8 Hidden Indie Gems at This Year’s BAMcinemaFest

Consider it the annual summer festival a welcome respite from the boom and bustle of a season crowded with big, bigger, and biggest blockbuster films.

This month’s BAMcinemaFest isn’t just for New York cinephiles. The annual Brooklyn festival routinely boasts a slate that includes some of the year’s best indie offerings from festivals earlier in the year, and while the latest edition is no exception, it also has a number of notable world premieres and under-the-radar offerings.

This year’s festival will open on June 12 with the New York premiere of Lulu Wang’s lauded family dramedy “The Farewell,” starring Awkwafina. The film debuted at Sundance earlier this year to massive critical acclaim, and A24 will release it later this year. The festival will close with Diana Peralta’s “De Lo Mio” on June 22, which follows the “story of ride or die New York sisters who reunite with their estranged brother in the Dominican Republic following their father’s death.”

In between, there are a number of distinctive cinematic experiences, including 18 NY premieres, one U.S. premiere, and three world premieres.

Check out IndieWire’s must-see picks below. This year’s BAMcinemaFest kicks off June 12 and runs through June 23.

“Caballerango”

One year after Nando, a young horse wrangler, mysteriously disappeared, his family and the small rural community in Jalisco, Mexico look back at the events of the day he vanished. This documentary is not necessarily cut from the true crime genre of non-fiction that has become all the rage on streaming platforms, but a cinematic mood piece that becomes a portrait of the hole Nando has left behind. Juan Pablo González’s compositions, the landscape, and the tone of this film conjure an atmosphere and feeling of loss that will haunt you. —CO

“De Lo Mio”

Director Diana Peralta’s understated debut finds a pair of sisters (Sasha Merci and Darlene Demorizi) traveling from New York to the Dominican Republic to clean out their late grandmother’s home with their estranged brother (Héctor Aníbal). As they wander the cavernous home and rifle through the memories, they’re forced to confront some of the more uneasy aspects of their youth that continue to haunt them in young adulthood.

Peralta’s light, breezy touch lingers on bittersweet moments — a cleaning session that becomes a dance party stands out — while allowing the tougher emotional processes to sneak in. As the trio consider topics ranging from troubled fathers and childhood boredom, the tone of “De Lo Mio” maintains an elegant flow. Arguments come and go, often replaced by quiet moments as the siblings take in the scenery and contemplate its hidden significance. As a narrative, “De Lo Mio” takes no shocking turns; as a rumination on the subtle psychological hurdles of growing up and letting go of the past, it’s a profound snapshot. —EK

“It Started as a Joke”

“It Started as a Joke”

Conceived as a concert film before life pulled it in another direction, this loving documentary about the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival — specifically its bittersweet final year — is a wonderful tribute to its big-hearted namesake (who you might know as the voice of Gene Belcher on “Bob’s Burgers”). Mirman sees comedy as an inclusive laugh-along as opposed to a competitive arena, and Julie Smith Clem and Ken Druckerman’s film makes it easy to appreciate why the hilarious likes of Kumail Nanjiani and John Hodgman are so eager to sing his praises.

But “It Started as a Joke” becomes a much richer portrait when it turns its attention away from Mirman’s famous friends and towards the man himself — and his wife. Katie Westfall-Tharp has stage four metastatic breast cancer, but this was never supposed to be that kind of film. The kind of film that this ultimately becomes is beautiful and funny enough to convince you that laughter may not be the best medicine, but it has a funny way of keeping you alive. —DE

“Midnight in Paris”

Through images in movies and the news, we have come to define Flint, Michigan, based on the closing of the GM plant (“Roger & Me”), the water crisis, and the influx of police and violence (Netflix’s “Flint Town”). “Midnight in Paris” is about the actual people of Flint, Michigan, as it captures something far more universal: The weeks leading up to senior prom.

