Sundance: The Final Tally

A solid lineup of predictably unpredictable indie storytelling

Despite a pandemic that warped this year’s Sundance experience into a self-isolated, laptop-driven stream-a-palooza, the overall slate of films on demand was actually a fairly solid lineup of predictably unpredictable indie storytelling. There were films with prestige and films that crowd-pleased, there were nightmarish midnight movies and metaphorical fantasies to cope with overwhelming realities. There was a mostly evergreen feel to the cine-cornucopia, except for a clutch of titles that felt very of-the-moment with weighted feelings of impending doom.

Oscar Bait
‘Passing’, Courtesy of The Sundance Institute

Oscar bait abounded, as per usual, with one title aiming for Academy Award glory when the latest edition of that delayed-eligibility ceremony airs April 25th. Judas and the Black Messiah, Shaka King’s ferocious thriller about the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, joined the Sundance lineup as a last-minute entry and comes out a week after its virtual premiere. The film’s galvanic leads, including Daniel Kaluuya as sleepy-eyed martyr Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as the jittery FBI mole who betrayed him, are classic kudos catnip. And the indignant biopic checks all those boxes that Oscar voters usually require, presenting a dramatically familiar but still forcefully effective look at racial injustice in America.

Looking ahead to next year’s Oscar race are Passing, Rebecca Hill’s prim, delicately devastating look at light-skinned African-Americans in 1920s Harlem; and Jockey, Clint Bentley’s minor-key melodrama about an aging horseman that’s as quietly earthy as it is emotionally shattering. And Hill and Bentley, both making their feature directorial debuts, craft sumptuous expressionistic images that enhance and enrich the experience.

Passing, shot in velvety black and white, uses a boxy traditional aspect ratio to make its story feel even more suffocating. Jockey’s golden-hour cinematography and chiaroscuro lighting give its tale an elegiac grandeur. But the acting truly elevates both films. Tessa Thompson’s upper-class Black housewife is a model of brittle decorum, while Ruth Negga’s best friend, hiding her racial identity from the rich racist white man she married, exudes a blithe joi de vivre that belies an ocean of anguish. Jockey has a trio of performances that elevate the film to high tragedy: Clifton Collins, Jr. breaks away from the pack with his majestically understated pathos, a middle-aged rider riddled with regrets, with vital support from Molly Parker as a sympatico but pragmatic horse owner and Moises Arias as the eager, admiring son he never had.

A spoonful of treacle

Why all the grim faces? Easy charms made a handful of movies irresistibly sweet and predictably heartwarming. CODA, the jaunty emotional bullseye that stands for Child of Deaf Adults, is the YOLO of hearing-impaired coming-of-age dramedies. The hoary “But I want to sing!” plot-point chestnut gets a twist, as honey-voiced teenage daughter Ruby (Emilia Jones) tussles with the parents-just-don’t-understand trope—because her songs literally fall on deaf ears. Add in a subplot about her family being a multi-generational fishing clan in Gloucester, with Ruby as the lifeline intermediary between their silent world and the town, and you get the makings of a classic “choose your life” crossroads. It’s obvious, it’s effective, and it goes down easy with dollops of feelgood positivity.

Together Together, meanwhile, turns a surrogate pregnancy arrangement into a meet-cute between middle-aged app developer Ed Helms and diffident anti-romantic twentysomething Patti Harrison. She agrees to have his baby for the money, he’s stunned that she doesn’t seem to give a hoot. And over the course of nine months, the two lonelyhearts make each other a better person. It’s an obvious arc, but Helms and Harrison exude some disarming sugar-and-spice chemistry. His wide-eyed enthusiasm masks a battered but durable optimism for life, while her eye-roll whateverism is the classic defense against a world that already rejected her.

The most surprisingly endearing film was Playing with Sharks, a polished but paint-by-numbers documentary about Australian deep sea diver Valerie Taylor. Star of ’70s documentary Blue Water, White Death, consultant on megahit Jaws, innovator of the chainmail diving suit, and lifelong conservationist, Taylor is just as vivacious now as in the 1960s, when she was the blonde-bombshell winner of the Women’s Spearing Championship. “I’ll probably be diving when I’m in a wheelchair,” the octogenarian says, before flipping into the ocean for yet another aquatic outing.

Midnight gore and sleaze
‘Censor,’ from the Sundance Film Festival.

Those with a diabetic intolerance for treacly narratives, fear not. Sundance’s midnight slots went for the jugular. Sometimes literally: in the sumptuous gothic horrorshow Eight for Silver, a gypsy curse causes terror in a 19th century French village, as lycanthropy rips through the townsfolk. An electric opening section—capped by a shocking massacre at a Romany encampment—slowly gives way to a flabby midsection of silly jump scares in shock-me-awake nightmares. Plus: hairless werewolves? Odd creative choice. Still, exquisite production value and arresting visual compositions keep this highbrow flesh-render never less than engaging.

The retro-horror film Censor conjured fetishistic visions of early-’80s video stores, static-rippled CRT images and the zzt-zzt grind of VHS machinery. A troubled woman on a government review board must rate the “video nasties” that were a staple of the burgeoning home entertainment craze. Her notes are a hoot. Eye gouging must go! reads one of her scribbles. But her sister’s unresolved disappearance as a child continues to haunt her, until she’s convinced that the missing kid is now an adult actress in one of these grindhouse flicks. Cue the slow spiral into madness and delusions of gore-filled axe-chopping. Plus: death by award statuette. It’s inspired, until it’s not.

