DISPATCHES FROM THE SNOW — Sundance, the Narratives


Sundance has come and gone and this year and I thought I would try something different. Instead of trying to write between gaps of my schedule  (when I was fully exhausted).  This time  I wanted to create wrap-ups of the sections after the festival ended,  because then I had a better sense of just how good all the films were, and how they rate against each other.

With that in mind I’m going to start with the most traditional grouping of films at a festival, Narrative Features. Of course I didn’t see everything at Sundance, that would be impossible. However, I tried to jump back and forth between different sections seeing Premieres, some of the Next section, and, of course  lots of Midnighters. I’m going to leave the Midnighters for another post because I saw pretty much all of them. Instead, here are the traditional narratives, some of which have of course it midnight vibe to them because that’s what I like best, but all of which played in the festival in some sort of narrative section.

The strongest film overall at the festival was LUCE directed by Julius Onah. The thriller stars Kelvin Harrison Jr as a high school teen adopted by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. His background in war-torn Eritrea comes up when he turns in a paper to his history teacher (Octavia Spencer) which sends up some red flags about violent tendencies. Because the school has so much invested in this success story of suburban social justice, Luce is able to play everyone off each other in an almost American Psycho sort of way. The performances are amazing and the film has so many twists and turns that it keeps you guessing to the very end. Who is Luce? Can we define somebody or rather redefine somebody at different points of their life?

Another basically perfect movie is the second feature from Babadook filmmaker Jennifer Kent, THE NIGHTINGALE. Not a film for the weak-willed, this colonial Australian revenge thriller follows Claire, an Irish convict who finds herself to be the personal property of a British officer. After an  unspeakable opening of 25 minutes of rape, beating, and murder, Claire is left for dead, with no prospects for her future. Teaming up with an Aboriginal guide, she follows the British officer and his assistants across Tasmania to enact revenge. The Nightingale is a great film because in addition to being a cheer-inducing revenge tale, it can bring in so much social commentary about Aboriginal relations, convict culture, and colonialism. It is almost a social justice film masquerading as a Midnighter – which is probably why Sundance did not play this in the midnight section. I will say the first 25 minutes are very difficult to make it through but once the film falls into it’s second and third act, it was one of the most fantastic watches of the Fest.

Rhys Ernst, producer from Amazon’s Transparent, delivered one of the most heartfelt films of the festival, ADAM. Nicholas Alexander plays Adam a romantically hopeless teen who goes to live with his sister for the summer. Getting a crash course in LGBTQ culture, Adam is misgendered as a trans man by a girl at a party. Unable to tell her the truth out of fear that he will lose her, he has to learn everything he can about what it means to be transgender. The film serves as a perfect intro to the uninitiated and brings up several issues in the way we relate to each other and to gender. This is the kind of film that could play either an LGBTQ Fest or a Regional Festival and find an audience. It’s funny and it’s tender and it’s full of Truth.

Looking at just pure craft, Michael Tyburski’s THE SOUND OF SILENCE has to be one of the strongest films at Sundance this year. Based on a short that played Sundance several years ago, the film follows a house tuner Peter (Peter Skarsgaard), who meets with clients to deal with their anxiety or fatigue by adjusting the acoustic characteristics of their home. When he can’t solve Ellen (Rashida Jones)’s problem, he begins to question his own science. The Sound of Silence is a quiet film, obviously, but one full of really intricate portraits. These are two people living within fortresses of their own creation who find their beliefs challenged for the first time. The film is about the way we interact with each other and the wider world. Peter is desperately trying to solve how we fit into the grand symphony of the city and find a way that we can be in tune with our surroundings. He believes he has unlocked a secret science that will show us how we should live our lives. On the other hand, Ellen refuses to acknowledge anything fixed that drives her. It’s a fascinating character piece one could argue is full of science and fiction.

Another genre film that didn’t play in the midnight section but which really captivated me was I AM MOTHER. This slick-looking film about a girl raised in a bunker by a robot (voiced by Rose Byrne) had one of the best production designs in the entire Festival. With hints of Ex Machina, or rather the future of the issues brought up in Ex Machina, Daughter, as she is known in the film, begins to question her entire life when an outsider (Hilary Swank) shows up just outside the bunker door. Unable to trust her entire life, Daughter begins to question what it means to be human and what her entire life has been building up to. This is the kind of sci-fi film that could get a gigantic release like Annihilation did last year but has enough for people to grab onto that it would not disappoint like that film did for so  many. What’s truly amazing is the depth Rose Byrne goes to with just her voice as a mother robot.

