As the summer of quarantine continues apace, the streaming services are upping their game, offering the kind of blockbuster entertainments we’d normally flock to the multiplex to consume with a box of popcorn and an ice-cold drink. But they only have a handful of those in the tank, and there are still many hours in the day. So, once again, it’s time to recommend a few out-of-the-box selections from your subscription streaming services — the offbeat biopics, quirky comedies, gritty dramas and cuckoo documentaries worth digging around for.
‘The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete’
Mister (Skylan Brooks) and Pete (Ethan Dizon) are two Brooklyn projects kids on their own, their fathers absent and mothers lost to the ravages of addiction. This tough drama from the director George Tillman Jr. (“Soul Food,” “The Hate U Give”) is a portrait of desperation and despair, dramatizing the kind of no-romance poverty that seldom makes it to the screen intact. But if Michael Starrbury’s script pulls no punches, it also finds moments of lightness and levity in their grim story. Brooks and Dizon are astonishing young actors, while Anthony Mackie and an all-but-unrecognizable Jennifer Hudson make maximum impact in their brief appearances.
A similar story of tough times in the boroughs, as the title character (Slick Woods), just 18, struggles to keep her family together when her mother is arrested. She’s got outsized dreams, imagining herself as an influencer and performer, but the direness of her situation threatens to crush her spirits, and the picture often plays as a subtle indictment of the limited options available to young Black women like her. Woods is stunning in the lead, and the writer and director Sam de Jong offsets the melancholy at the story’s center with a light touch, offhand intimacy and grainy, throwback aesthetic that recalls earlier New York indies like “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.” and “She’s Gotta Have It.”
‘Professor Marston and the Wonder Women’
Disappointed that we’re not getting the “Wonder Woman” sequel we were promised this summer? As an alternative, check out her fascinating and unexpectedly sexy origin story. The life that “Wonder Woman” creator William Marston shared with two women — his wife and their lover — and their mutual experimentation with bondage helped inspire the comic book character, as well as some of her more controversial early imagery. Angela Robinson, the writer and director, draws those parallels clearly and cleverly, but “Wonder Women” is most remarkable for the nuance it gives to its central relationship, treating what could’ve been a giggly sexcapade with genuine complexity and sensitivity. It’s not just another biopic; this is a lovely story about not only finding love, but understanding and accepting it, on its own terms.
Another unexpectedly ribald biopic, this giggly treat from the writer and director Madeleine Olnek stars Molly Shannon as the notoriously reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, here reimagined as a cheerfully gregarious party girl. (The film predates the similarly conceived Apple series “Dickinson.”) The title, and casting of the “S.N.L.” alum Shannon, suggests a jokey sendup for literary types — and though Olnek’s script and execution are winking and witty, she wrestles with serious themes, dramatizes fully realized relationships and poses pointed questions about how legacies are devised and maintained.
‘Most Beautiful Island’
Ana Asensio writes, directs and stars in this harrowing but rewarding drama as a young, struggling, undocumented Spanish immigrant in New York City who is offered an opportunity to dig out of her considerable financial hole with one night’s work — an offer that sounds too good to be true, and proves to be exactly that. Asensio is a powerful performer (she creates empathy from frame one, and holds it), and the real deal as a filmmaker, creating palpable, almost unbearable tension and dread throughout the film’s long, scary night.
When Todd (James Sweeney) and Rory (Katie Findlay) first meet, they bond over a shared love of “Gilmore Girls.” The influence of that show’s rat-tat-tat dialogue, pop culture savvy and unabashed sentimentality are all over this unconventional romantic comedy. Sweeney also wrote and directed, augmenting the normally drab rom-com template with a cornucopia of quirky and unexpected visual flourishes, and his screenplay is painfully astute, displaying an enviable ear for how the affectations and witticisms of dating fall away, with the right partner, to confession and vulnerability.
The story is deceptively simple: two young Williamsburg women (played with delicious smarm by Bridey Elliott and Clare McNulty) try to traverse Brooklyn for a day at the beach. But the writing and directing duo of Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers use that thin setup as a clothesline, upon which they hang scathingly satirical vignettes of borough bohemia, and the degrees to which these unapologetically self-involved characters will undercut each other, and themselves. The laughs may sting a bit, depending on how closely you’re situated to this world, but they land like punches in a heavyweight bout.
‘The Sunset Limited’
Tommy Lee Jones and the “No Country for Old Men” author Cormac McCarthy reunited for this made-for-HBO effort, which the writer adapted from his 2006 play. Jones both directs and plays White, an atheist professor who has just attempted suicide. Samuel L. Jackson is the born-again convict who has saved White’s body, and now tries to save his soul. That’s the entire premise — two men in one apartment, arguing over the very nature of existence — and if it sounds dull or stage-bound, those concerns are quickly laid to rest by the brilliance of McCarthy’s dialogue, the economy of Jones’s direction, and the power of these two bravura performances.
‘My Scientology Movie’
The Church of Scientology is notoriously sensitive about its media portrayals, so the British television presenter and filmmaker Louis Theroux probably didn’t expect much in the way of cooperation when he ventured to Los Angeles to make a documentary about their tactics. Instead, he and the director John Dower decide to cast actors for the former Scientology executive Marty Rathbun to “direct” in dramatizations of his revelations. The ensuing exchange of threats and surveillance neatly proves the filmmakers’ point, but “My Scientology Movie” isn’t just a lark; it has much to say about the psychology that draws people into the organization, and how it remains with them even if they break free.
Baseball fans looking to fill the summer void will enjoy this informative documentary from the directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg. Their focus is the wildly unpredictable but often effective no-spin pitch of the title, practiced by only a handful of pitchers at any given time, and only two when the film was shot in the 2011 season: Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox and R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets. The storytelling is compelling and the filmmaking is sharp — particularly the tight close-ups and slow motion photography that capture the power of the pitch — while the subjects are so charismatic and likable that the film concludes on a grace note of unexpected, genuine emotion.