Sundance 2021, Day 3: Expect the Expected

31 01 2021

For all its promise and reputation for delivering a fresh burst of new, undiscovered cinematic energy at the beginning of each year, there is a certain pattern and predictability to Sundance. It’s possible that I have just caught wise after attending the festival in person twice, sure. But even as the festival positions its offerings in defiance of the mainstream’s generic templatization, there exists a class of movies for which you can sense how the gears are turning the second you see the Sundance laurels slapped on a production still.

“CODA”

That’s certainly the case for Siân Heder’s “CODA” (B / ), the opening night film that set the festival ablaze … at least on Twitter and Letterboxd. From the festival-provided blurb, I thought this story about a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA) either had the makings of a major breakout or a total flop. I took a risk on “One for the Road” fearing the latter, and that proved to be my folly. Luckily, Sundance has preserved some semblance of shuffling around a festival schedule to make room for a word-of-mouth sensation through on-demand screenings two days following a premiere slot. (Though I learned the hard way when shut out of other opening night sensations “Flee” and “Sumer of Soul” that this viewing method is not a “get out of bad scheduling choices jail free” card.)

As I checked Twitter following a squeezed-in viewing of “CODA” before a packed day of previously selected festival titles, I saw the news that Heder’s film sold to Apple for a record $25 million price tag. My viewing buddy and I were not surprised in the slightest, though we do hope the platform can attract more viewers before they release the film. This is an old-fashioned festival crowdpleaser in the best possible way.

“CODA” hits all the beats in the coming-of-age story with familiarity, sure, but also aplomb. Ruby Rossi, played by Emilia Jones in a soulful breakout performance, embodies that classic teenage tension of being pulled in opposite directions by her family and her independence. Her scenario is a particularly unique one, though, as the only hearing family member in a tight-knit group of Massachusetts fishers. As pressures for regulation and interference increase, her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) strikes out on his own to create a co-op that grants a dignity to the scrappy dockworkers. Without even feeling the need to ask, Frank presumes he can count on Ruby to serve in her capacity as an ASL interpreter to grease the wheels.

But Ruby, of course, maintains and develops ambitions of her own. She develops a perverse interest in choir, a form of art and expression that her family cannot understand. It’s here that Ruby begins to develop a voice of her own with a little help from a paint-by-numbers quirky but inspirational teacher Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez). It’s here, too, that Ruby begins to share prolonged encounters with a musically-inclined crush of hers, guitar-strumming Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo of “Sing Street“). These two worlds unfold on parallel tracks until they have no choice but to collide as demands from both Ruby’s familial and scholastic responsibilities escalate in tandem.

It’s up to Ruby to recognize that the choice she’s offered is a false one, and maturation for her must mean finding a way to bridge the divide between her obligations and her passions. More than most movies, “CODA” really does convey the heavy nature of Ruby’s role within her family to emotional effect. But Heder does so without flattening or patronizing the deaf characters for whom she must help. This is a model for how to treat disability on screen, allowing for the fullness of their humanity to shine through from humor all the way to sexuality. The film soars when it makes clear the truth we can sense underneath it all along: Ruby’s beautiful voice emerges not in spite of her deaf family but because of them.

As director Kelly Reichardt once told me, “Clichés can be used, but it’s good to know what you’re doing.” Heder does, and the film is a winner for it.

“Passing”

Another classic Sundance subgenre is the actor-turned-director, often times to slightly fumbling effect right out of the gate. That’s part of the story for Rebecca Hall’s “Passing” (C / ), the actress’ adaptation of a Nella Larsen novella that serves as her directorial debut. The text is rich for adaptation, especially now, as it traverses the blast radius from an unexpected reunion between two lighter-skinned Black women, Tessa Thompson’s Irene and Ruth Negga’s Clare, in 1929. The former makes herself up to look white enough for a day, while the latter has gone all-in on remaking her image as a white woman … racist husband and all.

The film defies the traditional damnation with faint praise for a thespian stepping behind the camera: “well, they know how to direct good performances!” The acting in “Passing” is not bad, however. It’s just that Hall does not seem to trust her performers enough to sell the story. She relies on Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s twinkling piano solo “The Homeless Wanderer” (familiar to fans of Garrett Bradley’s “Time” from last year) to do a good deal of the emotional lifting in the film rather than resting the camera on Thompson and Negga.

What actors choose to reveal, or conceal, to the camera makes for the heart of classical dramas Hall so studiously replicates, and yet she leaves us locked out entirely. (The film’s final image, a bird’s-eye shot pulling ever upwards until the characters appear trapped in a snowglobe, makes for a perfect encapsulation of this issue.) Hall’s collaboration with cinematographer Eduard Grau produces gorgeous photography, particularly when it comes to capture a range of hues and shades in Black skin. But it, like the rest of the film, manages to be both too overwrought and too subtle at the same time. “Passing” misses the mark on melodrama as the images fail to provide a connective tissue to the rich subtext underlining the sparse dialogue. With no ability to access that which cannot be said, we’re left with little but a meticulous look-book of studio-era B&W compositions.

“Knocking”

Away from the glare of these self-invented Sundance subgenres, there was actually genre fare playing. For what might be the only toe I get to dip into the festival’s Midnight lineup, I watched Frida Kempff’s “Knocking” (B- / ). This wins the “Truth in Advertising” award, an honor I have just made up. Fresh from trauma and subsequent institutionalization, Molly (Cecilia Milocco) moves into a new apartment and hears a knocking noise that just won’t quit. Kempff locks us into Molly’s subjectivity, so we’re along for the paranoid journey as her worst fears about the source of the disruption slowly come to pass. Of course, given her record, Molly’s cries for help frequently fall on deaf ears as the systems designed to protect her refuse to believe her.

