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Reviews: Indie ‘No Alternative’ dives into the ’90s, Olivia Wilde is ‘A Vigilante’ and more

Michaela Cavazos in a scene from “No Alternative.” Credit: Gravitas Ventures
Michaela Cavazos in the movie “No Alternative.”
(Gravitas Ventures)

‘No Alternative’

Writer-director William Dickerson adapts his own acclaimed, highly autobiographical 2012 debut novel in “No Alternative,” a remarkably assured and deeply felt grunge-era coming-of-age picture, set in an upper-class New York suburb, not long after the 1994 death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain.

Conor Proft and Michaela Cavazos play Thomas and Bridget Harrison, the teenage children of a scandal-plagued conservative judge, played by Harry Hamlin. Both kids are aspiring musicians: Thomas is the drummer and driving force in a radio-friendly pop-punk band; Bridget uses gangsta rap to express her anger at the world.

“No Alternative” is practically plotless. There’s some tension within Thomas’ band about how slick they should sound; and Bridget struggles to find the right balance between antidepressants and her budding alcoholism. But for the most part, this is a finely wrought slice-of-life memoir, covering a few months in two troubled lives.

It may help to know going in that “No Alternative” is Dickerson’s heartfelt, retroactive attempt to appreciate his own sister, whose life mirrored Bridget’s. It also helps to have lived through the ’90s — the better to marvel at how accurately Dickerson recalls the sounds, styles and arguments of those times.

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But it’s not hard to grasp how every moment in this movie is meaningful to the man who brought it to the screen. “No Alternative” is rambling, but never aimless. It’s the work of an artist meticulously recreating his past, while wishing fervently he could change it.

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‘No Alternative’

Not rated

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Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

Playing: Available April 2 on VOD

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‘A Vigilante’

Olivia Wilde in a scene from “A Vigilante.” Credit: DirecTV / Saban Films / Lionsgate
Olivia Wilde in the movie "A Vigilante."
(DirecTV / Saban Films / Lionsgate)

The feminist revenge thriller “A Vigilante” is sometimes an over-the-top cat-and-mouse story about a strong-willed heroine facing off against her controlling ex-husband. And sometimes it’s more raw and realistic, documenting domestic abuse’s lingering effects. It’s hard to tell — until the film’s powerful ending — whether the action sequences undercut the drama, or if the serious scenes make the genre beats hit harder.

Olivia Wilde stars as Sadie, an abuse survivor who hires herself out to women and children in need, putting her self-defense training to use as she pressures bad spouses and parents into leaving for good, after paying for what they did wrong.

The first half of “A Vigilante” bounces between vignettes of Sadie in action and quieter scenes where she attends support group meetings or breaks down sobbing in her apartment. At first, writer-director Sarah Dagger-Nickson grounds every act of violence by taking the time to show its toll.

The film’s second half becomes more conventional, following one long standoff between Sadie and an ex (played by Morgan Spector) who knows all her tricks. The scenes of them trading punches — figuratively and literally — are exciting, but often feel like they’ve been copied from another movie.

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The two sides of “A Vigilante” are ultimately held together by Wilde’s ferocious performance — which swings between steely control and eruptive emotion — and by the way Dagger-Nickson frames nearly every moment from Sadie’s perspective. This is two-fisted pulp, with a grim vision of the world as a joyless place, populated by predators.

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‘A Vigilante’

Rated: R, for violence and language

Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes

Playing: Starts March 29, AMC Universal CityWalk; also on VOD

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‘Flay’

(L-R)- Elle LaMont and Dalton Gray in a scene from the film “Flay.” Credit: Phame Factory
Elle LaMont and Dalton Gray in the movie "Flay."
(Phame Factory)
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It takes some kind of guts to give a horror film a title as powerfully visceral as “Flay.” It takes even more chutzpah to make the movie into a moody domestic melodrama, not a gore-fest.

“Flay” stars Elle Lamont as Moon, who returns to her dysfunctional childhood home after her hippie artist mother dies. In the weeks that follow, Moon tries to become an authority figure to her delinquent teen brother River (Dalton E. Gray), while they and everyone they know are being hunted by a faceless Native American spirit, conjured by their dead mom.

Director Eric Pham and screenwriter Matthew Daley underplay the movie’s “cursed by vengeful demons” element, to the point that when the picture finally does shift into a full-on thriller in its second half, the scares almost feel like an afterthought. “Flay” is, at its core, just an OK indie drama about a bickering brother and sister, with some blah supernatural hooey clumsily appended.

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‘Flay’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

Playing: Available April 2 on VOD

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‘White Chamber’

Shauna MacDonald in “White Chamber.” Credit: Dark Sky Films
Shauna MacDonald in the movie "White Chamber."
(Dark Sky Films)

With “White Chamber,” writer-director Paul Raschid becomes the latest high-minded science-fiction filmmaker to stage almost an entire movie in a mostly empty room. Set in a near-future U.K. — riven by civil war — the movie follows the efforts of a covert scientific/military organization to torture and experiment on an enemy officer in a cutting-edge prison cell that blasts captives with heat, cold, shocks, drugs and burning acid.

Shauna Macdonald and Oded Fehr give strong performances as warriors on opposite sides, who each get to spend some time in the cage. But “White Chamber” suffers from the problem that weighs down a lot of these kinds of movies. In order to make the situation more universal and existential, Raschid keeps the issues and stakes so vague that there’s no way for the characters or story to develop. The film, like its title location, becomes just another featureless box, designed to agitate and confound anyone who enters.

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‘White Chamber’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes

Playing: Available March 29 on VOD

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‘Pet Graveyard’

Hindolo Koroma in a scene from “Pet Graveyard.” Credit: Uncork’d Entertainment
Hindolo Koroma in the movie "Pet Graveyard."
(Uncork’d Entertainment)

Its name suggests a ripoff of a classic Stephen King novel, but “Pet Graveyard” is actually a knockoff of “Flatliners,” following a group of young folks who dabble in what the kids today apparently call “brinking” — pushing themselves to the edge of death, to experience what lies on the other side.

The biggest difference between this picture and “Flatliners” is that “Pet Graveyard” is set in England — although the principal leads are Americans, played by Jessica O’Toole and David Cotter. Also, when the brinkers come back from the dead, they’re pursued by the Grim Reaper and his skinny, red-eyed cat. That’s the “pet” part.

Otherwise, there’s nothing in this film that hasn’t been done before, and much better. It’s hard to say what’s the bigger cheat here: that “Pet Graveyard” isn’t the shameless King copy it promises to be, or that it isn’t even cheesy enough to mock.

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‘Pet Graveyard’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Playing: Available April 2 on VOD

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