Day three of my coverage of the Sundance Film Festival
dir. Julian Higgins
A grieving college professor Sandra (Thandiwe Newton) begins a battle of wills between a pair of hunters (Joris Jarsky and Jefferson White), with increasing escalations. Feeling unsafe and unhelped by the local authorities (Jeremy Bobb), Sandra begins to take matters into her own hands to protect herself and her property.
The film sets up to be a mix of Wind River and Straw Dogs, but morphs into something more meditative and introspective. Inevitably, the film shifts back into the more predictable, though tension-filled conclusion. Newton continues to astound in each and every role she plays in, and it’s nice to see her get a true starring role. Her quiet fury drives the narrative and anchors the film in a sense of reality. The cinematography of rural Montana is stunningly beautiful.
The film might have loftier goals than what is on paper, but it never reaches those heights. As a pure genre picture, it’s pretty successful. When it tries to stretch its wings, the execution isn’t there. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t enjoyable. (3.0/5.0)
dir. Krystin Ver Linden
Alice (Keke Palmer) is a slave living on a brutal Georgia plantation under the watchful eye of the owner Paul Bennett (Johnny Lee Miller). Finally able to break free, Alice clears the woods to find a road with trucks in 1973. Helped by a pleasant truck driver Frank (Common), Alice tries to piece together the truth and help those back at the plantation.
The film’s first act and the second act create a large-scale whiplash effect. What starts as a slave-era show of horrors, eventually turns into a Blaxploitation imitator. Palmer tries her best to convey both worlds, but the script doesn’t do her any favors. The film vacillates from profound to profoundly silly from scene to scene, but never with the wink the audience keeps waiting for.
Much like Newton, it’s welcome to have a showcase for Palmer, but this isn’t a project that works. There’s tons of potential, but it just never feels right. (2.0/5.0)
Emily the Criminal (Full Review)
dir. John Patton Ford
Saddled with student loan debt, Emily (Aubrey Plaza) can’t get gainful employment due to a criminal record. Working as a caterer, a co-worker suggests she become a “dummy shopper,” someone who buys goods using a stolen credit card. Enticed by the cash, Emily dives into the Los Angeles criminal underworld with the help of her fellow dummy shopper Youcef (Theo Rossi).
Plaza might seem ill-suited for an almost completely serious role, but she perfectly suits the bubbling anger and repressed energy needed for Emily. She is stuck in a no-win situation, but never pities or decries her station. She is forward energy and momentum. Whenever she gets backed into a corner, she lashes out. It’s a blistering performance. Rossi plays a nice compliment to Plaza, and their chemistry is a fun and constantly shifting dynamic.
The film is an ode to how quickly you can go to the dark side if you are limited in your options. Between Plaza and the crackling energy of the script, it’s nice to get some dark, but high-minded adult fare. (4.0/5.0)
dir. Carlota Pereda
Sara (Laura Galán) is very unhappy. She works at her parent’s butcher shop but is constantly tormented because of her weight. While swimming at the local pool, she is bullied by three popular girls. On her way home, Sara sees the three girls abducted by a strange man. As the authorities search for the girls, Sara is faced with helping or saving the man who she now considers her savior.
The film has lots to say about body image, relationships with parents, bullying, as well as self-control. Galán gives a selfless performance as Sara. She is constantly struggling against the societal and parental pressures and just wants a bit of happiness for herself.
Well-suited to its midnight timeslot, the film’s incredible conclusion helps make up for the drag of a second act. (3.0/5.0)
dir. Emma Pildes and Tia Lessin
In the early 1960s-70s, a group of women in Chicago band together to help other women access safe, affordable, and illegal abortions. Interviews from the doctors, patients, bystanders, and Jane members tell the story of an organization fighting for women’s reproductive rights.
Each woman interviewed presents her background, her entrance into activism, and their role in the Jane organization. Not only do the interviews include a true sense of setting, but these women present their mission with passion and verve. Each interview is more captivating than the last.
The documentary smartly keeps the focus on these extraordinary women. The film obviously has an opinion, but keeping focused on the facts was the correct approach. (3.5/5.0)
dir. Daniel Roher
Russian politician Alexev Nalvany survived an assassination attempt in 2020. As he recovers outside of Russia, he and a group of independent and worldwide journalists uncover the truth about his attempted murder.
While Navalny’s interviews don’t reveal anything other than a man worried about his image, the behind-the-scenes shine through and show what appears to be an ordinary man. His relationship with his staff, his social media presence, and the affection he shows towards his wife is a welcome view of what would otherwise be a purely political figure.
More of an expose on Russian corruption, the documentary shows the potential of Russian politics and the forces trying to stop him. (4.0/5.0)
dir. Margaret Brown
The members of the Africatown community of Mobile, Alabama consist of a group of descendants from the slave ship Clotilda. Though the ship has never been found at the mouth of the river. The residents must wrestle with the legacy of their family and how they came to be in the United States.
While the mystery of the Clotilda takes a part of the narrative, the residents of Africatown are much more prominent. Each has their own feelings about their roles, legacy, and what should be done moving forward. The ship is interesting, the people are essential.
What starts as a salvaging mission, turns into a poignant and somber look at the role each modern descendant plays in their own history. An important watch. (4.0/5.0)
Cha Cha Real Smooth
dir. Cooper Raiff
Recent college graduate Andrew (Cooper Raiff) has no clue what to do with his life, so he moves back home with his mom (Leslie Mann), step-dad (Brad Garrett), and his brother David (Evan Assante). Accompanying David to a bar mitzvah, Andrew connects with Domino (Dakota Johnson), a young mother with an autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt).
Raiff touches on some lofty themes of family, life choices, immaturity, and passionate love. Raiff is a likeable presence, while Johnson is the perfect enigma of a woman. Assante is also a delight. Burghardt is able to sidestep many of the autism cliches and shows less is more. Mann is the heart of the film and may give my favorite performance in the film.
Raiff is proving himself to be a new and exciting filmmaking voice. While some might be looking for what he does next, this film announces him as the potential director of his generation. (4.5/5.0)
That concludes my coverage of the Sundance Film Festival. Thanks for following along!