It Was a Dark and Stormy Sundance

Lots of great movies, anxious about our times

It would have been weird if this year’s Sundance Film Festival had been full of feel-good stories. And it wasn’t. In step with the global mood, most of the features I saw were about reckoning with the past, our anxiety about the present, and/or fears for the future. The festival got off to a shaky start, with its in-person component cancelled near the last minute thanks to Omicron. But it all seems to have worked out pretty smoothly. As someone who’s been grateful to be able to fest from home, I say Viva virtual Sundance! Here are the entries I’m still thinking about.

Nonfiction

The Princess faces the challenge that audiences may feel all royaled out. Diana herself has been the subject of a fantastic recent horror movie (Spencer) and the latest seasons of The Crown, so is there anything more we really need to know? It depends on your appetite for media analysis. We all know the narrative about how the paparazzi relentlessly hounded Di right up until her death, but director Ed Perkins constructs his narrative entirely out of that frenzied media coverage. The result is a very bleak rendering of the progression of obsession, both the paparazzi’s and the public’s. The clips in which you hear from Diana are well-known ones, but the eerie close-ups on her face amidst the camera scrums tell a story we haven’t heard.

Nothing Compares finds a subject who’s been rather astonishingly unexamined: Sinead O’Connor, whose tumultuous and traumatic life has, of late, mostly been documented in cruel tabloid stories. Director Kathryn Ferguson interviews O’Connor herself in this eye-opening portrait of an artist who channeled her trauma and rage into her music and activism, and the world rewarded her for it mostly by remembering (and parodying) her as that crazy bald lady who ripped up a picture of the Pope on SNL–years before the Catholic Church became the subject of one abuse scandal after another. O’Connor deserved better, and this doc is a good first step.

Phoenix Rising is the first half of an unfinished two-part film about actress Evan Rachel Wood and her evolution as a domestic violence activist, inspired by coming forward about her abuse by ex Marilyn Manson. Wood is both emotional and unflinching as she details the worst of it, and it’s really awful). But she’s also a clear-eyed and articulate advocate for other survivors’ rights, using her own celebrity, and the memories of the media painting her as a Lolita, to crusade for a change in the statute of limitations for abuse survivors in California, as well as a rethinking of how we treat young women in the glare of the spotlight.

Phoenix Rising
Evan Rachel Wood in Phoenix Rising (HBO/Sundance Film Festival).

Riotsville U.S.A. is one of those great documentaries that unearths something too bizarre to be fiction. In the 1960s, the U.S. government sponsored the construction of fake towns in which police departments could practice putting down riots. As you might expect, this undertaking plants the seeds of the militarization that would increasingly spread through American police forces and fully blossom over the past several years. One of the most indelible images I’ll take away from this year’s fest is the sight of military troops and police sitting on bleachers watching, applauding and laughing as volunteers playing cops hauled away other volunteers playing cartoonish protestors (many of them Black and Latino) in paddy wagons.

The fight for abortion rights is obviously on the radar, and two different titles reference a Chicago network that helped women get safe abortions when they were illegal. Call Jane is a narrative feature starring Elizabeth Banks as an affluent suburban woman whose medically-necessary plea for a pregnancy termination is denied, in a blood-boiling scene involving a board of disapproving white male doctors. She finds a group called the Janes (led by Sigourney Weaver) who help her get access, and the experience radicalizes her.

I’ve been (only mildly) surprised to see critics complaining that Call Jane doesn’t take its subject matter seriously enough. This movie features more on-screen depictions of abortion than I’ve ever seen, and it shows the reality of abortion as, while risky at the time, fundamentally a mundane and relatively minor procedure. Meanwhile, The Janes is the real story of the Chicago group, and it’s more attuned to the sort of high-stakes risks critics apparently want to see. The now-older women who share their stories are heroic, tough, and not without a dark sense of humor. Both films are key viewing for anyone who cares about what’s probably going to happen to Roe real soon.

Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power is a master class in how to parse sexist bullshit in film – or, rather, how to recognize and reckon with the way so much of cinema structures itself around and tailors itself to a straight male perspective. It is, to be clear, literally a master class, as much of it derives from a lecture by director and film professor Nina Menkes. But don’t let this scare you away! This doc is fascinating from start to finish, not at all snoozy and academic, packed with examples, from the so-called classics, of the ways in which filmmakers use the camera to distance, silence and marginalize women. If, like me, you’ve always felt at arm’s length from a lot of the movies Hollywood lionizes, Menkes’ movie is a fantastic validation and a roadmap for a way forward that allows for more than one way of seeing and being seen.

