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Reviews for August 26th, 2022

Documentary Round-Up

      Let the Little Light Shine is an inspirational, eye-opening and enraging documentary about a community that comes together to fight racism and gentrification in Chicago. The National Teachers Academy, an elementary school with mostly African-American students, is located in an African-American neighborhood of Chicago. When Chicago Public Schools proposes to replace it with a high school that integrates its students from many different schools, teachers, students and parents protest the proposal to try to save the National Teachers Academy. What's at stake? The lives, hopes and dreams of many African American students. Director Kevin Shaw provides a voice for the brave people who find the courage to battle the Chicago Public Schools and stand up for themselves and for what's right. There's some footage from their legal battles which feels equally captivating, moving and empowering. Let the Little Light Shine is refreshingly fair and balanced for allowing opposing views to be heard, i.e. those of Tina Feldstein from Prairie District National Alliance.

      Fortunately, director Kevin Shaw grasps that there's more than two sides to a coin--there's the sides and ridges, for example. It might sound simple and straightforward, but, in reality, it's complex and multifaceted, so kudos to him for embracing that without resorting to oversimplification. In a democracy, everyone deserves an equal chance to speak out, regardless of power. >i>Let the Little Light Shine is not just about civil rights, but also about human rights, justice, truth and, above all, democracy. It finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally and intellectually like most documentaries should. Yes, it's enraging, but it's also hopeful and insightful. The title alone provides some of that hope because even a small light in a dark tunnel can make a big difference---any ordinary person could be that light. At a running time of 82 minutes, Let the Little Light Shine opens at IFC Center via Argot Pictures.


Directed by Choi Dong-hoon

      In the present day, Guard (Kim Woo-bin) and his AI sidekick, Thunder, look after aliens sent to prison on Earth and inside human beings. When an alien prisoner escapes, they follow it to the 14th Century with the help of Lee Ahn (Kim Tae-ri). In the 14th Century during the Goryeo Dynasty, Mureuk (Ryu Jun-yeol), a magician, desperately searches for a powerful blade.

      The screenplay by writer/director Choi Dong-hoon spends a lot time with exposition and "world building" while introducing many different characters from the past and the present. Some of the exposition makes the film's plot feel a bit muddled and convoluted with too much going on and lots of time-travelling. It does get bonkers and madcap, like many sci-fi movies to these days, but it's not as brilliant, bold and funny Everything Everywhere All At Once. Most of the humor is physical and more silly than laugh-out-loud funny. There's not nearly enough witty lines or banter. Even the latest Thor has more wit in the dialogue. Of course, like in all blockbuster's, there's a MacGuffin, in this case, a precious blade, so that part of the plot is conventional. The other half of the plot, Guard's quest to find the escaped prisoner, manages to be more compelling and suspenseful.Despite those shortcomings, the action sequences are often thrilling and exhilarating without being tedious or making the audience feel exhausted.

      The CGI effects are among Alienoid's greatest strengths. The visual effects look dazzling and provide plenty of eye candy. The sound effects and mix are also worth mentioning. Even when the plot loses its momentum and drags a bit somewhere around the 90-minute mark, at least your eyes and ears will be entertained. It's too bad, then, that Alienoid doesn't cater to the audience's heart, mind and soul, beyond their eyes and ears. To be fair, Alienoid does overstay its welcome with a running time of 2 hours and 22 minutes; fundamentally, it's a B-movie that would've been more engaging if it were a lot leaner and less than 2 hours. Some movies, like Everything Everywhere All at Once, justify their 2-hour-plus running time; Alienoid doesn't. Ultimately, Alienoid is a mildly entertaining, but mindless, bloated and convoluted sci-fi adventure with stunning CGI and thrilling action scenes.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Well Go USA.
Opens at Angelika Film Center, AMC Kips Bay and AMC Empire.

