Sundance 2021, Days 1-2: No, Time to Die

30 01 2021

People often refer to movies as an escape from life, but those who spend a good amount of their time steeped in them know that’s not quite the truth. We can never flee from the toughest conundrums of existence because they are baked into the medium itself, a living memorial to a time that has past. In cinema, death is both commemorated and cheated as the vivid recreation of what the camera once captured enters the terrain of immortality.

Of course death is present at Sundance 2021, occurring this year in virtual form because more than 400,000 Americans are no longer with us thanks to COVID-19. The people might be absent from Park City, but they can be virtually “present” at the festival thanks to Sundance’s online offerings. Accessibility is nice, of course, as is the perseverance of bold artists willing to release their work under less-than-ideal circumstances to help avoid a festival film logjam in 2021 and beyond. Yet the recreated and the reimagined don’t quite seem to capture that Sundance environment in the same way. Even more so than at virtual TIFF and NYFF, the attempts to bring replicate the festival’s giddy rush of marathon viewing and socialization just seem to remind me of what’s missing. Of what’s dead – or, at the very least, what’s not alive.

(OK, maybe it’s just the bizarre “virtual party” that the programmers keep hyping up after every Q&A. It’s not like Eccles lobby or the bus stops were anyone’s idea of a salon, but as my friend and co-passholder astutely observed … this is seriously serving some Club Penguin vibes.)

Of course, I have no one to blame but myself for selecting a death and doomsday-laden lineup in my first two days of festgoing. (This year’s Sundance, for passholders like myself, operates on three hour “premiere” windows in which you can select one film to watch. All films become available “on demand” for 24 hours on the second day following the premiere.) It’s not like these things were concealed in the all-important festival blurb. But the very viewing context – not in Utah, my first trip to some place I would not call “home” in over a year, a recent terminal diagnosis for my family’s beloved dog – just made it all the more prevalent.

That’s not to say these films are all gloom and doom, fire and brimstone, darkness and depression. The best film I’ve seen thus far, Jerrod Carmichael’s “On the Count of Three,” (B+ / ) finds uproarious humor and boundless energy in its morbid logline of two old friends forming a suicide pact. Carmichael also stars as Val, a droll working drone who buckles as personal and professional pressures mount. As the prospect of going out while listening to a chipper colleague singing Travis Tritt proves untenable, he enlists the collaboration of his institutionalized childhood pal Kevin (Christopher Abbott).

“On the Count of Three”

The pair pulls up behind a strip club – one of the few places with privacy at 10:30 AM, as Val wryly observes – with the intention of trading bullets into the other. At the last second, Kevin flinches and insists their last day be something more than an end to their lives. If you could say anything, go anywhere, settle any scores … what would you do? What follows is not so much a celebration of life so much as a probing of life’s possibilities when the guardrails of consequences are likely removed.

Carmichael leans into all the paradoxical promise of the premise. “On the Count of Three” flirts with absurd juxtapositions, such as gingerly dropping a tire iron to the ground after using it to wound a foe while a singing bass warbles from the wall. This pitch-black buddy comedy proves the ride of a lifetime – into death, no less – for Val and Kevin. Carmichael, best-known for his work in standup and sitcoms, makes an interesting decision by casting himself as more of the dramatic core of the film as well as straight man in their routine.

That leaves Abbott, one of the most intriguing and under-heralded talents emerging in the last decade of indie cinema, to play the comic man. He excels with that and just about everything else in the film, bringing a live-wire energy to imbue his character with hilarity and sincerity. Whether screaming out his angst to Papa Roach or delivering a rambling monologue about the racial undertones of his friendship with Val, Kevin’s pain pops off the screen. Abbott pulls off the tricky balancing act of making the inconsistencies of his character feel like they all emanate from a consistent well of pain rather than just haphazard scripting. It’s merely the latest excellently executed turn by an actor who should be getting just as much praise and attention as a fellow male co-star from the TV show that gave Abbott his big break, “Girls” (Adam Driver).