The prize for preachy provocation goes to Pleasure, an art-house harangue about the perils of being a porn star. A barely-legal Swede flies to L.A. with dreams of cum-soaked fame. Warning: it doesn’t end well. An initially promising look at 21st-century adult entertainment, Pleasure takes a cheeky peek at entrepreneurial performers with DIY viral marketing and oddly femme-friendly crews that churn out shockingly misogynistic content. But, after flirting with notions of personal empowerment and body-image agency, it quickly descends into obvious backstabbing and cut-bait friendships. Think All About Eve, but with rough sex and interracial double-penetration.

Worse yet was Mother Schmuckers, a Belgian campfest that could double as a celluloid shart. Imagine a young, witless John Waters directing Clerks and you’ll get a sense of the puerile go-for-the-gutter ambition on display. Two brothers fry up feces for breakfast, lose the family dog, indulge in gunplay, drive their whore-mother crazy, dance in a gonzo music video, and then end up at a bestial orgy. There’s also a scene where homeless vagrants offer up sex with a dead body. Offended yet? More like bored.

Surrealism for the people

Surrealism is a staple of any cineaste diet, so it’s no surprise that Sundance offered up a few metaphor-friendly films. Those in the market for masochistic parenting will enjoy Pascual Sisto’s John and the Hole, a chilly, empty-headed drama about a young teenage boy who, for no clear reason, decides to drug his well-off family and throw them into an unfinished concrete bunker. An oddly shallow what-have-we-done-to-deserve-this? condemnation of the affluent and their presumably amoral spawn, John and the Hole traffics in the type of Austrian nihilism that won Michael Haneke two Palme d’Ors. Only difference is that Haneke spent more than three decades refining his singular brand of spiritual despair, while Sisto seemed to have binge-watched a master filmmaker and figured he got the gist of it. The result is a Hole that’s not very deep.

More intriguing, and marginally more successful, is Mayday, Karen Cinorre’s through-the-looking-glass feminist fantasy. A put-upon wedding reception waitress (Grace Van Patten) escapes through a kitchen oven door and somehow lands on a WWII-era Pacific island. A misfit band of female GI’s finds her and, led by Mia Goth, they send out siren-like SOS calls from a beached submarine so that nearby soldiers will crash on the rocks and drown. Their sociopathic behavior is apparently overcompensation for the chauvinist hostility in their lives. “It’s time to stop hurting yourself and start hurting others,” growls Goth. Van Patten eventually becomes troubled by the severe retribution, but not before reveling in empowering sequences of girl-power independence. It’s a just-go-with-it premise that belabors its points, although Cinorre’s eye for striking composition and confidence with emotional truth bodes well for future projects.

Documentary now

Two documentaries played with perception in more unsettling ways. Rodney Ascher’s eerie A Glitch in the Matrix takes a look at people who are convinced that we’re all living in a computer-programmed reality. These interview subjects, appearing as anthropomorphic animal avatars, invoke synchronicities, the Mandela Effect, generative adversarial networks, and exponential leaps in computer processing power to prove their theory about life being a full-scale massively multiplayer simulacrum. Punch-drunk on Philip K. Dick and the Wachowski siblings, these hyper-literate and compellingly articulate interview subjects are a heady mix of paranoia and narcissism. “I am a real-life non-player character,” one person moans. Another explains how his delusions led to him murdering his mother and father.

It’s hard not to feel empathy for Ascher’s subjects when a documentary like Theo Anthony’s All Light, Everywhere reinforces how mass surveillance is bending notions of objective reality. This damning meditation on the inevitable police state focuses almost entirely on Axon Industries, the company that invented Tasers and now holds 85% of the market share for body cameras. Their objective: to be the eyes and ears of law enforcement, create a vast archive of information and track everything with their proprietary lenses on people, cars, and drones. Their research could even create a eugenics-adjacent database to establish patterns of criminal behavior among certain people—anticipating crime like the Precogs from Minority Report. What could possibly go wrong?

Apocalypse now

But the Sundance films which seemed the most up-to-date, the ones which really captured that sense of life out of balance, conveyed an almost apocalyptic sense of despair. Just look at Cryptozoo, Dash Shaw’s dazzling WTF animated adventure that feels like an animal-rights activist on hallucinogens stumbled into a marathon Dungeons and Dragons session. Gorgons, Griffins, and unicorns populate a world where black-market beast traffickers want to enslave them and secret-ops paramilitary want to weaponize them. The strangely earnest action movie never plays for laughs, and creates a weirdly touching portrait of sustained persecution in a hostile world where the strong exploit the weak, the feverishly exotic is always a threat, and no one is ever safe.

Not mincing words, Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones named their movie How It Ends. The quirky existential dramedy imagines the last hours on earth before an asteroid obliterates all life. “Today is certainly the fuck-it-all of days,” declares Lister-Jones, who endeavors to make peace with as many people as possible, from her parents to her estranged best friend to the jilted ex-lover she never stopped loving. Bursting with motley socially-distanced cameos from Nick Kroll, Fred Armisen, Olivia Wilde, Bradley Whitford, Helen Hunt, and Pauly Shore, the Covid-era production feels shaggy, very off-the-cuff, and eagerly silly. “Let whatever come, come,” says a sex therapist. The underlying dread, though, is palpable. It’s a film brimming with sweet sadness as well as a nagging restlessness that, in 2021, is all too familiar.

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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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