What sounds like a video-art gimmick proves profoundly unsettling and moving in Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, probably the most surprising film you’ll see at this year’s festival. The acclaimed British artist’s Mobius-like creation refracts the lives of playwright laureate of council estates, Andrea Dunbar (1961-90), and her children, through different representations—most strikingly, actors lip-synching audio interviews with the Dunbars and associates, in a technique Barnard has used before. The chronicle of Dunbar’s orbit—alcoholism, estate grottiness, children by different men, yet compulsive writing all the while—soon feeds into her daughter Lorraine’s echoic struggle with drugs and abusive men. The voices of sometimes a brutally reflective Lorraine, her sister Lisa, and others (foster parents, aunts and uncles, brother) palpably trace the sometimes awful contours of their experiences. Andrea’s life is further fleshed out with actual television footage from the time, and scenes from the titular play are performed in an open-air courtyard of the very same projects. Perhaps appropriately, this is an orchestration that comes together most powerfully in retrospect.
Ounie Lecomte’s Brand New Life is certainly a more familiar-sounding item, but that’s simply an unfortunate coincidence for a tough-minded entry in orphan cinema. Not unlike So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain, it’s about a girl who’s sent away by her overwhelmed father—here to a nun-run orphanage with barren grounds and a gate that seems to cut it off from the world. She makes a friend or two but resists charming prospective adopters because she believes her own parent will return. Lecomte, herself Korean-born and adopted by French parents, confronts the headstrong child’s confusion, stubbornness, and sadness, and the child actor, Kim Saeron, is a little older and ultimately more interesting to watch than most, with a moody charisma.
With Lucky Life, Arkansan Lee Isaac Chung admittedly finds an almost comically complete change of setting from his Rwanda-set brothers-in-arms tale, Munyurangabo: a circle of brownstone Brooklynites hovering around 30 and reflecting upon the death of one of their own, viewed in beach-set flashbacks. Unflappably spiritual in its grounded tone (Munyurangabo was virtually a Biblical parable come alive), Lucky falls in danger of becoming something like Prozac Cinema, from its sandstone-and-furniture-catalogue visuals to the muffled acting styles. Yet the look at tensions, reactions, and affinities among friends-as-family is welcome, and the quiet can capture the sense of terrible stillness within some of the most profound emotions.
Serge biopic Gainsbourg, je t’aime… moi non plus conjures a puppet-headed alter ego for the chanteur terrible and proceeds to unfold so very awkwardly that it’s hard to enjoy the mess of singalong and dress-up. There’s one good bit where Brigitte Bardot cries while eating pickles. Sentimental Engine Slayer stars debut director Omar Rodriguez Lopez (of Mars Volta) as a fantasist El Paso supermarket stocker with a wild-cat sister in what feels like a parody of unfiltered dude-what-if neuroses. Most of it is a sometimes embarrassing hodgepodge of sexual panic (incest, virginity, raunch among friends), murderous urges, febrile visuals, and fiddle-with-the-dials noise.