Sundance 2021, Days 4-5: What’s Up, Docs?

6 02 2021

I guess the real place to start this dispatch is back on Day 3 when I screened Robin Wright’s “Land” (C- / ). Thanks to a local publicist, I got connected with a screener outside the official festival platform. My thoughts were embargoed, however, until the premiere so I didn’t spoil the party. It’s a good thing they zipped my lips because a spoiler I most certainly would have been.

To call something as unvarnished as “Land” a vanity project seems unfair. This does not feel like the kind of thing an actor makes to feed their ego. Yet, at the same time, the film would definitely have benefitted from someone to tell Wright “no” more frequently. As Edee, a woman going off the grid to sit in solitude with her feelings, she plays a solo adventurer in the tradition of Cheryl Strayed in “Wild” or Christopher McCandless in “Into the Wild.” The film plays out as the camera observes Edee primarily just doing tasks and being alone. There’s little reflection and certainly no commentary.


Wright is a strong actress, but there is no one who could make this much mundanity interesting without voice-over or some kind of subjective filmmaking choices to bring us into the character’s interiority – or strategically keep us out of it. We do eventually learn what drove her into a remote portion of Wyoming … but only at the very end in a line delivered so hastily it could have come from Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room.” This 11th-hour revelation does nothing to retroactively remedy a movie that is so focused on blandly portraying what she does without spending enough time telling us who she is. Even knowing the root of her decision cannot make up for having to sit through nearly 90 minutes of a white woman thinking she can subsist without any help only to need a bailout by saintly BIPOC characters. (Truly, the Caucasity!)

Then again, maybe this wasn’t the best choice to watch for my sixth movie of that day. Festival viewing slots have consequences…

“Land” comes out February 12 and played in the festival’s “Premiere” section. It most certainly would not be at home with the Competition titles and really stretches believability qualifying for the sidebar it received. I can understand the festival relies on high-wattage stars to help attract media attention that rising stars and no-names cannot – especially in a year like 2021 so thin on big actors and directors. But even so, this is just not up to standards even grading on the generous curve of actors behind the camera making self-indulgent works by and for themselves.


In the back half of the festival, I’ve turned my attention more to the documentary sections of Sundance. Last year’s fest yielded a particularly extraordinary crop of non-fiction films, three of which (“Boys State,” “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” and “Time”) ended up on my top 10 list. Admittedly, I’m unsure if we’ll see a repeat of that statistic in 2021. If any documentary I’ve seen were to contend for year’s best status, however, it would be Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt’s “Cusp” (B+ / ).

Much of the “discussion” (if such a thing really existed in an entirely virtual festival) about “Cusp” centered around an aspect of the film hinted at by a disclaimer in the blurb: discussions of sexual violence. The three Texan teenage protagonists of Hill and Bethencourt’s film – Brittney, Aaloni and Autumn – do make reference to incidents of rape, molestation and other abuse that they have witnessed, heard or even experienced. What makes the film so startling is that it’s not as if the documentarians have prompted them to reflect on these moments. The girls just offer these matter-of-fact statements up as if they are as commonplace and unchangeable a part of their adolescence as anything else. It’s a meaningful illustration of how rape culture replicates itself not situationally but contextually, creating environments in which acts of aggression and entitlement are treated as normal.

But there’s so much more to “Cusp” than just a single element in a film that’s such a rich trove of insights into the nature of contemporary small-town adolescence. Hill and Bethencourt do not present this nameless Texas town for commentary, just observation and perhaps recognition. More remarkable than any one thing they capture is just the overall sense of time in the documentary. Does this take place over a few weeks? A few months? A few years? I honestly couldn’t tell and wouldn’t have it any other way. This languid yet listless pacing brings back the steady beat of monotony that defines teenage life outside of structured school activity. Time does not seem to move forward at all in “Cusp.” It just cycles.

The doc settles into a rhythm with the subjects and yields fruit as Hill and Bethencourt patiently build trust with them. They can make an impactful moment out of the girls chowing on McDonald’s on a curb outside the restaurant, yelling at a sibling or simply going through another unspectacular day. “I’m only 16, I have forever to go!” offers one of the girls as the film comes to a close. It’s the tragic irony of the film encapsulated in a single line, an awareness of how much lies ahead but an inability to escape the pull of a perpetual present tense.

“Try Harder!”