Moving on from films I loved to films that I almost loved, another film with amazing production design was PARADISE HILLS. This can’t miss cast included Milla Jovovich, rapper Awkwafina and Emma Roberts on an island paradise where Uma (Roberts) finds herself in a reform school to prepare her for marriage to a husband that she hates. The film delves into interesting topics of female objectification, which in this sci-fi world seems far worse than it even is in today’s culture. There’s a bigger conspiracy going on here, and Uma makes it her goal to discover it. All of that works really well, where the film goes wrong is it doesn’t quite understand whether it is a science fiction film or a fantasy film. As the Headmaster of the facility (Jovovich) seems to have Supernatural, almost vampire-like powers that do not manifest until the last 20 minutes of the movie, it almost feel like a reverse deus ex machina and really undercuts the rest of the film. Seeing the film was co-written by of my favorites, Nacho Vigalondo, I can’t help but wonder if he was brought in to fix something or if his script was fixed and something was lost. Overall the film fails to satisfy because it doesn’t follow its own rules.

A film that may have been too aware of what it was is AFTER THE WEDDING. Starring Julianne Moore as a wife and mother who invites Michelle Williams the ex-lover of her husband to the wedding of her daughter, ostensibly to make a large donation to her orphanage in India. The film is full of inherent conflict. The performances are great, but they’re almost too great. I couldn’t help but think that both Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore were thinking about holding that Oscar statue every single time they were on camera. The script is full of surprises and the gender flip that was done on the original material really serves the story. I think the main thing that kept bringing me out of the film was a strange overwhelming reliance on Drone footage that hijacked the film every couple scenes unnecessarily. Other than that, the film is really pretty solid and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up being an Oscar contender -I just wish it was a little more subtle.

One of the big hits of the festival was the Awkwafina dramatic star vehicle THE FAREWELL, about a Chinese girl who goes home to see her grandmother one last time before she dies. The family has vowed to not tell grandmother she is dying and instead have created a wedding to bring the family together. As an actress, Awkwafina has shown that there’s nothing that she can’t do. And this is true in this film as well. She shines in a very complex and understated performance. In fact, the entire cast pulls off the difficult “dramedy” that this storyline requires. If I was less impressed with this film than others it may have been that I saw it after I had been told so many times that it was the top film of the festival or that I wanted something that the filmmaker didn’t want to give me. One of the inherent conflicts of this film is whether or not this idea of the family carrying the burden of the sickness of the relative is fair to the relative. I kept waiting for the film to explode from all the tension that was being drawn in from everyone having to play at happiness — but it never really did. I am fully cognizant of the fact that my desire comes from my Western upbringing and my inability to fully invest in the belief system of the family in the film. But I am a victim of my own viewing desires.

Another film that I will fully admit I didn’t enjoy as much as I could have simply because I want films to be a certain way was THE WITCH HUNTERS, a sweet Kids film from Serbia that deals with divorce in a truly original way. The children are convinced that a father’s new girlfriend is really a witch who has him under a spell. It’s a film that plays with genre but doesn’t really live inside it. Because of that, it ends up being pretty simple and just a solid kids movie. I wanted them to actually be superheroes, or for her to actually be a witch, or just something unexpected.

The film I’m probably most at odds with most people about is TROOP ZERO, a coming-of-age film about a birdie scout troop competing for the right to be on the golden record sent up with Voyager. This setup hits all of my touchstones. I love the Little Miss Sunshine feel of the film, and I love its tertiary connection to science fiction. Viola Davis and Allison Janney also excel in their roles as rival Troop mothers. What didn’t work for me at all was that the film is set in 1977 rural Georgia, and doesn’t really reflect any of the racial or LGBTQ issues that cannot be avoided with setting a film in 1977. In this version of 1977, black children and white children play together with no issue. In this version of 1977, a young boy who likes to dress up as a girl is completely accepted by his father after he performs on stage in front of the entire town. It just felt like a cop-out. You can’t set a film in 1977 without doing the work and the film would have been so much better if it had the same exact story but had it deal with the issues that could not be avoided.

Last, and certainly least, is the narrative THE WOLF HOUR, strangely also starring Naomi Watts and Kelvin Harrison Jr (aka Luce and his mom). Can we please just make a promise that we don’t ever have to make another film about how hard it is for a successful author to follow up their first novel with their second novel. Oh My God,  did I so not care for this lead character as she had become a shut-in in her apartment and was being terrorized by somebody pushing her doorbell in the wake of The Summer of Sam. Dull from beginning to end, there is little that happens and little to care about.

More Sundance Analysis to come in the days that follow.

Nicole Brending’s DOLLHOUSE: The Transphobic Puppet Film for the MAGA Clique (Slamdance Review)



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