The 2024 Sundance Film Festival has ended, and while this year was more limited in the realm of virtual access, I was still able to see a large handful of films. Once again, the Roku app was still mostly junk, but I made do with what I could see uninterrupted. More importantly, my journey to find films that left any kind of impression – the main idea here – has led to this layout of the movies I saw and which features are worth praising. As usual, it’s a collection of independent features, international films, and debut projects from new voices, including a few documentaries. So, let’s hit the cinematic slopes.
Starting things off with one of the more accessible and successful films of the fest, Jesse Eisenberg’s sophomore directorial effort, A Real Pain, is actually really good. I say that because I was less than impressed with his first film (and previous Sundance submission), When You Finish Saving the World. This second film, however, delivers. In it, Eisenberg and Keiran Culkin play Jewish cousins traveling to Poland after their grandmother’s death to see where she came from, embarking on a Holocaust tour. Culkin’s abilities to play likable, high-energy, irritating characters is in full force here and in a very effective way. Part of that comes from what we learn about the character, but it’s also because of the life Culkin imbues into this role. Eisenberg doesn’t back down either, providing some of his own best work as the more anxious of the two. Consistently amusing while maintaining a considered level of melancholy, this is a very solid comedy-drama.
Keeping the Jewish people in mind, Between the Temples is another largely fun effort, hampered only by some of the directorial choices. In it, Jason Schwartzman plays a cantor having a crisis of faith, only to have things change when he strikes up a new relationship with his grade school music teacher, played by Carol Kane. She eventually begins training with Schwartzman’s Ben for an adult Bat Mitzvah, and more hijinks ensue. As noted, there are odd choices by director Nathan Silver and his team regarding closeups and camera angles. I suppose it’s a choice to give the impression of a manic environment, but it hurts the film a bit. Still, there’s a lot of good humor and fairly inside moments regarding the Jewish faith that I couldn’t help but smile at. Kane and Schwartzman are also entirely on the right level of eccentric and sad sack, which I enjoyed.
Moving away from the New York Jews and closer to the New York Bohemian crowd, Stress Positions feels like a film that is made for a more select group. I can’t say I’m a part of that group, but I also can’t deny what feels like an authentic portrayal of a few people living an alternative lifestyle while under strict quarantine. John Early plays Terry, a man living in his ex-husband’s (Theda Hammel) home in Brooklyn while caring for his injured nephew, a teenage Moroccan model (Qaher Harhash). While the film is ostensibly a comedy, it really depends on whether the viewer is annoyed by these characters, let alone feels like diving back into the world of quarantining portrayed in cinema. The film isn’t short on efforts to be funny, let alone character development. Still, as I wasn’t feeling the intended fun in more than just some occasional spurts, it left me more stressed than anything.
Also somewhat stressful is In the Summers, the film that won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize. It’s a coming-of-age story that starts off pleasantly enough as we follow two sisters who make yearly summer visits to their father’s home in New Mexico. We soon learn a couple of things – one of the girls is queer, and the father can be quite volatile, especially when he’s drinking. It’s easy to see why this film would draw high regard from a jury, as it features relevant subject matter, a musician-turned-actor (Residente as Vicente, the father), and a familiar story revolving around upbringing and difficult parents. It is a well-acted feature, particularly once the older versions of the children (Sasha Calle and Lio Mehiel) come into play. At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel at a bit of an arm’s length from grasping onto these characters on a deeper level.
That issue was not a problem for me with Didi, the story of a 13-year-old Chinese American boy (Chris, “Wang Wang” to his friends, and Didi to his mom) who is spending his summer before high school navigating the world of older kids, relationships, and internet videos. Izaac Wang is the star here, and he’s excellent at capturing the natural feel of a kid at this age. Didi is directed and written by Sean Wang, who is currently up for an Oscar for Best Documentary Short, and his talent is evident from the start. Working with very modern sensibilities for a film set in 2009, he has an effective ability in establishing a time, place, and attitude that’s well suited for the attitudes of teenagers and the society around them, leading to a lot of good-natured comedy, awkward scenarios reflecting Chris’s efforts to “be cool,” and his relationship with his family, particularly his mother played wonderfully by Joan Chen. One could see this as Asian-American Eighth Grade, but those films would easily complement each other well, as they come from grounded perspectives and are effective in their delivery.
A couple more films tracking young adults and the drama in their lives; I also watched Good One and Rob Peace. Both were decent enough, thanks to the strengths of the lead performances and some other work around them, but they did not shine much higher either. Good One is focused on a weekend backpacking trip in the Catskills, with Lily Collias’ Sam spending time with her father (James Le Gros) and his oldest friend (Danny McCarthy). It’s ultimately about these flawed men having some emotional reckoning and Sam’s reaction to it. That said, it shows potential for director India Donaldson.
