Sundance is Alive!

Indie cinema returns, ready for the sniffling crowd

After three long years and millions of dollars in lost tourism revenue, Park City is once again hosting Sundance, the last major film festival to finally resume its pre-pandemic ritual of in-person editions. If Covid-19 is still a concern, it’s a distant one, judging from the scattered mask-wearing at major movie premieres, on shuttle buses, in press screenings, and throughout the party venues, galleries, and branded-content pop-up shops up and down Main Street.

Sundance has always been a super-spreader event—catching a cold is as much as tradition as the all-night film acquisition brawls—so it’s too early to know yet whether we’re all getting subvariants as we whoop and holler through the latest indie discovery or blood-drenched midnight movie. Besides, sniffles are de rigeur when the mountain town’s current temperature fluctuates between 0 and 20 degrees. LGBTQ+ heroes in the form of Mexican luchadores, babies grown in corporate-designed silicone eggs, a femme spin on Frankenstein, an endearing Hollywood superstar transformed into an enduring Parkinsonian warrior, and battles of the sexes played out in high-finance boardrooms and higher-education campuses. Indie cinema is back again—and finally ready for the roar of a crowd.

The Future We Want
From ‘The Pod Generation.’ Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

What’s really changed are the mechanics of the Utah film festival itself. Applying the lessons of its two online editions, Sundance is now offering most of its movies as limited-availability rentals for accredited viewers through its official website. And, following the lead of festivals like Cannes and Toronto, physical tickets are officially extinct. They only exist as email attachments or as a list in your personal portal on the festival app. So, too, the waitlist lines, which are run through a platform that assign numbers to a lucky few who hit their refresh button with enough agility. Everyone lives and dies by their phones. QR codes dictate all. What’s that you say about limited cell coverage in this ski resort town? Take a screen shot of your information, scold the volunteers. Don’t hold up that ticketholder line! And don’t slow down technology’s complete infiltration of the festival experience.

“I think we need to ask ourselves the question: is this the future we want?” said director Sophie Barthes. It was tempting to read her remark as criticism of Sundance’s new digital protocols—which actually do work smoothly and enhance the festival more than they disrupt it. But she was naturally referring to her wryly unnatural sci-fi satire The Pod Generation, a cautionary tale of tech monopolies commodifying women’s wombs.  Emilia Clarke plays an on-the-rise tech exec with baby fever, Chiwetel Ejiofor is her low-income-bracket antediluvian botanist husband. They agree to a completely artificial conception in the form of an incubating vessel shaped like an egg. But who really retains the rights to that egg? The film, although trafficking in broad-stroke characterizations and Black Mirror speculative paranoia, still raises issues that are hard to shake—especially about a mother’s agency over her own body and offspring. “It was very important to make a femme sci-fi,” said Barthes after the film’s debut.

A different strain of femme sci-fi took a dark turn at the midnight premiere of Birth/Rebirth, Laura Moss’s eerily effective Promethean tale of a socially maladroit pathologist (Marin Ireland) who reanimates the dead daughter of a bereaved maternity nurse (Judy Reyes). Instead of electrifying stitched-together body parts, the duo use increasingly shady methods to acquire embryonic fluid and placentas—rooting the horror experiment in just enough practical medicine to give the film’s science a cheeky veneer of verisimilitude.

Pick Your Fighter
From ‘Cassandro.’ Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Cautionary tales gave way to stories of inspiration with two other debut films. Cassandro is Roger Ross Williams’ long-gestating biopic about the real-life—and larger-than-life—titular gay luchador (Gael Garcia Bernal), categorized as an always-defeated feminized exótico but through sheer force of will becomes a superstar success by reinventing what it is to be a gay man in the world of Lucha Libre. The film is a bit too familiar in its structure and has a surprisingly muted sensibility, but Bernal’s total commitment to a role he clearly relishes makes his performance radiant.

Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie is even more inspiring, despite being a much more familiar story, because director Davis Guggenheim gives a palpable sense of the Back to the Future star’s own struggle with pre-geriatric Parkinson’s Disease. He’s constantly falling, breaking bones in his face, his hand, his arm—despite hours of physical therapy. And just Fox shrugs it off as inevitable and unavoidable. He admits he’s in constant pain, but only after Guggenheim presses him on it and asks why he hadn’t mentioned it before. “You didn’t ask,” he replies.