Almost Love

Directed by Luo Luo

      Zhou Can (Li Wenhan) and Yu Jiaoyang (Xu Ruohan) meet and fall in love when they're young students at the age of 18. Their relationship spans 8 years. When they meet after their break-up, they memories of their time spent together come flooding back.

      Almost Love is like a modern version of When Harry Met Sally... and (500) Days of Summer with shades of The Notebook, but with younger lovers and less comedy. The screenplay by writer/director Luo Luo and co-writer Pei Zhai follows the 8-year romance between Zhou Can and Yu Jiaoyang from their "meet cute" moment until their break-up. Throughout the course of their relationship, they grow up in different ways and deal with obstacles that many couples face, i.e. work-related issues. They experience ups and downs throughout their relationship that many couples will be able to relate to. Sometimes they get on each other's nerves and sometimes they don't. They're human beings, after all, so Luo Luo and Pei Zhai should be commended for treating them as such instead of as pawns to move the plot forward. It's both moving and revealing how the couple look back on their relationship years later.

      It's also refreshing that Yu Jiaoyang is written as a complex woman who's smart, strong, compassionate, determined and vulnerable concurrently. She has a conscience and shows that she's capable of introspection. As she recalls the highs and lows of her relationship with Zhou Can, she comes to terms with her regrets and emotional pain. Her monologue at the end is filled with life wisdom and displays her emotional intelligence as well as her maturity. The way that Almost Love ends, which won't be spoiled here, is true-to-life and honest, similar to the kind of honesty found in Eric Rohmer's films. Life isn't perfect and neither are relationships, but being honest with oneself and others, learning from one's experiences and learning how to deal with emotional pain are essential parts of growing up. Fortunately, Almost Love is sweet without being saccharine and wise without being preachy.

      Li Wenhan and Xu Ruohan both give genuinely tender, warm and moving performances. They have more chemistry together than most actors do in romantic dramas nowadays. The love between Zhou Can and Yu Jiaoyang feels real and organic. The cinematography, editing and music score are all terrific, especially during the flashback scene with the montage. Moreover, the pace moves just right. At a running time of 1 hour and 50 minutes, Almost Love is a warm, wise and tender love story.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by China Lion Film Distribution.
Opens at AMC Empire 25.


Directed by Abi Damaris Corbin

      Brian Brown-Easley (John Boyega), a Marine Veteran, hasn't received the $892.34 from Veteran Affairs for his disability that he suffers from after serving in the Iraq War. He sticks up a bank while holding the bank manager, Estel Valerie (Nicole Beharie), and a bank teller, Rosa (Selenis Leyva), among others, hostage while claiming that he has a bomb in his backpack. A police negotiator, Eli Bernard (Michael K. Williams), communicates with him from outside of the bank, and he calls a local reporter, Lisa Larson (Connie Britton), at a TV station to speak out about his frustrations about the Veteran Affairs office that owes him money.

      Based on a true story, Breaking is a gripping crime thriller that's just as surprisingly moving and profound as Heat. Both Heat and Breaking transcend the conventions of their genres because they're not really about the plot; they're about the characters and their emotional pains. Although Breaking doesn't have the exhilarating action sequences that Heat has, it compensates for that with an engrossing story that becomes increasingly complex and intriguing. Writer/director Abi Damaris Corbin and co-writer Kwame Kwei-Armah see and treat Brian as a human being much like Michael Mann does when it comes to Lieutenant Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley. There are no villains here; just a deeply flawed human being who thinks he has no other choice but to commit a crime. Brian is at wit's end and indignant, which he has every right to be given how the government has treated him after he served in the Marines. They neglected and dehumanized, so he feels dehumanized and doesn't know any other way to get out of his predicament. Breaking, fortunately, keeps any additional padding to a minimum, so it remains focused on the main plot. Brian briefly calls his estranged wife, Cassandra (Olivia Washington), and daughter, Kiah (London Covington). The filmmakers also don't resort to flashbacks or voice-over narration. There's just enough exposition so that you understand why Brian holds up the bank and what he's like as a loving father. In one particularly poignant scene, he cries which reveals a lot of his innate pain. That scene could've been schmaltzy or clunky with a less sensitive screenplay, but it doesn't veer into either of those pitfalls. The relationship between him and police negotiator Eli Bernard is just as fascinating as the relationship between Lieutenant Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley in Heat.

