A look back at some of last year’s feature directing debuts from the next crop of filmmaking greats.
Every year in film brings new and exciting voices to the attention of film lovers and the industry through a collection of feature debuts that signal fresh perspectives and quite possibly a new direction for the medium to venture. This last year in film, however, felt different. It seemed that every week there was a new offering from a first-time filmmaker that either blended genres or rewrote conventions in such innovative fashions, audiences and critics couldn’t help but take notice.
Sure, there were the high-profile debuts from Lin-Manuel Miranda and Maggie Gyllenhaal, both of whom showed astounding promise with the pulsating musical Tick, Tick…Boom and the captivating drama The Lost Daughter, respectively. Meanwhile, lesser-known first-timers saw their films find the kind of acclaim any director would dream to have. Both Michael Sarnoski’s Pig and Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb played the festival round to near-unanimous applause and spent the majority of awards season collecting accolades left and right.
No one could top Mass, however. The small chamber piece indie debut from actor Fran Kranz stunned everyone with its take on one of the most delicate of film subjects. The emotional rollercoaster of a movie challenged everyone who saw it and pushed their empathy levels to places unknown, ensuring Mass will surely be the first of many behind-the-camera outings for Kranz.
These and other titles meant there was no shortage of contenders from which to choose when it came to the Best First Film category for the Austin Film Critics’ Association. But because this year was too plentiful to ignore in this arena, I couldn’t help but pay tribute to nine of the top directorial debuts I came across this year.
As proven by BenDavid Grabinski’s hilarious tale, the dark comedy lives on as proven with this movie about a married couple (Joel McHale and Kerry Bishe) who are so enamored with each other even after years of marriage, it makes their friends sick. Enter a mysterious man (Stephen Root) with a mysterious offer and an impromptu couples’ weekend where some of the guests appear to be acting weird, and you get an offbeat comedy that’s just impossible to forget. Happily is the perfect kind of genre blend that mixes dark laughs, light mystery and moments of slight surrealism to wild effect. The ensemble cast, which includes Paul Scheer, Charlene Yi, Shannon Woodward and Kirby Howell-Baptiste, among others, all dig into the weirdness of their characters and each turns in one brilliantly zany performance after another. But at its heart, Happily is a film about really knowing the people in your life, especially the ones closest to you.
Writer/director Mikey Alfred’s debut film was difficult to track down. Although it had a trailer, there was little else known about what was being billed as “the first movie about becoming a pro-skater.” It wasn’t until last year when North Hollywood found distribution and this small film about a graduating senior (Ryder McLaughlin) who is torn between pursuing the kind of life his strict single father (Vince Vaughn) has in mind for him and his pro-skater dreams was finally allowed to see the light of day. North Hollywood may feel like a typical coming-of-age story, but its slice of life plot and the authentic feel Alfred paints the film’s world with gives it a unique flavor that’s all it’s own. There’s such a purity here that’s necessary to help capture that head-spinning time that 18 brings. McLaughlin is a star in the making, Vaughn does some of the best work of his career and even if the skater background isn’t everyone’s world, North Hollywood is the story of a lot of people.
There’s no question that writer/director Danielle Lessovitz’s film about a near-homeless teen (Fionn Whitehead) who ends up falling in love with a trans girl (Leyna Bloom) in New York City should have been bigger than it was. Even with Martin Scorsese’s name as executive producer, this indie, which should have been a breakout, flew under the radar. Those who did see it were treated to a film not just of the moment, but a unique love story between a young man with virtually no idea who he is and a young woman who has never felt freer. The exploration of the romance between the two main characters is beautifully honest, as is the tension felt by Whitehead’s character as he struggles to figure out which world he belongs in. Shot with a realism that’s both gritty and serene, Port Authority isn’t just the kind of film the world needs right now; it’s the kind of film the world will always need.
Another example of a film that should have blown up more than it did was writer/director Edson Oda’s metaphysical debut about a collection of souls who are gathered in the home of a man (Winston Duke) tasked with determining which one of them will proceed into human life. The entire cast is incredible, but it’s Duke, Benedict Wong as his assistant and Zazie Beetz as one of the souls who prove most in tune with the film’s premise. Nine Days does indeed challenge its audience to think about the world around them and what their role is within it. Other films have delved into the idea of life beyond the world we inhabit, but there’s a poetry here and a thoughtful examination into the different sides of the human experience that sets the film apart. If it all might seem a tad too high-concept for some, rest assured Nine Days has a universality that’s as accessible as it is beautifully profound.