Not unlike Abbott’s performance, the film itself feels fragile. Not like a vase, like a powder keg. A single wrong move could tip it over and combust the whole enterprise. “On the Count of Three” flirts with danger, and I’m not entirely sure Carmichael avoids it entirely. Without spoiling the film’s conclusion, it’s always tricky territory when suicide becomes less of a psychological state of mind and more of a functional plot device. As a comic, Carmichael does not fear taking a slightly irreverent tack to discuss hot-button issues. This film might not capture the minds of the thinkpiece-industrial complex upon release. But while watching, it sure does an excellent job of replicating the experience of the characters (from a safe distance): two dogs chasing a car, unsure of what they’ll do when they catch it.

“One for the Road”

The imminence of death as impetus for a narrative journey is just as central to Nattawut Poonpiriya’s “One for the Road,” (B- / ) a Thai drama that plays like “The Bucket List” – at least to start. (More on that in a bit.) Ailing Aood (Ice Natara) summons his estranged pal Boss (Tor Thanapob) from New York to help him drive around Thailand fulfilling his final wish of “returning” things to people. By this point in the progression of his leukemia, he’s done an impressive inventory of sorting through his contacts, saying what he needs to say and then deleting their contacts. Aood is now moving onto the final stage of gaining closure: his exes, the people who filled his heart only to break it.

The film’s credits bear the name of producer Wong Kar-Wai, and there are some fleeting glimpses of his aesthetic that break through in the film’s first half. Of course, the student is not yet the master. “One for the Road” is at its best when floating between memory and present tense in its editing. This lyrical drift scored by a soundtrack of bops from an old radio program captured by Aood on cassette tapes and neatly labeled for each person on the trip. Once the first tape ejects and the name becomes visible, I just knew that a lightbulb went on for some American producer who wants to produce a more sentimental needle-dropper of an English-language remake.

Where Poonpiriya stumbles is in the back half, which off-roads into a more conventional flashback structure. It’s here where “One for the Road” reveals the origins of the rift between Aood and Boss: surprise, surprise, it’s a woman (Violette Wautier’s Prim). The film runs two hours and 15 minutes, and it could stand to be about 30 minutes shorter – all of which could come from the Prim section. We quickly get a sense of how this long passage reshapes the nature of Aood’s story, showing how his attempt to close wounds might really be pouring salt in them. Trimming the fat still would not mean the movie has any particularly novel ideas about life, death and romance. But at least “One for the Road” would not run out of gas.

“How It Ends”

Death looms large over lo-fi apocalypse comedy “How It Ends” (C- / ), a film that uses an impending asteroid strike as the impetus for a shaggy, ambling reconciliation of a woman with a metaphysical incarnation of her younger self. Zoe Lister-Jones both co-directs (along with Daryl Wein) and stars as Liza, a single and slightly self-loathing Angeleno looking to live out her final day in peace. That’s complicated by her bouncing teenage alter ego, played by a springy Cailee Spaeny. The two – well, really just one, but it’s visualized as a duo – trade reflections as they saunter together down vacant city streets on their way to an end of the world party. In classic Sundance fashion, ~it’s not the destination, it’s the journey~ as present Liza must confront the unmet emotional needs of her younger self.

That’s at least the story throughline, but “How It Ends” stems more from pandemic-related creative boredom than any kind of narrative necessity. This movie’s real attraction is the parade of cameos from other locked down Los Angeles comedians, each contributing a sketch-like beat to the film’s 82 minutes. Wein and Lister-Jones shot and conceived this during 2020 and shot it with COVID-19 protocols in place. Boy, does it show. The film felt dated as I watched it: other than the two Lizas, there’s not a shot where any other actor gets within 6 feet of each other, much less touches. If the goal was to resume some semblance of normalcy amidst a stifling shutdown across the industry, the film backfires tremendously. All I could think about was how far this film was from resembling anything like the reality we once knew.

“How It Ends” really only finds success in the brief moments where a scene’s new celebrity appears. Usually, it’s enough to generate a brief chuckle or a “pfft” reaction. There’s promise for a second with some familiarity. But then it fades quickly as everyone just looks uncomfortable as they try to execute an unfunny bit. The actors may be six feet apart, but I felt even further from the film itself.

“Homeroom”

Death is more backdrop than subject in “Homeroom” (B- / ), director Peter Nicks’ documentary chronicle of the 2019-2020 school year at Oakland High School. (It’s apparently the third in a trilogy of non-fiction looks at the city’s institutions for Nicks, who previously made “The Waiting Room” about the healthcare system and “The Force” about their police department.) Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year – and if so, got room? – you’ll know that this time frame will of course encompass both the impacts of COVID-19 and the uprising for racial justice in America. It’s unavoidable, and Nicks could not have known when he started that he’d be documenting a micro-scale environment that would have no choice but to directly experience macro-level shocks to the body politic.

