Review by Sean Boelman
Recent years have seen quirky and peculiar indie films getting the chance to break out into the mainstream more than ever before. Hell, one even won Best Picture last year. Fans of indie cinema should certainly keep Tribeca premiere The Secret Art of Human Flight on their radars, because it is one of the most idiosyncratic movies to debut on this year’s festival circuit so far.
The film follows a grieving widower who turns to an eccentric self-help guru on the dark web making a unique promise: to help him unlock the power of flight. It’s a high-concept premise told in a very low-concept, character-centric way, but it’s hard to deny the wildly creative nature of the movie.
At an hour and forty-seven minutes, the film does run a bit on the long side, suffering from many of the common indulgences of first-time scriptwriters. And while the movie is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, it consistently gets chuckles thanks to the sheer weirdness and quirkiness of some of the concepts and situational gags.
The aspect of the film that may end up being a make-or-break factor for audiences will be the character’s personality. If you are not able to get on the same page as the character’s secluded weirdness, you may find him — and the movie as a whole — to be somewhat annoying. Yet, many audiences will relate to his desperate search for meaningful connection in the wake of an incomparable tragedy.
Of course, the theme of grief is nothing new to cinema — particularly independent cinema — and Jesse Orenshein’s script doesn’t add any deeper insight to the topic. That being said, the movie remains beautifully poignant because of how universal its themes are. When you add in the creativity of the premise and approach, you have a film that feels refreshing despite its familiarity.
Although the movie’s lead is Grant Rosenmeyer, it is Paul Raci who steals the show as the quirky yet ineffably charming self-help guru Mealworm. Although Raci has been a character actor for decades, he became more widely known just a few years ago with his Oscar-nominated turn in Sound of Metal. His performance in The Secret Art of Human Flight couldn’t be more different, allowing him to show a much more comedic side of himself.
The film does have a heavy indie sensibility to it, but this scrappiness almost serves it. Although the green screen and CGI-augmented sequences don’t look particularly good, the entire movie has a very faded, almost home video-esque aesthetic that makes the CGI be much less distracting than it would otherwise be. Mendoza’s score is also excellent, lending the film a very ethereal vibe.
The Secret Art of Human Flight is not without its flaws, but director H.P. Mendoza and writer Jesse Orenshein exhibit so much creativity with their work that there’s a lovable indie charm to it. It will be exciting to see what both filmmakers do with the rest of their careers.
The Secret Art of Human Flight screens at the 2023 Tribeca Festival, which runs June 7-18 in NYC and June 19 through July 2 online.