I have attended the Sundance Film Festival since 2017, either in-person or online. I appreciate the access to high-quality, independent movies during a Barron time of year. Here are some highlights of what I watched.
My first watch was Oscar nominee Sean Wang’s Dìdi (弟弟). The charming and awkwardly funny coming-of-age story showcased growing up online in the late 00s. I didn’t think I would be nostalgic to see the website layout of Facebook (before, “like” pages could post content!) And remember MySpace? It was the only movie I watched on a computer that felt appropriate. Other aspects of growing up and moving on to high school are the same; goofing off with friends and crushing on girls is timeless, except this comes with the uncomfortable baggage of YouTube and AIM chat. You can feel the new era of society in how teens communicate with each other in a very genuine and vibrant storytelling. Joan Chen is fantastic as a sympathetic mom dealing with her mother’s aging, too. Everyone is growing older and has their unique experience and way of coping, which is ultimately what this is about.
I never saw Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut, When You Finish Saving the World, and during online Sundance 2022, I watched Eva Longoria Bastón’s insightful and energetic La Guerra Civil simultaneously. Anyway, I admired how his new movie, A Real Pain, balanced comedy and drama with the individual pain of the grieving family and the collective pain of the Jewish community while touring Holocaust history and concentration camps. The script won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, a worthy inclusion considering their track record. Fresh off his Emmy win for Succession, Kieran Culkin was fantastic as the obnoxious riot and tortured soul grieving over the loss of his grandmother, who inspired the trip of these two cousins reuniting on a European tour. Eisenberg has a few knockout scenes, including discussing his cousin with dinner guests. I could see this movie having a life beyond the festival, as it is in good hands with Searchlight for a potential awards campaign.
After processing A New Kind of Wilderness days later, the award-winning World Cinema Doc made me contemplate life and tribulations. The movie opens with a flurry of photos showing an idyllic wood-dwelling life like a magazine profile of simple and solemn living until the mother of the family dies. Transitioning from an independent life where they have to learn to depend on each other is rough for the father and children in their own different ways. The best shot is the old camera in the window by the stairs, a symbol of so much: a mother’s memory lingers in this poignancy and tenderness. The cinematography in this doc felt like her spirit watching them. (“Mom will always be with us” on child observes) There is a scene toward the end involving a letter, which ties the doc together. My heart broke for this family, but their love for each other, their strength to experience grief, and the bravery to reintroduce themselves to society profoundly touched me.
The luminous cinematography of the Argentine cowboys and cowgirls in Gaucho, Gaucho left me in a transcendent spell. After this and the masterful Truffle Hunters, I will follow directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw wherever they travel the world, showcasing the simplicity of being impended in a rural culture where a way of life is going extinct and the connection formed between humanity and animals—an intimate glimpse into a society rarely captured on film. The camera is at a slight distance, allowing them to be free while observing the conversation unclosed. Every moment is enthralling uniquely, like an art exhibit. In fact, a roommate came home when I was watching it and observed that it looked like an art museum. He returned to the room a few times during the final 45 minutes, absorbing the imagery. Ultimately, it is a woman’s journey to acclimate to a new lifestyle perfectly embodied in the scene of her riding a barrel swinging on a rope like a bull and, of course, the stunning final shot of her galloping across the vast landscape.
June Squibb is hysterical in the sweet, cheeky, low-key, indie action comedy Thelma. The plot resembles The Beekeeper, where Squibb wants to get her money back that she was scammed out of by any means necessary and is a determined woman. Hilarity ensues. Her confusion with technology is amusing and relatable to older generations, from fumbling with a computer mouse to wanting to contact Facebook owner “Zuckerborg.” A pleasant, relatable moment for older audiences was a few recurring scenes of older adults’s small talk. When she tries to call, all of her friends who have either died or moved might hit too close to home. Her grandson has a disability and is having trouble processing tasks and challenges. (One of) Richard Roundtree’s final performance was bittersweet, watching an underappreciated performer having as much of a wonderful time as Squibb. This exchange sums up the movie perfectly: “We have our good days and bad days.” “What’s today?” “We’ll find out.”
The Next category highlights the new filmmaking generation, which perfectly describes Kneecap, a “Trainspotting” meets highwire act of kinetic energy and a chaotic attitude. The darkly humorous tale stars the Belfast, Northern Ireland-based hip-hop trio. Their catchy rap music with lyrics written on screen with quick cuts centers the movie. From pot in the incense at Catholic Mass to bonkers sex scenes and Fast forward a fight or digging for drugs in the trash, the unexpected comedic timing is wild. At the heart of the audience award winner is the Irish language as resistance and cultural identity. Rich Peppiatt’s impressive breakout is all over the place in the best way possible. (“Bone Thugs and No Harmony” is a self-deprecating joke.) This could be a new cult classic whenever it opens.
Directed by Johan Grimonprez with precision, Soundtrack to a Coup d’État, a fusion of lively creativity and historical importance, is a feast for the eyes and the brain. The playful fonts and colors overlaying academic citations and research with archival footage and soulful jazz music was a terrific presentation. There is a little information overload with the 2.5-hour run time. It may be too long, but I don’t know what to cut in this fascinating doc. (Maybe the Castro scenes, but those were interesting and advanced the story.) A tighter movie would have focused on the musicians, but the incident is very complex and little known. The final minutes, with the uptempo song and disorderly protest footage, were sensational. A masterpiece of documentary filmmaking. The chamber of command sequence with the musicians labeled as chamber commanders was great. A savvy boutique studio would be lucky to acquire this.
Titus Kaphar’s Exhibiting Forgiveness was my final watch, and the mix of positive reactions intrigued me. I was glad I made time for this one. André Holland is excellent in the lead and acts in quiet and loud moments. His art is beautiful, capturing the vulnerable themes of the movie. Both Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor and John Earl Jelks were very good in their roles. I loved the scene where Holland’s son stood outside, removed the painting, and revealed the home in the background. It is a simple touch but a bold statement. I appreciate the poignant, reflective moments like this over the dramatic ones of family conflict that feel overwritten and a little dramatic to me that didn’t always work for me. (The “Don’t stop praying for me” exchange between father and son was much.) Regardless of my quibbles, this is a redemptive movie on its terms about generational trauma and grace with boundaries that should find a thoughtful audience willing to have their souls stirred.