The students at San Francisco’s Lowell High School are (allegedly) contemporaries of the girls in “Cusp,” though it feels like the high-achieving subjects from the institution featured in Debbie Lum’s documentary “Try Harder!” (B / ) are living on a different planet entirely. One of my favorite things about film festivals is the ability for unintended, fortuitous collisions between two works that emerge only by watching in adjacency to each other. Imagine the whiplash going to “Cusp” from “Try Harder!” – it was quite something! (The activism of the students in “Homeroom” also makes for quite the contrast with the solipsism in “Try Harder!”)

Lum’s subjects are highly self-aware. They know that they are all big fish in a small pond, and their obsession with achievement may even have backfired. Their end-all, be-all college Stanford is loath to admit Lowell students because they have a reputation for being “AP Machines.” The term is so commonplace that Lum can even have a montage of students reciting it, seemingly unprompted in other interviews. Nonetheless, the fixation on Ivys and their ilk has led the school to offer a bracing psychology lesson to the kids: you are not too good for a state institution.

For anyone who counts themselves as much a survivor of the college search process as a winner, “Try Harder!” really ought to come with a trigger warning. It’s a bracing look at how social and scholastic pressures alike to turn a decision into a competition, both with one’s self and one’s entire age cohort. Lum vividly recreates that fierce, raw teenaged myopia in conjuring the college acceptance as the most important validator of worth possible. Crucially, she also shows how the jockeying for admission makes unconscious racial and ethnic biases quite overt – even among a progressive student body in a majority Asian-American school.

Much of the documentary plays out in a fairly standard mix of timeline reconstruction with filmed events interspersed with talking head reflections from a handful of students Lum chooses to follow. When I saw the PBS/ITVS logo at the start of the film, I braced myself for something as studied and disciplined as the teens on screen. But “Try Harder!” has a few tricks up its sleeve as it sprints towards decision letters. Lum takes her subjects seriously but not entirely at face value. She hangs on the errant remark pondering the pointless of this exercise in proving one’s value, and they add up to a damning portrait of how the college admissions industry has robbed too many people of experiencing high school as its own life stage with purpose and meaning. When all these students care about is getting into college, they just see Lowell as something to get through.

“The Sparks Brothers”

The documentary fare was largely quite standard, although that might just be a reflection of the harsh realities of the festival schedule. After a punishing six films on Day 3, my friend and I were looking to both maximize our time and maximize our pleasure. With their generally shorted running times and lower risk propositions, we gravitated more towards the non-fiction titles available on demand. (I also watched some of these as I worked on Day 5, sorry!) Yet that does not mean there weren’t some real winners, such as Edgar Wright’s “The Sparks Brothers” (B+ / ).

We’ve all seen more than a fair share of musician bio-docs that exist largely as fan service. These films essentially count the subject’s existing base of support as the ceiling for liking the documentary. Wright, on the other hand, views the cult fandom of Sparks as the floor for his doc. (It’s a bit easier when part of the film’s mission is to increase the visibility of an undervalued group.) “The Sparks Brothers” is fan service insofar as it extends a hand to invite the uninitiated in and make them fans as well. It feels like Wright is bringing us into the world’s worst-kept “best-kept secret,” and I gladly took him by the hand into the musical stylings of the pop duo.

This is the best version of the “Wikipedia page”-style music documentary as Wright infuses it with the same kinetic, devil-may-care attitude on display in his narrative works. There’s everything from stop-motion animation and rapid-fire “explainer” videos to enliven a standard interplay of archival footage and talking heads. At 135 minutes, “The Sparks Brothers” take us through every turn imaginable with this chameleonic group that always seemed to arrive either too early or too late to any given musical moment. It’s to Wright’s great credit that he keeps us grounded through all the assorted ups and downs Sparks experienced over their unique career.

I don’t think there’s too much material here; Wright always keeps the doc engaging even as it begins to feel overwhelming. If anything, the film feels incomplete given that it ends in the middle of a distinct cycle in their work. One day in the future, we’ll see Leos Carax’s movie musical “Annette,” featuring Sparks’ music – a realization of the group’s longstanding cinematic ambitions that span from their French New Wave-inspired UCLA days to their unmade project with Tim Burton. “The Sparks Brothers” feels like more than a special feature for the eventual Criterion Collection release. It’s a distinct work in and of itself, and one that intersects intriguingly with Wright’s artistic taste and mission in his narrative films.

