When I signed up for the Tribeca film festival, I had no idea what the lineup would be. But, based on prior years, I had a hand-wavey sense of the brand: shoestring-budget indie flicks, filmed primarily on location in some metropolitan area, following one or two characters (and virtually nobody else) as they navigate an emotional journey that is, outwardly, invisible. It’s the sort of film where a synopsis tells you virtually nothing, optimally viewed with either A) a rapt audience in a hushed arthouse theatre, or B) a cocktail of international redeye, noise-canceling headphones, crappy United merlot blend, and a sappy disposition prone to tears. Think Ira Sachs, or “New York as a character” spoken unironically in a Q&A.
I’m pleased to report that my stereotype is, mostly, wrong — the variety of genre / subject matter on display has been huge (barrage of reviews forthcoming). But I’m also pleased to report that, sometimes, a film comes along that is a dead ringer. Blue Night (3/5) is exactly the sort of thing I signed up for. Which is to say, quite rough, but with its heart in the right place: documentary filmmaker Fabien Constant’s first foray into narrative has eyes that are quite a bit bigger than its stomach. Following jazz singer Vivienne (Sarah Jessica Parker) over the course of a single day, it lands somewhere between Medicine for Melancholy and Born To Be Blue, without the latter’s sheen or the former’s restless energy. Alternating between slice-of-life and hyperreal and nailing neither, it often feels like a sketch of a great film he didn’t quite have the time or budget to create.
But sketches have a way of winning me over, especially when armed with the right personality. Blue Night has two strong personalities to commend it. The first is Sarah Jessica Parker, excellent here as a neither-washed-up-nor-wildly-famous performer faced with an existential curveball. It’d be cheap to say she’s grappling with mortality (though, also, there’s that): she’s grappling with the way things (fame, relationships, friendships, neighborhoods) vanish into history, and with her inability to shape whatever imprint is left. Between this and HBO’s Divorce, Parker has shown a graceful transition from the brash charisma of her earlier work into a gentler, world-weary relatability — the Bill Murray Trail, if you will. She absolutely carries this film, and I’m excited to see where she goes next. The second is Constant himself. He has an eagerness that shines here, even when the movie he’s making falters. I see it in the (many) swings for the fences: subtext-laden conversations with complete strangers, quick cuts stitched by a Manhattan traffic percussion, secondary characters who announce their presence with unbelievable exposition dumps — they don’t ever totally land, but I feel the heart behind them. This heart is best exemplified by the character of Sami (Waleed Zuaiter), a Lyft driver who intersects with Vivienne repeatedly throughout the day. His introduction is heightened and borderline offensive: shouting in Arabic and cranking up heavy metal he feels far more outdated-cabbie-stereotype than guy-who-needs-5-star-reviews-to-stay-employed. Vivienne, with her bizarre requests, is no more believable in her interactions with him. But slowly, though a series of improbably-convenient events, their relationship thaws into something genuinely moving — that transient, therapist-slash-bartender relationship that can evolve between strangers in a late night metropolis who, hearing no context and offering no advice, see each other clearly. Momentarily. Before they, like a life or career or friendship or lover, blend back into the noise.
Blue Night often swings high and misses. But when it lands, it lands exactly where I needed it to. Chris and I give a quick review in another spoiler-free, Tribeca episode.