Sundance Film Festival 2022 Header Image

 

It’s the last week of January, so you know what that means. I’m back with dispatches from the front of Virtual Sundance, Round 2 (aka the Sundance Film Festival 2022)!

This year’s coverage of the festival won’t be quite as extensive as last year’s. I have just moved across the country–seriously, we’ve been in our new place for a week, and the movers haven’t even gotten our stuff here yet–and had thought that I wasn’t going to be able to attend the festival at all this year. While the 2022 edition of the festival had long been planned as a “hybrid” event, it wasn’t clear what would be available online (frankly, it didn’t seem like much), and I wasn’t going to be able to go to Utah for a week in the middle of a move. So I had written this year off a Sundance loss and resigned myself to it. 

As the omicron/winter COVID surge began to sweep the country in December, film industry folks wondered if Sundance would push forward with the in-person festival. Public health experts in Utah predicted that the peak of the omicron surge in the film festival’s host state would coincide with the event. At the very last minute, the announcement finally came that the 2022 edition of the festival would, as last year, be entirely virtual. Well, I couldn’t help myself at that point. I snapped up some tickets, roped in my longtime Sundance buddy (my mom), and we were off to the races. I don’t have a festival pass this year, and I’ll have to take a few days off this week to, you know, unpack all of my belongings; however, I can’t restrain myself and will still probably watch more movies than any one person should watch in a week.

Writing my Sundance diary last year was a challenge that I greatly enjoyed tackling. I thought it would be fun to try it again, so expect regular updates here on the blog about what I’m watching at the festival. This year, I’m going to try out a streamlined version of the diary that consists mainly of capsule reviews. I’ve also tasked myself with being less descriptive in my roundups and more pithy with my opinion. We’ll see how that goes. “I’m working on developing my quick reaction muscle,” I tell you as I meaningfully tap the “About Us” tab.

So, without further ado, here’s the main attraction.

 

DAY 1 (Friday, January 21, 2022)**

All of the films I watched on Day 1 pointed me outwards, to other films I would like to watch. Living made me curious about Ikiru, of course, while The Exiles inspired me to seek out the documentaries of Christine Choy. Leonor Will Never Die piqued my interest in the Filipino action films, like the ones Leonor makes and dreams about, that clearly inspired writer/director Martika Ramirez Escobar.

 

Living (Premieres)

Oliver Hermanus directs this remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952), while internationally acclaimed novelist Kazuo Ishiguro wrote the script, which transposes the story of Kurosawa’s film to post-war London. Living features an impressively restrained, incredibly effective central performance from Bill Nighy as a bureaucrat who struggles to find meaning in his life when he learns that he has six months left to live. Supporting turns from Tom Burke (pitch perfect here, simply oozing seedy charm), Aimee Lou Wood, and Alex Sharp round out a uniformly strong cast. From the stunning opening credits, which are designed to look as though they belong to a film made in the period in which the film is set, it’s clear that the film will be a treat for the formalists. Each frame of Living is rigorously, classically composed, and, combined with the gorgeously high contrast cinematography, this does lend the film a decidedly (deliciously) old-fashioned look. The plot, taken straight from the Kurosawa film, has a literary bent, full as it is of chance encounters, intertwined fates, and existential questions. The film is, ultimately, a morality tale, but the script never falsely reduces the emotional complexity of any situation to make a point or pull a heartstring. Despite a premise that sounds like the setup for something mawkish, Living operates in a controlled, repressed register that reflects its main character’s inner state. I liked this film quite a bit, but, having never seen Ikiru, I can’t speak to how it works as a remake. 

 

The Exiles (U.S. Documentary Competition)

Violet Columbus and Ben Klein set out to make a biographical documentary about outspoken nonfiction filmmaker, activist, and professor Christine Choy; but during the process, they discovered that Choy had hours and hours of footage for an intriguing unfinished project. In 1989, Choy began filming a group of Chinese activists who had survived the Tiananmen Square massacre and been granted asylum in New York City. Choy, a Chinese-American woman, found herself at the perfect cultural crossroad to take on the project. (She’s blunter, saying she was able to film the subjects because “I spoke Chinese.”) Columbus and Klein endeavor to help Choy finish the project, following up with the subjects thirty years later and reminding audiences of the significance of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The two intentions of the documentary never came together meaningfully for me (the profile of Choy and the recovery of Choy’s old project), although the thread of the film that concerned the survivors of the massacre in the present day was undeniably moving.

