Scenes from an online indie film festival
Moviegoers have logged off, streamers have written their acquisition checks, and all that Sundance pixie dust has settled. The famed Utah film festival just ended another year of not being in Utah, and the virtual reality of arthouse moviegoing feels more isolating than ever. No parties, no crowded shuttle busses, no roaring audiences or thunderous applause. Just a line-up of scrappy independent films on an exclusive website with time-limited viewing options.
But the movies did not disappoint: Sundance’s patented mix of audience-friendly quirk and hardcore high art was just as heady as ever. Biggest paycheck went to Cha Cha Real Smooth, an adorkable romantic comedy about a twentysomething bar mitzvah DJ (Cooper Raiff) infatuated with a neighborhood single mom (Dakota Johnson). Multihyphenate 24-year-old wunderkind Raiff not only stars but also wrote, directed, and edited the melancholy laffer, an intermittently cloying but genuinely sweet look at growing up and falling in love. Apple TV+ picked up the crowdpleaser for $15 million—a far cry from the $25 million they dropped last year for CODA, but still one of the top deals ever made at Sundance.
Johnson, this year’s indie prom queen, was also one of the film’s producers, a title she shared on another Sundance entry. Am I OK?, Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allyne’s wonderfully charming and ebulliently wise comedy, stars co-producer Johnson as a 32-year-old late-blooming lesbian who navigates the bumpy emotional logistics of her sexual awakening. Johnson plays her fraught self-discovery with low-key anxiety and affable hesitancy, a winning combination that scored the festival’s second big deal: nearly $7 million for a Warner Bros/HBO Max release.
Cha Cha Real Smooth nabbed Sundance’s coveted Audience Award, but the festival’s more discriminating Jury recognized much tougher watches. The Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Dramatic went to Nanny, a stylish though somewhat superficial supernatural New York drama about a guilt-ridden Senegalese woman charged with taking care of a shakily-affluent white couple’s daughter. Its insights into immigrant indignities and white privilege feel well-worn and familiar, but the genre-inflected filmmaking and eerie cinematography redeem its shaky storytelling.
Winning the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Documentary was The Exiles, a lively documentary about an unfinished documentary: namely Oscar-nominated filmmaker Christine Choy’s abandoned project interviewing political dissidents from the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Three decades later, a generation of Chinese have educational amnesia about the wiped-from-the-books historical event. The brassy, chain-smoking Choy re-visits her subjects in this cheeky but sobering rumination on memory and legacy.
One standout documentary that was far more arresting was Navalny, Daniel Roher’s you-are-there chronicle of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny and his persecution at the hands of tyrannical president Vladimir Putin. Roher takes us through Navalny’s infamous and near-fatal poisoning with a Novichok nerve agent and his miraculous recovery. But he’s also a fly on the wall during the even more improbable investigative work that miraculously led to Navalny getting one of Putin’s thuggish lackeys to confess to the crime. Due to political concerns about Russian interference, or maybe even the odd cyberattack, Sundance kept its screening under wraps until the day before its premiere; HBO will broadcast the movie later this year.
The world is on fire, of course, and Sundance reflected the current state of the climate crisis in a clutch of films that gave not only insight but empathy to the impact. Nat Geo picked up earnestly urgent doc The Territory, an indigenous-eye’s-view of Brazilian deforestation which went on to win the Audience Award: World Cinema Documentary. And two other eco-conscious movies won both World Cinema Grand Jury Prizes.
Winning the World Doc prize was All That Breathes, a beautifully shot and deeply felt film about denizens in Delhi who devote themselves to reviving and nurturing the dozens and dozens of kite birds that fall from the pollution-choked skies. And the World Dramatic prize went to Utama, a sumptuously photographed, deliberately paced look at a geriatric Bolivian llama herder and his wife. The ethnographic drama captures how their water-parched existence is literally dying out, yet does it with a touching poetic integrity that keeps it from ever feeling like a harangue.
