Sundance 2021, Days 6-7: The Best (?) of the Rest of the Fest

7 02 2021

In a normal year, Park City really begins to clear out after about day 5. It gets prohibitively expensive to stick around for diminishing returns, and the only people still around (to the best of my understanding) are usually locals and press members with extensive institutional support. With a virtual festival, however, there are many more reasons to be a Sundance dead-ender.

Sundance previously incentivized attendance in the back half of the festival by providing a much cheaper second weekend pass, where many films played encore screenings based on previous response and demand. If you didn’t mind missing all the big-name celebrities who flew in for the red carpet, it was the perfect way to mainline the best of the fest. 2021 had some equivalent in day 7 being entirely movies that won awards, and the festival offered a special deal to watch just this day.

But before I could get to the big winners, I had to clear two titles getting a lot of online buzz that did not pick up any additional laurels.

“Prisoners of the Ghostland”

First up was Sion Sono’s “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (C / ), a Nicolas Cage-starring balls-to-the-wall action flick. I’ll be honest: I just never quite got on this film’s wavelength. It managed to be both too simple and too complex at the same time. There are no shortage of ideas and inventiveness on display, and Sono’s verve is undeniable. But this maelstrom of sound and fury essentially becomes “LOUD NOISES: The Movie” without a focus or framework to anchor it.

In many ways, my feelings about “Prisoners of the Ghostland” mirror that of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” another movie I think gets far too much credit for doing something simple in all-capital letters. The story is even somewhat similar as Cage’s ironically named criminal Hero must go on a rescue mission for a governor’s daughter (Sofia Boutella) in an ominous, foreboding universe. The strange peoples and communities with which he interacts add color to the film, but this is a man on a singular mission kind of movie. No amount of anachronistic Jim Croce needle-drops or spirited line readings made that any more exciting for me.

A few years ago, I played a trivia game that asked us to match Nicolas Cage memes or GIFs to the movie from which they originated. I ultimately suspect that being able to recognize “Prisoners of the Ghostland” in such a situation will be the primary value of my having watched the film.

“We Are All Going to the World’s Fair”

The title that seemed to slowly build the most buzz among a discerning set of critics at Sundance was Jane Schoenbrun’s “We Are All Going to the World’s Fair” (B / ), an Internet-focused film I suspect will outlive many of its peers that are laser-focused on topicality. In the film’s opening credits, Schoenbrun surveys the dying embers of commercialism and industry in a small town, which sets up the vibrancy of the Internet as an enticing foil to this bleak physical landscape. This does not explain the decision of lonely teenager Casey (Anna Cobb) to participate in the World’s Fair challenge, an online horror role-playing game, but it does at least contextualize it.

Schoenbrun invites us into the mystery, terror and perverse appeal of these scary spaces online with a distinct eye towards how people consume this content. A man watching a video on his phone while crouched on a toilet is all too real, as is the extended buffering icon before a new video plays. I’m not sure I found the slow-building tension between Casey and a protective, borderline paternalistic stranger (Michael J. Rogers) quite as convincing or compelling as just the way “We Are All Going to the World’s Fair” replicates that hypnotic algorithmic suck of the video-based web. This “very online” element of the film feels transgressive and innovative where the relationship anchors it to a more traditional narrative structure I’m not sure it needs. Of all the films in the NEXT section I screened, this is the one that felt like it was moving to goalposts for the medium.


On the final official day of Sundance, I managed to squeeze in three award winners. The first, Clint Bentley’s “Jockey” (C+ / ), took home the fest’s only acting prize for star Clifton Collins, Jr. Sony Pictures Classics has already acquired the film, and they look likely to run a familiar playbook for awards glory. CCJ is an industry stalwart and beloved supporting player in titles spanning from “Traffic” to “Waves,” and he’s finally getting a well-publicized moment in the sun as a leading man.

It’s too bad that the film to provide him this narrative is itself quite conventional. Collins Jr. stars as titular aging rider Jackson Silva, a jockey hesitant to step away from the sport even as his body begins to give out on him. Bentley makes it easy to see why he finds the track such a hallowed site. Adolpho Veloso’s luminous cinematography channels that magic hour beauty in every outdoor scene, and the hum of Bryce and Aaron Dessner’s score gives the proceedings an ethereal quality. It’s a shame that little else in the film, chiefly the script, can conjure up that same wonder. “Jockey” wants what Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider” so effortlessly conjures about wounded masculinity in the American heartland.

