‘The Rescue’ Tests Murky Arthouse Waters: “We Need To See Multiple Films Performing Well” – Specialty Preview

The Rescue, an arresting truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story of a Thai youth soccer team trapped in a remote flooded cave system, opens on five screens in NY/LA/Chicago this weekend in a specialty market waiting “for audiences to wake up and see that they’re missing out,” according to Ed Arentz, co-president of the doc’s distributor Greenwich Entertainment. And sooner rather than later — he’s counting on strong word of mouth to expand to 350-400 screeens next weekend.

A triumph at Telluride and Toronto, The Rescue has the reach of National Geographic (it’s a Nat Geo film) and pedigreed filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the husband-and-wife team who won a Best Documentary Film Oscar for Free Solo in 2019.

That film followed a professional rock climber attempting the first free solo ascent of the famed El Capitan’s 900-meter vertical rock face at Yosemite National Park. The Rescue instead features a cast of hundreds assembled to help the Wild Boars soccer club led by a handful of eccentric amateur cave divers who performed the seemingly impossible. The 12 boys and their coach, hungry and sick and with monsoon rains about to flood their small air chamber, seemed irretrievable. Divers ultimately anesthetized and pulled them one by one over the course of three days through narrow, winding passages in pitch dark water to the cave mouth, each perilous foray taking two to three hours. Saving even one would have been considered a victory. They all made it. Deadline review here.

“Jimmy and I, like many people in 2018, were living the story, the lows and the highs,” said Vasarhelyi. “How many different people came together. Both of us being Asian and having spent time in Thailand, we were tracking the story from the beginning.”

Finding footage was a huge challenge. Many docs have “lots of footage but no story. We had a great story but no footage,” said Vasarhelyi. The duo gathered it piece by piece from divers’ GoPros and never-before-seen images they tracked to the wife of a Thai admiral. The rescues were re-created in part at Pinewood Studios with the original divers and deftly melded. “When you see a child get initially anesthetized, that was … real footage. Then they go underwater. Someone underwater, that is a re-enactment,” she said.

Some 2,000 people attended a NYC premiere Tuesday night outside in Central Park.

“Most filmmakers including us want the big screen and the theatrical experience,” Vasarhelyi said. But “more than anything, I want people to feel safe and do what they feel comfortable with. I am grateful for anyone who comes out to see the film.”

That sums up a specialty market now, still awaiting the arthouse equivalent of Shang-Chi, Venom or Bond (is it The French Dispatch? The Tragedy of Macbeth?) and a return of its key older demo. There’s debate over whether the trouble is the product, the audience or the theaters. A still-shuttered ArcLight in L.A. is sorely missed, for example, but other arthouses were losing traction even pre-Covid.)

Mostly “we need to see multiple films performing well and drawing from different segments of the audience,” said Arentz. The past few months have seen maybe one decent holdover each weekend with “everything else is left in the dust.”

So the films keep coming. This weekend’s releases include A24’s twisted Icelandic horror Lamb, from Cannes, in 500-plus theaters; Bleecker Street’s well-reviewed drama Mass on four screens (two in NY and two in LA, adding Chicago, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Boston and Phoenix next weekend; and Aharon Keshales’ noirish Jason Sudeikis starrer South of Heaven.

Lamb, starring Noomi Rapace, follows a sad, childless couple in rural Iceland who make an alarming discovery one day in their sheep barn and face the consequences of defying the will of nature. This dark, atmospheric but also deadpan-funny folk tale is a debut feature from director Valdimar Jóhannsson.

Mass, Fran Kranz’s writing and directing debut, has two set of parents sitting down to talk years after an unspeakable tragedy — a school shooting — tore their lives apart. With Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney and Ann Dowd as the respective parents of the victim and the shooter, who took his own life, on a journey of grief, anger and acceptance.

In South of Heaven, after serving 12 years for armed robbery, Jimmy (Sudeikis) gets an early parole. Upon his release from prison, he vows to give Annie (Evangeline Lilly), his childhood love who’s now dying from cancer, the best year of her life. If only it were that simple. From RJLE Films. In 19 theaters. With Mike Colter, Shea Whigham. Deadline review here.

Elsewhere in specialty, Hard Luck Love Song from Roadside Attractions is a gritty love story inspired by singer-songwriter Todd Snider’s Americana hit “Just Like Old Times.” It follows Jesse (Michael Dorman), a charismatic, down-on-his-luck troubadour living in cheap motels and making bad decisions. He finds himself at an existential crossroads during a chance encounter with Carla (Sophia Bush), an old flame. Written and directed by Justin Corsbie.

Jacinta will premiere on Hulu and in select theaters. The doc landed first-time director Jessica Earnshaw the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award at the Tribeca Festival. It follows a young woman who struggles to find stability after years of addiction and reconnect with the daughter she left behind. Shot over three years, the film begins at the Maine Correctional Center where Jacinta, 26, and her mother Rosemary, 46 — both recovering addicts — are incarcerated together.

Knocking from Yellow Veil Pictures is Frida Kempff’s Swedish horror thriller about a woman who, after experiencing a traumatic incident, is unnerved by a haunting knocking sound from upstairs in her new apartment building. Cecilia Milocco stars. Premiered at the Midnight section at Sundance.

Demigod from Gravitas, more horror. Miles Doleac’s film follow a woman (Rachel Nichols) who travels with her husband (Yohance Myles) to Germany’s Black Forest to collect her inheritance after her huntsman grandfather dies. A terrifying secret forces her to reckon with her family’s past and a mysterious ritual she thought was the stuff of fairy tales.

Comedy Golden Voices from Music Box Films follows Raya (Maria Belkin) and Victor (Vladimir Friedman), who built career as the Soviet Union’s most beloved film dubbers, translating the work of Federico Fellini and Stanley Kubrick into Russian over the decades. Upon the collapse of the USSR in 1990, the Jewish couple must emigrate to Israel and reinvent themselves, but opportunities for first-rate vocal performances are few and far between. Raya finds herself catering to a lonely Russian community as a phone-sex operator, while Victor falls in with a band of black-market film pirates from the VHS underground. Directed by Evgeny Ruman.

Ascension from MTV Documentary Films, shot at locations across China by Jessica Kingdon, explores the class divides exposed by the nation’s economic growth. It took awards for best documentary and best new documentary filmmaker at the Tribeca Festival.

The Gig Is Up by Shannon Walsh, from Gravitas, takes on the gig economy, bringing to light the often-harrowing stories of the country’s shadow workforce.

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