Now Playing! Philly Horsemen, Chinese Writers and Paris Exiles

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Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin in Ricky Staub's 'Concrete Cowboy.' (Netflix)

The SFFILM Festival, canceled last year as COVID-19 exploded on the scene, returns April 9 as a virtual and drive-in event. Tickets are on sale now, and I’ll write about the lineup next week, so stay tuned. My picks for your pre-festival viewing unfold at the intersection of community and family, and before the fork in the road to the future.

Concrete Cowboy
Premieres April 2

The setting is what stands out initially about Ricky Staub’s winning debut feature, just as with the 2011 source novel for adolescents that he adapted, G. Neri’s Ghetto Cowboy: Black-operated stables in North Philadelphia. A vestige of an earlier era of pre-electric horsemen, the stables represent an endangered outpost of Black autonomy and community perpetually threatened by condo developers and the city’s indifference.

Our introduction to this curious scene is as disorienting as Cole’s (Caleb McLaughlin of Stranger Things), a high school malcontent whose frustrated mother drops him in the middle of the night on his estranged father’s doorstep a few blocks from the horse hostel. He may as well have landed in Wakanda, hence the allure of childhood friend and erstwhile criminal Smush (Jharrel Jerome, in the film’s most compelling performance). But Cole is a blank canvas, not a problem child, and he reluctantly comes to grasp the stature and sacrifices of his father (Idris Elba).

Concrete Cowboy unfolds pretty much as you’d expect, but it’s unusually deft at dealing with coming-of-age potholes like parent-child tensions and first love as well as the clichés of gentrification and drug dealers. The themes of acceptance, personal responsibility, pride and loyalty will resonate with adult viewers and, combined with the unique environment of the stables, make the film worthwhile viewing for the whole family.


Refreshingly, the film is as attuned to the characters around the stables as it is to Cole, which is to say that it centers the community as well as the individual. At the same time, Concrete Cowboy shares the concern of practically every movie about the contemporary Black experience: How does a man (or a woman) with restricted opportunities and few resources achieve a satisfying, safe place in our society?

Still from Jia Zhang-ke's 'Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue.' (BAMPFA)

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue
Opens April 2

Nonfiction directors documenting China’s rush to capitalism and loss of its soul fall into three camps: unknown filmmakers who risk everything by criticizing their society; outspoken dissidents with an international audience (Ai Weiwei); and successful mid-career artists who produce subtle, veiled critiques. Jia Zhang-ke stands out among the last group.

Jia’s reputation spread with his shift this decade to narrative features (Ash Is Purest White, Mountains May Depart, A Touch of Sin), so his return to nonfiction with Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is of note. Pitched between the past and the future, and the village and the city, this is a straightforward oral history with few stylistic flourishes that takes a while to find its groove. But once it does, the film quietly reverberates with the echoes of stories told and untold.

The storytellers—authors Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and Liang Hong—in recounting their unlikely paths to writing, describe their upbringings and family dynamics. They are from different generations, importantly, and Jia employs them as legs in a relay that spans 1949 to today. In so doing, he evokes a broader picture of a society thrown to and fro by disorienting transitions.

The writers aren’t prone to nostalgia—no one misses the bad old days of arranged marriages, food coupons, politicized blackballing, erratic medicine and scarce university slots—yet the oldest of the three invokes a time of communal enterprise and problem-solving. Jia contrasts their recollections with shots of people on their phones and headphones, inviting us to consider what’s gained and lost in modern-day individualism and isolation.

Near the end of Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, the 14-year-old son of Liang Hong muses, “[My mother] says the river used to be much closer to the village. Over many years, the river has changed its course. ‘Thirty years on the east, 30 years on the west.’ I find that saying especially touching.” The lad is too young to grasp the full ramification of what he’s saying, but Jia recognizes a metaphor for China’s post-1949 cultural and economic development when he hears it, and knows his audience will also.

Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges in Azazel Jacobs' 'French Exit.' (Sony Pictures Classics)

French Exit
Opens April 2
Embarcadero Center Cinema, Shattuck (Berkeley), Regency (San Rafael), CinéArts at Palo Alto Square, AMC Saratoga (San Jose)

For the first many, many minutes of Azazel Jacobs’ adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s acclaimed 2018 comic novel, I felt like I’d fallen through a vortex into a long-ago world where the existential struggles of rich, talentless white people were assumed to be of universal interest and paramount importance. Was I actually expected to sympathize with the tussles of a cash-strapped Upper East Side matron (played by Michelle Pfeiffer, the screen epitome of white privilege in the ’80s and ’90s) and her vapid, amoral son (professional moper Lucas Hedges) to preserve their parasitic way of life?

This would be a good time to publish the results of my years of empirical research: Comedies play far better in a crowded theater than on my couch with an audience of two. (Individual laughs coalesce into a wave, which carries the viewer.) So do satires, but for a different reason: You don’t feel like a shmuck rooting for a character’s comeuppance when everyone else is, too.

For those unfamiliar with the book, unhappy Frances and Malcolm Price run off by boat to France with their cat (who is hosting the spirit of their late husband and father, voiced by Tracy Letts). In lieu of romance and relaxation, Paris serves up a buffet of humiliation that propels Frances—who is nobody’s fool, it must be emphasized—to arrive at a drastic conclusion that involves another exit.

Before that late development, I am pleased to report, French Exit won me over. The Prices are revealed to have more self-awareness and, believe it or not, compassion, than the average serpent sur l’herbe. Whether Frances and Malcolm are ultimately redeemed from their chronic selfishness is open to discussion, but the question’s very existence enables the film to plausibly shift from an arch comedy of fake manners to a human drama with a large heart and a dash of pathos.


Will the current limited occupancy of movie houses create a large enough wave to ride through the first two acts? We all await the results of your empirical research.