“Rebel Hearts”

There’s some element of reflecting the artistic sensibilities of a documentary subject in Pedro Kos’ “Rebel Hearts,” (B / ) a fascinating history lesson about a group of progressive Angeleno nuns squaring off against the institutional church. As a recovering sociology major, I was in the bag for this doc pretty early once a nun name-dropped a text we read in my freshman seminar – Erving Goffman’s “Asylums.” That canonical text introduced the idea of “total institutions” where, through the process of mortification, groups of people are compelled into submission by the stripping away of their individuality. These radical women recognize the Catholic Church in Goffman’s descriptions and let that inform as well as guide their rebellion against the authoritarian bent of the hierarchy.

This wave of activism does not occur in a vacuum; Kos points out that the nuns of the ’60s were often women scared by the conformity of post-war domesticity. These independently-minded women fled from the confines of marriage and found purpose in the convent. In many ways, they were ahead of the cultural sea change in mid-century America with various movements for social justice and liberation. But they also got caught in the undertow as they fulfilled the Church’s own pledge for modernization while also testing the limitations of that commitment.

Impressively, Kos resists aligning “Rebel Hearts” behind a single protagonist in favor of a collective voice befitting the nuns’ egalitarian ideals. If there’s any main figure, it’s Sister Corita, the nun who ruffles feathers with her distinctly modern take on traditional religious art. Kos frequently incorporates some animation resembling her style to add some flair to the historical footage and interviews, and it serves to beautifully illustrate her idea of how an inspirational throughline can connect art across periods. This documentary does nothing particularly noteworthy, but Kos tells a story that deserves to be better known with efficient, educational aplomb. He does right by his inspiring subjects who choose a protest rooted in joy for those they support, not humiliating those they oppose.

“The Most Beautiful Boy in the World”

I can’t say I was as taken with the story of Björn Andrésen as recounted in Kristian Petri and Kristina Lindström’s documentary “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” (C / ). At its core, the filmmakers never quite decide if they’re just telling one man’s story or making a statement about beauty and objectification as amplified by the big screen at large. The film constantly, aggravatingly toggles between the micro and macro scale implications of Andrésen’s experience as a boy stripped of his individuality to become an ideal.

Petri and Lindström lay it on thick as they wind back the clock 50 years to Andrésen’s discovery by Italian director Luchino Visconti, who was looking to cast a cherubic twink for his adaptation of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice.” They score these flashbacks with intense strings as if we need some kind of sonic cue to understand the uncomfortable predation occurring before our eyes. Years of exposés around the horrible exploitation of children within the film and entertainment industry have already trained us to expect the worst, and that’s not even what happens here – though that’s not to dismiss or discount the very real way people lose sight of his humanity because they’re blinded by his beauty.

The film does get somewhat more intriguing when Petri and Lindström document Andrésen returning to some of the sites of his trauma, presumptively with his permission to excavate the painful history buried both in the places and in himself. It’s here where the film nails the interplay between past and present, showing how the long legacy of his brief yet brightly-burning stardom cast a long shadow over the tragedy that defined most of his adult life. But “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” never convincingly ties Andrésen’s woes to the system they allege caused him to lose touch with normalcy, and any broader relevance they aim for in the exploration of his life fall flat.


The only real dud of the documentary bunch that I watched was Natalia Amada’s “Users” (C / ). This meditation on contemporary technology aims for profundity only to turn up obvious or previously chewed-over insights. She aims for a cyber-age “Koyaanisqatsi” but ends up with something like a ponderous narration of posts from a Facebook parenting group poetically intoned over nice drone footage.

“Users” feels like a lamentation by one who fears the battle for the heart and soul of humanity, particularly the impressionable children, may have already been lost. The enduring image I’ll remember from the film is that of a woman in a pool, failing to beat back a mechanically-induced tide. Like the film at large, it’s both metaphorically resonant and maddeningly prescriptive. The documentary is at least well-paced out (not to mention mercifully short at 81 minutes), but Amada can never figure out if she’s most interested in using that time to ask us what we think or tell us what she knows. Her film suffers for having no thesis or even a thematic guiding light.

