You know all about the big films opening in July, but here are some smaller ones you won’t want to miss.
Approaching the Unknown
Mark Elijah Rosenberg’s Approaching the Unknown has the misfortune of hitting theaters in the shadow of The Martian. It’s impossible not to compare the two — they’re both about missions to Mars that go wrong, leaving a lone astronaut struggling to survive. But the smaller, more pensive Approaching the Unknown is better looked at as an acoustic cover of the tune Ridley Scott’s movie played at arena rock levels. Its main character, Captain William Stanaforth (Mark Strong), is also a scientist, having leveraged his discovery of a way to create water molecules from dirt into a chance at a one-way trip to Mars. Approaching the Unknown‘s minor key pleasures are in the way it documents how Stanaforth’s analytical approach to his experiences gives way to more poetic, fragile meditations as the immensity of his loneliness and vulnerability in the vastness of space settles in. It’s a journey rather than a destination, and while it’s not a Strong solo show — Luke Wilson and Sanaa Lathan are piped in onscreen, and there’s also a stop at a space station — the intensity of his deeply committed performance is what will stay with you.
How to see it: Approaching the Unknown is now available for digital rental.
Breaking a Monster
It’s no surprise that Malcolm Brickhouse, Jarad Dawkins, Alec Atkins, and their band Unlocking the Truth went viral. Who could resist the phenomenon of three black Brooklyn preteens wailing impressively away at heavy metal tunes in Times Square? But Luke Meyer’s documentary Breaking a Monster catches up with the trio after their internet fame has netted them the attention of Alan Sacks, a Hollywood vet who was instrumental to launching the careers of Demi Lovato and the Jonas Brothers — and he’s intent on doing something similar with his new, less Disneyfied clients. Guitarist and lead singer Brickhouse, whose angel face morphs into a scowl when performing, wants success, but he’s also a kid who gets tired and sulky, as Sacks exasperatedly tries to keep him in line. And Brickhouse is absolutely savvy about the fact that, while he’s a genuine metalhead, he and the band have serious novelty value in a genre that’s so predominantly white. What follows is a fascinating if incomplete-feeling exploration of an attempt to leverage viral celebrity into mainstream fame — one that’s leagues more nuanced than the recent Presenting Princess Shaw, which offers a more idealized take on what it means when the internet catches a musician in its spotlight.
How to see it: Breaking the Monster is now in theaters in limited release.
Les Cowboys begins in the ’90s at what looks like a country music fair — there are cowboy hats and boots, there’s horseback riding, someone sings “Tennessee Waltz,” and there’s an American flag flying in the background. Only the scene is actually taking place in France, where this act of cross-cultural appreciation serves as a nod to writer-director Thomas Bidegain’s source material, John Ford’s Western The Searchers. In Bidegain’s homage, instead of the John Wayne character — who, over miles and years, tracks his niece after she’s abducted by Comanches, maybe to kill her rather than see her living as one of “them” — there’s François Damiens as a man whose rage and obsession slowly destroys him and everyone around him. His bigotry is aimed at Muslims as he looks for his teenage daughter, who runs off with her Arab boyfriend, and who, despite her father’s insistence otherwise, is in charge of and defiant about her own choices. Les Cowboys pointedly repurposes a classic film in order to take on the eternally timely topic of Europe’s attitudes toward and mistrust of its Muslim populations, and the movie’s self-consciousness is made up for by its astonishingly far-reaching ambitions.
How to see it: Les Cowboys is now in theaters in limited release.
Cohen Media Group
Microbe & Gasoline
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director Michel Gondry has always had a way of combining the magical with the mundane. That’s true in his new film, too, though compared with the Pee-wee’s Playhouse-meets-period-tragedy stylings of his last one, Mood Indigo, Microbe & Gasoline is downright restrained. It’s a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story set in a non-magical realist Versailles in which two outcast tweens form a friendship. The quiet Daniel (Ange Dargent) is an aspiring artist who’s still on the near side of puberty (hence “Microbe,” a reference to his small size), while newcomer Théo (Théophile Baquet) comes from a working-class background and likes to putter around with scrap mechanics (his nickname comes from how his smells). The boys are stuck between childhood and adolescence in ways that are painfully real, but Gondry adds levity with touches of autobiographical whimsy, from the stroke material Daniel adorably draws for himself, to the tiny house on wheels the boys build for their road trip. It’s a film whose sweetness never closes in on saccharine.
How to see it: Microbe & Gasoline is now in theaters in limited release.
Screen Media Films