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Run To, Run From: Egan Takes On TFF

L to R: Julian Dennison and Sam Neill in “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” Photo courtesy The Orchard.

L to R: Julian Dennison and Sam Neill in “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” Photo courtesy The Orchard.

BY SEAN EGAN | The weather tells me it’s officially spring, which can only mean one thing — it’s time to hole up in a movie theater and take in all the Tribeca Film Festival (TFF; tribecafilm.com) has to offer. Or at least that’s what I gladly did this past weekend, to ensure you needn’t roll the dice on quality when picking your celluloid poison. Here’s the lowdown on some of the best (and not so best) picks you can consider before the festival concludes on Apr. 24. If you can’t make it to TFF (or the remaining screenings are sold out), note that many of its films get picked up for wide release theatrical distribution or become available via streaming services soon after their festival run.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is an excellent odd couple comedy, and a strong contender for festival breakout hit — which should come as no surprise, considering the talent behind the camera. Hailing from New Zealand, writer/director Taika Waititi’s film tells the story of Ricky (Julian Dennison), a young troublemaker from the city, and his begrudging, detached foster father Hec (Sam Neill), who, through a series of escalating misunderstandings, find themselves the targets of an extensive manhunt, forced to go on the lam for weeks in New Zealand’s expansive forests.

While “Wilderpeople” might lack the acidic bite (pun shamelessly intended) of his recent vampire mockumentary “What We Do In The Shadows,” Waititi’s dry, understated sense of humor remains intact, palpable in both the dialogue and visual gags. It’s a sweeter and sadder movie, and Waititi renders the central relationship accordingly — with nuance and specific human flaws — allowing him to avoid the kind of cheap sentimentality that usually sinks this kind of movie. The struggles the duo endure, therefore, feel real, and their personal breakthroughs feel earned — and that makes all the difference in elevating the film from a good-naurted crowd-pleaser into something altogether more affecting. 

For those looking for something a little more gory than gentle, “Holidays” should do the trick. It is, appropriately enough, a holiday-themed horror anthology movie that boasts a startlingly solid lineup of high-quality shorts. True, as with all films of this nature, unevenness is the norm; the opening Valentine’s Day piece has little to praise but its lighting design, and Kevin Smith’s Halloween-themed segment is pretty slight and underwhelming, especially following his deranged, inspired “Tusk” (2014).

Seth Green in the Christmas-themed segment of “Holidays.”

Seth Green in the Christmas-themed segment of “Holidays.”

But that can be forgiven when the hit-to-miss ratio is as high as it is here. From the blue-hued, measured tension of Anthony Scott Burns’ “Father’s Day,” to the blasphemous black comedy and stunning practical effects of Nicholas McCarthy’s “Easter,” to the nutso, offbeat humor of Gary Shore’s “St. Patrick’s Day,” “Holidays” is a brisk and bloody good midnight movie.

Best of all, however, is “Women Who Kill,” a confidently low-key yet hysterical hybrid of dark comedy, queer romantic drama, and murder mystery. Set in Park Slope with a lovingly skewering eye, Morgan (Ingrid Jungermann) produces a podcast about female serial killers with her ex-girlfriend Jean (Ann Carr). Things begin to go awry when the pair suspects Morgan’s mysterious new sweetheart, Simone (Sheila Vand), may actually be a killer.

Writer/director Ingrid Jungermann (left) with Sheila Vand (right) in “Women Who Kill.” Photo by Diane Russo.

Writer/director Ingrid Jungermann (left) with Sheila Vand in “Women Who Kill.” Photo by Diane Russo.

Vand (also turning in good work in “Holidays”) draws upon the same steely-eyed intensity she brought to her titular breakout role in the 2014 thriller, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” but effectively shades Simone with a tangible vulnerability, refusing to remain a simple cipher or plot point, while Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre vet Shannon O’Neill brings perfect comedic timing to her empathetic portrayal of best friend Alex. 

The real find here, though, is multi-hyphenate Jungermann, who handled writing and directing duties, in addition to delivering a perfectly unassuming, deadpan leading turn. As a debut feature, “Women” is remarkably assured, effortlessly balancing its competing tones with emotional authenticity, and more than a dash of gallows humor. Simply put, it’s the kind of homegrown gem that Tribeca, at its best, was designed to highlight and bring to the attention of a wider audience.

But it can’t all be good, can it? Enter “Nerdland.” Produced by Adult Swim alums Titmouse and boasting a voice cast packed with alt-comedy royalty like Paul Rudd, Patton Oswalt and Hannibal Burress, the Hollywood-set animated feature is allegedly a satire of our fame-obsessed culture — but damned if Andrew Kevin Walker’s aimless, regressive, mean-spirited script amounts to anything but tired juvenilia and rehashed, dated tropes.

L to R: Sally (Kate Micucci), John (Paul Rudd), Elliot (Patton Oswalt) and Linda (Riki Lindhome), the idiots of “Nerdland.” Courtesy Titmouse Inc.

L to R: Sally (Kate Micucci), John (Paul Rudd), Elliot (Patton Oswalt) and Linda (Riki Lindhome), the idiots of “Nerdland.” Courtesy Titmouse Inc.

Things wouldn’t be so bad had Walker and Co. remembered to make their bad-taste exercise actually funny, but no amount of inventive animation or lively voice work can distract from the dearth of laughs.

As it stands, its most effective (and cruelest) joke is on itself. As the opening credits roll, a tongue-in-cheek song blares: “Get your hopes up,” the voice commands. “It’s gonna be great; it’s gonna be awesome!” “Nerdland” was neither great nor awesome. In fact, it was the worst thing I had the misfortune of seeing at the festival — and with plenty of fine offerings and events coming up, I implore you not to make the same mistake I did in giving this movie time of (a beautiful) day.