“Together Together”

Somewhere between all these non-fiction titles, I did manage to make time for that other thing Sundance does notoriously well: modest, twee indie comedies. The best of the bunch this year was easily Nikole Beckwith’s “Together Together” (B+ / ), a pleasant film that adheres to rom-com conventions so it can eschew them in favor of friendship. This unconventional surrogacy story is the kind of thing that feels easy to dismiss, yet Beckwith’s film finesses a finely calibrated cringe with a spirit that proves sneakily moving. At its best, this recalls the best work of Lynn Shelton, the undisputed master of tender movies about unusual relationships between people that don’t fit into a neat box.

The easiest way to describe “Together Together” is “Baby Mama” with a gender-swapped biological parent. Ed Helms’ Matt, a more wounded iteration of his Andy Bernard character, decides to stop delaying his desire to be a father until he hits milestones that traditionally precede parenthood. To fulfill this desire, he contracts the services of Patti Harrison’s Anna, a much younger woman whose draw towards surrogacy has deeper roots than just money. The two are both loners in their own unique way, a shared trait that draws the pair closer while also repelling each other in equal measure.

The chapter headings by trimester and overall irreverent but sweet tone of “Together Together” give us a sense of exactly what we’re getting. It’s all building toward the birth of Matt’s child, and there’s nothing in the gentle approach to indicate that something tragic will happen. There’s just an admirable simplicity of spirit that comes from Beckwith’s choice to savor the meaning found in little moments rather than having them culminate into something grand. The sum of the parts here might actually be greater than the whole. Her observations are modest yet meaningful, tickling the funny-bone (especially when supporting player Julio Torres gets to let loose) while also massaging the heart.

Matt and Anna are not growing into a part like “mother” or “father” – and especially not “girlfriend” and “boyfriend.” They’re growing into themselves, a journey that deserves the cinematic treatment just as much as more easily assigned roles.

“Marvelous and the Black Hole”

The more stereotypical version of this type of movie got its moment in the sun with Kate Tsang’s “Marvelous and the Black Hole” (C / ). Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a shy child who does not fit in with her family or peers finds friendship with a kooky loner who could also benefit a little more human connection, and together they change each other’s lives. This is “baby’s first Sundance movie,” though certainly not without its charms.

Tsang’s iteration pairs precocious delinquent Sammy (Miya Cech) with a salty aging magician Margot (Rhea Perlman), stage name “Marvelous.” She’s a storyteller and performer primarily for young kids because she just loves to see them smile, an expression Marvelous cannot quite elicit from her latest captive audience. Their relationship begins out of convenience as Sammy needs a “businessperson” to study for a class, although it quickly and expectedly turns into friendship and mentorship. Like any film aiming for inspiration, the student and teacher inspire one another and help each other tackle big emotional issues.

Tsang certainly has a visual eye and a knack for appealing eccentricity, yet her risk-averse filmmaking does her free-spirited characters a disservice. She coddles the audience in familiarity rather than challenge them to see the world in a different way. In fairness, no one has quite cracked the conundrum of magic on screen. How is one to convey the wonder of the seemingly impossible when CGI has made the unimaginable appear for decades?

“First Date”

Not to end on too sour a note, but what even was “First Date” (D+ / )? Who am I to question the programmers, but I struggle to see how this unfunny, unfocused action-comedy merited inclusion in the Sundance lineup. Darren Knapp and Manuel Crosby’s first film can never escape the morass of its tonal jumble, a mix of teen comedy and shoot-’em-up action.

“First Date” was at least bearable when doing some version of quiet character work between the film’s young romantic leads, Mike (Tyson Brown) and Kelsey (Shelby Duclos). The problem is, this movie is capital-L “Loud.” All he wants to do is take the girl he likes on a date but needs the all-important car to pick her up. His need to acquire said vehicle, the locus of anxiety and action in the film, sets in motion a bizarre chain of contacts and confrontations with an eccentric group of increasingly violent characters.

Knapp and Crosby occasionally get at something novel in these strange scenes. There are times when we just deal with people who are odd, and those encounters don’t serve any kind of productive purpose. They’re just baffling. If they could just let this shaggy, discursive story bounce around town, maybe it’d be something intriguing. But as is, their need to force-fit “First Date” into various genre constructs shatters the promise of an amorphous concept.



One response

6 02 2021

I really want to see The Sparks Brothers as I have some of their songs stuck in my head right now.

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