Bentley and co-writer Greg Kwedar hit just about every predictable beat in the “last hurrah” sports narrative that you can imagine as a new horse in the stable, similarly discounted like Jackson, puts a new spring in his step. He’s also enlivened by the arrival of a young man, Moisés Arias’ Gabriel, who claims to be his son. So “Jockey” dutifully plays through the deadbeat dad and estranged son tropes as well. The film is not without its moments of grace as sequences of bonding between Jackson and Gabriel, with peppy trainer Ruth (Molly Parker) never far away, provide bursts of undeniable humanity. Yet this joviality, while nice, is entirely trite and at odds with the film’s desire to provide a stark look at the grittier side of horse racing that’s hidden underneath the sport’s pageantry.

“Summer of Soul”

Another award-winner found a more natural fit between form and content: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (B / ), equal parts the party movie and protest movie of the festival. This documentary brought down the house on opening night – judging from my virtual peanut gallery of Twitter and Letterboxd – and quickly sold out its on-demand reprise two days later. I had my fingers crossed it would win an award so I’d have the chance to see it at the festival before it got locked away from a release later in the year; the voting bodies delivered by giving it both the Jury Prize and Audience Prize in the U.S. Documentary Competition.

Fans of R&B and soul are in for a real treat with “Summer of Soul,” which brings to light a gobsmacking amount of never-before-seen concert footage from 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival. It’s a murderer’s row of generation-defining talents making an appearance: Stevie Wonder, The Fifth Dimension, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Sly & The Family Stone, Nina Simone. If all Questlove did was string together the performances like D.A. Pennebaker’s “Monterey Pop,” this would be an incredible documentary in its own right.

But he goes a step further, contextualizing what gives the performances such power and might beyond the raw skill of the performers. 1969 was “the summer we became free,” says one talking head early in the film. The festival known as “Black Woodstock” played a central role in owning Black identity as a point of pride, and the music blaring from the Harlem stages is inseparable from the cultural moment. The 300,000 attendees of the event cared little for the moon landing or the supernova blast of hippie energy occurring upstate. They found liberation and validation in this exuberant celebration of their contributions to New York City’s vitality and America’s culture.

“Summer of Soul” seems certain to change the fact that the Harlem Cultural Festival remains widely underappreciated as a major musical event. As the stage lights start to dim in the documentary, Questlove begins to interrogate just why this might be. Disconnection or distance from Black contributions to history can have the effect of making it seem like those moments were not real, one interviewee suggests. Maybe a more skilled documentarian could thread that thematic needle because the existential pivot does not quite work. To Questlove’s credit, I doubt this hypothetical documentarian would be able to hold court as pace-setter and party-starter quite like he does throughout “Summer of Love.”


But the work that most seamlessly matched story with storytelling style was Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s “Flee” (B+ / ), an animated documentary that recounts the harrowing journey of gay refugee Amin from Afghanistan to Denmark. Ramussen interviews his friend as he lays prone atop a tapestry blanket with a camera dangling above his head. When he cuts to a wider shot of the setup, with Rasmussen sitting in a chair off to the side, it becomes clear that the arrangement resembles that of a therapist and patient. Simply recounting the traumatizing stories of his life that he’s suppressed has tremendous value for Amin as he prepares to enter into a marriage in which he wants to have no secrets.

But “Flee” serves a purpose beyond just rehabilitating its subject. Rasmussen’s animation viscerally pulls us into Amin’s memories, recreating them as he recalls them. The thinly sketched lines that define Amin’s early years recall the formlessness of youth as our minds can begin to process and store relevant information about the world around us. The film renders Amin’s scariest moments as haunting abstractions stripped of their vitality and detail, but it also recreates moments of joy and connection as reveries of cinematic fantasy. And all throughout, newsreel footage intrudes to ground his recollections in the painful objective reality of a country in turmoil around him.

