2022 Sundance Film Festival: Virtual Review Round-Up, Part I

Aaron Neuwirth reviews a handful of features that premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival viewed virtually.

Given the organization and ease of virtual access, it seems clear the last-minute switch to have an in-person and virtual Sundance Film Festival was an anticipated circumstance to be prepared for. I wouldn’t know because I didn’t really attend. While the opportunity to actually “do Sundance” (aka, travel to Utah and all of that) is still something I’m hoping my lovely girlfriend and I can accomplish, I did have the opportunity to screen several features at home. While I would single out two movies as true standouts, it’s easy to appreciate the talent shown by debut filmmakers and some notable actors working on their indie cred. Having so many films clock in around 90 minutes occurred just enough to feel noteworthy as well.

When You Finish Saving The World was an opening night feature for the fest and fits the vibe of what can be expected. Jesse Eisenberg, an actor who’s been featured in plenty of Sundance premieres, makes his directorial debut here. The story is a comedy-drama adapted from Eisenberg’s own 2020 audio drama. It focuses largely on a mother and son (Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard), who have grown estranged from each other as they feed more and more into their own narcissistic tendencies. Anyone familiar with The Squid and the Whale (featuring Eisenberg) can find commonalities in the acerbic sense of humor, awkward character dynamics, and general tone of what’s taking place. Nothing wrong with looking to Noah Baumbach as a key inspiration. I only wish I had taken away more from what the film had to say about these people.

While perhaps a bit meandering, I had a far clearer picture of what I should reflect on with After Yang, writer/director Kogonada’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut film, Columbus. Perhaps the best movie I watched at Sundance (or at least tied with one other), this sci-fi drama focuses on a family dealing with a malfunctioning android. This is a future world where robotic children exist for various reasons, and the sudden unresponsiveness puts Colin Farrell’s Jake on a journey of understanding the way a soul functions in a world where clones and artificial intelligence have a stake in what’s taking place. True to form, Kogonada gets a lot of emotion from his actors (the solid supporting cast includes Jodie Turner-Smith, Haley Lu Richardson, Sarita Choudhury, and Clifton Collins Jr.) as well as his precise cinematography. It’s also necessary to state how the film has one of the best opening credits sequences I’ve seen in years.

The idea of appreciating life while you have it is not unusual for the arthouse film scene, as many stories focus on quirky individuals shaking up their entire status quo or questioning their existence, only to go on a journey of self-discovery. That’s precisely what’s happening in Living, a remake of one of Akira Kurosawa’s masterworks, Ikiru, now featuring Bill Nighy in the Takashi Shimura role. While much shorter, the plot remains the same. Nighy’s Mr. Williams learns he has cancer and decides to make a difference in the time he has left as a bureaucrat who has done little to help the community.

Set in 1952, director Oliver Hermanus attempts to recreate the feel of an older drama in a manner that distinguishes the film from Kurosawa’s. Nighy is as good as can be, but I can’t shake the feeling of him playing a stodgy character turning a corner suddenly qualifying him to be recognized for his talents, as if his broader roles aren’t as equally affecting in their own unique way. Regardless, it’s a bit dry yet accessible.

Speaking of accessibility, these next two films offer thrills that could easily attract a mainstream crowd. Emily The Criminal finds star and producer Aubrey Plaza working new angles on her typical role as a woman saddled with debt and not getting by on her deadpan sense of humor. Involving herself in a credit card scam means inching closer and closer to a criminal underworld that will not be easy to walk away from. The mechanics of this story are not entirely unique, but the fast-paced direction keeps the intensity high.

Intensity is most certainly the name of the game in Fresh, a body horror thriller that starts out far more pleasant. Daisy Edgar-Jones’ Noa is tired of bad dates, and it seems like she’s finally found the right guy in Steve (Sebastian Stan). To namecheck an upcoming Jordan Peele film, “Nope.” It turns out that Steve is not who he seems, and the horrors of modern dating are taken to their extreme for an overlong period. While the ending doesn’t come together as well as one hopes, there’s too much effective work coming from these two lead performances and the ongoing terror of the situation. A streak of dark humor doesn’t hurt either.

I’m not sure more humor could have been used in Master, but this is a curious film. By default, it’s one of several social thrillers that lead to many evoking Get Out comparisons. On the one hand, it’s nice to see how much of an impact the Oscar-winning feature had. However, that also takes away from how strong an effort director Mariama Diallo, for example, puts into Master, a horror/thriller focused on just how embedded systemic racism is in predominantly white settings, such as an acclaimed New England university. Regina Hall and Zoe Renee star as a professor and a first-year student in dual narratives that occasionally become entwined. While a corruptive supernatural element is also at play, there’s far more going on under the surface to make Master a frustrating experience and one deserving more analysis. The way it surprises viewers with its choices and finds an unexpected note to end on makes the message more challenging.

Also challenging is how to accept the mockumentary-style comedy, Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul, also starring Regina Hall. She and Sterling K. Brown portray the first lady and pastor of a prominent Southern Baptist Mega-Church looking to rebuild its congregation following revelations of a massive scandal. As with the best ways to handle this setup, there’s no real attempt to mock religion. Instead, this is all about egos and political moves made by self-serving individuals. With that said, it’s not as funny as it could be, and the film is far better when embracing the drama. Hall, in particular, features heavily in a climactic sequence that finds her outfitted in an entirely ridiculous getup while delivering some weighty dialogue. Not enough to make the entire film stronger, but there’s clearly a version of this that works.

Finding the proper balance is always key, which is what ultimately hurts Alice, a slavery drama infused with blacksploitation elements and a major twist early on that I may as well reveal, with a note to those concerned with spoilers to back away now and not look at the key still image being used to advertise the film. Keke Palmer stars as a slave in the antebellum South, who manages to escape her plantation, and quickly discover she’s actually living in the 1970s. It’s a wild concept that writer/director Krystin Ver Linden doesn’t seem fully prepared to handle. From the opening act that takes up far too much time to the tonal shift trying to embrace both Alice’s education on black history as well as the spirit of old Pam Grier movies, this high concept doesn’t quite go over with a “booyah!”

To be continued in Part II

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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