Since the release of their schedule, day three of the festivities here at the Hampton International Film Festival had been the one earmarked as the day I was most looking forward to.
The slate this Saturday was loaded with films like “Beautiful Boy,” “Ghost Fleet,” “The Hate U Give,” “Private Life,” “Border,” “Capernaum,” “Ben is Back,” “Everybody Knows,” “The Favourite,” “First Man,” and “Green Book,” scattered throughout the day. HIFF did a fantastic job giving festival-goers an ample opportunity to see a variety of excellent programs.
Along with the great roster of movies, HIFF also hosted their Winick Talks: Breakthrough Artists panel (a theme our faithful readers will know I am passionate about). Their guests included Cory Michael Smith (“1985”), Kayli Carter (“Private Life”), and Amandla Stenberg (“The Hate U Give”), with moderator Eric Kohn of IndieWire. Past HIFF breakthrough panelists include Jessica Chastain, Rooney Mara, Riz Ahmed, Brie Larson, and Emily Blunt, among a long list of actors who have gone on to produce many wonderful films. So keep your eyes open for these three, who brought quite unique personalities and perspectives to the panel.
“I find Netflix an exciting disruptor,” said Kayli Carter, who worked with Netflix for the miniseries “Godless,” and the feature film, “Private Life,” which is playing at HIFF. “They are democratizing casting in a really exciting way. The filmmakers have more freedom and artistic license… this kind of filmmaking doesn’t happen much anymore.”
Cory Michael Smith brought a lot of passion and excitement to the panel, while Amandla Stenberg took the opportunity to promote the improved opportunities for black women in film as of late. Her feature, “The Hate U Give,” was the next stop for me following a quick brunch with the panelists.
The irony of seeing a movie like George Tillman Jr’s “The Hate U Give” in the Hamptons wasn’t lost on me, as nearly every face in attendance was whiter than my own. But, I thought to myself, this is likely the exact audience that needs to see this film.
“The Hate U Give” starts with a powerful cold open. The Carter family sits at their dining room table to have the conversation that most black parents unfortunately have to have with their children about being pulled over by the police, and how to act in order to survive. We follow the middle child of the family, Starr (Stenberg), as she walks a tightrope between two worlds. In her predominantly black neighborhood, Starr can be herself, but in her abundantly white, upper-class private school, she must flip a switch and put on the role of “Starr Version 2.” She is capable of the challenge until one of her childhood friends is tragically killed after being pulled over by the police.
As the only witness to the incident, Starr is summoned for a grand jury trial. Understanding the ramifications this can create for her at school and at home, she tries to keep the case a secret from her friends on both sides of the tracks. When the black community discovers Starr’s position, the pressure begins to mount as they expect her to demand justice and speak for her murdered friend. She faces the difficult decision that will ultimately close her off to one of her two worlds, and as the protests in her neighborhood grow larger and more intense, Starr discovers she must take a stand and find her voice.
“The Hate U Give” is a powerful and timely film. Amandla Stenberg is absolutely terrific, and Russell Hornsby gives an Oscar-worthy performance as her vigilant and temperamental father. The former is certain to make my year-end breakthrough performers list, while the latter just continues to amaze me. From a scene-stealing performance in Denzel Washington’s “Fences” (2016) to a devastating portrayal in Netflix’s “Seven Seconds,” Hornsby once again shows he is one of the finer actors working today.
Whether or not “The Hate U Give” will change the beliefs or preconceived notions of those whose ideals need changing is hard to say. But what is easy to contextualize is that we still have a long way to go when it comes to accepting each other for the differences in our racial cultures.
“The Hate U Give” is distributed by 20th Century Fox and opens in theaters on October 19th.
GRADE for “The Hate U Give” – (★★★)
“Ben is Back” is a dark and challenging film about addiction and the impact it makes not only on the user, but on their family as well. The film is directed by Peter Hedges and stars his son, Lucas Hedges, alongside Julia Roberts. Hedges plays the titular Ben, a 19 year-old recovering opioid addict who makes a surprise return home from rehab on Christmas Eve. Roberts plays his forgiving mother, Holly, who takes in her prodigal son with open arms, despite the better judgement of her husband (Courtney B. Vance) and her daughter (Kathryn Newton).
It doesn’t take long for Ben’s troubled past to affect the family in ways that none of them could have expected. Things go from bad to worse, as Ben fights the urge to fall to his demons, and Holly does everything within her power to safeguard her endangered son.
“Ben is Back” starts as a mournful look at the drug epidemic and the burden it takes on the families impacted by this tragedy. The film, however, becomes a bit convoluted in the second act, as we become more and more tangled in the consequences of Ben’s actions. While it is clear that Julia Roberts put her entire being into her performance, and Lucas Hedges’ gritty and impassioned portrayal of a distraught and destructive addict delivers an emotional gut-punch, it’s not quite enough to save the film from getting lost somewhere between its message and its delivery.
“Ben is Back” is distributed by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions and opens in theaters on December 7th.
GRADE for “Ben is Back” – (★★½)
The third and final film of the day might just be the best movie I take a gander at during my long weekend here. Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book” is inspired by the true story of Don Shirly (Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali), an African-American virtuoso classical pianist, and his rowdy Italian-American driver, Tony “Lip” Valelonga (Academy Award-nominee Viggo Mortensen).
Tony is the stereotypical 1960s Italian-American from New York City – a talkative bigot whose job as a bouncer gets put on hiatus when the club he works for is shut down for two months. Don is Tony’s exact opposite, a lonely intellectual with a strict sense of morals who enjoys a bottle of Cutty Sark scotch each evening. Tony ends up filling the void in his employment by reluctantly taking the job Don has offered him as his driver. The two end up on the road together as Tony takes Don from state to state on a musical tour of the deep south, using the Negro Motorist Green Book along the way as a directory to where Don is allowed to stay. While the two start out on their venture as an odd-couple, they soon develop an understanding of each other, and the film becomes a traditional, hilarious and heartwarming road trip buddy flick.
Ali and Mortensen are incredible together, with onscreen chemistry that is undeniable, and both are likely to reap awards consideration for their outstanding performances. Linda Cardellini is delightful as Dolores, the loving wife Tony works to support.
“Green Book” is an absolute crowd-pleaser from start to finish, hitting all the right notes along the way. It’s the type of feel-good movie people refer to when they say, “they don’t make ’em like that anymore,” and is certain to be one of the best films of the year.
“Green Book” is distributed by Universal Pictures, Participant Media, and Dreamworks, and opens in theaters on November 21st.
GRADE for “Green Book” – (★★★★)
Day four agenda: For me, things will wrap up here at HIFF on Sunday. The hopeful agenda includes Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum,” which is Lebanon’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film; Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Shoplifters,” which won Cannes’ Palme d’Or and is the official entry for Japan; and the film which I hope to close the festival with: Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” Poland’s candidate for Oscar.