      John Boyega gives one of the best performances of his career as Brian Brown-Easley. His raw, emotionally honest, breakthrough performance is mesmerizing to behold. Boyega brings out Brian's humanity and helps the audience to care about Brian as a human being and to empathize with his pain even without empathizing with the actions that he takes. The aforementioned scene where he breaks down and cries is genuinely heartfelt and truly showcases Boyega's skills at finding Brian's emotional truth and vulnerability. Nicole Beharie and Selenis Levya also give moving performances as does the late Michael K. Williams. Director Abi Damaris Corbin should be commended for using a music score sparingly; she trusts the audience's emotions and doesn't choose to hammer them over the head or hold their hand with music. She also trusts the audience's patience because she moves the film at a refreshingly slow-burning pace without making the movie look like a video game or like a music video with lots of quick cuts. At a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes, Breaking is one of the most powerful, moving and riveting heist movies since Heat.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Bleecker Street.
Opens nationwide.

Funny Pages

Directed by Owen Kline

      Robert (Daniel Zolghadri), a teenage cartoonist living in New Jersey with his mother, Jennifer (Maria Dizzia), and father, Lewis (Josh Pais), decides to move out of the house and rent a cheap basement apartment in Trenton. He gets a job as a transcriptionist for a public defender, Cheryl (Marcia DeBonis). There, he meets and befriends Wallace (Matthew Maher), a former color mixer who he hopes could mentor him.

      Writer/director Owen Kline has woven an unconventional coming-of-age story that has many shades of Ghost World. Robert has a best friend, Miles (Miles Emanuel), but their relationship is just as toxic as Enid and Rebecca's in Ghost World. He comes across, like Enid, as impertinent and not very emotionally mature, but he's bright, persistent and very passionate about art. When he develops a friendship with the mentally unstable Wallace, it's obvious that it's an unhealthy relationship and not much of a friendship for that matter. Robert is essentially a child who has a lot of growing up to do, he doesn't choose good role models to look up to. The screenplay walks a fine line between comedy and tragedy. There are some outrageously funny scenes with the supporting characters all of whom are quirky in their own way. It's not quite as witty and perceptive as Ghost World, but it comes close before going off-the-rails into batshit crazy territory in the third act that won't be spoiled here. Kline is quite bold for that ending which will, hopefully, lead to some discussions about what it means in general and for Robert. If you can imagine Ghost World with less subtlety and nuance, but with just as much room for interpretation, you'll get an idea of what Funny Pages is like. Prepare to be shocked, disturbed and a little bit perplexed by the ending which is probably part of the point.

      Daniel Zolghadri gives a breakthrough performance as Robert. He captures the teen angst moments with conviction. The supporting cast members are also terrific and get their own moments to shine, especially Marcia DeBonis. It's also worth mentioning the cinematography which adds a gritty atmosphere to the film. The pace moves just right before the third act that picks up the pace and rushes through the refreshingly un-Hollywood ending. At a running time of 1 hour and 26 minutes, Funny Pages is bold, cringe-inducing and outrageously funny. It would make for an interesting double feature with Ghost World which happens to be re-released at IFC Center with a new 2K digital print.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by A24 Films.
Opens at Angelika Film Center and select theaters.

The Good Boss

Directed by Fernando León de Aranoa

      Blanco (Javier Bardem), the owner of Básculas Blanco, a company that sells industrial scales, hopes to win an Business Excellence award from a committee that will visit him imminently. He stops at no bounds to make sure that everything is perfect at his company before the committee arrives. He even meddles in the private affairs of his workers, i.e. Miralles (Manolo Solo) who suspects that his wife is cheating on him. Letting go of one of his workers, José (Oscar de la Fuente), turns out to be a bad idea because José reacts by camping outside of Básculas Blanco and complaining about his former boss.

