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Chicago Critics Film Festival 2024: The Good, the Unremarkable, and the Dead on Arrival

Axe murder, motor scooter theft, projectile breast milk and more from a week at the Music Box Theatre for the Chicago Critics Film Festival 2024.

Chicago Critics Film Festival
Music Box Theatre
3-9 May 2024

For better or worse, nowhere in Chicago is more cinephile-friendly than the Music Box Theatre. The venue, which screens no more than two or three titles in any given week, is the default arthouse theater for anyone who’s “in the know” when it comes to movies: a home for the A24-gym-shorts-wearing subclass, people with a modest Letterboxd following, those who’d rather leap from a building than sit through a Marvel flick.

In this way, it’s the perfect home for the Chicago Critics Film Festival. Now in its 11th year, the fest’s only award is given by popular audience vote, with equal value assigned to professional and armchair critics. At the Music Box, everyone’s got a hot take—so, as expected, Chicago Critics Film Festival packed the house in May 2024 with Chicago’s most opinionated. 

Here’s a roundup of our time at the fest: the good, the unremarkable, and the dead on arrival.

Chicago Critics Film Festival 2024: The Letdowns

In a Violent Nature – Director: Chris Nash | Shudder Films | Releasing 31 May

In the days following this clunker’s premiere at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, its PR team wasted no time clipping the audio of the crowd’s reaction to brag about how gruesome and upsetting this hyped horror really is. They even went with the classic claim that people vomited during the screening.

In a Violent Nature is a tedious and self-indulgent retread of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: a parade of tropey dialogue, a mangled but goofy-looking villain, and one of the most abortive endings I’ve ever seen in any film, not just in horror. PR also conveniently left out the audible groan from the crowd as In a Violent Nature‘s credits rolled.

The premise is promising enough. In a Violent Nature is an old-fashioned slasher in which the audience stays with the killer rather than with the victims. Ry Barrett’s Johnny has a prized possession stolen by an unsuspecting camper, so he busts out of the ground to take it back, and we spend the next 90 minutes following as he trudges around the forest. 

The kills are brutal– the film’s most successful moment comes in the form of a log cutter and some very juicy Foley Sound work in a horrifying tool shed eerily lit like the one in Eli Roth’s 2005 horror film Hostel, but these are brief moments of stupid glee that are suffocated by countless other boring and uninspired choices. An unshakeable “arthouse” quality to In a Violent Nature left me cold. Clean, polite framing and endless shots of our bad guy pacing around in the forest are meant to build up the feeling of dread, but they read as the stuff of “serious film” that breaks the spell of iconic horror. 

I won’t spoil In a Violent Nature‘s ending for you if you can even call it that, but I will say that a horror film that does its job correctly makes you beg for it to stop, to let you get to the end alive. I am here to tell you that no one vomited at this screening, but a few people did say, “That’s it?”

I Saw the TV Glow – Director: Jane Schoenbrun | A24 | Releasing 17 May

The excitement from the sold-out crowd was palpable for the Chicago premiere of Sundance critical darling I Saw the TV Glow. Director Jane Schoenbrun’s previous effort, 2021’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, is a cerebral microbudget horror that accomplishes a lot with very little. I was excited to see what potential a $10M budget might unlock. 

Disappointingly, I found this teen psychodrama tedious, overdetermined, self-serious, and twee. Maybe that’s the point; teenagers have a penchant for these things. As a viewer, however, it’s infuriating to watch Schoenbrun show what she’s capable of and continuously obscure it with grating characters and schlocky David Lynch references. 

I Saw the TV Glow follows Owen (Justice Smith), a teenager obsessed with a television show called The Pink Opaque, which was introduced to him by a cool, edgy, older teen, Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine). Before long, life starts to feel less meaningful than the TV show itself, and their shared obsession takes over their lives. Eventually, Maddy disappears under mysterious circumstances, only to reemerge, insisting that she is one of the characters from the show– not Maddy, but Tara. 

I Saw the TV Glow is meticulously crafted, a neon-soaked confection that is often strikingly beautiful. The film repeatedly plays with liminal spaces as a metaphor for transition – of age, gender, or otherwise – by leaning into their surreal emptiness. Each frame is stuffed with strobing lights, streaks of glitter, and shiny plastics, e.g., the view from under the bubble of a parachute in a gymnasium and among deflated bounce castles in a dark room. The fictional TV show is also a mind-bending success full of odd, jerky movements and unsettling character designs. 