“Flee” is a reminder of what cinema can do best: bringing us into heightened experiences by distorting them through the lens of artistry and vision. The film’s animation allows us to enter a liminal space between memory and history as we connect to a person in his pains and pleasure alike. From his hurried flight into Moscow to his escape to Sweden with the help of human traffickers, we’re in for the ride because we’re in Amin’s headspace.

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

SAVE YOURSELF from “Red State”

17 01 2013

Red State

Two years ago, one of the hottest properties at Sundance was Kevin Smith’s “Red State.”  The narrative unfolded as usual: high-profile premiere, studios deliberate buying it, bidding war commences.  Afterwards, however, Smith sold the movie to himself … for $20 causing a big hubbub and quite a few eye-rolls and head-shakes.

It was an attempt to make a statement on how backwards the studios’ distribution systems really are and how hard it is for filmmakers to tell the story they want.  But honestly, could there have been a worse movie for anyone to make that claim with?  If the studios keep all movies like “Red State” from getting made or distributed, you might not be too upset about that after actually watching the film itself.

It’s an absolutely dreadful movie that has no class or restraint.  Smith critiques the Westboro Baptist Church, the notorious anti-gay protestors led by Fred Phelps, as a bunch of backwards ignoramuses – as if the rest of the world didn’t already know that.  Perhaps a parody or a spoof would have been the more appropriate vehicle.  Though I’ve never seen “Clerks” or any of Smith’s other films, I’ve heard he’s quite the humorist.

This is the kind of unintentional humor that usually plagues bad movies such as these.  I’m sure some of it might have been planned, in which case Smith proved himself to be a poor imitator of Quentin Tarantino’s darkly comedic talents.  I think he probably wishes “Red State” was something like “Inglourious Basterds” with gratuitous violence aplenty dealt out to the hated villains.

And I suppose it’s a fairly vile turn from Michael Parks as the Fred Phelps surrogate, but it’s not like I got any satisfaction out of seeing all the massive bloodshed done to him and his lunatic disciples.  Mainly, I just wanted to see the conclusion of the horror story at the core of “Red State,” featuring Michael Angarano and his two buds following a sex ad but leading them to the Five Points Trinity Church. But by the time ATF shows up, all narrative and story are thrown out the window to let the bullets fly.  Oh, and there’s also some criticism of the corrupt government at the end that just feels totally out of place given the rest of the film.

When the dust settles, all that’s left are a lot of corpses and a lingering disappointment in the air.  Nothing to cheer about there.  And for the record, I don’t think I’d buy this movie for 20¢.

Oscar Moment: “Winter’s Bone”

15 06 2010

All is looking good for Deborah Granik and Jennifer Lawrence, two people who you likely hadn’t heard of before this post and almost assuredly hadn’t heard of before this year.

Granik started off 2010 premiering her film, “Winter’s Bone,” at the Sundance Film Festival to massive acclaim.  It won the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic films, a very prestigious award, and was bought by Roadside Attractions for $500,000.  It was released last Friday, June 11, to outstanding critical reception – a 90% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an outstanding 87 on Metacritic.

Looking at the last two winners of the dramatic Grand Jury Prize might show us some potential fates for “Winter’s Bone.”  2009’s recipient was “Precious” (then known by the name of its source material, “Push”), and the 2008 winner was “Frozen River.”

“Precious” had more than just the Grand Jury Prize going for it coming out of Sundance.  It won the Audience Award as well, showing how popular it was with everyone who attended the festival (Mo’Nique also won the first of many prizes for her role in the movie).  It also got the sizzle and added press from its support by Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey.  “Winter’s Bone,” on the other hand, has a release with as little grandeur as its setting in the Ozark Mountains.  “Precious” went on to make nearly $50 million and score a stunning 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and a very good 79 on Metacritic.  As we all know, it received Best Picture nominations from the Golden Globes and Oscars, winning 2 Academy Awards on Hollywood’s biggest night.