      The Good Boss is a perceptive and funny portrait of a narcissist. Like most narcissists, all that Blanco cares about is his good appearance and the appearance of his company regardless of who or whom he has to hurt to achieve that good appearance. On the surface, he comes across as strong, confident, charming, determined, and caring. That's merely a façade. Beneath the surface, though, he's selfish, weak, cowardly and insecure. Writer/director Fernando León de Aranoa clearly understands the dark side of human nature and how manipulative, deceptive and cunning narcissists like Blanco can be. Although there's very little that's likable about Blanco to the audience, it's easy to see how he's able to charm people around him and how they warm up to him. The film's title is ironic and leads you to ask the questions, "How do you define a good boss?" and "How do you accurately determine whether or not someone is a good boss?" Fortunately, The Good Boss doesn't turn Blanco into a villain nor does it go over-the-top with what lines he crosses. It maintains a light, breezy tone with some tongue-in-cheek humor, satirical and darkly comedic moments.

      Compared to Anton Chigurh, Javier Barden's iconic villain from No Country for Old Men, Blanco is an angel. He's dehumanizing, yes, but, you can argue that capitalism is dehumanizing as well, so that would make Blanco's abusive behavior a product of capitalism. It comes with the territory. He's merely a symptom of a much larger, systemic problem. His behavior probably comes from what he learned in school and from his father, so it's hard-wired in him. Also, it could be argued that he thinks he's doing the right thing and doesn't really intend to hurt anyone. He's a fascinating character because of his complexities, nuances and the many masks that he wears so-to-speak. Who is the real Blanco? That's open to interpretation, but The Good Boss does show some glimpses of the real, unmasked Blanco. There's much more to him than meets the eye which makes him all the more interesting. In a few scenes that won't be spoiled here, Aranoa briefly lifts up Blanco's "mask" and you see some of his innate sadness and fragility before he puts on his "mask" again. Like most comedies, The Good Boss remains firmly grounded in tragedy beneath its surface.

      Javier Bardem gives a terrific performance that makes the most out of his charisma, comedic timing, and his skills at handling more emotional scenes. The film's emotional depth comes from his performance much more than it does from the screenplay. Bardem seems to be having a lot of fun in his role which, at times, veers toward satire. He truly elevates the film even during the scenes that are less compelling. Oscar de la Fuente and Manolo Solo also give solid performances. The pace moves slowly at first, but eventually picks up along the 30-minute mark and finds its footing, so be patient. Writer/director León de Aranoa should be commended for including some symbolism, i.e. the industrial scales, and a crooked object that Blanco tries to straighten to satisfy his hunger for perfection. At a running time of 1 hour and 56 minutes, The Good Boss is wickedly funny, honest and thought-provoking.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Cohen Media Group.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

The Invitation

Directed by Jessica M. Thompson

      Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel) works as a caterer in New York City and still grieves over the death of her mother. When she learns through a DNA test that she has a second cousin, Oliver (Hugh Skinner), she agrees to meet up with him. He convinces her to travel to London to attend the wedding of a wealthy lord, Walt (Thomas Doherty), who lives in a mansion. She meets the bridesmaid, Viktoria (Stephanie Corneliussen) and Lucy (Alana Boden), but has yet to meet the bride.  Walt flirts with Evie while mysterious events happen inside the mansion that suggest to Evie that he might be hiding something. Meanwhile, Evie communicates via FaceTime and texts with her friend, Grace (Courtney Taylor), who's worried about her safety.  

