With Labor Day come and gone, the summer movie season is officially over. And although the silver-screen stories of recent months were dominated by tales of box-office disappointments and superhero fatigue, there was plenty to relish in between the flops—and, indeed, even in some of the flops themselves. In case you missed them, here are the little indies that could, the gems that went straight to streaming and the overlooked triumphs worth a watch as the temperature begins its inevitable descent.
Many people wrote off Blake Lively’s showdown with a shark as an unworthy-looking successor to Jaws. And while it may not have enough bite to topple Steven Spielberg’s reign in the “gonna need a bigger boat” department, it proves watchable in its own right: a terrifying tale about a woman—“hair-tossingly fearless,” as TIME’s film critic Stephanie Zacharek puts it—who perseveres in the face of her toothy would-be killer. On top of which, as Zacharek notes, it’s a 90-minute masterclass in cinematography.
The Shallows is available for pre-order on Amazon.
The Fundamentals of Caring
The premise sounds familiar: a broken man begins taking care of a kid in a wheelchair, and in so doing begins to reassemble the shards of his life into something more meaningful. But in the hands of director Rob Burnett, The Fundamentals of Caring resists sliding into syrupy cliché, and the kid in the wheelchair (Craig Roberts) is defined by much more than his quadriplegia. Roberts and Paul Rudd, who plays the caretaker in question, have a rapport that evolves from tentative to tender, and Selena Gomez proves she's much more than an overgrown Disney star.
Watch The Fundamentals of Caring on Netflix.
Fans of Todd Solondz's 1995 black comedy Welcome to the Dollhouse likely rushed out to see the filmmaker's latest, but you don’t have to be steeped in Dawn Wiener’s world to appreciate her reincarnation, in the form of Greta Gerwig, in this bizarre but profoundly humane four-part tale. The movie follows a dachshund passed between four owners—a young boy, a twenty-something veterinary assistant (Gerwig), a washed-up film professor (Danny DeVito) and a bitter old woman (Ellen Burstyn)—and features an intermission in which the pup waltzes across various landscapes to the sound of her own western theme song.
Watch Weiner-Dog on Amazon.
To judge by its bonafides—Steven Spielberg in the director’s seat, Roald Dahl behind the source material—The BFG was one of this summer’s can’t-miss family movies. But to judge by its box-office belly-flop—a $19 million opening weekend on a $140 million budget—it was indeed widely missed. Whatever the reasons for its failure to draw bigger crowds (and there are many theories), its worth shouldn’t be defined in dollars. Chief among its merits is Mark Rylance's instantly winning gentle giant, who beautifully butchers the English language while protecting the story’s pint-sized protagonist and bringing Dahl’s whimsical ideas to life.
The BFG is available for pre-order on Amazon.
Several of this summer’s movies probed issues of parenting, from The Phenom’s take on the obsessive sports dad to Bad Moms’ more lighthearted romp for overworked, underappreciated mothers. Captain Fantastic is perhaps the most extreme example, as it follows a father (Viggo Mortensen) raising his six kids off the grid in the Pacific Northwest, worshiping Noam Chomsky over Santa Claus and practicing extreme rock-climbing over suburban soccer tournaments. The crew of novice child actors is excellent, as is Mortensen as a headstrong father forced to confront whether what he thinks is best for his kids may actually be hurting them.
Don't Think Twice
You don’t need to be an improv junkie to appreciate comedian Mike Birbiglia’s sophomore feature, a nuanced comedy about an improv troupe in New York City, starring Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Tami Sagher, Kate Micucci and Chris Gethard. The movie, which deals with the fallout from one member of the troupe getting cast on an SNL-like variety show, offers an honest look at what it feels like to be jealous of your friends’ successes, anxious about your own future prospects and grappling with whether it's time to ditch your dreams and face reality. As Gethard’s character puts it, “Your 20s are all about hope, and then your 30s are all about realizing how dumb it was to hope.”
Don't Think Twice is still playing in limited theaters.
The Little Prince
There’s a lot to unpack in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 novella, one of the most translated works of the 20th century, and director Mark Osborne’s adaptation doesn’t skimp on the weighty themes. Imagination, loss and the importance of play are just a few of the threads woven through the animated film, which features voiceover work from Rachel McAdams, Paul Rudd, Ricky Gervais and, as the eccentric aviator who befriends the lonely little girl next door, Jeff Bridges. It’s not a straight adaptation — Saint-Exupéry’s story is embedded within a new, updated tale —but it’s the kind of layered work that can be revisited many times with increasing rewards.
Watch The Little Prince on Netflix.
Filmmaker Ira Sachs concludes his trilogy of New York stories, which began with 2012’s Keep the Lights On and continued with 2014’s Love Is Strange, with a story about a friendship between boys complicated by the adult problems of their parents. When Brian and Kathy (Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle) inherit a building in Brooklyn, their son Jake (Theo Taplitz) befriends the son (Michael Barbieri) of the seamstress (Paulina García) who rents the first-floor shop. The result is a modern coming-of-age tale that holds a magnifying glass to the incidental friendships and quiet dramas precipitated by the proximity of urban dwelling.
Hell or High Water
Come for Chris Pine’s brooding baby blues, stay for Jeff Bridges’ warm West Texas drawl. Call it a heist thriller or a neo-Western, David MacKenzie’s tale about two brothers (Pine and Ben Foster) robbing banks to save the family ranch transcends genre, elevating a series of stick-ups to a poetic examination of fraternal bonds in the face of desperation. The dusty landscape is quite literally painted onto Pine’s face, but the humanity of his character, a father trying to do right by his kids even if that means doing wrong, never stops shining through.
Kubo and the Two Strings
Many children’s movies deal with grief, but few do it as honestly and as beautifully as Kubo and the Two Strings, the latest film from the Portland-based stop-animation studio Laika. The story centers on a young Japanese storyteller named Kubo who embarks on a perilous journey to battle an evil spirit. In the opening scenes, it's revealed that Kubo’s father died when the boy was small and that his mother, catatonic from grief or a head wound or perhaps both, is, in a sense, gone in her own way, too. The movie is impressive for its stunning visuals alone—the result of a combination of giant puppets, 3-D-printed creatures and computer animation—but it’s the meditation on the healing power of memory that resonates long after the credits roll.
Morris From America
You may know him from The Office or Hot Tub Time Machine but Craig Robinson, who won a special jury award at Sundance for his performance as a widowed father in Morris From America, shows new depths in this gem of a movie from writer-director Chad Hartigan. Robinson plays a soccer coach who has moved with his 13-year-old son Morris (Markees Christmas) to Heidelberg, Germany, where they are among the only black residents of the small university town. The father struggles to reach the adolescent son while the adolescent son struggles to reach the pretty blonde classmate, all the while reminding us that coming of age can be as tough on the parent as it is on the kid.
The easiest way to describe The Intervention is The Big Chill set 30 years in the future, and it’s a comparison which writer-director-star Clea DuVall says she welcomes. The premise: a group of college friends convene at a stately Southern vacation home for a weekend, ostensibly for a reunion but in reality to convince one of the couples that they’d be better off if they divorced. In a standout performance (which most of hers are), Melanie Lynskey is the architect of the intervention, though it turns out the one who meddles may be most in need of meddling.
Watch The Intervention on Amazon.