One of Sundance’s enduring strengths is its commitment to minority narratives, and this year’s crop of filmmakers naturally kept it real. Standout African-American narratives included We Need to Talk About Cosby, W. Kamau Bell’s essential 4-hour cultural reappraisal of the legendary entertainer/rapist, and Opening Night selection Emergency, a harrowingly hilarious college-night-gone-sideways, ended up with the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.
The horror, the horror
Less successful were two films from the Jordan Peele school of filmmaking. In the smart but messy supernatural thriller Master, Regina Hall plays a professor at a very white New England university that feigns being woke but still carries the scars from its Salem-witch-era roots. And Alice, based on a true story of slaves that existed on a southern plantation for decades after the Civil War, was a promising but poorly paced and disappointing mash-up of slave melodrama and blaxploitation vengeance.
Sundance reached its goal of gender equity among its filmmaker ranks a few years ago, and those efforts continue to bear fruit. Strongest by far was Palm Trees and Power Lines, Jamie Dack’s blistering study of a 17-year-old girl and her relationship with a predatory 34-year-old man. It’s the flipside of testosterone-drenched age-of-consent movies like Red Rocket; here Dack presents a wan world of loneliness, opportunism, and a type of emotional manipulation that plays more like vampiric feasting. The walking-nightmare narrative was all painfully believable, right down to the muted twist ending, and rightly won the festival’s Directing, Editing, and Screenwriting Awards.
Femme-power psycho-cannibal-killer movie Fresh gave Sundance the year’s most gleeful midnight splatter film—Searchlight will unleash it later in 2022. And the wonderfully surreal French Canadian lark Babysitter injected a feverish brand of feminism into the mix with its fast-talking goofy tale of a disgraced egocentric husband, his put-upon wife, and their newborn child. But Sharp Stick, the hotly anticipated latest from Lena Dunham, was an unfortunate misfire, a weirdly calibrated fairy-tale-tinged story of a naïve young woman’s arrested development—both emotional and sexual—which ends up going to preposterous erotic extremes that seem like a dashed-off homage to both Lars von Trier and John Cameron Mitchell.
You want horror? The greatest dread came from parenthood—or feeling deficient about it. Resurrection tracks the mental anguish of a single mom (Rebecca Hall) as she faces the empty-nest loss of her college-bound kid as well as the sudden reappearance of a manipulative sociopathic lover (Tim Roth). His stalking brings back painful memories of the baby they once had together whose tragic death still haunts her. It’s a steely thriller until it becomes a psychotronic psych-out of mansplaining female trauma, using gore as some kind of half-cocked catharsis.
Foreign fear fared better with Speak No Evil, a sadistic slow-burn thrill ride with a delicious dread-filled undercurrent that climaxes in a wallop of an ending. A happily married Danish couple with a cherubic blonde daughter meet a slightly odd Dutch family on vacation in Tuscany. When, back home, the Danes get an invite for a weekend visit to Holland, they hop on a ferry and end up in a cringe comedy of manners that suddenly becomes a stygian portrait of familial despair.
Love comes late
The true jewels of the festival, though, were quiet revelations about late-life reconnections. A Love Song showcased two long-in-the-tooth character actors, Dale Dickey and Wes Studi, who play widowed loners and former grade-school crushes reconnecting for a one-night-stand on a Colorado campground. It’s a sliver of a film, more like a short story in its economy, but all the more potent for its clarity and simplicity.
And Living, a beautiful, elegant remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, stars Bill Nighy as a terminally ill rank-and-file London bureaucrat with six months to live. It’s a sumptuous midcentury melodrama directed with uncanny accuracy like a 1950s studio picture. Sony Pictures Classics snapped up the movie, as they did with Oscar-winning Sundance hit The Father two years ago. Oliver Hermanus directed Living and Kazuro Ishiguro adapted the screenplay. Expect Nighy to join their names next year when Oscar nominations are announced.