Every spring, the Tribeca Festival returns to Lower Manhattan with a bulky mixed bag of creative programming. Looking for virtual reality? Concerts? Video games? Podcast tapings? The event, which dropped “film” from its name in 2021, lassos together all its media with the key word storytelling — a buzzy, often branded term. Past attendees of the festival might recall Robert De Niro, one of its founders, rapping, “I’ve got a story to tell,” at the start of a bouncy, AT&T-sponsored Tribeca trailer that preceded screenings for half a dozen years.
A tension surrounding this year’s event, which runs from Wednesday through June 18, is how it coincides with a wholesale hiatus in storytelling with the Writers Guild strike in its second month and a potential SAG-AFTRA strike hovering on the horizon. The impasse, which pits Hollywood studios against creators, hangs on a question: How much does the system truly value these storytellers? The industry is in crisis, and as the guilds sound alarm bells, it will be interesting to see how Tribeca amplifies their chime.
A top U.S. film festival, Tribeca has long served as a kind of industry nexus, platforming big-studio movies beside indies. Once, the event featured Mario Van Peebles’s “Baadasssss!” on the same day as “New York Minute,” starring Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. This year, Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental” is the centerpiece. The festival has also proven a conduit for filmmakers to go from newcomer to big deal. In 2018, Nia DaCosta premiered the crime drama “Little Woods.” She’s now directing “The Marvels.”
The festival’s juiciest titles are often the discoveries, and that was certainly the case for my favorite world premiere this year: “The Gullspang Miracle,” a dazzler in the documentary competition. Like the weird love child of “Three Identical Strangers” and “Grey Gardens,” the film observes the Norwegian sisters Kari and May in the afterglow of meeting Olaug, an uncanny ringer for their elder sister, Astrid, who died by suicide decades earlier. The director, Maria Fredriksson, accompanies the trio as they plumb this strange serendipity, laying bare destabilizing truths and secrets.
The competing pulls of nature and nurture underpin the film. Kari and May regard their experience as a divine act of God. Nonreligious, Olaug is skeptical, and soon, the women’s honeymoon period fizzles into pettiness and pique. An ace calibrator of mood, Fredriksson charts this rift in social settings and a series of charged voice mail messages. Brace for a startling and surreal ride that marries true-crime mysteries with cringe comedy about the narcissism of nanoscopic differences.
Darker in mood and in palette is Ethan Berger’s “The Line,” an incisive college drama that’s equal parts spectacle and parable. Alex Wolff stars as Tom, a sophomore at a Southern liberal arts school shirking his studies to romp and roughhouse with his fraternity brothers in the fictional Kappa Nu Alpha. It’s fall rush season, and trouble arrives in Gettys (Austin Abrams), a promising freshman pledge whose swagger nonetheless rubs Tom’s truculent roommate, Mitch (Bo Mitchell), the wrong way.
In his narrative feature debut, Berger demonstrates a knack for scene-setting. He paints the fraternity’s antebellum mansion not as an animal house but rather as a tenebrous, cocaine-tinctured netherworld peopled with the preppy, white progeny of local fat cats. These boys are homophobes (not to mention racists and sexists), and yet Berger and his co-writer, Alex Russek, deliberately present the brotherhood as buttressed by a vigorous homoeroticism. Tussling is a pastime, penis remarks fill the patois and hazing hinges on a heavy dose of organized spanking.
If all that macho posturing leaves you hungry for some memorable female-driven narratives, look no further than “Richelieu” and “Cold Copy,” two absorbing dramas in different registers. Both center on a woman honing her professional credo, albeit to opposite ends: In “Richelieu,” Ariane (a stirring Ariane Castellanos) finds purpose as an advocate for others, while Mia (the always-on Bel Powley) of the jittery “Cold Copy” succeeds by stepping on her peers to give herself a boost.
“Richelieu” is set at a Canadian industrial plant, where Ariane is tasked with translating the Québécois French dictates of her boss into the Spanish spoken by the mill’s stable of Guatemalan laborers. The filmmaker, Pier-Philippe Chevigny, makes expert use of long takes trailing characters through space, including during a climax guaranteed to leave you breathless. The equally dizzying “Cold Copy,” written and directed by Roxine Helberg (once an assistant to Jean-Marc Vallée), tells of a journalism student so desperate to impress her steely professor, Diane (Tracee Ellis Ross), that she’ll toss friendships and ethics out the window.
On the nonfiction end, an unusually large chunk of titles center on sports and athletes: basketball, football, baseball, ice hockey, rugby, mixed martial arts and even IndyCar racing are represented. Two standouts consider aspects of what was once called America’s pastime, although in a twist, neither focuses on the major leagues. “The Saint of Second Chances,” a Netflix bio-doc from Morgan Neville (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”) and Jeff Malmberg (“Marwencol”), has plenty of fun detailing the puckish stunts of independent leagues as it profiles team owner Mike Veeck, a lifelong mischief-maker (and the son of Bill Veeck, a franchise owner).
That documentary finds a rousing kindred spirit in “The League,” a poetic collage of archival footage and scholarship arranged with care by the filmmaker Sam Pollard (“MLK/FBI”). The film celebrates the inception, heyday and superstars of the Negro Leagues and analyzes their legacy. There is even some overlap with “The Saint”: one section touches on Bill Veeck’s signing of the legend Satchel Paige, history’s oldest M.L.B. rookie.
Less brawny but just as tireless are the players in Jane M. Wagner’s “Break the Game,” an innovative film constructed from excerpts from a vast accumulation of livestream recordings on the gaming website Twitch. Our hero is Narcissa Wright, a onetime champion now facing onslaughts of online transphobia. Hoping to set a record on a popular new game, Narcissa becomes a recluse and then an anxious wreck.
What emerges is an internecine tug of war between body and mind, and between the urges to stand out and fit in. The film — Wagner’s first — is extremely multimedia, which is to say, extremely Tribeca. But more profoundly, the documentary probes the intriguing possibility of taking images meant for one space and repurposing them into a cogent beginning, middle and end. Put another way: Even without the pixelated bells and whistles, it’s excellent storytelling.