However, for all the visual success, Schoenbrun saddles viewers with two characters whose dynamic couldn’t be more flimsy or emotionally withholding. Their relationship is frustratingly thin despite so much of the script being dedicated to lengthy melodramatic conversations between them. Every sentence from Maddy involves pregnant pauses. About a third of I Saw the TV Glow involves waiting for Maddy to get another word out, mostly phrases like, “Do you remember…?” and “The Pink Opaque.”

Much has been made of Maddy’s climactic monologue, which laments the speedy passage of time and how the vividness of one’s teenage years fades to something recognizably bleak in adulthood. After spending so much bland time with these hollow characters, this sounds like a very sheltered complaint, the kind that only someone whose brain has been cooked by years of Internet abuse could conjure. But in life in I Saw the TV Glow, what is at stake isn’t convincing.

The film turns into an interminable endurance test. How much annoying, humorless, and redundant dialogue can you stomach before you get to the next scene that’s finally kind of cool? 

I Saw the TV Glow is saved from true Bad Movie status through a revelation of an ending. It’s a bleak and upsetting cautionary scare about what happens when you move through life safely on autopilot, avoiding how you were meant to live until it’s too late to change. The final scenes are shocking, stomach-churning, and vividly beautiful: a frustrating morsel of perfection in a film that does too much telling when it should be showing and is too subtle when we desperately need an explanation.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with blood-and-thunder teenage emotionalism, but this approach is frustrating because I Saw the TV Glow is not a movie for teenagers but about teenagers for adults in arrested development. It has one hell of an ending: a blunt-force conclusion for characters hung up on the wrong things, too petrified by life to make anything of themselves. But it’s a long wait for that reward.

Chicago Critics Film Festival 2024: The Good, But Not Great

Cuckoo – Director: Tilman Singer | NEON | Releasing 2 August

Hunter Schafer’s turn as a leading scream queen in Tilman Singer’s Cuckoo is blissfully dumb. Set in the remote German countryside, Schafer plays Gretchen, an aloof American teenager who has come to live with her father (plus his new wife and daughter) at a resplendent woodland resort. Before long, she faces off with some genetically-engineered evil: shrieking bird-women hellbent on her demise for reasons that are so hilariously convoluted that they aren’t even worth explaining. 

Reminiscent of her Euphoria co-star Sydney Sweeney’s nun-sploitation screamer Immaculate, Schafer’s genre vehicle seems to be an allergic reaction to the slow-burn prestige horror of the last decade. It’s stuffed to the brim with jump scares, and why would you go in there alone moments, plus a Halloween-ready Final Girl silhouette composed of bloody head bandages and bulky metal splints. No one’s reinventing the wheel here. Still, the committed performances and deadpan humor of Cuckoo make it a refreshing return to iconic mid-aughts horror.

Babes – Director: Pamela Adlon | NEON | Releasing 17 May

Babes is an odd acquisition for NEON, a pivot to the main-est of mainstream comedies. It’s a female-led gross-out buddy comedy modeled after hits like Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids and Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck, centered on a friendship whose central conflict is tenuous at best.

Broad City’s Ilana Glazer plays Eden, a free-spirited single woman who’s getting to the age where that’s not as charming as it used to be. Michelle Buteau plays her lifelong friend Dawn, who’s raising her second child. Eden resents motherhood’s strain on her friendship with Dawn, but after a one-night stand gets her pregnant, she decides to become a mother, relying a little too heavily on Dawn’s support. 

The premise of Babes barely matters The film’s sole function is to be a raunchy playground for Glazer and Buteau, sending up any and every taboo about the body horror realities of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. For example, Eden is so pregnant that she could “breastfeed the Lakers”. Another conversation centers on how normal it is to shit on your baby the second it comes out of you. Breast milk sprays great distances, friendships are tested in hormonal rage, and ultimately, watching this film makes for a good time. 

Your mileage with Babes will depend almost entirely on whether Glazer’s singularly yelpy approach to comedy works for you. If it does, Babes is a reliably funny hour and a half of R-rated mayhem.