James Blagden and Roni Moore’s film is remarkable for how natural and easygoing its subjects are with the camera, as the film transports you to that time in life of the urgency of finding the right dress, strict versus more laidback parents, end of the year parties, nostalgia, and the nerves of staring into the abyss of one’s future. Human, delightful, and a corrective look at how misery is not what defines our communities. —CO

“Olympic Dreams”

olympic dreams

“Olympic Dreams”

It’s no fun watching a movie that retreads old territory, but “Olympic Dreams” draws on amazing sources to create a surprisingly gratifying result: “Medium Cool” meets “Before Sunrise” by way of “Lost in Translation,” director Jeremy Teicher’s two-hander about a romance at the 2018 Olympic Games has all the emotional beats and charm of the bigger-budget rom-coms at this year’s SXSW. The first feature-length narrative shot on location at an Olympic Games, the movie finds a note-perfect Nick Kroll as a lonely volunteer who bonds with a soul-searching cross-country skier (real-life athlete and filmmaker Alexi Pappas) as the pair wander the lively environment and contemplate their own mutual sense of alienation.

Despite the experimental gamble of its non-fiction backdrop (and a skeleton crew composed of the filmmaker and his two actors, who share writing credits), “Olympic Dreams” manages to become a sweet, wistful, and affecting window into the unique ecosystem of competitive sports and the way they can become a microcosm of more universal struggles. Kroll gives his best performance as a well-meaning romantic uncertain about his future, while Pappas has all the jittery energy of a star whose acting career deserves to be as fertile as her athletic one. Kroll fans should be excited to see him expand his screen presence as a compelling dramatic lead, and sports enthusiasts should appreciate this fresh, personable angle on a well-documented global event. —EK

“Premature”

“Premature”

Things are already tense between lovers Ayanna (Zora Howard) and Isaiah (Joshua Boone) by the time he blows up at her friends in a crowded restaurant, running out on them (and her), later sniffing to his teenage girlfriend that they’re “so young.” Ayanna, of course, is just as young as they are, but she’s so consumed by her burgeoning relationship that Isaiah’s insults fail to land with her. And yet the implication is unmissable.

The somewhat unwieldy title of filmmaker Rashaad Ernesto Green’s second feature film is better read as “pre-mature” — the title card even plays up the intent, presenting the two parts in different colors — and its meaning should influence every moment that unspools: Ayanna is not yet mature, but she will be. But when? As Ayanna toggles between mature decisions and dumb flights of fancy with the ease of any teenager, and while Howard (who also co-wrote the film) is now in her twenties, the specificity with which she approaches her character keeps her believable at every turn. The film is a graceful coming-of-age drama, but it’s also the announcement of Howard as a major talent to watch. —KE

“Selah and the Spades”

"Selah and the Spades"

“Selah and the Spades”

Writer-director Tayarisha Poe makes her feature debut with “Selah and the Spades,” which is set in the closed world of an elite Pennsylvania boarding school, the Haldwell, where the student body is run by five factions. The film stars a young cast of fresh new faces, including Lovie Simone as the titular Selah Summers, and Jharrel Jerome, whose stirring performance in Netflix’s “When They See Us” is drawing acclaim and awards season chatter.

The “Lord of the Flies”-esque drama captures the struggles of a teenage girl threatened by the loss of a power she once wielded (and was intoxicated by). It’s a biting character study that ultimately brings the trivialities of being human to the fore. Specifically, its unspoken aim is to normalize the mundanity of black life, and newcomer Simone’s performance wonderfully embodies all of Selah’s complexities. Poe was a 2016 Sundance Institute Knight Foundation Fellow, and the film was a 2019 Sundance NEXT selection. —TO

“So Pretty”

A snapshot of contemporary queer Brooklyn by way of Berlin, “So Pretty” is set in the outer borough but takes inspiration from a German novel set in 1980s West Berlin, connecting the two international hubs of queer life. The sophomore feature from trans-femme filmmaker Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli and her first narrative feature, “So Pretty” premiered at  the Berlinale where it competed for the Teddy Award.

Shot on both digital and 16mm with vérité-like intimacy, the film follows an intertwined group of trans and genderqueer friends and lovers on nights out, political actions, and walking discussions of translation and transition. As two lovers, one played by Rovinelli, read Ronald M. Schernikau’s “So Schön” aloud, the camera pans languidly across the two intertwined bodies, inventing the queer gaze in front of our eyes. —JD