I see more parallels with “Frozen River,” the decidedly unglamorous and gritty tale of a desperate mother (Melissa Leo) who illegally smuggles people across the U.S border with Canada.  After winning the Grand Jury Prize, it was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics (an expert in marketing independent movies) for $500,000.  They opened the movie in late August to tepid audience reaction, opening with a fairly weak $10,000 per theater average, a statistic that shows that theaters weren’t exactly packed.  Critical reception was much more positive, showed by its 88% on Rotten Tomatoes and 82 on Metacritic.  But at the end of the year, people remembered “Frozen River.”  It picked up momentum as the season dragged on, beginning with a surprising SAG nomination for Leo that eventually led to an Oscar nomination over the favored Sally Hawkins.  Leo’s strength undoubtedly helped Courtney Hunt’s screenplay get into the Best Original Screenplay fold as well.

I’m inclined to say “Winter’s Bone” will take the “Frozen River” path mainly because they have very similar, dark tones, a strong female performance, and a well-written script (“Winter’s Bone” picked up a screenwriting award at Sundance).  But the per theater average was nearly double that of “Frozen River,” so perhaps it will have a little bit more audience support to carry it through.  I’m just really not expecting it to receive a massive outpouring like “Precious” because it is “one of the unshowiest and most true-blooded epics of Americana you’re ever likely to see,” according to Entertainment Weekly‘s Lisa Schwarzbaum (who gave it an A).

The movie’s leading lady, Jennifer Lawrence, just screams “this year’s Carey Mulligan.”  Even younger than last year’s Best Actress nominee at 19, Lawrence has been a huge talking point of the movie.  Her breakout role has garnered her large attention from the media, leading to a spotlight from Esquire with a fairly steamy photo shoot.

Granik gave Vera Farmiga her big break with her debut feature, “Down to the Bone,” for which she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and won Best Actress from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.  Don’t quote me on this, but I’m fairly certain that Jason Reitman has stated that seeing her in “Down to the Bone” led to her casting in “Up in the Air,” the movie that got her Golden Globe, SAG, and Oscar nominations.  So while it remains suspect how much love Lawrence will receive for this particular role, all signs point to a promising future for the young performer.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Actress (Lawrence), Best Adapted Screenplay

OTHER POTENTIAL NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director (Granik)

Oscar Moment: “Precious”

22 09 2009

Today, you get to witness the birth of something miraculous.  A new column is born out of Marshall’s avoidance of writing more reviews (there are 3 that will come down the pipeline soon, I promise!), the “Oscar Moment.”  Every time there is a big piece of news involving the Academy Awards or big Oscar candidate emerges, you can count on finding it here.

The inaugural “Oscar Moment” is centered around “Precious.”  The film has positioned itself as a virtual lock for a Best Picture nomination and a frontrunner for the win.  It has won the People Choice Awards at two of the most prestigious film festivals, Sundance and Toronto.  This is the first movie to have taken both awards.  I have been hearing nothing but raves about it for months, including from a friend of mine who saw it at Sundance earlier this year.  He describes it as one of the most emotionally wrenching movies he has ever watched and a marvel of filmmaking.  He also sang the praises of Mo’Nique, considered to be the one to beat in the Best Supporting Actress category this year, saying that he “has never felt such mixed emotions about a character.”

The movie is adapted from a novel by the author Sapphire, originally titled “Push.”  Unfortunately, due to a certain superhero movie that opened earlier this year, the movie chose to change its title to “Precious” after the main character.  Precious is an illiterate and obese teenager living in poverty in New York.  Bad enough for you yet?  She has an abusive mother.  Still not tough enough?  She is carrying her second child by her father.  Yet through all of this, Precious manages to maintain hope, dreaming of marrying a light-skinned boy and getting an education.

“Precious” tackles tough topics, and if it is anything like the trailer, we are in for a bumpy ride.  And I can’t tell if it is supposed to be uplifting at all.  Frankly, I don’t want to know.  But every piece about the movie that I have read has described it as an emotional roller coaster and a movie with such power that you have to get into the proper mental state to prepare yourself for viewing.  I certainly admire movies that are so affecting that I can only watch them once, such as “Schindler’s List,” “The Pianist,” and “Revolutionary Road.”  With the exception of the latter, they have found great success at the Oscars.  However, I think the content that “Precious” deals with may be too polarizing for a win.  But I can guarantee I will show up on opening weekend at my art house cinema with a pack of tissues, prepared to have my heart ripped out.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director (Lee Daniels), Best Actress (Gabourey Sidibe), Best Supporting Actress (Mo’Nique), Best Adapted Screenplay