Now Playing! John Lewis, Teenage Ravers and the Ties That Bind

Protestors and police officers on Bloody Sunday, in 'John Lewis: Good Trouble,' a Magnolia Pictures release. (© Spider Martin; Magnolia Pictures)

The latest news for moviegoers is discouraging, but not surprising: The big studios and exhibition chains have postponed their greedy (and desperate) plans to relaunch theatrical screenings in mid-July. That strategy always seemed absurdly ambitious to anyone who compared the counsel of pandemic scientists with the serial mismanagement of the Trump administration.

Now we have much worse problems staring us in the face than the delayed return of big-screen entertainment. Still, film buffs should consider the fact that the jam-packed fall festival calendar is in jeopardy. Virtual cinemas and online exhibition platforms are looking less like a temporary stop-gap and more like the way we are going to watch new films for quite some time.

Our choice of virtual releases include a trio of films that ask us to examine our commitment to our tribes, our families and ourselves.

John Lewis in 'John Lewis: Good Trouble,' a Magnolia Pictures release. (© Ben Arnon; Magnolia Pictures)

John Lewis: Good Trouble
Roxie, BAMPFA and Smith Rafael

Dawn Porter’s then-and-now portrait of the respected and revered Alabama native and Georgia congressman was made, in a sense, for this moment. Lewis was trampled and beaten by state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a nonviolent march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the institutional suppression of the Black vote. It’s a reasonably straight line from 1965 to people in streets all across the country protesting police brutality against Black men and women today.

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While the timing of the release of John Lewis: Good Trouble (ahead of an eventual broadcast on CNN) clearly benefits the documentary, the thornier question is to what degree the film advances the congressman’s life work. To be sure, the film centers the necessity of voting—championed by many as the greatest nonviolent tool for achieving power—from Lewis’ early days as a Freedom Rider registering Black folks in the South, through the Supreme Court’s 2013 gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to the Election Day constraints on Georgia’s minorities and students two years ago that almost certainly cost Stacey Abrams the governorship.

The structure of the film, alternating between the Civil Rights Movement and the present, is calculated to remind viewers that this nice, dignified 80-year-old activist endured the kind of unreasoning hate that persists in our country to this day. Lewis is plainly a man of character and conscience, and every moment in his company is a treat. But here’s the key takeaway: As a lifelong advocate of nonviolence, Lewis was never timid.

The documentary aspires to be more than a tribute to a historical figure, but unlike, say, I Am Not Your Negro, it doesn’t want to ruffle mainstream audiences. John Lewis left his mark on our country. The protestors of 2020 have already left a mark. John Lewis: Good Trouble is a worthwhile effort, but it’s not one for the ages.

Johnno (Cristian Ortega) and Spanner (Lorn Macdonald) in 'Beats.' (Music Box Films)

Beats
Roxie, Alamo Drafthouse and Smith Rafael

It’s utterly perfect that San Francisco’s rock ’n’ roll movie houses (and the Smith Rafael) snapped up Brian Welsh’s upbeat chunk of musical rebellion from Scotland. It’s anybody’s guess how many unrepentant punks, mods, ravers, headbangers and hip-hoppers are still within earshot of the Bay Area in the Year of the Pandemic 2020, I grant you, but Beats speaks to everyone who either wasted or failed to waste their misspent youth.

The story unfolds in 1994, after the cruelty of Margaret Thatcher’s regime has been replaced by that of John Major’s cabal. The government, abetted by the glib gutlessness of Tony Blair and his cadre, is about to pass the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, a piece of legislation aimed at eliminating the abiding national threat to public morals, personal security and future generations: raves.

You don’t have to be a fan of electronic music to feel for Spanner (Lorn MacDonald), a gawky, sweet-natured motormouth who lives with and is relentlessly bullied by his older, wannabe gangster brother. For a guy whose energy source is perpetual, chronic frustration, Spanner’s naïve optimism is endearing and, potentially, his superpower.

Johnno (Cristian Ortega), Laura (Gemma McElhinney) and D-Man (Ross Mann) in 'Beats.' (Music Box Films)

His mate, Johnno (Christian Ortega), has a far more stable home life—his mom is engaged to a cop, and they’re all about to move to a new, nicer housing tract a few miles away—but he’s a shell of a teenager. Scared of anything that speaks or moves, he never gets close enough to a line to cross it.

Although it’s shot in black and white and its characters live mostly on the fringes, Beats is light years from the gritty, despairing British films of the last couple decades. This is a movie about the meaning of friendship and the lasting power of moments, not the injustices of the class system.

With the government on the verge of banning events where music with repeated beats is played (!), Spanner and Johnno set off on a hair-brained adventure to attend what might be the last rave. Adapted from an amusing and poignant play by Kieran Hurley (as hard as that is to imagine), Beats is a cheery manifesto about the utter necessity of young people taking chances (and making mistakes).

The rave is the movie’s centerpiece, with an ecstasy-fueled sequence that may briefly remind you, visually and thematically, of the Star Gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Spanner and Johnno will never be the same after their spacewalk, and that’s the whole idea, isn’t it?

Catherine Deneuve as Fabienne and Juliette Binoche as Lumir in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 'The Truth.' (IFC Films)

The Truth
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The splendid Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda is fascinated by families, not as accidents of birth but rather by the curious relationships formed and negotiated in order to fulfill needs. The Truth, his first film not in Japanese, imagines a reunion occasioned by the publication of the autobiography of a congenitally and comically self-obsessed actress (played by the grande dame of French cinema, Catherine Deneuve).

Fabienne’s powers are considerable—men swirl around her, unable to escape her gravitational power—but she senses the encroachment of age. She forgets lines on the set of the movie she’s filming, and her usual passive-aggressive tricks don’t faze the young actress playing her daughter (the remarkable Manon Clavel).

Fabienne’s monumental impassiveness is also tested by the arrival of her screenwriter daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche), from New York with her partner (a TV actor played by Ethan Hawke) and granddaughter. Lumir is aggrieved at the whitewashing of her childhood in Fabienne’s memoir, and one can watch The Truth as an elegant turf war between the two over the truth, or truths, of their relative experiences and selective memories.

Kore-eda cleverly exposes the parallels between Fabienne’s screen and real-life roles as a mother, with the added layer that to us she’s still an actress—Deneuve—offscreen. At the same time, he juggles the writer/actor/actor-playing-writer possibilities: Fabienne agrees to deliver an apology—penned by Lumir—to one of the important men in her life, with everyone aware of the deception.

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The Truth is a soufflé about First World problems, to use a couple clichés that Kore-eda would disdain, and I can see how it could be dismissed out of hand in these turbulent times. But there’s something irresistible about a film whose makers want the audience to derive as much pleasure from the inside jokes as they do.