      The Invitation is a gothic horror that lacks suspense and scares. It begins with a prologue that reminds you that you're about to watch a horror mystery and that something wicked and supernatural can be found in the mansion that Evie will be visiting. The screenplay by Blair Butler and Jessica M. Thompson takes a while to get going as it spends some time with exposition and introducing all of the characters. By the time Evie meets Walt, it's obvious that he's stringing her along and has ulterior motives. One of the bridesmaids, Viktoria, behaves suspiciously from the get-go. She even sucks the blood from Evie's finger after it's injured during a manicure. This is one of those movies where the audience is far ahead of the protagonist in terms of how much key information they know--Evie, for instance, doesn't notice Viktoria spying on her when she's alone with Walt, but the audience does notice her outside of the window at night. In another scene, a shrike hits Evie's bedroom window while she speaks on the phone with her friend. By the time that she realizes that it'd be a good idea to leave the mansion and go back home, you'll be frustrated because you'll have made that realization long before Evie if you're paying attention. Why keep the audience ahead of Evie? Also, once the dark elements rise to the surface inevitably in the third act, The Invitation takes itself too seriously. To be fair, the screenplay does provide Evie with a personality and has her quip a few witty, amusing lines when she arrives at the mansion, but for the most part, the tone remains serious and foreboding, but without any palpable thrills or chills.

      The performances are fine, but nothing exceptional and no one really has the chance to rise above the mediocre, lazy screenplay. There's very little chemistry between Nathanlie Emmanuel and Thomas Doherty, though, so it's hard to buy into the central romance between Walt and Evie. It feels just as contrived as the romance in Twilight. There are few scenes that feel slightly creepy thanks to the lighting and set design, i.e the scene in the wine cellar. Then there's another effective albeit ephemeral scene where the sound design creates a creepy vibe when Evie get's a manicure. For the most part, though, the editing, especially during the violent scenes, feels choppy while some of the visual effects, i.e. a fire, don't look cheap and subpar. At an overlong running time of 1 hour and 44 minutes, The Invitation is an unscary, suspense-free, and toothless slice of gothic horror.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Screen Gems.
Opens nationwide.


Directed by Sabrina Jaglom

      Olivia (Madelaine Petsch), a high school student, still grieves the death of her best friend, Jane (Chloe Yu), who recently committed suicide. Jane's suicide has caused a rift between Olivia and her friend, Izzy (Chlöe Bailey). Olivia desperately wants to get into Stanford University, but her application has been deferred which only compounds her stress and frustration. Then a new student, Camille (Nina Bloomgarden), arrives in school and takes all the attention away from Olivia in her debate team. Olivia and Izzy devise a plan to catfish Camille by pretending to be Jane on social media and gaslighting her.

    Jane is like a much darker, psychologically thrilling version of Mean Girls, Heathers and Dear Evan Hansen. The screenplay by writer/director Sabrina Jaglom and co-writer Rishi Rajani begins with the suicide of Jane as she jumps off of a cliff. Who is Jane? What or who led her to commit suicide? Jane seems less concerned about exploring those questions beneath the surfac which makes Jane and her suicide more like a plot device than a fully-fleshed character. That would've been fine if Jane weren't such an important character and integral to the plot. She was, after all, friends with both Olivia and Izzy. What Jane remains focused on, though, is how Jane's suicide affects the friendship between Olivia and Izzy. Olivia and Izzy are both narcissists who lack the concept of boundaries. They're as mean as Hannah from Tahara, another film that used suicide as a plot device, but with much more emotional depth and insight into the dark side of human nature. Even Bodies Bodies Bodies explored that side of human nature more intriguingly with more bite. Nonetheless, Jaglom and Rajani do a decent job of getting inside the head of Olivia and deserve credit for making her as unlikable as Evan from Dear Evan Hansen. Olivia wears a mask, so-to-speak, that shows confidence and smugness on the outside, but on the inside, she's actually weak, insecure and cowardly. Jane does show some glimpses of Olivia unmasked, but not enough. At least it isn't as tonally uneven as the cringe-inducing Dear Evan Hansen. However, it does raises a lot of heavy issues like suicide and grief without looking at them more profoundly and head-on.