You wouldn’t think it’d be an easy go of it, being the only female thrash-metal band in the Middle East, and Sirens is here to confirm that it is not. Director Rita Baghdadi follows the Lebanese band Slave to Sirens as they work at carving out a career while grappling with their sexuality, band member relationships, and pressures from parents and the culture around them to shed their Judas Priest t-shirts and get married and settle down. I hope to see these ladies headlining a music festival here one of these days.

Abigail Disney has been gloriously, publicly slamming the family business for years, and her new documentary The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales coalesces the case she’s been making that the company has morphed from an enterprise that valued and provided for its middle-class workers to one that stuffs the pockets of its executives and shareholders while ruthlessly exploiting its “cast members,” many of whom cannot afford steady housing and food despite full-time gigs making the “magic” happen at Anaheim’s Disneyland.

Fiction

Mention the word mockumentary, and I’m there. Alas, Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. was not nearly as funny as I was hoping – especially given its talented stars, Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown, playing a married couple running a megachurch in Atlanta. Director Adamma Ebo spoke before the screening about the film’s tone running the gamut, but that’s the most generous way to put it.

Despite the ubiquity of the “we’re making a documentary” format, Honk for Jesus can’t seem to get that pacing quite right. Attempts at comic cutaways feel stilted, and the plot – in which Brown’s character is trying to get beyond a scandal about his being predatory toward young male church members – is cringey enough that it feels tough to shoehorn into satire. Still, I’m the first to admit I’ve had little experience in Black megachurch culture, so maybe I just don’t get the humor. (But if you ask me, a good satire ought to be funny to even the uninitiated.)

Emergency, on the other hand, juggles several wildly different tones and pulls it off brilliantly. Director Carey Williams (whose R#J was on my Sundance favorites list last year) works with a story that, in its outline, feels entirely familiar: college buddies attempt one memorable night out before they graduate, and things go off the rails. Except the duo at the film’s center is Black (RJ Cyler and Donald Elise Watkins) and the instrument of their derailing is a drunk white girl, passed out in their house.

Emergency
‘Emergency,’ directed by Carey Williams, debuting this year at the Sundance Film Festival. (Sundance)

What might have been simply a raunch comedy becomes, increasingly, a creeping nightmare, as they try to figure out how to manage the situation without racist cops putting them in jail–or shooting them. There’s more than a slight nod to Get Out here, but also to the debaucherous-dudes trope. It’s a daring blend, and it keeps you on your toes. I actually did both laugh and cry.

Something in the Dirt is the movie I most wish I’d seen in an actual theater, ideally late-night. It’s a triumph of scrappy indie filmmaking, with Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead directing, producing, writing and starring in this delightfully weird, occasionally chilling story about two L.A. slackers who hatch a money-making plan around a levitating crystal ashtray. There’s campy sci-fi here, complete with rudimentary special effects, a nod to the Netflix documentary gold rush, “paranormal” reality shows, and the conspiracy-theory culture du jour. Benson and Moorhead don’t seem too interested in handing out answers to any of the mysteries they introduce, and it’s probably just as well.

Daisy Edgar-Jones has definitely found a way to distance herself from the pensive indie romance of Normal People. In Fresh, she’s a woman who goes on an ill-fated internet date with a villainous plastic surgeon (Sebastian Stan, having quite a season between this and the upcoming Pam & Tommy) who drugs her, kidnaps her, and announces he’ll be gradually carving her up to sell her meat on the black market: Apparently there’s a small billionaire class who like to literally devour young women. The metaphor isn’t subtle, but it’s a pretty amusingly horrifying ride, with Stan channeling big Patrick Bateman energy.

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is the kind of achievement that I bet people are going to call “brave”, because 62-year-old star Emma Thompson talks about blowjobs in it and gets unabashedly full-frontal. But the beauty in this two-person dramedy is in the way it normalizes, not hero-worships, the desire of an older woman to get in touch with her sexuality. Thompson’s character does this by hiring a hot young sex worker (Daryl McCormack) to meet her in a hotel room for a primer. She immediately gets embarrassed, takes it back, and asks him to leave, which touches off a series of conversations, and meetings, between the two that lead to unexpected revelations. It’s funny, touching, sexy, honest, and all around wonderful.

Leo Grande
‘Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.’ (Sundance Film Festival).

 

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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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