of festivals following the pandemic and the industry strikes — late last year, the Toronto International Film Festival cut a dozen staff positions — yet the international circuit remains essential. Among other things, festivals serve as promotional tools, function as markers of distinction in an image-saturated world and help turn audiences into dedicated communities that sustain the larger film ecology. New Directors, for instance, was among the festivals that drew attention to upstarts like Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan.

It’s unclear to me, though, whether New Directors is looking to bring in moviegoers who aren’t already art-house initiates. Festivals have many moving parts and each lineup is beholden to divergent tastes, agendas, institutional directives and bottom-line considerations, like timing and availability. This year’s New Directors includes strong work, but it also features too many drifty, energy-challenged movies that seem to have been made with the same art-film manual and to play specifically in festivals. It’s nationally diverse, not cinematically. (Once upon a time, New Directors included George Miller’s “The Road Warrior.”) Despite this narrow focus, I remain a partisan. I’m also curious if it’s a coincidence or a sign of the times that a number of titles focus on unhappy kids, or whether the programmers were working through stuff.

More than a few of these kids are, in fact, adults and, like the protagonist of “Exhibiting Forgiveness,” struggling with generational trauma both personal and historical. Directed by the American artist Titus Kaphar, it stars that reliable M.V.P. André Holland as a successful painter shaken by visions from his past and the recent return of his long-errant father (an excellent John Earl Jelks). Kaphar makes some shaky choices and there are some ill-conceived characters, including the painter’s mother, a cliché made human by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor’s performance. Yet what Holland and Jelks do together can be electric, and they inhabit their roles with a mix of tenderness and fury that gives the movie undeniable force.

More generational suffering informs the tempests in the Brazilian drama “Malu,” from Pedro Freire, about an actress — the charismatic Yara de Novaes — with testy, at times brutalizing relationships with her adult daughter and mother. The movie’s rhythms are more familiar than those in the narratively and visually restless “Omen,” from a rapper turned director named Baloji, in which a man returns to his family’s home in the Democratic Republic of Congo with his white wife and grapples with his hostile mother, superstition and intolerance. The movie’s kinetic, somewhat lurching story interestingly keeps you off balance; I’m still not sure what to make of the ending, but this was a surprise that I’d like to revisit.

Both “Grace” and “Good One” leave moms out of the picture, at least directly. In llya Povolotsky’s assured “Grace,” a teenager travels the Russian countryside with her taciturn father while living out of a small, dilapidated van and exhibiting movies al fresco. Characterized by austere tableaus, unhurried rhythms and spare dialogue, the movie takes a while to warm up — the oblique opener and long takes suggest that you’re in for some warmed-over moves — but it pulls you in with its unforced realism and low-key exploration of that blurry gray space between adolescence and adulthood, ignorance and knowing. Equally striking is its vision of Russia as a terminally barren wasteland of nyet and more nyet.

India Donaldson’s “Good One” features a subtle Lily Collias as a New York teenager who heads off for a camping trip in the Catskills with her father (James Le Gros) and his boisterous old friend (Danny McCarthy). The movie plays like a short film that’s been perilously stretched to feature length, but Donaldson has an eye for natural beauty and a gratifying appreciation for silence; it’s one of this movie’s strengths that she doesn’t fill its quiet with the usual American indie-film explanatory yammer. In time, something predictable happens and then something rather less expected does, too, which sharpens this fine feature debut. (The director’s father, Roger Donaldson, was featured in the 1981 New Directors.)

Set in Serbia in the 1990s, Vladimir Perisic’s “Lost Country” proves to be a bleak, emotional workout about a teenager who comes to realize that his adored mother is complicit in atrocities. Its portrait of conscience in the face of fascism is painful and persuasive, and makes the movie a companion piece to Gabor Reisz’s “Explanation for Everything,” another festival highlight. Set in contemporary Hungary, this corrosive tale follows what happens after a high school teacher asks a student why he’s wearing a patriotic button during exams. It’s a seemingly minor query that leads to an escalating crisis — at home, at school, in the streets — and a firestorm of nationalist outrage, one that is eerily, unnervingly familiar.

New Directors/New Films

Through April 14 at MoMA and Lincoln Center. For more information go to filmlinc.org or moma.org.

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