Review: Determined women dig deep in four new documentaries
Four new documentaries showcase determined women following dreams and finding themselves along the way.
Against the Current
The Los Angeles Times is committed to reviewing new theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries inherent risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the CDC and local health officials. We will continue to note the various ways readers can see each new film, including drive-in theaters in the Southland and VOD/streaming options when available.
“Against the Current” is a gem. It’s gorgeous in many ways. It traces the incredible, nearly four-month attempt by Veiga Grétarsdóttir to circumnavigate her native Iceland by kayak alone, and counterclockwise (against the current), which would make her the first woman to achieve those things. At the same time, it’s a journey through her memory of growing up a man, marrying and having a family, and transitioning to being a woman.
The images of Iceland’s beauty are breathtaking. The document of Grétarsdóttir’s feat is exhausting (in a good way). You come out feeling you’ve learned about the rigors of kayaking and the courage any such journey demands.
Mostly, you learn about this person and her deep, decades-long struggle to become whom she was afraid to admit she was. There’s the coldness of bigotry and the heartbreak of alienation and confusion — and the warmth of love and support. Nothing feels taken for granted. Director and cinematographer Óskar Páll Sveinsson has complete command of the story, never tangling its threads.
The film also has endearing supporting characters and memorable scenes described by interviewees. While Hollywood comes to realize what a moving narrative film and fantastic opportunity for a trans actor an adaptation could be (with the stipulation they keep the atmospheric music by Högni Egilsson), the awards-giving bodies should save a blank on their ballots for this one.
'Against the Current'
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Playing: Starts June 25, Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica; also available on Lammle Virtual Cinema
Sisters on Track
"Sisters on Track” is a lovely, immersive look into the lives of three Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, girls (ages 9 to 12 at the start of the documentary) who go from homeless with their mother to Sports Illustrated Kids of the Year and living in an apartment with its rent paid for two years by Tyler Perry. That’s where the movie starts.
The three Sheppard sisters, Tai, Rainn and Brooke, enter a race on a babysitter’s whim and find they have talent. They join a local team, Jeuness Track Club, run by a smart, tough coach who becomes like a second mother. Coach Jean aims to inspire her athletes to aspire, telling parents if their goal is the Olympics, this isn’t for them — the strict organization is geared toward aiming kids at higher education; keeping them on the right track.
“Sisters” follows the kids’ paths over several years as they navigate puberty, injury and personal issues and strive to get into a high school that puts them on a path for college. There are crushing reversals of fortune but the film is hopeful.
The greatest takeaway from “Sisters” is the sisters themselves — intelligent, thoughtful, disarmingly articulate. Their maturity seems accelerated, perhaps due to the trials and tragedies they’ve experienced. They’re easy to root for. Viewers likely will find themselves shouting along with Coach Jean during the climactic races: “Go Brooky!” “Go Rainny!” “Go Tai!”
'Sisters on Track'
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: Available June 24 on Netflix
Mary J. Blige’s My Life
"Mary J. Blige’s My Life” isn’t a biographical documentary per se but a deep dive into the inspirations behind what the singer-songwriter calls both the “most important album” of her 13 and “a cry for help.”
Blige burst on the R&B/New Jack Swing scene in 1992 with the multiplatinum album “What’s the 411?,” which showcased her legit soul diva pipes and celebrated her streetwise authenticity — she came from the projects, what she describes as “a violent environment” in Yonkers, N.Y.
Despite success, all was not well. Blige was rocked by substance abuse, severe depression and what she calls an abusive relationship. She references being haunted by being molested at the age of 5 and other traumas she declines to detail; she says she had “a lot to get out,” that it was “one of the darkest times in [her] life,” that she “often didn’t want to live.”
What emerged was the 1994 album “My Life,” which saw her co-writing most songs for the first time, pouring out her guts. Rather than shedding fans because of her deeper new direction, the album repeated her debut’s multiplatinum success and has placed on “greatest albums of all time” lists by the likes of Rolling Stone and Time.
Blige has, of course, gone on to an often-confessional — and towering — career, with more than 100 million records sold. Where the documentary succeeds most plangently is in its fan testimonials of the album’s impact and Blige’s emotional recollections of the songs’ roots.
'Mary J. Blige's My Life'
Rated: R, for language
Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes
Playing: Available June 25 on Amazon Prime Video
"Fathom” starts with a fascinating premise — probing the communication and culture, if any, of humpback whales — but ends up feeling adrift.
Its two subjects are research scientists Ellen Garland and Michelle Fournet, conducting experiments in very different parts of the world (Garland in the South Pacific and Fournet in Alaska). Garland has identified distinct whale songs in all their detail and complexity; she’s trying to see if those unique songs are learned by whales from other places. Fournet has identified specific calls within songs and is trying to decode their meaning; she plays back one call she believes to be a greeting to whales in the wild to see if they’ll respond in kind.
The experiments raise obvious questions that must have been answered by the scientific community, but the documentary doesn’t address them. It’s less interested in the science than the people; specifically, what all this field work costs them personally. However, whenever it nears the edge of something deeper about them, it veers away.
“Fathom” presumably gets its name from both the watery depths and the attempt to understand these mysterious aquatic mammals, but it doesn’t delve deeply enough into either the science or the scientists.
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Playing: Starts June 25, Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica; also available on Apple TV+
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