Exploring the 2024 New Directors/New Films Festival

C.J. Prince READ TIME: 10 MIN.

"Explanation for Everything"

Hungarian director Gábor Reisz tackles the charged, highly politicized atmosphere of his home country under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in "Explanation for Everything." Split into multiple perspectives that hop back and forth through time, Reisz follows a high-schooler who, after failing his exam due to being distracted by a student he's fallen for, tells his parents that his liberal teacher flunked him due to a political bias. This sends the kid's reactionary, conservative father into a rage, word spreads around, and the teen's lie escalates into a full-blown national scandal once the media hears about it.

Reisz takes a loose, comedic approach for the most part, spending over an hour establishing his film's setting and ensemble before the plot kicks in. It's a risky move that pays off thanks to the strong cast and a sharp, funny screenplay, observing characters fumbling through awkward encounters in their day-to-day lives before party politics barge in and turn everything hostile. The targets of Reisz's satire – people who inject politics and ideology into apolitical issues to divide and conquer – are relevant in America just as much as it is in Hungary, and "Explanation for Everything" hits these targets with precision while never taking itself too seriously.

"Foremost by Night"

A sort of askew heist film, "Foremost by Night" stars Pedro Almodóvar regular Lola Dueñas as Vera, a woman who's spent years on the hunt for her son, who was taken from her as part of a massive, decades long scandal where the Spanish government stole thousands of newborns and put them up for adoption. For Vera, life is like a crime movie: Backroom deals, meticulous plotting, threatening phone calls, and bribes, all for the purposes of cutting through government bureaucracy in the hopes that some record of her child still exists. She eventually succeeds, finding the location of her adult son Egoz (Manuel Egozcue) and his adoptive mother Cora (Ana Torrent). Once the inevitable meeting finally happens, Vera ropes both of them into her master plan to enact revenge on a government that took away the life she should have lived.

One of the boldest feature debuts in this year's lineup, "Foremost by Night" filters the tragic, personal story at its center through its protagonist's heightened perspective. The result is a gorgeous, highly stylized genre movie, with director Victor Iriarte throwing so many inventive visual and formal ideas around it's difficult to predict what might happen on a moment to moment basis. Iriarte isn't doing stylistic quirks for its own sake, though; he contextualizes them as a means of coping for Vera's loss and, to some extent, Cora's guilt, where grief can be repurposed into something that could offer a form of closure. This tension, along with Dueñas and Torrent's excellent performances, gives "Foremost by Night" the kind of crackling energy that makes Iriarte someone to watch.

"Good One"

Source: Courtesy of Metrograph Pictures

"Good One"

I praised "Good One" after seeing it at Sundance, so I'm glad to see ND/NF include it in this year's festival. And while the film's teenage lead, played by Lily Collias in a breakout performance, identifies as queer, director India Donaldson makes her film relatable to anyone who has ever had to compromise themselves in order to navigate spaces where they don't necessarily belong.

Donaldson's ability to evoke this particular feeling, as well as how she guides viewers to align with her protagonist's perspective, is so subdued that you won't realize it until long after her film gets a hold of you. Collias plays Sam, who goes on an annual hiking trip with her father and his best friend over a weekend in the Catskills. Donaldson places Sam in isolation with these two men, where she watches their interactions with curiosity and a bit of a detachment. As she's about to go off to college and live her own life, she sees the growing chasm between herself and the competitive, masculine dynamic from her father and his friend that she's seen for most of her life.

Eventually, "Good One" makes a sudden change to something more tense and uncomfortable, where the ego, entitlement, and insecurity Sam witnesses rears its ugly head in her direction. How Sam finds her way out of that situation is both unpredictable and satisfying, providing a sense of closure without betraying the restrained and assured tone Donaldson establishes from the outset. Luckily, "Good One" was picked up shortly after its Sundance premiere by Metrograph Pictures with a planned release later this year, meaning more people will soon get an opportunity to discover one of the year's best debuts.

"A Good Place" & "Of Living Without Illusion"

While watching films from this year's lineup, these two German features were difficult to think about without putting them together. Both are directorial debuts, use absence to great effect, and operate in distinct ways that feel genuinely exciting despite their faults.

Katharina Huber's "A Good Place" takes place entirely in a rural farming village, where something mysterious and apocalyptic appears to be taking place. Characters mention multiple people vanishing without a trace, an illness slowly kills off those who haven't disappeared, and everyone listens to radio broadcasts about an imminent rocket launch that's supposed to try and save humanity. Friends Güte (Clara Schwinning) and Margarita (Céline De Gennaro) spend their days aimlessly wandering around, doing various chores, and tending to sick family members as they wait for news about the launch.

Huber uses the high-concept premise to establish an impending sense of doom but doesn't provide much information, with no clear perspective on what we observe. Elliptical editing and a lack of exposition makes it hard to tell if we're seeing events in the past or future, or if we're seeing reality or someone's fantasy. This lack of clarity and rejection of narrative expectations, coupled with a premise that generates nothing but questions, will aggravate some people (Huber makes everything so enigmatic it's near impossible to pin her film down). But Huber's approach is oddly fitting, in that these characters don't have a clear idea of what's going on either, and many of the concepts we consider fundamental lose their meaning when faced with the extinction of our species.

Katharina Lüdin's "Of Living Without Illusion" deals with the absence of communication in its portrait of a dysfunctional family. Actress Merit (Jenny Schily) and her relationship with girlfriend Eva (Anna Bolk) has broken down to the point where they can barely speak to each other, while Merit's son must deal with his wife moving to America to study, leaving him and their daughter behind. Lüdin, who comes from a background in theater, puts a heavy emphasis on framing and blocking to establish the broken bonds between characters. Vertical and horizontal lines dominate shots, placing people in the same space but usually in opposition or at a remove to each other. At the same time, the film gives no insights into character psychology or their states of mind; Merit lashes out at her family (sometimes physically) and her shocking outbursts come with no explanation. But whatever plagues these characters' minds is just as elusive to them as it is to us, and the various ways these failures of introspection and expression manifest themselves are equally fascinating and unsettling.

Both films aren't perfect. There's a forced distance with them that poses a challenge, as there's a constant demand for a resolution that will never come. But "A Good Place" and "Of Living Without Illusion" remain compelling works even at their most frustrating, and point to unique approaches to storytelling that stand out against the current landscape of narrative filmmaking.


Another title plucked from Sundance, Pedro Freire's "Malu" takes direct inspiration from the filmmaker's own mother. Yara de Novaes plays the title character, an actress living a carefree life in a rundown home with her conservative mother. It takes little time for Freire to establish Malu as a thorny character when she responds to her mother inviting a priest over by beating her before forcing her to move into the backyard shed. The arrival of Malu's daughter, who just spent time living in France, eases some of the tension, along with Malu's plans to convert her home into a community arts center, but things turn volatile again once old wounds from the past resurface between the three generations of women.

Most of "Malu" belongs to de Novaes, who inhabits every contradiction and facet of her character to create a complex portrait, one that humanizes Malu at her best and worst. As awful as she may be to her family and friends, Malu's stubbornness reflects a woman who had to constantly fight against others to simply be herself. Freires is happy to highlight Malu's progressivism, including her love for the queer community, but doesn't hold back when things go south, like the heated arguments with her mother and daughter that can turn violent in a heartbeat. Despite some contrivances with the story, "Malu" remains a strong character study, with Freires' personal connection to his story going a long way to establishing the ways these women navigate the knotty nature of their relationships to each other.

by C.J. Prince

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