By Leah Greenblatt
June 12, 2020 at 04:54 PM EDT
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You would be forgiven in this moment, dear moviegoer, for feeling full up on the reality of your own life. (Or for preferring the sweeter times of, say, Michael Jordan from approximately 1991 to 1998.) But if there is an unexpected gift to be found in the wholesale pause of the entertainment industry, it's the chance to check in with the boom in smart, illuminating documentaries.

Jon Shenk/Netflix

Films like Athlete A (Netflix, June 24), a measured if still-maddening look into the 2016 USA Gymnastics scandal — and specifically the institutional failures that allowed Dr. Larry Nassar to sexually assault the athletes in his care for more than two decades before his abuse finally came to light. Though what co-directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk rightly focus on here is not the man himself but the young women — Olympians, gold medalists, and local amateurs among them — he preyed on. In the process, it grants them something Nassar never did: the right to be not merely victims or objects of prurient fascination, but whole human beings with their own stories to tell. A-

Welcome to Chechnya (HBO, June 30) also shines a light on a cloistered world: the reclusive Russian republic that since 2017 has waged a sort of slow-motion genocide against its LGBTQ population. The challenges of shooting in a place where homosexuality is punishable by death are palpable: Filmmaker David France (How to Survive a Plague) frequently has to resort to hidden or handheld cameras and face-altering technology to disguise participants; he also incorporates found footage of attacks and honor killings that often stop just short of real-life snuff films. It's shocking, and it should be. But Welcome finds tender, funny moments too — and even, in the end, some kind of hope. A-

HBO

If For They Know Not What They Do (VOD, June 12) can sometimes feel like it's preaching (literally) to a by-now-familiar choir, it's almost impossible to fault its heartfelt aims: to expose both the considerable damage organized religion can wreak on gay or transgender kids, and the ways that confronting those facts can also be a genuine force for change. Director Daniel Karslake (For the Bible Tells Me So) does that by homing in on singular tales — including a Seattle family who tried desperately to make conversion therapy work for their teenage son, and another who nearly lost their youngest in the mass shooting at Orlando's Pulse nightclub in 2016 — and letting them unfold largely without judgment or editorializing. Instead, he lets his subjects, along with a series of thoughtful, well-informed talking heads, do what the form at its best is meant to do: not just speak truth to power but show us a wider world, and why it serves all of us to care. B+

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