When a character took a severed human leg out of a refrigerator in the horror movie “Fresh,” I laughed and pressed pause. I had that luxury because, like everyone else this year, I didn’t have to fly to Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, but attended this impressively optimistic edition at home. So I just skipped to the creepy reward of the leg helicopter. As for the movie, it’ll do just fine without my love: it’s already gotten positive reviews and will be released on Disney-owned Hulu, because sometimes dreams do come true.
That human shaft was part of a colorful parade of body parts featured at this year’s Sundance, including an actual charnel house with severed limbs, decapitated heads, and entrails. The specter of horror master David Cronenberg haunts Resurrection, a not-so-successful horror fest starring an outstanding Rebecca Hall, while other films owed a notable debt to Jordan Peele’s 2017 Sundance hit “Get Out,” most notably “Master” (about a Black student and professor at a white-dominated university) and “Emergency,” an amusing nail biter about three friends trapped in a white nightmare.
I didn’t like “Fresh,” which uses a captive freak for questionable feminist ends, although I might have enjoyed it more with more company. Watching horror movies alone is not the same as being in a theater full of other people, not even at Sundance. There the audience is usually already super excited and excited to just be in the room, seeing a movie for the first time and often in the presence of the filmmakers. The greenhouse atmosphere of festivals can be misleading and turn mediocrity into events, sure, but the noise of such hype is always outweighed by the joys of experiencing discoveries and revelations with others.
This is the second year that the pandemic has forced Sundance to jettison its personal plans. The festival had instituted sound vax and mask protocols, and the province of Utah, where Sundance takes place, has a higher vaccination rate than New York or Los Angeles. But Utah also had the third-highest number of Covid-19 infections in the country as of Monday, as The Salt Lake Tribune recently reported. And honestly, given how many times I’d gone home from Sundance with a bad cold or flu (including a whopper of a mysterious bug that flattened me in 2020), I didn’t bother booking another overpriced apartment.
Instead, I went to my living room, hooked up my laptop to my TV and streamed from the festival’s easy-to-use website. In between movies, I texted some of the same coworkers I hang out with at Sundance when we’re in Park City. In 2020, we had shared our love for “Time,” Garrett Bradley’s documentary about a family’s struggles with the American prison system. (I was out of the 2021 edition of the festival.) This year we once again exchanged must-sees and must-avoids. “I told you how awful it is,” my friend chided me about “You’ll Never Be Alone,” a witch shock. She had, sigh. We also kept returning to a favorite: “Wow Nanny,” she texted. Oh yeah.
A standout in this year’s US Dramatic Competition, “Nanny” was also one of the selections that I very much regretted not seeing with an audience, both for its deep-seated shocks and for its luscious beauty. In this case, I would have stayed in my seat, just like I did at home, where annoying household distractions can make it hard to pay attention, especially when a movie isn’t strong enough to hold you completely. That was never an issue with ‘Nanny’, which captivated me from the start with its imagery and mysteries, its emotional depth, and the tight control that writer-director Nikyatu Jusu maintains over her material.
Set in New York, the story revolves around Aisha (the excellent Anna Diop), a Senegalese immigrant who has recently accepted a babysitting position. Her new workplace, a luxurious sprawl as sterile as a magazine layout, immediately rings alarm bells, as do the overzealous smiles and obsessive instructions of her tightly wounded white employer, Amy (Michelle Monaghan). The set-up is reminiscent of ‘Black Girl’, the classic 1966 film by Senegalese author Ousmane Sembène about the horrors of postcolonialism. It is an obvious aesthetic and political touchstone for Jusu, who nevertheless quickly and confidently goes her own way.
Like a number of other selections at this year’s festival, “Nanny” is a horror film with a profound difference; unlike too many other filmmakers, Jusu is never framed by genre. Instead, horror movie conventions are part of an extensive toolkit that includes narrative ellipses, an expressionistic use of bold colors, and figures from African folklore, including a spider-shaped trickster and a water spirit named Mami Wata. Here, clichés like the oppressive house, the controlling employer, and the vulnerable heroine prove far more complex than they appear, as they have been expertly reimagined for this haunted, haunted tale.
Women in danger are well-known movie characters, but this year there was a fair variation in the kind of directors who put knives to their throats. At some point – between gushing, laughing, grimacing, crying and the occasional eww-ing at all the gore and guts – I realized I hadn’t bothered to count the number of women and people of color in the program. counting this year. I saw enough fictional stories and documentaries with a variety of different types of people that I hadn’t compulsively profiled the filmmakers. Yes, there were a few trusty Sundances, the perennially cute and wacky white kids of Indiewood, but not enough to trigger you about the old days when the festival was packed with Tarantino clones.
The authoristic touchstone at Sundance today is Jordan Peele, whose radical use of the genre remains relevant to the traumas of contemporary life. The predominance of terrifying narratives in this program is clearly a matter of availability, cinematic copycatting and curatorial discretion. Given all the guts on screen this year, I can imagine festival director Tabitha Jackson and program director Kim Yutani have a strong stomach and sense of humor. That they are also feminists is certainly, albeit satisfactorily, self-evident and may help explain why there are three movies on the list about abortion.
The two I saw — the well-acted drama “Call Jane” and the solid, informative documentary “The Janes” — aren’t horror movies in the usual sense, but like more conventional examples of the genre, they also run on the body, too. and especially the female body, in danger. Each film returns to the Jane Collective, a group of women and a few men who helped women in Chicago get safe abortions from 1968 to 1973 before the procedure was a constitutional right. And while the image of a member (Elizabeth Banks) in “Call Jane” teaching how to have an abortion by practicing on pumpkins might not have been a Halloween prank, I still laughed.
On a striking, measurable level, this year’s program reaffirms that a true diversity of filmmakers also yields a welcome cinematic multiplicity. It can be easy to see representation as an abstraction, as a political cudgel, a nasty battle cry, a dullness. Over and over this year, the sight of all these bodies, especially women — including Emma Thompson who laid it all out beautifully in the soft comedy “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” — reminded us that these performances aren’t boxes that had been checked off. . They are the embodied truths, pleasures and horrors of women and people of color who, long serving as canvases for fantasies of otherness, have seized control of their own images.