February 23, 2018

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Movie Reviews: The Bard in Newtown; A Kid Chess Champion | 2016 Tribeca Film Festival

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Tain Gregory auditioning in Midsummer in Newtown (Photo: Paul Yee)

Tain Gregory auditioning in Midsummer in Newtown (Photo: Paul Yee)

Since 2002, the Tribeca Film Festival has emerged as an important platform for new documentaries in North America, behind Sundance and Toronto. Year after year, the strength and the backbone of the programming has been the diversity among the nonfiction fare. Of more than a dozen films previewed, two works in particular stand out for teen and young adult viewers and as potential additions to media collections. In one, a child prodigy becomes a world champion, and in the other, a filmmaker follows up on the small town that was the site of one of the country’s worst mass shootings.

Midsummer in Newtown

Written more than four centuries ago, a tried-but-true English lit staple continues to cast a potent spell. In 2014, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was transformed into a community theater production of a new pop musical, A ROCKIN’ Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring local students under the guidance of Broadway veterans. This production stands apart from the countless Midsummer reiterations for its location: Newtown, CT, the picture-perfect New England hamlet where 20 first-graders and six adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

A lovers’ misunderstanding; mischievous faeries; and a well-intended but hapless acting troupe may at first come across as incongruous (or frivolous) subject matter compared to the tragedy at Sandy Hook. However, the community effort is not simply theater as therapy, but one response among many complicated reactions to the shootings. As seen in other art-as-an-anchor documentaries, such as Shakespeare High, the endeavor emphasizes the skills of teamwork, listening and observing others, and responsibility. All are qualities difficult to quantify, but the proof, in this case, is on screen, as the filmmakers follow the ensemble from the auditions to the premiere.

Among the students-turned-actors, Tain Gregory had a close friend who died in the rampage. At nine years old, he looks ideally like a little sprite, but he has been cast as Snug the joiner, becoming the youngest actor among the play-within-the-play’s rustic thespians and an effortless scene-stealer. Sammy Vertucci has shown signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and has become withdrawn since the shootings, according to her parents. She has been cast a Mustardseed, an attendant to the fairy queen, Titania. Sure enough, from the play’s disorderly plot order emerges, as Sammy’s mother observes when her daughter becomes a team player, shedding her shyness on stage.

A scene from A ROCKIN' MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, with Sammy Vertucci, far right (Participant Media)

A scene from A ROCKIN’ Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Sammy Vertucci, far right (Participant Media)

Many viewers may be familiar with jazz composer and saxophonist Jimmy Greene and his wife Nelba Má​​rquez-Greene, whose six-year-old daughter, Ana, was killed in the attack. His album, Beautiful Life, a eulogy for his daughter, was released in 2013. He and his wife become the eloquent voice of the film, along with Tain’s mother, Sophfronia Scott Gregory.

Midway, Ana’s mother addresses head-on the elephant in the room by mentioning the name of her daughter’s killer, 20-year-old Adam Lanza. The shootings are matter-of-factly and succinctly recounted, with a modicum of news footage. As though to put viewers at ease and to reassure them that the film will not dwell on death, the film features a soothing piano score from start to finish.

As a therapist, Má​​rquez-Greene has counseled the mentally ill and young people. Through the Ana Grace Project, named for the daughter, she has initiated a classroom outreach program to listen to kids and to catch signs for those who are at-risk, to help, as she describes it, the next Lanza. Its mission includes “promoting love, community, and connection for every child and family.” One of her personal goals is to teach her surviving son, who was eight when his sister was killed, that the world is still a safe place.

It goes without saying that director Lloyd Kramer’s film is intrinsically moving, and it questions head-on what individuals can do when faced with a tragedy that no one can prepare for. It’s a film for arts programs to rally behind, powerful and clear-eyed (though the same couldn’t be said for the audience; have tissues handy).


Magnus Carlsen, at age 11 (Knut Bjerke)

Magnus Carlsen at age 11 (Knut Bjerke)

Now only 25 years old, Magnus Carlsen of Norway has been named one of the most influential people in the world by TIME magazine, and more than once he’s referred to as “the Mozart of chess.” He’s also an introverted, singular role model, as seen here from his family’s bountiful home movies.

He’s not seen with friends, and his life centers on chess and on his family, including his three sisters, though not necessarily in that order. Even in family gatherings, he seems lost in thought. Taciturn and withdrawn, he makes tentative steps to engage socially. (His father, Henrik, prompts him to say “Thank you” after Norway’s Prime Minister telephones to congratulate him.) Henrik also briefly mentions his son’s tough school environment and of his being bullied in the ninth grade.

His dad recognized early on that as a boy, Magnus had an extraordinary gift for seeing the relationship between numbers. Henrik thought he would be a good chess player and began teaching him at age five, and his son became the youngest grand master in the world by age 13. (Amazingly, at 22, a blindfolded Magnus competed against 10 opponents, all lawyers, one round at a time, remembering every move and board layout of each game.)

The film focuses on his behavior and refrains from offering a diagnosis or a condition. The focus is less a portrait of Magnus, whose moods are not always easy to decipher, but an overview of a career just beginning. In doing so, director Benjamin Rees generates suspense from the rhythm of the editing, which is given a boost by a varied, electropop score, and the silent tension between players and how Magnus nonchalantly makes a move during a match after only a few seconds of consideration. The filmmaking enlivens his story, making it appealing to seasoned chess players and novices alike.

The festival continues on Sunday, April 24. For more information, visit tribecafilm.com/festival.





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Kent Turner About Kent Turner

Kent Turner (kturner@mediasourceinc.com) edits SLJ's DVD reviews and is the editor of Film-Forward.com

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