      The performances by Madelaine Petsch and Chlöe Bailey are pretty good and help to ground the film in some authenticity even when the screenplay feel contrived. Melissa Leo plays the school's principal and adds some gravitas during her brief scenes, but her character, like Jane, is poorly developed. The film moves at a fast pace during the first 20 minutes or so, but then slows down a bit before picking up the pace again in the third act. At a running time of 1 hour and 20 minutes, Jane is a mildly engaging, well-acted and dark psychological thriller that ultimately bites off more than it could chew.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Blue Fox Entertainment.
Opens at AMC Empire 25.


Directed by Justin Lee

      Recently dumped by her fiancé, Jessie (Nicky Whelan), goes on a vacation to Maui with her friends, Will (Shane West), Brianna (Kelly Lynn Reiter), Sunny (Porscha Coleman), Ty (Alex Farnham), and Emma (Zoe Cipres). They book a booze cruise with Captain Wally (Ed Morrone) and his wife (Kim DeLonghi). Soon enough, a great white shark threatens their life---the same shark that killed the daughter of Harlan (Trace Adkins) who takes matters into his own hands when the local sheriff refuses to do anything about the killer shark.  

      Let's face it. Most people don't watch a killer shark movie for the plot or the characters; they watch it for the thrilling action, horror and suspense. The plot and characters are just a means to that end. When it comes to its plot, Maneater pretty much cuts right to the chase with a shark attack within the first few minutes, so writer/director Justin Lee is clearly aware of what the audience is really there for. This is a B-movie Unfortunately, though, he then cuts to Jessie and her friends while spending too much time introducing them to the audience and backstories which feel tack-on. Fall and Beast suffers from the same issue, but at least Maneater doesn't become unintentionally funny like those two films. What it does become, though, is dull and tedious. The thrills are sporadic with very little palpable suspense and no scares, even during the action scenes. There are no surprises, either. The ending also feels padded with an extra scene that's unnecessary while just serving as a last-minute attempt to add some poignancy and to leave room for a sequel.    

      Maneater does have some very gory scenes, but gore alone isn't scary; it's merely disgusting, At least the film earns its R-rating.  The visual effects look subpar which diminishes the suspense and scares. The music score isn't anything to write home about either. There's no matching the classic two-note score from Jaws that builds up a lot of tension when you hear it. The acting ranges from wooden to just fine, but, to be fair, no one expects great acting from a shark attack movie. Horror films don't even need a huge star because the horror is the star, as Roger Ebert once wisely observed. Unfortunately, at a running time of 1 hour and 29 minutes, Maneater is not even remotely terrifying. Jaws made the audience afraid of the water, but Maneater doesn't even come close to achieving that feat.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Saban Films.
Opens at Cinema Village and on VOD.

Out of the Blue

Directed by Neil LaBute

      Recently released from prison, Connor (Ray Nicholson) returns to his idyllic hometown and works as a librarian while occasionally meeting his probation officer (Hank Azaria). One day, he meets and flirts with a woman, Marilyn (Diane Kruger). He has a sexually-charged affair with her after she bumps into him again at the library even though she has a husband, Richard (Victor Slezak), and a daughter, Astrid (Chase Sui Wonders). She claims that Richard is abusive to her and to her daughter, and convinces Connor to devise a plan to murder him.

