Partway through “In the Heights,” the Tribeca Festival’s opening-night feature, a throng of Washington Heights neighbors sprawl about a courtyard during a heat wave. They loaf and grumble, until one woman steps in to start a barrio Carnaval of song and dance. Finding solidarity in nasty circumstances is a theme that flows through this year’s 20th anniversary festival, which begins Wednesday and runs through June 20.
In an antidote to more than a year of solitary movie-watching, Tribeca will offer mostly live programming, making it among the first big film festivals to take place in person since the pandemic began. (Many films will be available online after showing on a big screen. Movies selected for last year’s event, which was postponed amid the pandemic, will receive theatrical premieres alongside this year’s lineup.) Kicking it all off is “In the Heights,” which will unspool at the United Palace in Washington Heights and, like a citywide drumroll, at outdoor venues across all five boroughs.
This year’s lineup brims with stories of group camaraderie, family union and bonds forged in unlikely places. Such tales of connection are fitting as we fix our sights on a New York summer that will trend away from social distancing and toward social gathering. I watched most of the Tribeca movies at home, solo, save for my dog, but as I did, “In the Heights” and others seemed to shout, “Grab your friends! Gather round! The movies are back!”
The director Morgan Neville (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”) arrives with one such crowd-pleaser. In “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” Neville aims to cut through the chef’s public persona by patchworking private scenes from home video and never-broadcast television footage with candid testimonies from friends. The documentary unveils a man who became famous almost by a fluke, and then nursed a fraught, off-and-on love affair with the spotlight for the rest of his life. Bourdain’s principal trait, but one that only a small circle saw intimately, was a raw, jangling energy. He was a searcher, always on the run and never seeming to find what he was looking for.
Sunnier in mood is the French narrative feature “Roaring 20’s,” which, in one unbroken shot, zigzags around Paris to introduce a series of independent story lines. The director, who uses the pseudonym Elisabeth Vogler — alongside the movie’s co-writers Joris Avodo, Noémie Schmidt and François Mark, who appear in the movie — sought to capture Paris’s reopening after the spring lockdown. Filmed last summer with a nimble crew, the movie includes more than a dozen vignettes as it explores the city of love over one balmy evening.
Like a restless ghost, Vogler’s camera glides along its route, haunting characters for several minutes before moving onto a new set of muses. As a bloc, the actors we meet prove a pleasure. But often, their chatter falls away as we’re drawn to the golden cityscapes that surround them. “Roaring 20’s” may seem like a cinematic stunt, but it’s really a divine travel experience, best for viewers who yearn to vicariously stroll along a canal, speed on a Vespa, puff cigarettes on cobblestones, read tarot cards on a park bench and eavesdrop on slightly-too-loud sex talk while riding the Metro.
Not all of the movies present their worlds with such romance. “Poser,” an entry in the U.S. Narrative Competition, follows a hungry newcomer who bluffs her way into a scene. Lennon (Sylvie Mix) is a shy music fan in Columbus, Ohio, who ingratiates herself with the city’s indie rock gentry by starting a podcast about local bands. An assured debut from the directors Noah Dixon and Ori Segev, the movie darkens as Lennon grows infatuated, and then obsessed, with one of her interviewees: the alluring electronic musician Bobbi Kitten (Bobbi Kitten).
But a punk-goth clone of “Persona” this isn’t. Or, I should say, it isn’t only. “Poser” is also a comic study of the scene, featuring performances from real bands that Dixon and Segev got to know while making music videos. Some of these underground acts have genuine talent but are playful in how they define themselves — “queer death pop” and “like, if your really strange relative was a band” are among the genres they wryly use as identifiers.
In the Viewpoints section, another movie centers on a new arrival and an established clique. The tart Puerto Rican comedy “Perfume de Gardenias,” directed by Macha Colón, follows the aging Isabel (Luz María Rondón), who loses her husband soon in. Grieving and lonely in her fussy Art Deco-furnished home, Isabel feels the gravitational pull of a squad of neighborhood gossip queens. These mean girls are pious and community-focused, often volunteering to organize deluxe funeral ceremonies for locals who have passed. The ladies relish Isabel’s eye — not to mention her lush garden rife with bouquet-ready blossoms — and jump to usher her into their party-planning pack. It’s all fun, flowers and funerals until Isabel discovers the mad methodology behind their designs.
Among an array of worthy documentary titles, two standouts explore aspects of Black experiences in America. “All These Sons,” directed by Bing Liu (“Minding the Gap”) and Joshua Altman, is a patient and pensive profile of two Chicago community programs seeking to curb the city’s gun violence by nurturing the most vulnerable men. A more personal story comes alive in Sol Guy’s tremendous “The Death of My Two Fathers.” Echoing James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” and others, the project is epistolary: Guy frames the movie as an address to his young children. In it, he grapples with the loss of his father to cancer two decades ago and makes a pilgrimage to Kansas City to seek out the extended family he barely knew.
Of the many festival selections I sampled, my favorite was the compassionate Egyptian coming-of-age tale “Souad.” The director Ayten Amin opens on Souad (Bassant Ahmed) riding a public bus, where she regales the strangers around her with accounts of her rigorous medical studies and her doting fiancé, Ahmed, who’s away in the army. If only any of this were true. Souad instead lives with her family in a middle-class home, where she struggles in school and stays busy with domestic chores. The suave Ahmed (Hussein Ghanem) isn’t Souad’s betrothed but rather a Facebook friend from nearby Alexandria; their social media courtship is a mirage that offers Souad an escape from her arid home life.
We reach a startling moment halfway, when a cataclysmic tragedy devastates Souad’s family. Here, Amin pivots to Souad’s little sister, the teenage Rabab (Basmala Elghaiesh, a revelatory heartbreaker), who navigates the anguished aftermath. This structural ingenuity is in the service of a gentle story about sisters, who try (and usually fail) to reconcile what’s expected of them with what they expect from life. Only in rare, magical moments do these hopes fall in sync, but sometimes just the knowledge that one is not battling demons alone is a solace.
The Tribeca Festival runs June 9-20 at sites around the city and online. For more information on in-person screenings, go to tribecafilm.com/festival. For virtual showings, go to watch.tribecafilm.com