Men Are Dogs

Then again, if there’s an emerging theme to this year’s bumper crop of non-studio content, it’s that cis white guys are doomed—or at least on notice. A surprise addition to the Sundance lineup was announced on the first day of the festival: Justice, Doug Liman’s secretly produced documentary about Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings. It was a last-minute entry because the filmmakers were convinced that otherwise there would have been an injunction preventing it from being shown.

An explosive take full of hot revelations about his alleged rape of multiple women in the 1980s? Anything but. The film left a lot of viewers confused why Liman essentially made a highlight reel of all the very well-known and detailed facts—both salient and salacious—that would have capsized any judicial confirmation. It broke no news on the case, and Liman sounded a bit defeated by the production—which, he admitted in a Q&A afterwards, he entirely self-financed and was extremely eager to sell so he could move on. “For me, it feels like the job ends with the film,” he told the premiere’s audience. His writer/producer Amy Herdy then chimed in with a different verdict. “With all due respect, I hope this opens investigations with subpoena power.”

Men are dogs, according to some of the most provocative movies this year. At least two films have shots of women shattering beer bottles against their antagonistic lovers’ heads. Most darkly entertaining was Fair Play, Chloe Dumont’s sharp, stinging, sexy examination of two secretly engaged financial analysts at the same firm and the power imbalance that happens when the woman (Phoebe Dynevor) gets promoted over the man (Alden Ehrenreich). The simmering violence—emotional, psychological, and eventually physical—would be stomach-churning if it weren’t so deliciously entertaining. The audience I saw it with broke into spontaneous applause after the film’s last shot.

Curiosity Killed the Cat Person
Cat Person,’ Directed by Susanna Fogel, based on the infamous short story by xxx, debuting this week at the Sundance Film Festival.

And then there are the abusive men surrounding the sexually curious women in 1960s Boston. Imagine a grindhouse version of the lesbian classic Carole and you’ll get a good sense of Eileen, William Oldroyd’s adaptation of the book by Ottessa Moshfegh. Thomasin McKenzie works at a juvenile prison that just got a new staff psychologist: an alluringly self-confident Anne Hathaway, whose platinum-blonde sexuality beguiles McKenzie. The two start a coded courtship that takes an unexpectedly shocking turn and reveals a contempt for patriarchal abuse that pushes them to extremes even they didn’t expect. Boldly directed and powerfully acted, Eileen plays like a Todd Haynes melodrama with a Tarantinoesque tweak.

The material spoke to Hathaway on a darkly personal level: after the screening, she spoke about how, when she was a 16-year-old actress, male interviewers would ask if she was a good girl or a bad girl. And Eileen was a rebuke to that sexualizing toxicity. “I saw a story of female complication that hit me really deeply,” she said.

Speaking of nuances, the hotly awaited Cat Person unspooled in the coveted Saturday night slot, in a screening that saw lines of eager patrons freezing outside for a chance to see the incendiary bad-sex thriller inside. Susanna Fogel’s adaptation of the wildly popular 2017 New Yorker short story went viral at the dawn of the #MeToo movement for its vivid depictions of a date gone wrong. Turning any slender work of fiction into a two-hour movie inevitably risks bloat and distortion, and Cat Person is no exception. The original story says less with more, and uses an evocative elegance to communicate a hauntingly authentic encounter. The movie—by definition—is more literal, more expansive, and more broadly obvious about its intentions. Its screenplay also adds a third act that picks up where Fogel’s tale ended—disastrous for the short story, but weirdly true to the film that preceded it. Does it work? In its own clumsy way, yes.

More vitally, the film version of Cat Person will reignite issues about consent and honesty—for both sides of any sexual relationship. “We just wanted to continue the conversation and talk about the gray areas in intimacy, explain the ambivalence,” said Fogel after the screening. “There has to be room in the culture to talk about that.” At Sundance, there’s always room.

A still from Eileen by William Oldroyd, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

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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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