Rita Moreno and ‘Flee’ Highlight Sundance Documentary Offerings

Introverts have many choices at this year’s stay-at-home festival

Greetings from the Sundance Film Festival, a.k.a. my living room. As the festival closes today, I’d like to express my relief at not having had to wait in long screening lines in the cold, splash through slush puddles to catch crowded shuttle buses, or spend an awkward hour trying to get a drink or spot a familiar face at a Park City industry party. I’ve been able to watch more movies this way, see them with my dog sleeping on my feet, and justify my pandemic purchase of a big-ass TV. Score one for the introverts this year.

The documentaries are always a strong suit at this fest. Flee, the animated story of an Afghan refugee, has gotten the most acclaim, and also the honor of being the first-bought title of the fest. Its narrator, using a pseudonym, takes you through his childhood in Kabul and his family’s flight to Russia amidst civil war. He copes with the intertwined traumas of brutal trafficking and realizing he’s gay in cultures with zero tolerance for it. Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen uses two very different styles of animation to illuminate the unthinkably hard years the narrator endured, and the emotional pain he’s just beginning to process as he speaks about a background he’s hidden from almost everyone.

‘Flee’, an animated documentary directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen , debuted at the Sundance Film Festival over the weekend.

Closer to home is Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It, a long-overdue tribute to the Puerto Rican actress who we best know as Anita in 1961’s West Side Story. Like that character, the swear-happy Moreno, now 89, has put up with a lot of shit, including the chaos of dating Marlon Brando. She talks about enduring endless showbiz stereotyping and misogyny. She says her agent raped her, but that she didn’t feel like she could report on or fire him. Director Mariem Pérez Riera captures one particularly indelible scene of the EGOT-winning actress putting on her makeup for her role on the One Day at a Time reboot while nodding with deep understanding at the Brett Kavanaugh hearings playing on her dressing room TV. Ugh, and yet hooray!

Rita Moreno
‘Rita Moreno, Just a Girl Who Decided To Go For It,’ debuted at the Sundance Film Festival.

If you’re old-ish, you may also remember Moreno from The Electric Company. Another Children’s Television Workshop classic gets the doc treatment in Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street. There are some fairly well-known anecdotes in here, especially about Jim Henson’s subversive pre-Sesame Muppets, but Marilyn Agrelo, whose doc comes from a book of the same name, crafts a great tribute to the team of people who believed it was possible to make entertainment for kids that didn’t talk down to them and also wouldn’t drive their parents out of the room. But I did wonder why she didn’t interview Frank Oz.

In 2002, I caught an amazing and confounding concert in Central Park by a band I’d never heard of. It was the art-pop duo Ron and Russell Mael, the subject of Edgar Wright’s effervescent documentary The Sparks Brothers, the explainer I’ve been wanting ever since that show. The operatic, irreverent band, which got its start in 1970s L.A. under the name Halfnelson, has put out 25 albums over the years, which possibly justifies the film’s 135-minute running length.

I still think it’s too long, though, and Wright, making his first foray into documentary, could do with less of the cutesy stock footage illustrating interviews with the band and their admirers – Beck, Flea, Duran Duran, Jonathan Ross, Amy and Daniel Sherman-Palladino, Jason Schwartzman, and Weird Al Yankovic, among many. The Mael brothers are colorful and cartoonish enough to hold their own in the narrative. Still, this tribute by a self-described fanboy will be a great introduction to the band for many, and a nudge into full-blown obsession for people like me who’ve loved an album or two but never knew the whole story.

Speaking of whole stories, you may have already heard some of the history in Misha and the Wolves, about a fake Holocaust memoir. Misha Defonseca had a best seller in the late 1990s which told of being an orphaned girl who ran away from a foster home and tried to find her parents, who the Nazis had taken, spending time living a near-feral existence in a forest. Director Sam Hobkinson knits together a clever narrative with twists right through the very last frame.

A lesser-known story, for this viewer anyway, is in Pedro Kos’s Rebel Hearts, about the L.A.-based Sisters of the Immaculate Heart and their revolt against the crushing tyranny of the archdiocese during the Vatican II period of the 1960s. What’s not to love about a group of pissed-off nuns throwing off the habit and fighting for social justice? Kos focuses on the artwork of Sister Corita Kent, who left the order eventually. A museum of her name in L.A. archives her beautiful and wrenching poster art. I’d have been curious to hear more about what the sisters got up to after their resistance movement in the ’60s, and I definitely wanted to hear more from the group of now-elderly but still spicy nuns sitting around dishing at their retirement center.

‘Rebel Hearts,’ Courtesy of the Sundance Institute.

Searchers, a chronicle of the current state of online dating, initially feels a little like a reality show you’ve seen before, with its parade of faces scrolling through options on various apps. But director Pacho Velez doesn’t want to follow these people through to their hookups; he wants to capture the awkward, exquisite emotion of the initial search for love or lust. It’s touching, and sometimes super depressing, to hear people talking about memories of that one great date, of being repeatedly ghosted, or of, in one case, trying to create a spreadsheet of data to help get it just right. It also seems like Velez is trying to find his own perfect date. A humble suggestion: Maybe stop looking at Match.com with your mom at your side?

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Sara Stewart

Sara Stewart is a film critic and a culture and entertainment writer whose work is featured in the New York Post, CNN.com, and more. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Sara's work can be fully appreciated at sarastewart.org. But not on Twitter, because she’s been troll-free since 2018.

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