The only thing possibly better than a dark comedy would be a dark comedy set at Christmastime. Writer/director Camille Griffin must’ve felt the same way when she crafted this film about a group of friends (including Kiera Knightley, Matthew Goode, Anabelle Wallis, Lily Rose-Depp and Lucy Punch, among others) who have gathered together to celebrate the holidays…and to say goodbye. It appears as though a poisonous gas is sweeping throughout the country killing everyone in its path. The plan, therefore, is to take a government-provided suicide pill before it approaches and live it up until it does. Made shortly before lockdown happened, Silent Night is just the British dark holiday doomsday comedy you never knew you needed. The laughs, including a morbid game of charades and the devastating news that it’s only one roasted potato allowed per person, are on point and plentiful, thanks to the premise. At its core though, Silent Night is a bold comment on the British class system and a movie that calls to mind the early days of self-isolation when we didn’t know what the future would hold for any of us.
Isabelle Fuhrman gave one of the best performances of the year in this drama about a college freshman determined to become a star rower on the school’s varsity team. The sports drama featuring an athlete hell-bent on making it at all costs has been done before but has never come off as dark as writer/director Lauren Hadaway’s does. As Alex, Fuhrman brilliantly gives life to a character who becomes taken over by her drive and ambition to the point where no achievement will ever be good enough. What makes the film so imperceptibly chilling is the fact that the pressure for Alex to succeed comes not from anyone in her life, but rather from the monster inside of her. Because of this, The Novice eventually enters a kind of character-driven thriller territory and flourishes as a result. What makes the film so compelling is the fact that the threats within The Novice come not from any flesh and blood villain, but the title character’s very own self-destructive obsessiveness. Seeing who she becomes at the other end makes the film one of the most harrowing of the year.
Escape seems to be the main theme of Nicole Riegel’s directorial debut. When a high schooler (Jessica Barden) from a broken home finds herself accepted to college, she tries to make enough money to leave her working-class town by joining an illegal scrap metal crew. It’s hard to express just how strong a sense of place this film has. With its factory employees, grey skies and a general sense of hopelessness in the air, Holler paints a perfect backdrop for the kind of rich independent American drama it’s aiming to be. The story of longing to be free from the world you come from so that it can no longer define you is one that has been told many times before. But Riegel gives such texture to her characters, showing them as people rather than caricatures and their plights as real. Barden’s performance is the most vital, however, as she gives life to a girl caught between wanting a better life than anyone she’s ever known and wondering if she actually deserves it.
As far as British horror films go, few can pack the kind of wallop that Censor does. Set in London during the period of the video nasties era of the 1980s, the movie follows a young woman named Enid (Niamh Algar), a censor working for a film company, whose job it is to propose edits to films deemed unsuitable for the public. When the latest film she comes across features an actress who closely resembles her dead sister, Enid starts to lose her grip on reality. Co-writer/director Prano Bailey Bond’s debut has instantly made her one to watch. What starts off as a grim journey instantly takes a turn for the wonderfully bizarre as Enid starts to be influenced by the madness she’s subjected herself to day after day. By the time Censor reaches its third act, the film that the audience thought they were in for becomes something else entirely; a kaleidoscopic labyrinth into a disturbed woman’s tragic past that’s all but impossible to shake off once the film ends.
Tension and comedy have never worked as well as they do in this comedy which began life as a short from writer/director Emma Seligman. Rachel Sennott stars as Danielle, a 20-something fine arts student looking for purpose in her life other than exchanges with her married sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferarri). When Danielle is forced to attend a shiva for a friend of the family, she’s flabbergasted to find Max also in attendance with his wife Kim (Dianna Agron), leading to one excruciating afternoon. Shiva Baby’s look into Jewish culture from the perspective of a young woman at a crossroads gives an invaluable insight into what it means to come from such a world. At the same time, Danielle’s struggle to reconcile the person she’s become with the kind of person those in her family expect her to be speaks to a struggle faced by many, regardless of culture. The awkward moments, the well-written banter between Danielle and everyone she encounters; all of it hilariously and sensitively speaks to the suffocating nature which comes with that period of time in every young person’s life.