Good One – Director: India Donaldson | Metrograph | Releasing 9 August

India Donaldson’s directorial debut, Good One, is a quiet drama with the lush backdrop of the Catskills. But for anyone with a divorced dad, this will be a horror movie. Sam (Lilly Colias) joins her father and his lifelong friend on a backpacking trip through the mountains, third-wheeling her way through their weird male showmanship and ego trips, trying her hardest to go with the flow. 

Both Sam’s rigidly type-A father and his reckless best friend are expertly rendered victims of their divorces. They’re both desperate for attention and affection but conflict-avoidant to a fault. They’re so terrified of being alone and hated that they lose the qualities that make them lovable and important. India Donaldson’s portrait of divorced men is sympathetic but takes her characters, Chris (James Le Gross) and Matt (Danny McCarthy), to task for letting loneliness rule their behavior without regard for those in the path of their midlife tantrums. 

Good One‘s story is the definition of a slow burn, for better or for worse. Much of the steady-shot scenery reads more like a MacBook screensaver than genuinely moving nature photography. But the crowning success of Good One isn’t visual. It’s in the loving and sharp portrayal of male friendship and the upsetting reality of being a bystander as the men wriggle under the pressure of a new life that terrifies them.

Thelma – Director: Josh Margolin | Magnolia | Releasing 21 June

I do not want to live in the sick mind of someone who doesn’t love June Squibb if that person even exists. She’s the heart and soul of Thelma. This feature debut by director Josh Margolin follows a 93-year-old grandmother who sets out for justice after being tricked out of money by a phone scammer.

Thelma sets out on a quest in a very in her 90s way: stealing motorscooters, duping her attentive grandson (Fred Hechinger) into rides around the city, and above all, taking her sweet time. The film’s conceit runs the risk of being saccharine, or worse, infantilizing, but Margolin’s writing is lean and imaginative, toying with old-lady stereotypes but rendering Squibb’s character as an unpredictable and highly capable riot. 

Thelma doesn’t overstay its welcome and does what it should: delivering punchline after punchline and letting Squibb (and the legendary Richard Roundtree in his posthumous role) shine. Thelma works, despite its gimmicky conceit, because it refuses to baby its geriatric lead. Her relationships are meaningful, the danger she’s in is real, and the stakes are high. Despite my misgivings at the cutesiness of the plot, Thelma struck me as an airtight and palpably human comedy.

Chicago Critics Film Festival 2024: The Crown Jewel

Ghostlight – Directors: Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson | Magnolia | Releasing 14 June

The final screening at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which ran away with the 2024 Audience Award, was far and away the best film of the event. Every performance in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s Ghostlight is gripping, charming, and blisteringly human. I could not look away from the screen. 

Ghostlight follows Dan (Keith Kupferer), a construction worker whose life has been thrown into disarray by the loss of his son. His work is thankless. His marriage is fraught, strained by legal proceedings that have prolonged their grief and made it impossible to move on. His daughter, Daisy, is an erratic problem child on the brink of suspension for acting out at school.

Though the setup seems bleak, Ghostlight is pitch-black hilarious from the first scene, anchored by a star-making performance from Katherine May Kupferer. Kupferer’s Daisy is so instantly loveable that you’d stick around through any exposition to get more of her.

Spoilers are tricky with Ghostlight, so what’s important to know is that through a few acts of God, Dan joins a local theater production of Romeo and Juliet. Reluctant at first, he soon finds himself playing Romeo, whose fate is uncomfortably close to his son’s, and the play tests the limits of everything he holds dear.

Ghostlight is about the impossibly flimsy fibers that hold a family together and the immeasurable odds we face to keep from imploding in grief. It’s about art and catharsis, forgiveness and revenge, the hope of youth, and the unfairness of what we ask from those we love. It’s both sprawling and intimately personal, made even more personal through the film’s casting of a real-life family to play its fictional parallels. Their performances are open and generous, exposing the raw center of the American family. They convey that feeling that you couldn’t be closer or more alienated from your family.

Beyond its narrative successes, Ghostlight is the sort of movie that makes me love movies as a form. It’s exceptional because it’s a story that could only be conveyed through film: modern, vulgar, messy, and mortal, contained in the strict medium of cinema. I’m not sure I’ve ever cried harder in public or more immediately wanted to see a film again. Watching Ghostlight is a singular experience, evoking the magic feeling of freedom from heartbreak.