Leave No Trace

Founded in 1990, the Chicago Film Critics Association is the only critics’ group in the U.S. to mount its own film festival, which offers its nearly 60 members the dubious distinction of reviewing an event they’re simultaneously promoting. (This is the sort of thing that makes two-thirds of Americans distrust the news media.) I haven’t belonged to the CFCA for years, and because this puts me in a small minority of local critics who can comment on the festival impartially, I’d be remiss if I didn’t weigh in. The festival was conceived as a launch pad for domestic indie films needing a break, and the lineup is always pretty good. Yet the more notable titles screening this year have already been picked up by Magnolia Pictures, Sony Classics, Bleecker Street, and other national distributors. Twenty-two features screen in this year’s edition; following are five that I was able to preview.

One of my favorite indie filmmakers, Andrew Bujalski finds comedy in the social maneuvering of little subcultures: the postcollegiate New York hipsters of Mutual Appreciation (2005), the Carter-era nerds of Computer Chess (2013), the fanatical fitness trainers of his mainstream crossover, Results (2015). Though partly improvised, Bujalski’s movies have a writerly quality, the various characters all speaking from his distinctive sensibility, which makes Support the Girls (Fri 5/4, 9:30 PM; Thu 5/10, 4 PM) something of a stretch for the Boston-born, Harvard-educated director. His group this time is an assortment of nubile young women waiting tables at Double Whammies, a Hooters-style “family” restaurant along a Texas interstate, and Bujalski conjures up a charming if not entirely convincing milieu around them and their sunny, long-suffering manager (Regina Hall in a dazzling performance). Most of the laughs spring from the inherent contradiction of the business, whose waitresses are coached to flirt with customers but not to let situations get out of hand. The story meanders near the end, but the anticlimax can’t quite dispel the movie’s warm eccentricity.

I’m a latecomer to the poker-faced camp of filmmaking brothers David and Nathan Zellner (Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter), and their fantasy western Damsel (Sun 5/6, 7:15 PM, with the Zellners in person) made me want to leave early. Robert Pattinson, affecting a turrible western accent, stars as young Samuel Alabaster, who arrives in a one-horse town searching for the bandits who kidnapped his beloved Penelope. Robert Forster, who must have been available for only a day, contributes an introductory cameo as a minister headed back east in defeat after trying to convert the Indians. “Things are gonna be shitty in new and interestin’ ways,” he advises a fresh arrival to the Wild West, and his words might as well be the directors’ statement: when Samuel first rolls in, the locals invite him to a get-acquainted gangbang, and an impromptu yodeling concert accompanies the hanging of the town drunk for the crimes of “skullduggery, skullthuggery, and skullbuggery.” A midmovie plot twist hands the narrative over to Mia Wasikowska as the aforementioned Penelope, and her committed performance seems out of place in this extended goof.

Debra Granik knows how the other half lives: her powerful debut feature, Down to the Bone (2004), starred Vera Farmiga as a working-class mom fighting coke addiction in upstate New York, and Granik’s sophomore effort, Winter’s Bone (2010), gave Jennifer Lawrence her first big role as an impoverished 17-year-old girl fending for herself and her younger siblings in the Ozarks. Granik’s third dramatic feature, Leave No Trace (Sun 5/6, 4:45 PM), steps down the social ladder another rung with its gripping tale of a widowed, traumatized U.S. war veteran (an intensely silent Ben Foster) living in the wilderness around Portland, Oregon, with his 13-year-old daughter (Thomasin McKenzie). After police apprehend them camping in a public park, they’re processed through social services and set up with a more stable work and living arrangement, but the father wants off the grid. “We can still think our own thoughts,” the girl reminds him; the love they share is extremely moving, especially as the daughter grows older and begins to gain perspective on the father’s mental illness.

Still best known as the screenwriter of Taxi Driver (1976), veteran director Paul Schrader indulges his two big passions—Calvinism and bloodletting—with his audacious new drama First Reformed (Mon 5/7, 7:15 PM, with Schrader in person). Ethan Hawke stars as the earnest, middle-aged pastor of a historic Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York; called upon to counsel a suicidal young man, the minister begins to learn about the chaos awaiting humanity in the next few decades as the ice caps melt, and he succumbs to the same sin of despair. You’ve got to hand it to Schrader: for 40 years critics have been razzing him for his religious obsessions, which are even less hip now than they were then, yet the 71-year-old filmmaker just won’t give up. First Reformed develops into a conventional moral dilemma as the minister runs up against an oil executive who’s bankrolling the church’s renovation, and you can trust a Protestant like Schrader to recognize the inferiority of good words to good deeds. The movie’s climax is completely over-the-top, but what else can you expect from the guy who created Travis Bickle?

Bart Layton came to national attention with his eerie documentary The Imposter, whose talking-head interviews and staged re-creations tell the true story of a French-Algerian man who managed to enter the U.S. by posing as a missing teenager from San Antonio, Texas. The director’s second feature, American Animals (Wed 5/9, 9:30 PM), recounts another true crime story but unfolds mainly as a standard docudrama, with occasional onscreen commentary from the real-life subjects. Two sharp young actors, Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk) and Evan Peters (FX’s American Horror Story), play Warren Lipka and Spencer Reinhard, college-age friends in Lexington, Kentucky, who masterminded a heist of rare books from the special collections library at local Transylvania University in 2004. Their meticulous preparations begin with typing “how to plan a heist” into Google and continue with watching every heist film ever made, though they manage to overlook the primary lesson of all such films—that something always goes wrong. v