NYFF Film Review: ‘Hermia & Helena’ Is a Meandering Take on Shakespeare

2016 New York Film Festival: At film festivals, sometimes you need to have patience. The New York Film Festival is no exception, with “Hermia & Helena” representing the first example of a slog. This is a meandering and pretentious tale, one that doesn’t immediately seem to have a point. This isn’t to take NYFF to task or anything like that, but to point out that this is one of the festival’s likely lesser entries. The film is overly pleased with itself, poorly plotted and painfully repetitive, although it’s not a total trainwreck. “Hermia & Helena” wants to be an offbeat take on a notable William Shakespeare play, but it’s just a misfire that wasn’t overly enjoyable.

Most of Shakespeare’s famous works having gotten the cinematic treatment in one form or another. Specifically, writer/director Matias Piñeiro is doing his version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” here. Despite cribbing liberally from the Bard, almost none of his charm makes it through. What we get instead is a feather-light dramedy that never seems to have a reason for existing. Piñeiro and company seem pleased with themselves, but that joy is never effectively translated. That’s a sad irony too, as translation figures heavily into this story. “Hermia & Helena” has received polite reviews so far at other festivals, but the buck stops here at NYFF.

The plot is told in an unconventional form, obviously in reference to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Camila (Agustina Muñoz), a theater director from Buenos Aires, heads to New York for an artistic residency. She’s replacing her friend Carmen (Maria Villar) in order to develop a Spanish translation of Shakespeare’s play. Once there, she develops a relationship with program assistant Lukas (Keith Poulson) in short order. In addition, she begins receiving mysterious postcards from an unknown person, initially meant for someone else. Her discovery of who this person is and what they want will influence her life in a big way. The story jumps back and forth in time, filling in blanks here and there.

hermia-and-helena-1-620x349By and large, the performances are adequate. No one sticks out like a sore thumb, for better or worse. Muñoz is best in show as the de facto lead, even if the script yanks her in too many directions. Poulson underplays his character a bit too much, but it fits the afterthought that his part actually is. Villar had the most interesting role, but Piñeiro forgets about her for large chunks of time. Also on hand are Dustin Guy Defa and Mati Diop, among others, but they’re nothing to write home about. Muñoz is the standout, but sadly, they’re all shortchanged by the screenplay

Filmmaker Piñeiro is an NYFF favorite, though I can’t say that I see the appeal just yet. His movie, even at under 90 minutes, seems stretched painfully thin. There’s also never a strong sense of this being a play off of Shakespeare. You don’t have to call attention to it in order to succeed, but it can’t be this paper thin. Look at “10 Things I Hate About You” for a brilliant example of this sort of thing. Piñeiro deserves a bit of credit for trying something new, but his execution is just way off. Both his writing and direction are just too low-key. The festival loves him, but the feeling isn’t quite mutual here.

When you get right down to it, “Hermia & Helena” is likely going to be one of the more forgettable NYFF titles this year. There have been some great takes on Shakespeare over the years, but this isn’t one of them. A lot of other pundits at the fest didn’t seem blown away either, for what that’s worth. It’s possible that next time around Piñeiro blows it out of the water, but don’t hold your breath. He’s a specific artist, and clearly not for everyone. With “Hermia & Helena,” it’s a movie with likely a very slim appeal, and that’s a shame.

“Hermia & Helena” will screen at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 9.

GRADE: (★½)