Rob Peace is a bit higher profile by default, as it’s written and directed by co-star Chiwetel Ejiofor. He plays the imprisoned father to a very smart young boy who grows up as an inner-city kid struggling to get by while attending Yale. This is based on a true story, and it is a tragic one. Because of this, the film comes up lacking in trying to break out of its obvious intentions on an emotional level. Still, lead Jay Will’s work as Rob is very good, Mary J. Blige is quite effective as his mother, and I do think Ejiofor has it in him to make a film that truly works on all levels (I also did quite like his first directorial effort, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind).
Looking at something far more enjoyable, Kneecap is set in West Belfast in 2019. It’s fully embracing “The Troubles” and how much this group of young Irish rappers are battling to hang on to their Irish regarding the use of Gaelic as a proper language. While the political undertones are intriguing, it’s very entertaining as a kinetic comedy with musical moments. Think of it like a John Carney film by way of a young Danny Boyle in full Trainspotting mode, and you’ll have an idea of what this film is like. Writer/director Rich Peppiatt makes a fine directorial debut here.
With music on the mind, that brings me to The Greatest Night in Pop, a documentary now available on Netflix. It’s focus – January 25th, 1985, the day dozens of pop stars gathered to record “We Are the World,” a charity single designed to benefit African famine relief. Quincy Jones, Lionel Richie, and Michael Jackson led the way for a night that included Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Paul Simon, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Kenny Loggins, Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, Ray Charles, and so many more. What was it like to be in a room with so much talent? This doc is a mix of archival footage and various interviews detailing the atmosphere, the big and little moments, how it all came together, and other tidbits. It’s nothing revolutionary in terms of filmmaking, but director Bao Nguyen has provided sufficient fuel for anyone curious.
Looking at a couple more documentaries, I was pretty pleased with Skywalkers: A Love Story (currently the only good movie with ‘Skywalker’ in the title). This doc focuses on Ivan Beerkus and Angela Nikolau, two Russian rooftoppers (extreme daredevils who ascend the tops of skyscrapers, take videos and pictures, turning them into social media superstars in the process). Over the course of this doc, the two meet, begin working together, and eventually fall in love. We chart their relationship and their efforts to perform bigger stunts. It’s marred by director Jeff Zimbalist’s writing. While I buy into the relationship taking place, it definitely has the feel of seeing activities taking place that are heightened by the presence of a camera. However, this is also a film with dizzying shots from high places, an interesting focus on how these two essentially break laws to carefully infiltrate these buildings, and what it’s all for (which can be viewed positively or negatively, depending on one’s take).
The final doc I want to mention is also the best one I saw, Daughters. In terms of the overall plot, it focuses on four young girls who will be attending a special Daddy Daughter Dance with their incarcerated fathers as a part of a fatherhood program in a Washington D.C. jail. What makes it interesting is the focus on both sides here, as we follow these families and the sincerity that has resulted from these very young girls who came up with this idea. At the same time, we see these men in this jail, reckoning with what they are going through and what they are missing due to imprisonment. It can be an emotional film to watch for sure, and the filmmakers do well by not saying more than they must about the greater state of affairs when it comes to the imprisonment of Black men. The focus on the daughters greatly helps in that regard.
In the realm of experimental features, I watched Love Me, which tells a love story between a satellite and a buoy. The notable thing beyond its high concept is that Kristen Stewart voices the buoy and acts in the film, with Steven Yuen, respectively, as the satellite and his own character. This comes from directors Sam and Andy Zuchero, and they have essentially made Wall-E but with far more self-loathing. Once again, this is a story where social media plays a significant role, as it’s that information that sort of forms how these inanimate objects develop personalities. It’s not easy to describe, but it’s reasonably interesting and features challenging work from the actors.
Before getting to my favorite film of the fest, I should write about my least favorite: Veni Vidi Vici from directors Daniel Hoesl and Julia Niemann. This film surrounds the Maynard family, a group of billionaires that can get away with anything, and I mean that very literally. As we learn early on, Amon (Laurence Rupp), the family patriarch is a passionate hunter who doesn’t shoot animals. Seeing all of this play out certainly feels evocative of Ruben Östlund or Yorgos Lanthimos. That said, while those directors’ comedic sensibilities have transferred over to America well, the effort put into Veni Vidi Vici didn’t jive with me. It’s a pretty nasty approach to commenting on what the superrich can get away with and not particularly funny, insightful, or interesting.
On a much more positive note, my favorite film I saw during the fest was Exhibiting Forgiveness from debut writer and director Titus Kaphar. This film features André Holland as an artist who uses his paintings to deal with trauma from his past regarding his father. However, when his father re-emerges, claiming to be a recovering addict, there are clashes set to occur that will set the stage for where things will go next. While the art was unique, and the look and feel of the film felt lived-in, it’s not as though Kaphar is doing much to stand out stylistically. Even the plotting is somewhat familiar. However, sometimes just having solid performances in a well-staged drama is enough to deliver, and that’s what this film provides. Holland is terrific here, and as an actor I keep wanting to see receive higher awareness from audiences, this lead role allows him plenty to work with. At the same time, John Earl Jelks’ work as the father is also pretty terrific. Add to that fine support from Andra Day and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, and there’s plenty to appreciate here.