      Part erotic drama, part crime thriller, Out of the Blue is a wild ride that take itself too seriously while piling on so many coincidences and twists that it becomes preposterous. It doesn't help that most of the characters, with the exception of a friendly librarian (Marilyn Swick) who has the hots for Connor, are hard to connect with on an emotional level and annoying more often than not. LaBute doesn't provide the audience with enough opportunities to get to know them or to get inside their heads, so they remain at a cold distance from the audience which makes it hard to root for any of them. The probation officer's bullying tactics toward Connor and others, i.e. during an awkward diner scene, make him a one-note, over-the-top caricature. LaBute seems more concerned about moving the overwrought plot forward than in breathing much-needed life into its story. The dialogue often sounds too on-the-nose and stilted while leaving very little room for interpretation. Moreover, the attempts for comic relief and some quips fall flat. It's as though LaBute were trying too hard to be funny. In the third act that won't be spoiled here, he tries too hard to shock and surprise the audience. The surprises are there, but they rise to the surface in a clunky way. Out of the Blue could've been as dark, clever and thrilling as Unfaithful or as amusing and witty as the underrated film Faithful. Both of those films have a lot more to say about love, marriage and the dark side of human nature. Instead, it feels like a dull, forgettable Skinemax movie. Even the cult classic erotic thriller Scorned is a far more entertaining guilty pleasure.

      The performances are fine, but nothing to write home about. Ray Nicholson exudes charisma, but he's undermined by the shallow screenplay. The same can be said about Diane Kruger who deserves a more sensitive screenplay that can provide her with more to sink her teeth into. The cinematography is slick with some nice shots during the library scenes, but this isn't the kind of movie that has enough style to compensate for its lack of substance. At a running time of 1 hour and 44 minutes, Out of the Blue is overwrought, clunky and vapid while low on thrills, insight and emotional depth.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Quiver Distribution.
Opens nationwide.

Private Desert

Directed by Aly Muritiba

      Daniel (Antonio Saboia), a police officer, gets unpaid leave after an incident that he was involved in made the news. When his online girlfriend, Sara (Pedro Fasanaro), can no longer be reached, he travels 2,000 miles to find her in her hometown. Little does he know that she's actually gender fluid. In the daytime, Sara is Robson, a male; at night, Robson becomes Sara while hitting the clubs.

      Private Desert takes a while to get to the meat of its story. Writer/director Aly Muritiba and co-writer Henrique Dos Santos spend a lot of time with a first act that introduces the audience to Daniel, what kind of work he does, his ailing father and younger sister, Deborah (Cynthia Senek). Meanwhile, he texts his online girlfriend, Sara. Daniel doesn't embark on his roadtrip to find Sarah until around the 30-minute mark. Until then, it's tempting to ask, "Where is the plot going? What's the point of all of this?" Be patient, because your questions will be answered once Daniel arrives at Sara's hometown and meets her friend, Fernando (Thomas Aquino). Sara lives with her grandmother, Teresa (Zezita Matos), who doesn't support Sara/Robson's gender fluidity. Fortunately, the relationship between Daniel and Sara/Robson remains genuinely heartfelt and feels true-to-life. To watch them both connect on a human level and openly discuss their emotional pain and struggles is captivating. When Daniel discovers the truth about Sara, he reacts in a way that makes her feel hurt and dehumanized. To be fair, though, she lied to him through omission, so that lack of honesty makes it understandable for Daniel to be indignant. Kudos to Aly Muritiba and Henrique Dos Santos for seeing and treating Daniel and Sara/Robson as complex human beings who aren't one-note caricatures. They're flawed, infallible and still growing up while struggling innately. You want them to end up together. The third act, which won't be revealed here, feels tender, warm and true-to-life without being schmaltzy or contrived.

      Antonio Saboia and Pedro Fasanaro both give natural, convincingly moving performances that brim with warmth and charisma. Their chemistry on screen is palpable which makes it easier for the audience to root for Daniel and Sara/Robson to be together and to care about them as human beings. So, not only do the filmmakers see and treat the characters as human beings and show compassion for them, but so do the actors. Muritiba uses the song "Total Eclipse of the Heart" by Bonnie Tyler very fittingly and poignantly twice throughout the film. Moreover, the cinematography has some poetic imagery. Poetry, after all, is a form of protest for and/or against something. Private Desert serves as a protest against hate and intolerance, and as a protest for love, compassion and empathy. It's one of the most powerful, heartfelt and haunting love stories since Call Me By Your Name.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Strand Releasing.
Opens at Quad Cinema.