Sundance 2020 Feature Films: a Cold, Harsh World

Chilly Inside and Out

PARK CITY–It’s a cold, harsh world out there. The Sundance Film Festival is already pretty freezing, with average temperatures in Park City, Utah, this week hovering around 25 degrees. But the real chill factor was inside the movie theaters. Who you trust, the job you choose, the family you love: they all might be fatal. The world may be a cold place, but the movies at Sundance radiated with communal insight.


Bad Hair
Bad Hair
Yaani King Mondschein, Elle Lorraine, and Lena Waithe appearsin Bad Hair by Justin Simien, an official selection of the Midnight program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Just take a look at Bad Hair, Justin Simiens’s shaggy ’80s-set horror flick about a career woman’s killer weave. Mousy-but-determined Anna (Elle Lorraine) works at a BET-type network called Culture. She’s got great programming ideas, but no one takes her seriously. The reason? That kinky ’fro. And when sultry corporate piranha Zora (Vanessa) takes over with the mandate to update Culture for 1990 and beyond, Anna takes the leap into straight-hair wigs. Now that she looks like all the other high-powered successful women of color, Anna gets fast-tracked. Only hitch is that those glamorous locks are actually vessels that release ancient evil with a vampiric thirst for regenerative blood.

Despite a few hair-raising moments, Bad Hair suffers from saggy pacing and a seriously flat central performance. But the central message of selling out your inherent physiology for white-world success is downright haunting. No wonder Zora’s retooled Culture gets its name shortened to Cult. And as more women around Anna get their witchy weaves, the body count gets higher.


One black woman who thrillingly stays true to herself is the eponymous stripper in the loopy cautionary tale Zola, Janicza Bravo’s Oh-Hell-No account of a harrowing weekend in Florida. It all starts when Zola (Taylour Paige) forges an instant you-feel-me bond with pole-dancing wigga Stefani (Riley Keough). The day after they meet, Stefani invites Zola to take a 20-hour road trip down to the Sunshine State and shake their booty for serious cash. But that charming guy driving the car turns out to be Stefani’s ruthless African pimp (Colman Domingo), which complicates things. And the dude in the back is Stefani’s hapless boyfriend (Nicholas Braun).

Bravo’s playfully harrowing directing style is the perfect match for the gonzo material, based improbably enough on A’Ziah King’s epic real-life 144-tweet rant. The way Zola keeps her head above water is a galvanic control-your-own-narrative response to a crushing world of sexual violence.

Black Bear

Sometimes that violence is almost purely psychological. Almost. Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear is a delicious mind-fuck of a movie, as wayward indie filmmaker Allison (Aubrey Plaza) takes a writers-retreat weekend in upstate New York at a regal lake house. Her hosts: pregnant Blair (Sarah Gadon) and her resentful boyfriend Gage (Christopher Abbott). Innocent banter and more than a little red wine devolves into vicious scorned-lover smack talk that would make Edward Albee proud. And then, halfway through, a time jump re-mixes everything that’s come before and turns it into a heady commentary of the pas-de-deux between life and art.

Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss appear in Shirley by Josephine Decker, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Thatcher Keats.

Messy lives definitely fuel the artistic muse in Shirley, an eerie feminist psychodrama from Josephine Decker that examines the destructive co-dependency between acclaimed shut-in novelist Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her pompously gregarious husband, randy Bennington College professor Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). Decker’s film uses young scholar Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) and his dutiful newlywed wife Rose (Odessa Young) as the entry point, since Stanley ropes them into being reluctant long-term house guests. And as Stanley pulls Fred into the male-dominated world of academia, Shirley’s mental malaise actually belies a clear-eyed wisdom that makes Rose re-evaluate everything she took for granted. Home is where the heart is, as long as that heart is broken.

The Nest

The heart can also be pitch-black, if it’s Jude Law in Sean Durkin’s The Nest. Law plays a charming British rogue named Rory, a restless family man who’s not content living with his beautiful wife Allison (Carrie Coon) and their two kids in a bucolic but banal American suburb. He engineers a triumphant return to England and his former high-powered career as a London commodities trader. But something’s not completely right about their fresh start, starting with that hulking mansion in Sussex which they never really furnish. Durkin’s slow-burn thriller is a gripping striptease of dark revelations, a granular study of one man’s obsession for the perfect veneer. If the ending doesn’t quite satisfy, that’s only because everything else about its portrait of curdled domestic life is so forebodingly rich.


Toxic families also dominate Kajillionaire, Miranda July’s miraculous, profound, and refreshingly bizarre twist on the grifter flick. Imagine an Ocean’s 11 movie, but swap out the handsome affluent criminals for borderline vagrants and add an undercurrent of performance art.

Evan Rachel Wood stars as Old Dolio, a deeply unsocialized young woman still under the spell of her geriatric parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger). Their touch-and-go lifestyle is anything but nurturing, a de facto home school in mail fraud, petty theft, and small-time scams that exploit corporate loopholes. That’s made Old Dolio a rattled mess, desperate for emotional security but almost hard-wired to distrust everyone except the two people who begrudgingly raised her. Then bored, lonely Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) comes into their lives, blowing off her dead-end mall job for a chance to hang with the thieving clan. Melanie’s appearance throws the trio into disarray, and becomes the starting point for multidisciplinary artist July to make a deeply empathetic rumination on love, kinship, sacrifice, and self-determination.

Nine Days

How do you make sure you’re ready for the brutalities of life? Just ask Winston Duke in Edson Oda’s beguiling fantasy Nine Days. He plays Will, a middle manager in a liminal world between the living and the dead who decides which souls get to be born on earth. When one of his previous selections dies and opens up a vacancy, he interviews a handful of candidates over nine days by testing their moral judgment and spiritual fiber. Whoever strikes him as best-prepped becomes a newborn baby.

So begins a series of conversations about what it is to be human, philosophical debates that tackle whether anyone can ever truly be ready for the challenges ahead. What’s the best way to enjoy this mortal coil?  What’s the best way to endure pain? With an eclectic cast that includes Zazie Beetz, Bill Skarsgård, Benedict Wong, and Tony Hale, Nine Days is light on its feet but never trite, and wears its melodrama with remarkable assurance.



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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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