When the film has to confront these seismic events head on, it’s an entirely predictable (if still astutely observed) affair. We know the impacts that COVID-19 had on graduating classes both practically and psychically; remember in a more innocent period of the pandemic when there were network TV specials to give them approximations of major high school milestones like prom and commencement? Similarly, anyone who’s paid a lick of attention to movements for social justice will know that youth leaders – particularly those of color – have been at the forefront of demanding and agitating for change. “Homeroom” tells us nothing new here, though it will be a great document for posterity.

The real value in Nicks’ project comes from the more siloed first half, in which we can see that the students’ zeal for community representation and social justice did not just appear out of thin air. Even prior to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Oakland High students were well aware of how abnormally, irrationally policed their school was – and took steps to try and remedy the situation. Not unlike last year’s “Boys State” showed in its own little hermetic vacuum, today’s teenagers are politicized at a much earlier age than previous generations. Be it school shooters, racial justice or climate change, their threats stare them in the face.

They act accordingly, too, treating the political as deeply personal. When a community board does not go along with the students’ proposal to remove police from Oakland High, student representative Derilson Garbo (the closest thing “Homeroom” has to a protagonist) responds with a scathing rebuke of the people of color who were not on their side. It’s a fascinating moment, one far more revelatory and prognosticatory than the well-worn observation that Gen Z is highly engaged with the world at large and the world on their phone screens.

“Luzzu”

Not all death is literal, though, as Alex Camilleri’s Maltese maritime moral drama “Luzzu” (B+ / ) demonstrates. Sometimes it’s just the loss of our connection to a time, past or future, that can knock us off-course. Or maybe it’s the death of illusions or naïveté that force us to become new people altogether. Both happen to fisherman Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna), a humble skipper still using the same sea vessel utilized by multiple generations of his ancestors. A leak discovered during the film’s opening scene prompts acts of literal and metaphorical consequence as he refinishes and fortifies the family luzzu.

But simply returning back to normal might not be an option given what else is swirling in Jesmark’s life. He and his girlfriend Denise (Michela Farrugia) have welcomed a son, Aiden, and must deal with mounting medical bills to treat his slow development. Denise pushes him to work on a trawler or one of the big commercial shippers growing in presence along the coast, but Jesmark objects based on their environmental impact and how these behemoths stifle the little guy like him. In the face of his obstinance, she suggests having her mother pay for the treatments – or that Jesmark move inland and work for her uncle’s furniture company.

With his girlfriend’s exasperation lighting his short fuse, Jesmark’s idealism reaches its end as he begins to contemplate bending the rules in previously unimaginable ways. He’s willing to try selling some prohibited fish and even sell his services and savvy to some shady sea operators. Once he crosses this moral rubicon, Jesmark’s eyes open to the many ways his competition has cheated him out of an honest living. The myth of self-reliance that he’s bought into for so long, as it turns out, is for suckers.

Unlike “One for the Road,” “Luzzu” shows the influence of its famed producer – Ramin Bahrani – in a much more positive way. (In fairness, Camilleri has worked extensively for Bahrani over the years and has greater creative exposure to him.) Camilleri crafts a compelling moral drama rooted in a richly observed community where the interplay between personal biography and cultural history is evident. The film finds remarkable tension in the way Jesmark must make compromises with his own values, a battle that rages almost entirely underneath his stoic workman’s face. He’s so steeped in the painful, unavoidable economic reality of his life, and Camilleri’s neorealist-influenced aesthetic follows suit.

That is – until the end, when Jesmark gets the chance to retell and reframe his own story to his son. Baby Aiden is too young to understand the world around him, but according to the doctor, there’s still developmental value in him just ingesting the words. Something happens to us when we have to force our lives into a storytelling framework. In these narratives, we cannot escape death or dissatisfaction that plague us in reality. But, like Jesmark, we can cheat them and rob those forces of their power by telling a different story altogether. In “Luzzu,” this takes on a somber, somewhat defeated tenor – but that need not stop others from taking a more triumphalist tack.


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