The first ever virtual iteration of the Sundance Film Festival wrapped up last week, and now that the cyber dust has settled, it’s time to dig into the films! More in-depth reviews of individual films will be coming shortly, but first! A full run-down of my favorite features, they are sorted by genre, (though many are genre-bending in the best possible way.) Make sure to add these to your “must watch” lists as many are going to hit streaming and theaters over the coming months.
Favorite Drama – Passing
Lush and deceptively delicate, Passing is the film adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel about the complex friendship of two African American women in the 1920s. Reenie (Tessa Thompson) lives a comfortable, middle-class life with her husband (Andre Holland) in Harlem, while her childhood friend Clare (Ruth Negga) has chosen to “pass” – meaning she hides her Black heritage in order to live a life in wealthy, white society. Director Rebecca Hall deftly weaves the complicated and often fraught themes of race, class, colorism, and sexism into one tragic portrait, and each scene is dripping with tension and danger. But, it’s the stellar performances by Thompson and Negga – and especially Negga’s heartbreaking turn as Clare, that really make Passing a must see.
Favorite Dramedy – CODA
CODA (which stands for Child of Deaf Adults), tells the story of the Rossi family – a family of deaf adults with one hearing child, a teenaged daughter named Ruby. Ruby struggles to find her own independence and in the process learns to let go of her overprotective need to shield her family from the rest of the community. The script is uproariously funny, and the charismatic bond between the family members (particularly Troy Katsur and Marlee Matlin as the patriarch and matriarch of the Rossi clan) is electric. It also manages to tread the tightrope of heartfelt family drama tropes without dipping into maudlin sentimentality.
Favorite Dark Comedy – On the Count of Three
The premise – two best friends with a suicide pact – might sound too bleak for some, but at its core, On The Count of Three is actually an intimate and hilarious look at friendship. Abbott and Carmichael have great chemistry as the depressed best friends, and Abbott’s manic despair is an excellent foil for Carmichael’s soft spoken, crushing anxiety. This is also Carmichael’s directorial debut and he demonstrates a great knack for maintaining warmth and humor in what could otherwise be an overwhelmingly cold, nihilistic film.
Favorite Horror – In the Earth
Honestly, this might be my favorite film of the whole festival. It has the science-meets-psychadelic visuals of Annihilation, and the unnerving, occult menace of the original Wicker Man. In The Earth is set in the midst of a global pandemic, but centers on a scientist and a park ranger who must trek deep into an isolated forest to check on the lead scientist of a mysterious project who has ceased responding to communications. It is shockingly funny, even in its moments of extreme violence (be warned: if you have trouble with gore, this might not be the film for you!), in that dry, casual way that seems to come so effortlessly to the British. In particular, Reece Shearsmith as the increasingly unhinged antagonist Zach, delivers possibly my favorite performance of the year. However, there is heavy strobe lighting near the end of the film, so if you are epileptic or light sensitive, please keep that in mind.
Favorite Thriller – Wild Indian
The first feature-length film from writer/director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr, Wild Indian centers on the repercussions of a heinous crime committed by two young boys. Makwa, (played by Michael Greyeyes) the instigator of the crime, grows up to be a highly successful CEO of a tech start-up. Meanwhile, his best friend Teddo (Chaske Spencer) consumed with the guilt of helping his friend cover it up, ends up an addict who is in and out of prison. Things come to a head when Teddo goes to San Francisco to confront Makwa about their childhood. Greyeyes’s performance as Makwa is chilling, and Spencer’s Teddo is absolutely heartbreaking. On the surface it feels like a revenge thriller in the vein of Cape Fear, but at its heart is a brutal Faustian lesson about the cost of selling your soul in order to assimilate into the white hegemony.
Favorite Fantasy – The Blazing World
An expansion of her short film which debuted as part of the 2017 festival, The Blazing World is the directorial feature length debut of Scream actress Carlson Young. The film follows Margaret, a troubled young woman who lost her twin sister in a drowning accident when they were small children, as she is transported to a fantastical alternate dimension within her own psyche in a desperate attempt to save her lost sister. This “Through the Looking Glass” on acid fantasy feels akin to the works of Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall) and Guillermo Del Toro, with some nods to late seventies, early eighties fantasy-horror classics like Phantasm. Udo Kier and Dermot Mulroney are deliciously ominous as the main antagonists. Young’s acting was a bit uneven at times, and it was hard for my brain to accept that Vinessa Shaw (Hocus Pocus) at 44 yrs old could possibly be Carlson Young’s (who is 30 yrs old) mother in the story that was created, but overall it’s a beautifully creepy story and has me excited for Young’s next works.
Favorite Documentary – Cusp
This was probably my most difficult choice. Documentaries are Sundance Festival’s life blood and it feels unfair to narrow my choice down to just one, especially when they have such a wide array of topics and narrative styles. Rita Moreno and Amy Tan had terrific documentaries about their lives premiere this year, Summer of Soul – a documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival (aka “Black Woodstock”) whose footage was locked in a basement for the past fifty years is truly life affirming, but my mind keeps returning to Cusp. Cusp is a slice of life documentary following three teenaged girls as they navigate romance, adolescence, and life in a small Texas town. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a similarly small, rural town, or because I was once a teenaged girl myself, but Cusp feels achingly – often heartbreakingly – familiar. The three girls (Aaloni, Autumn, and Brittney) are incredibly open and vulnerable and the directors Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill follow them with an intimate eye that never feels exploitative – even as you watch the girls discuss their (sometimes with shocking frankness) blossoming sexuality. It can be painful at times to see how little things have changed for adolescent girls, particularly in terms of sexual harassment and violence, but their kindness and empathy towards each other is a reminder of the unbreakable bonds of teenage friendship.