Scene at Chi Film Fest: ‘Spencer,’ ‘Mayor Pete’

Sorry for the delay, folks. Am I flattering myself in thinking that anyone was actually waiting for this? Probably, but I don’t mind. While I hope my CIFF coverage over the course of fall break has expanded your watchlist — or maybe even encouraged you to participate in the local arts in the future — I wouldn’t have run all around the Windy City, furiously typing things in between screenings and late into the night after I arrived home, if I didn’t want to do it for myself. So if you tagged along, thanks! But if you didn’t, I will be okay.

Anyways, I was hoping to have this up on Saturday and then, life happened. You know, as it tends to do. I upgraded my phone on Friday — can’t study abroad without a fancy new camera! — and of course, it simply did not work. I was even hoping to do an Instagram takeover Friday night, but by the time I was leaving for my screening of “Spencer,” literally none of my apps were working. Ugh, it was so amazing. I hope it happens again!

But that’s TMI. Speaking of “Spencer” …


One of this year’s Special Presentations is “Spencer,” where “Kristen Stewart is … Princess Diana.” The film is directed by Pablo Larraín, whose last English-language feature, “Jackie,” screened at CIFF in 2016. “Spencer” is a sort of spiritual sequel to that film, which followed Jackie Kennedy (portrayed uncannily by Natalie Portman) in the days immediately after the assassination of her husband.

Similarly, “Spencer” follows Princess Di over a fraught but formative Christmas holiday at Sandringham Estate. And like “Jackie,” the film eschews the conventions of a traditional biopic — it’s less interested in recounting the life of an icon than it is in crafting a psychological portrait of a woman. And where “Jackie” used the First Lady as a conduit to explore deeper themes of mourning and grief, “Spencer” fashions the story of the Princess of Wales into one woman’s struggle for freedom, independence and love.

Described in the opening title card as “a fable from a true tragedy,” “Spencer” starts in the early 1990s, when the marriage between Diana and Charles, Prince of Wales, is on the rocks. Rumors of affairs plague the couple, as do the paparazzi, even at the Royal Family’s secluded Christmas getaway in rural England.

When we first meet Stewart’s Di, she’s cruising the countryside in a convertible and running late to Christmas Eve. This only puts her in worse waters with the family, who (a decade into her marriage, at this point) have long grown sick of Diana’s unwillingness to play by their rules and traditions. Every meal and article of clothing is predetermined. “The past and the present are the same thing,” Diana says to her sons — the only things still tethering her to this regal suffocation.

Stewart’s Diana is practically melting. Equal parts impulsive and terrified, she’s so lonely she’ll talk to anyone (or anything) that will listen. At the same time, she desperately yearns for self-assurance. “Spencer” rides or dies by Stewart’s performance, so lucky for the film, the former “Twilight” star is quite good. Her hair and make-up are metamorphic, she nails the classic accent and even the way she walks is transformative. Unsurprisingly, she’s the current front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar.

And like “Jackie,” every technical element is spectacular. The hazy cinematography by Claire Mathon (whose work on “Petite Maman” I praised earlier this week) is both beautiful and claustrophobic, while the score by Johnny Greenwood (yet another artist I praised this week, this time for his work on “The Power of the Dog”) is just as good. Shoutout to the production and costume design, too.

But notice all my references to “Jackie.” Yes, despite the accomplishments of “Spencer,” it can’t help but feel like a more vanilla version of that superior “famous woman film.” The difference is somewhere in Steven Knight’s script, in particular the ending. “Jackie” ended with earned catharsis, but “Spencer” doesn’t resolve itself so much as it simply insists that it does. The film finishes with an abrupt whimper — a touch too theatric and even kind of cheesy. It’s a shame, because until then, “Spencer” is royal. 7/10

“Mayor Pete”

Making its world premiere at Chi Film Fest is “Mayor Pete,” a name our readers should be all too familiar with. Yes, the film is about current U.S. Secretary of Transportation, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and former mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg. Screening in-person and online in the Documentary program and the OutLook Competition (for LGBTQ+ films), “Mayor Pete” is directed by Jesse Moss, the co-director of 2020’s “Boys State” — one of the best documentaries in a year with some tough competition.

All of that is to say, it’s incredibly awkward that I did not like it.

The film chronicles Buttigieg’s presidential ambitions from a year before the Iowa caucus through his decision to drop out of the race after the South Carolina primary — we see everything from their scrappy start to their high-profile end. Moss weaves together interviews of Buttigieg, his husband Chasten and various members of his team with exclusive footage from the campaign trail in the style of cinéma vérité. Think “Knock Down the House,” the film about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s underdog Congressional bid.

Whether “Mayor Pete” is entertaining or not was never a question — like “Boys State” before it, the film is edited to a T. It’s never boring, but it’s also never stimulating; ultimately, it offers little insight into Buttigieg’s campaign (or the man himself, for that matter). Lucky for Moss, Buttigieg is so articulate (even in private) that the film could never be totally hollow. But if you followed the Democratic primary at all last year, “Mayor Pete” feels like a summary.

What’s more, the film backtracks from the wit and wryness of “Boys State.” That movie took the titular mock government for high school students and warped it into a brilliant microcosm for the cynical strategies of modern politics. The best moments of “Mayor Pete” have a similar flavor — Buttigieg’s debate prep, for example, is fascinating. 

But otherwise, “Mayor Pete” flip flops. It unironically and enthusiastically embraces Buttigieg as the answer to America’s problems. The result is a puff piece, where even Buttigieg’s controversies — like his response to the shooting of Eric Logan by South Bend police in 2019 — are contextualized more like personal obstacles in his race to the presidency than fraught political issues in their own right. 

Also, no one did the “High Hopes” dance. 5/10

And that’s it! Every movie I saw at Chi Film Fest has now been properly reviewed and rated. But have they been ranked? Tune in on Tuesday for one last article — we’ll have awards to talk about, too.

I’ll see you at the movies!

This article was originally published on October 24, 2021 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.


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