There was a time not too long ago when the Sundance Film Festival was in danger of being overrun with swag, hype, and other extra-cinematic preoccupations. For a year, if I recall correctly, there were stickers all over Park City, Utah, reminding attendees to “focus on movies” rather than partying, celebrity sightings, industry buzz, and tabloid gossip. .
That’s not much of a problem now. For the second year in a row, Sundance is not in Park City at all. Rather than strolling up and down Main Street or hopping on shuttle buses, the audience is exactly where it’s been for the past two years: at home, in front of a screen, scrolling through a menu looking for something to look at.
There’s a lot of film – loads of feature films and dozens of short films, running through next weekend – and not so much festival. I’m not going to argue that this is a good thing. But I will say that this Sundance has shown a special kind of vitality from my armchair so far. At a time when many of us worry about the health of movies, it offers a proof of life.
The kinds of movies that have long been associated with Sundance—adventurous, youthful, socially conscious—are currently facing particular challenges. Covid has imposed new burdens on filmmaking. Streaming has turned the already fragile ecology of independent distribution on its head. And a bored, moody, stressed-out audience may not know what it wants. I’m not sure if I do. Do I want to be challenged or comforted? Am I looking for films that reflect the miserable realities of contemporary life or films that evoke alternate realities? Is it weirder if people wear masks on screen or not?
Perhaps the best thing about Sundance is that I don’t have to choose. At the time of writing, I have seen 21 films, which stubbornly refuse to add up to a picture of the State of Independent Cinema. Some of them are remnants of the past and carry the look of 2018 and 2019 to the present. Others seem to come from a Sundance that exists out of time, a place where shy young people grow up bittersweet, where lonely souls forge tentative bonds with a harsh American landscape, where quirkiness, awkward sex and brutal genre play are as common as family dysfunction and melancholic soundtrack music.
That is, I’ve seen Lena Dunham’s new feature film, “Sharp Stick,” about an otherworldly 26-year-old virgin named Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) who lives with her TMI mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and TikTok aspiring sister. (Taylour Paige) and who is having an affair with a cool dad (Jon Bernthal). I’ve also seen Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut, “When You Finish Saving the World,” in which an Indiana teen (Finn Wolfhard) struggles with romance, creative ambition, and his benevolent mother (Julianne Moore). I watched Max Walker-Silverman’s “A Love Song” featuring two lonely people (Dale Dickey and Wes Studi) forging a tentative bond in a desolate and beautiful part of Colorado. And Cooper Raiff’s ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’, whose lead character after college, played by the director, returns home and meets a sad mother (Dakota Johnson).
I liked them all, with caveats that need not concern us here. Spanning different sections of the festival (Premieres, Next, US Dramatic Competition), they offered glimpses of Classic Sundance, proof that the American independent film is either holding on or stuck in a rut. Fortunately, that is not the only or even the dominant flavor at the festival these days.
Various documentary experiences
Documentaries are always the heart of this festival for me. Non-fiction film has its own styles and subgenres. Some of this year’s strongest offerings follow familiar templates, interweaving news clips, interviews and stories in the present day to shed light on pressing issues or unearth hidden histories. Eugene Yi and Julie Ha’s “Free Chol Soo Lee,” about a Korean immigrant to San Francisco who was wrongly convicted of a murder in 1973, is one example—a story of injustice and activism that turns into a meditation on the price one individual can pay to become a cause célèbre.
Directed by Daniel Roher, “Navalny” is the portrait of a political celebrity, Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, who instructs the film crew to tell his story “like a thriller”. The film, which ended with Navalny’s dramatic arrest in Moscow a year ago, certainly has a thrilling, stranger-than-fiction feel, enhanced by the subject’s rambunctious, humorous charisma. At the same time, it has the nervous, present-day pace of a news broadcast.
Sometimes the real news is old news and the most dazzling films are made from images that have languished in the airwaves or the archive. Four of my Sundance favorites so far this year have been found-image documentaries, films composed largely or entirely of footage collected long ago. This isn’t a new phenomenon — last year’s standout Sundance, “Summer of Soul,” was made almost entirely from found footage — but it may have a special allure in a screen-saturated culture simultaneously obsessed with and amazed at the history .
“Riotsville, USA,” directed by Sierra Pettengill from a script by critic and writer Tobi Haslett, is a clear lesson in the non-past of the past. Using public television broadcasts and law enforcement training films, Pettengill delves into the official response to the urban uprisings of the mid- and late 1960s, focusing on the report of the commission issued by President Lyndon B. Johnson. appointed to identify the causes of the violence and propose solutions. People then dressed and talked differently, and smoked on television, but the film’s great, disturbing achievement is to show how little our bourgeois arguments about racism, police, poverty and politics have changed in over 50 years.
Sometimes the past haunts the present by staying out of reach. Sara Dosa’s “Fire of Love” tells the story of Katia and Maurice Krafft, a French couple who devoted their lives to studying the world’s volcanoes. They are characters in the film, as well as collaborators, as the most notable scenes—violent eruptions and eerily serene lava flows—were captured by their cameras until their deaths in 1991.
Bianca Stigter’s “Three Minutes: A Lengthening” examines a slice of amateur film shot in 1938 in a Polish town – a moving tourist photograph of Jewish citizens waving, robbing and going about their daily lives. Almost all of them died during the Holocaust, and the film doesn’t so much restore a sense of what preceded it, but documents the absolute rift between before and after.
‘Get Out’ is still in
Five years after Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” premiered in Park City, its influence is inevitable. Some of the most interesting movies about racism are horror movies and vice versa. Mariama Diallo’s “Master” is a campus drama set at an exclusive New England university that holds on to old traditions and new forms of hypocrisy and bad faith. With the Puritan-Gothic undertones of “The Scarlet Letter” and (less explicitly) the map of modern micro-aggressions in Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen,” Diallo follows the parallel stories of two black women, a college student (Zoe Renee) and a professor (Regina Hall), in a hostile environment.
Like “Get Out,” “Master” finds fears — and satire — in the benevolence and moral vanity of white liberals. Nikyatu Jusu’s “Nanny” takes a similar tack, subjecting the main character, Aisha (Anna Diop), a Senegal immigrant living in New York, to torments that can be supernatural, psychological, or a combination of both. What is certain is that they are sharpened by her position in the household of a wealthy, well-meaning and seriously (and perhaps conventionally) screwed up white family.
It’s almost a relief that the white villains in “Alice,” Krystin Ver Linden’s clever mix of plantation drama and blaxploitation revenge movie, aren’t hypocritical, just hateful, and that the nuances of the heroine’s mood are diminished. more important than her righteous anger. These films, which apply tried-and-true genre styles with varying degrees of success, ultimately rely on the skill and conviction of their protagonists. The stories may not be entirely convincing, but Hall, Diop and Keke Palmer, who plays Alice, is beyond dispute.