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Indie Focus: Inventing the self in 'Mary Shelley,' 'The Gospel According To André' and 'Sollers Point'

Hello! I'm Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

Earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, one of the most talked-about, most impactful films was "The Tale." The modern media world being what it is, the film is not heading to theaters but is instead premiering on HBO.

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Written and directed by Jennifer Fox, the story draws from her own experiences as a teenage girl when she entered into what she saw then as a romance with her adult track coach, only to realize years later that the relationship constituted sexual abuse. Fox's film, starring Laura Dern, Jason Ritter and Elizabeth Debicki, is a stirring, disturbing look at trauma and memory.

Laura Dern plays a documentary filmmaker coming to terms with childhood sexual abuse in director Jennifer Fox's film "The Tale."
Laura Dern plays a documentary filmmaker coming to terms with childhood sexual abuse in director Jennifer Fox's film "The Tale." (Kyle Kaplan/HBO)

During Sundance, Amy Kaufman interviewed Fox, who talked about revealing these most painful details of herself. "I'm not always comfortable saying, 'This is my story,' but that's what I can offer," Fox said. "Being an artist isn't comfortable.... Let me do something meaningful, or else, why? I want to live. And the only way to do that is to risk."

Television critic Robert Lloyd reviewed the film for The Times, writing, "Were the film entirely a work of fiction, it would still be an impressive, cohesive piece. A tight script is never far from addressing its themes without ever hectoring the viewer; 'The Tale' is always a drama and never a tract. And yet that it is based in fact does matter, not just for the authenticity 'true story' adds, but because ideas about fiction and nonfiction, truth and lies and the editing of scraps of information — what a documentarian does, after all — are actively addressed."

We'll have some more screening and Q&A events coming up soon. For info and updates, go to events.latimes.com.

In "Mary Shelley," Elle Fanning stars as the author Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin as she meets and marries poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and writes “Frankenstein.”
In "Mary Shelley," Elle Fanning stars as the author Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin as she meets and marries poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and writes “Frankenstein.” (IFC Films)

'Mary Shelley'

Directed by Haifaa al-Mansour and written by Emma Jensen, "Mary Shelley" stars Elle Fanning as the writer Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and how she met and married Percy Bysshe Shelley and came to write "Frankenstein."

Katie Walsh reviewed the movie for The Times, calling it "beautiful, a richly designed and photographed period piece." She went on to add, "for such a radical woman leading such a radical life, Al-Mansour and [screenwriter Emma] Jensen have trimmed too much. The reality is much more fascinating and messy than this sanitized version, which tries to stick this complicated and unconventional woman into a staid romantic drama. The film celebrates Mary Shelley for the trailblazing woman that she is, but hews far too close to convention to truly represent her life."

Reviewing for the New York Times, A.O. Scott said the film is "a rarity: a literary biopic with an argument," before adding "rather than smother Mary Shelley — author of 'Frankenstein,' daughter of two eminent writers and wife of another — with soft cushions of antiquarian cultural prestige, Ms. al-Mansour and the screenwriter, Emma Jensen, sharpen the sense of Shelley's modernity. It helps enormously that she is played with alert sensitivity and acute intelligence by Elle Fanning."

At Vulture, Emily Yoshida wrote, "If it wasn't clear already, you're reading a review of a subpar Mary Shelley biopic by a film critic who has happened to spend a lot of time reading and thinking about the author and her cohort, and I understand my expectations and points of reference might be a little different from the average filmgoer. But I have a hard time believing that someone with even a passing knowledge of Shelley would have the patience for such a literal, literary film."

For Vanity Fair, Rebecca Keegan profiled Al-Mansour, the Saudi Arabian filmmaker living in the United States and making her English language debut with "Mary Shelley." As Al-Mansour said, ""It reminded me of home somehow. … Like when they expect women to be a certain way, their voices are taken for granted. I really connected with Mary Shelley."

André Leon Talley is photographed at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood on May 9. The fashion icon is the subject of a new documentary, "The Gospel According to Andre Leon Talley."
André Leon Talley is photographed at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood on May 9. The fashion icon is the subject of a new documentary, "The Gospel According to Andre Leon Talley." (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

'The Gospel According To André'

Journalist and tastemaker André Leon Talley is a towering figure in the world of contemporary fashion. Directed by Kate Novack, the documentary "The Gospel According to André" is a both an affectionate portrait and an insightful introduction to the man and his world.

Reviewing the film for The Times, Katie Walsh said that the film is "a fascinating look at the self-invented André Leon Talley, a bold, daring creation who never let anything obstruct his passions, curiosities and whims. … It's a rare delight to spend so much time with the inimitable André. This revealing documentary shows the playful, loving and vulnerable side to this towering figure of taste."

Tre'vell Anderson spoke to Talley for The Times. Of his long career, Talley said, "I got here because I had knowledge. As Judge Judy always says, 'They don't keep me here for my looks.' They keep me here for my power. Because knowledge is power." Of the struggles he has faced for acceptance within the fashion world throughout his career, he added, "How did I overcome that kind of racism? I internalized and struggled with it. … It's been through pluck, luck and survival skills."

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At the New York Times, Jon Caramanica said that Talley "is too fixed in the public imagination to be anything other than the stuff of legend, and he is too legendary to be a truly vulnerable subject." Caramancia added, "'Gospel' presumes that simply filling the screen with Mr. Talley is enough. If anyone could spot the flaw in that thinking — and offer up countless robust ideas on how to elevate it — it would probably be him."

In "Sollers Point," Baltimore native McCaul Lomabardi portrays a man trying to get his life back on track after prison, even as he seems destined to fall back into the bad habits of his old neighborhood.
In "Sollers Point," Baltimore native McCaul Lomabardi portrays a man trying to get his life back on track after prison, even as he seems destined to fall back into the bad habits of his old neighborhood. (Oscilloscope Laboratories / Oscilloscope Laboratories)

'Sollers Point'

Matthew Porterfield is a pure and rare gem, a filmmaker who makes films of quiet, soul-baring power. His new "Sollers Point" follows a young man, played by McCaul Lomabardi, trying to get his life back on track after being released from prison, even as he seems destined to fall back into the the bad habits of his old neighborhood in Baltimore. The cast also includes Jim Belushi, Marin Ireland and Zazie Beetz.

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In his review for The Times, Robert Able said the film "boasts a cool, classically observational tone marked by Shabier Kirchner's invitingly elegant cinematography that eschews the vogue for artificial shaky-cam edginess, and the naturalistic detail of a lived-in neighborhood populated by at least a dozen instantly memorable characters — by turns stressed, satisfied, curious, weird and sad — just doing their thing. It's the same clear-eyed sympathy that marks Porterfield's previous features about his Baltimore, including the textured gem 'Putty Hill.' With 'Sollers Point,' he's added just enough narrative momentum to make that well-trod subset of crime sagas — the struggle to go straight — feel fresh again."

Reviewing the film for the New York Times, Glenn Kenny called the film "a quietly brutal story," while adding, "Mr. Porterfield's evenhanded direction doesn't try to pull the viewer's sympathies one way or another."

Email me if you have questions, comments or suggestions, and follow me on Twitter @IndieFocus

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