“Knocking” immediately announces itself a claustrophobic gaslighting thriller, and Kempff delivers on that promise. You get what you’re promised, nothing less but not necessarily much more. This is a promising debut that already shows a mastery of the formal elements in the genre. The crisp, precise sound design is the chief contributor to sense of overwhelming dread. But the real MVP might just be the DIY camera rigs that brings us into Molly’s head from unusual and discomfiting angles. It’s a good reminder that a scrappiness of an upstart indie can yield some of the most intriguing results, though I’m more curious to see what Kempff can do when she levels up to a larger scale and budget.

“Prime Time”

I’ll take a thriller with promise for the future over one that never starts at all, which was the case for Jakub Piatek’s “Prime Time” (C- / ). It’s a bold move to make a hostage movie with so little tension. This might be the first movie set in a heightened situation where I felt like time was slowing down rather than speeding up.

An angry young man Sebastian (Bartosz Bielenia, star of recent Oscar nominee “Corpus Christi”) storms a Polish TV station on the night of Y2K with a gun but without a plan. The whole affair unfolds rather predictably, and not only because I’ve seen Jodie Foster’s “Money Monster.” Granted, that film was a whole convoluted affair, and Piatek is after something more pared back with “Prime Time.” Fine, but it cannot be this simple, either.

The film wastes the shiftiness of its lead performance amidst lackadaisical pacing and obvious insights. He’s less like a bank robber or heist mastermind and more of a screen-obsessed nihilistic narcissist in the model of Christine Chubbuck or Lou Bloom. The attention is the goal, and he’ll hijack anything to get what he feels he’s deserved. If Piatek’s big twist is really that the TV station itself wants to make themselves the story of Sebastian’s stick-up, he must think we are stupid – or haven’t lived through the last decade of news media.

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street”

“Documentary” is not really a genre, per se, but there are certain styles within the non-fiction form that jump out as instantly recognizable. All the hallmarks of basic cable historical documentaries are evident in Marilyn Agrelo’s “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” (B / ), a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Children Television Workshop’s cultural phenomenon. The doc moves at a brisk clip through the origins of “Sesame Street” in the nothingness of ’60s television programming, urban blight and social upheaval. A group of people changed the medium forever by wondering what would happen if a TV program could love children rather than just sell to them.

With vivid behind-the-scenes footage and a wealth of authoritative talking heads, Agrelo conveys that something we now take for granted as a cultural institution was by no means a guaranteed success. In fact, it was quite radical and experimental. (Funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education, no less!) The doc is at its best when getting into the weeds of production to show how the sauce got made and refined by the “Sesame Street” team, and Agrelo does an excellent job of toggling between the creative process and the finished product.

As a child who grew up on “Sesame Street,” including VHS tapes of the classic older years, I am very much the target audience for a film like “Street Gang.” This is basically a doc providing fan service, and I don’t resent Agrelo for providing that while the doc also enlightens and educates. But there’s a breeziness to the film that leads it into deeply uncritical and borderline hagiographic territory. Agrelo takes the commercial bonanza that followed the release of “Sesame Street” as self-evident proof that it worked, but are we sure it actually does? Where’s the proof? (Furthermore, why exactly do a bunch of well-meaning white people want so desperately to save “inner city” kids? How were they consulting with those communities?)

Maybe this could be addressed in a sequel to “Street Gang” given that Agrelo’s focus is almost exclusively on the early years of the program. “Sesame Street” is not some kind of cultural artifact preserved in amber; it’s evolving to meet contemporary challenges for kids from incarceration to autism. There has to be some way to honor the show’s history without entirely discounting its present.

“R#J”

I don’t mean to just rag on Sundance for giving us the predictable; they also program a collection of boundary-pushing oddities in the NEXT section. (This is where I saw “A Ghost Story” in 2017, and I will never forget feeling an entire audience’s stomachs twisting in parallel as we all waited for Rooney Mara to finish eating that pie.) The only thing conventional about Carey Williams’ “R#J” (C+ / ) is its Shakespearean source material. If you think Baz Luhrmann did a number on “Romeo + Juliet,” you ain’t seen nothing yet. Williams stages this story of star-crossed lovers across contemporary smartphone screens, utilizing vernacular for Instagram DMs and Spotify playlists while maintaining verse for IRL interactions.

“R#J” is bursting with visual information to an overpowering extent. To Williams’ credit, his digital compositions are packed with detail and meaning. More than just using phones as the stage for his contemporization, the medium becomes the message. We’re bombarded with distracting notifications and feel our attention split across different platforms, each one assigning a different identity.

Tech is the selling point for “R#J” but also its limitation. Williams gets so beholden to his bold concept that storytelling becomes secondary. (At 90 minutes, who can really do a five-act Shakespeare play justice, anyways?) Apart from Romeo and Juliet themselves, every supporting character is flattened into little more than a digital representation or a plot device for the romantic leads. There’s some fascinating exegesis of the Bard in the film’s startling conclusion, yet the book report becomes subsumed by the video art project. “R#J” makes for a bold calling card for Williams, and I think I can already see the film’s future: for high school classrooms when the “cool” English teacher is too hungover to teach Shakespeare and decides it’s movie day.


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