Sundance and Ice Cream: Day 3

Day three of my coverage of the Sundance Film Festival

dir. Carey Williams

Straight-laced college student Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and his laid-back roommate Sean (RJ Cyler) are ready for a legendary night of partying during spring break at college. Before heading out, they find a passed-out white girl (Maddie Nichols) on the floor of their house with their other roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) oblivious in the other room. Afraid to call the police, the three men attempt to remedy the situation without looking down the barrel of a gun.

The “college kids have the night from hell” genre is well-worn, but this iteration is filled with new life. Characters feel real and the social/racial aspects are well incorporated. Sean is always aware of the optics while Kunle tries to balance it with logic. The film’s great trick: neither is wrong. There are solid reasons for both sides of the issue. The fear from systemic racism is palpable in the group without feeling preachy.

Watkins and Cyler make a fun pair, while Chacon is the sensitive, yet funny third wheel. The film constantly delivers laughs as well, despite the serious subject matter. Williams delivers a memorable and highly watchable night with a strong message built-in. (3.5/5.0)

Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul
dir. Adamma Ebo

Trinity Childs (Regina Hall), the first lady of a prominent Southern Baptist megachurch in Atlanta, attempts to help her pastor-husband Lee-Curtis (Sterling K. Brown) rebuild their once-booming congregation after a sex scandal.

The film is presented in a faux-documentary with cuts between the documentarians and scenes outside the camera. The satire of capitalistic church practices and lavish church spending works for the first half, but peters out by the film’s second half. When the comedy goes away, so does the satire. Things get fairly serious and it torpedos the film.

Hall and Brown both give the film their all, fully committing to the pasted-on smiles and bombastic declarations. Nicole Beharie and Conphidance are also great as “rival” church pastors who are lucky enough to capitalize on the Child’s downfall. The film’s MVP is the costume team, led by Jazmine Maddox. Brown is tailored in the most ridiculous suits while Hall has some of the best church hats imaginable.

I still enjoyed the film, but there was potential for something special in the first half that missed the mark as a whole. (3.0/5.0)

Call Jane (Full review)
dir. Phyllis Nagy

Joy (Elizabeth Banks) is slightly pregnant but faces life-threatening consequences if she keeps the child. The hospital board turns down Joy’s request for a termination, so she turns to an illegal abortion. After being scared away from a less-reputable establishment, Joy finds a flyer to “Call Jane.” Through a phone service, she meets her liaison Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku), doctor Dean (Cory Michael Smith), and Jane leader Virginia (Sigourney Weaver), willing to provide her with a safe, though illegal, abortion.

Frankly, I was expecting the film to be much more heavy-handed. That’s not to say the film takes both sides of the issue. At one point, Virginia states, “We help women. We don’t judge them.” It’s the film’s true rallying cry. Some clients of the Janes are wildly unsympathetic, others are stuck in heartbreaking situations. Banks appears in almost every scene and nails the tone. She deftly balances the buttoned-up housewife while also realizing her true call as a radical. She is sympathetic and resourceful and ratchets up the exasperation when the scene calls for it.

Though somewhat formulaic, Call Jane is a great start for Nagy as a director. This astute, adult filmmaking should prove her well in the future. I can’t wait to see what she does next. (3.5/5.0)

Sharp Stick
dir. Lena Dunham

Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) is a naive 26-year-old caregiver to a young boy with Down Syndrome. Wanting to experience sex and pleasure, she begins an affair with the boy’s father (Jon Bernthal), which opens her eyes to a world of sexual experiences.

Did not like any minute of it that did not involve supporting players Taylour Paige or Scott Speedman. Any attempts at humor, tone, or reality fall completely flat. There were times I thought I was watching a psychological thriller while other times a slapstick comedy where they forgot to add the jokes.

My biggest problem is with the coding of the main character. Why is she sheltered and naive when her family is in no way protecting her from the world? Why is she so naive to the obvious things in the world? It felt wrong in a way that made me truly uncomfortable. A movie-watching experience I would rather not replicate. (1.5/5.0)

dir. Abi Demaris Corbin

Marine war veteran Brian Brown-Easley (John Boyega) is out of options. Denied his disability check from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs and effectively homeless, he walks into a Wells Fargo and declares he has a bomb. A pair of bank managers (Rosa Diaz and Nicole Beharie) are stuck in the middle, while a negotiator (Michael Kenneth Williams) is brought in to de-escalate the situation.

Boyega is once again able to shed his British accent and embody a desperate, but polite man in one of the performances of the festival. Beharie continues to never miss a step as well, the more level-headed of the two hostages. Williams, in one of his final film roles, conveys the respect and seniority necessary to embody this character. No actor in the film misses a beat.

My only issue with the film is the pace. The setup and escalation of the situation are patient and boiling over with tension, then the film rushes to a conclusion. It’s an unfortunate mirror of the real-life situation, but there was an undercurrent of chaos that needed more control. Regardless, the film is an excellent watch because of the performances alone. (3.5/5.0)

Day three is in the books. I’ll be back for day four later in the week.

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