'Cargo,' 'Braid' are standouts of Tribeca 2018's Midnight lineup

ScreenerBlog

Amidst the Tribeca Film Festival’s dozens of features, there exists a little corner of the fest meant to showcase films of the more off-the-beaten path variety. These are the Midnighters: Braid, Cargo, The Dark, You Shall Not Sleep and—deep breath—7 Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh. Comprised of only five films, it’s a small lineup, but one that succeeds in bringing some filmic WTF to downtown Manhattan.

Highlights of this year’s Midnight section are Cargo and Braid, both from first-time feature directors. Cargo, directed by Ben Howling and screenwriter Yolanda Ramke and based on their short film of the same name, stars Martin Freeman as Andy, a father struggling to get his infant daughter to safety amidst the zombie apocalypse. A complication: Andy’s been bitten by a zombie and has only 48 hours until he turns.

The idea of a zombie story told at least partly through the lens of a parent-child dynamic isn’t exactly new—“The Walking Dead,” Maggie and Train to Busan are all recent examples—and certainly the terrors inherent in parenthood have long been fruitful territory for horror. If Cargo’s take on the zombie apocalypse isn’t particularly groundbreaking—and hey, how could it be, given that practically every facet of this particular dystopian scenario has been covered by someone or another at some point—it is particularly well done. Howling and Ramke make good use of the desolate landscapes of the Australian Outback, which is populated here by a sparse blend of your normal post-apocalyptic ne’er-do-wells and a group of Aboriginals who have gone “back to the land” in the aftermath of the outbreak. It’s with that subplot that Cargo reaches its peak, lurching beyond your typical low-budget zombie thriller to something genuinely thoughtful and interesting.

Like Cargo, Braid, from writer/director Mitzi Peirone, heralds the arrival of a new talent onto the filmmaking scene. Sarah Hay and Imogen Waterhouse play Tilda and Petula, two friends who get caught up in a drug bust. Pursued by the cops and their dealer, whom they owe $80,000, they decide to hide out in the upstate mansion of childhood friend Daphne (Madeline Brewer), left mentally unstable by an accident years earlier.

But there’s a game the three girls have always played. A sort of roleplaying situation. Per the rules, they can’t leave, and they can’t bring in outsiders. Tilda and Petula returning to Daphne’s unstable sphere of influence means they’ll have to play the same, too. From there, things get…. weird.

Braid is a love-it-or-hate-it sort of film—you’re either onboard with its particular brand of neon-splashed, relentlessly bizarre psychedelia, or you’re not. I was. Visually stunning and not all that concerned with making sure the audience understands what, precisely, is going on in the constantly shifting dynamic between its trio of female leads, Braid is like Sofia Coppola on bath salts. Could it be a bit more… hmm, what’s the word… comprehensible? Sure. But there’s something to be said by throwing a whole bunch of batshittery at the wall and letting your audience make of it what they will. It's bold, original and unpredictable. It’s never not engaging, and I, for one, can’t wait to see what Peirone does next.

The other three Midnight releases—The Dark, You Shall Not Sleep and 7 Stages—all have their strong and weak points. Of the three of those, Justin P. Lange’s The Dark is the least impressive. Nadia Alexander stars as Mina, a young girl who’s murdered and comes back to life as a flesh-eating monster haunting the woods near her former house. A meeting with Alex (Toby Nichols), a young boy with his own traumatic past, causes Mina to begin regaining some of her former humanity. The potentially interesting dynamic is undercut by Lange’s unfortunate decision to start The Dark with a 20-minute scene that centers on a character who you’re never really going to get invested in. It torpedos The Dark's momentum from the start; the film is never really able to recover.

You Shall Not Sleep, a Spanish-language film from Gustavo Hernández, has the opposite problem.  The first two thirds are killer. They represent probably the best bit of filmmaking I saw at Tribeca this year. Eva De Dominici stars as Bianca, an aspiring actor who’s selected by her idol—provocateur director Alma (Belén Rueda)—to participate in a new theatre project taking place in an abandoned asylum. Bianca and her competitor/friend Cecilia (Natalia de Molina) will stay away for days on end as a way to break down their mental barriers and facilitate more vulnerable performances. That’s the plan, anyway. In reality, the insomnia causes Bianca to see—or think she sees—the deceased inhabitants of the asylum. It’s a brilliant setup—chilling and atmospheric—that’s undone in the third act when scriptwriter Juma Fodde tries to wrap everything up with a neat bow.

This year’s most star-studded Midnighter entry is 7 Stages. Kate Micucci and Sam Hungtington star as Claire and Phil, a pair of naïve Midwesterners whose big dreams take them to Los Angeles. The apartment they find is remarkably cheap, which they soon find out is because of the cult members who keep breaking in to commit suicide in their bathtub. An assortment of comedy notables pop up, among them Maria Bamford, Rhea Seehorn and “Community” and “Rick & Morty” creator Dan Harmon as the sadsack detective who’s been in charge of cleaning up the corpses all these years. Taika Waititi, a standout, has a few scenes as the deceased cult leader whose teachings gradually bring Claire and Phil under his thrall.

At a slim 96 minutes, 7 Stages is still too long, meandering along in the way that ensemble indie comedies sometimes tend to. It’s not awful, but it’s not something to rush out and see, either. That said, the film does provide an early contender for monologue of the year: a one-shot comedy masterclass in which Phil explains a disaster he inadvertently caused in his home town. Huntington sell the trauma that the event caused him—seriously, there are tears in his eyes, tears—which just makes the insane, fucked-up nature of what he’s describing even funnier.