This review is part of The Moviegoer's coverage of the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.
"Dean" begins in media res, putting viewers in the middle of a cemetery filled with the sound of wind blowing through the trees. We see the titular millennial from Brooklyn played by Demetri Martin leaving flowers at his mother's grave with his father, Robert, played by Kevin Kline.
With Martin, a comedian by trade, directing for the first time as well as writing and acting, one can hear echoes of another quick-witted New Yorker, Woody Allen. Despite its East Coast sensibilities however, most of the film takes place on the West Coast, where the socially awkward mop top tries to come to terms with his mother's death on his own. His father reaches out to him in the wake of this loss, but Dean ultimately wants to be alone. Fortunately, he has an excuse. He had just been invited to Los Angeles by a group of creatives who want to use his drawings for an ad campaign (though Dean observes that those who identify as creatives are unlikely to be actually creative). The drawings in question are his line cartoons, which are sometimes placed onscreen alongside live action sequences to illustrate Dean's internal state and inject levity and whimsy into his reflections. By neatly presenting the backstory at the start, their inclusion also avoids tiring viewers with excessive exposition, while motifs such as the Grim Reaper serve as an unsubtle recurring memento mori to the audience that is more whimsical than morbid.
Seeing it as an opportunity to spend time away from his family, Dean accepts the invitation, though he declines the offer when he learns his illustrations would be used as an example of art a kid would make. He spends the rest of his vacation with his friend Eric and develops a close relationship with a girl he meets at a party. Meanwhile, Robert finds sympathy in the real estate agent Carol as he tries sell their house. The story intercuts between the romantic trajectories of father and son while remaining firmly grounded in Dean's perspective.
The hip cultural commentary and misunderstood protagonist are familiar tropes in quirky indie comedies, and their presence has a stylistically uninteresting effect. Nevertheless, the gradual changes in tone do not feel contrived to lighten the subject matter. When the dialogue is funny, it is genuinely funny. When it is serious, it is genuinely serious. They comprise two sides of the same coin, a consequence of characters' attempts to sort out confusing events.
The creatives Dean visits in Los Angeles describe his drawings as childlike, and their evaluation could be applied to the film as well. Its indirect treatment of death, exemplified by techniques such as carefully avoiding showing Dean's mother, could be interpreted as both tiptoeing around the topic and as leaving room for the characters to develop. There are fragments of inspiration throughout, and while it could be strengthened by a dose of personality, "Dean" is one of the exciting offerings from this year's festival.
"Dean" won the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature as part of the 2016 U.S. Narrative Competition.