 

Leonor Will Never Die (World Dramatic Competition)

Perhaps the strangest film I’ve seen so far this festival, Leonor Will Never Die might best be described as an experimental film about filmmaking, turning life into art, dealing with death, and action films from the Philippines. Martika Ramirez Escobar wrote and directed this never less than involving movie, which takes so many surreal turns that you can’t help but keep watching. Leonor (a fantastic Sheila Francisco) is an aging, retired action film maker. When she gets hit on the head and goes into a coma, she gets stuck in a script she’s been working on for many years. The coma/dream sections of the film are faithful, affectionate recreations of the type of action film Leonor would have made in her career. I admired the craft and the ambition of this film, but I’m not sure I loved it. I am looking forward to watching this one again when I have the opportunity.

 

DAY 2 (Saturday, January 22, 2022)

My Day 2 schedule unintentionally provided me with two thematic pairs. Calendar Girls and Good Luck to You, Leo Grande featured women over 60 interested in challenging accepted norms about how women “should” age and figuring out a better way to live their lives. The documentaries Fire of Love and Lucy and Desi both spotlit real-life couples whose shared work changed the world.

 

Calendar Girls (World Cinema Documentary Competition) 

If this movie doesn’t make you want to dance, then I don’t know what to tell you. Finnish directing duo Maria Loohufvud and Love Martinsen make their feature film debut with this charming documentary about a volunteer dance troupe in Florida made up entirely of women over 60. The film follows several of the dancers, including the troupe’s founder and leader, over the course of a year or so. The spirited women at the center of this documentary find meaning and purpose while performing with the Calendar Girls at a time in their lives when they feel like society expects them to be invisible. The highlights of the doc for me were the interpretive dance scenes sprinkled throughout the movie, which worked to both illuminate the women’s inner emotional states and also effectively translate the Calendar Girls’ dancing for the medium of film. Juno Films picked up Calendar Girls for distribution, with an expected North American theatrical release in the summer.

 

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (Premieres)

Before I go any further, I have to get this out of the way: Daryl McCormack is a goddamn STAR. I hadn’t seen him in anything before I watched this film, and he a) held his own against Emma Thompson giving an absolute powerhouse performance and b) completely sold a character who is pretty much a gender-swapped, progressive version of the “hooker with a heart of gold” cliché. He pulled off the fantasy and kept the whole thing real without breaking a sweat. He knocked my socks off. Yes, he’s hot (that’s the point), but I can’t stop thinking about his performance. Brb, coming up with pitches about this for later because I have MORE TO SAY.

Anyway… if you can’t tell, I adored Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, directed by Sophie Hyde and written by Katy Brand. The film is a dialogue heavy two-hander that might easily have been a play; the astutely written script got noticed by producers because the single setting and two characters made it safe to shoot during a pandemic. The film’s visual style is rather subdued and utilitarian, but that worked for me, as the script and the performances are the main attraction here. Emma Thompson plays “Nancy Stokes,” an older woman who has never experienced sexual pleasure or satisfaction. She hires a much younger sex worker, “Leo Grande” (McCormack), to meet her in a hotel room and hopefully, finally give her a sexual encounter to remember. Over the course of four meetings, Nancy and Leo experience many forms of intimacy with each other in addition to the sexual kind. This sex-positive dramedy never hit a false emotional note, and I will not stop recommending it to everyone I know when it comes out.

 

Fire of Love (U.S. Documentary Competition)

I loved this archival doc, which showcases the work and relationship of married volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. Director Sara Dosa combines archival footage and lyrical narration (voiced by the inimitable Miranda July, an inspired choice) to create a French New Wave-inspired meditation on the volcanic forces of love and nature that shaped the Krafft’s lives. The artistic footage of active volcanoes, taken by Maurice during his lifetime, that makes up the bulk of the film is simply mesmerizing. I can’t wait to see Fire of Love on a bigger screen, which should be possible since National Geographic Documentary Films snapped it up for distribution. The story of the Kraffts, who come off in the doc as outsider adventurer scientists from an age bygone even before they lived, seems like a great fit for National Geographic.

 

Lucy and Desi (Premieres)

At the height of their influence, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were a power couple if ever there was one. Comedian Amy Poehler’s documentary serves as a tribute to both their love story and their legacy in Hollywood. As a nearly lifelong I Love Lucy fan whose Dad encouraged her to read histories and biographies, none of the information presented in Lucy and Desi felt revelatory to me. However, the documentary makes wonderful use of archival audio to let Lucy and Desi tell their own stories in their own voices. Although Poehler refrains from relying too heavily on talking heads, Lucie Arnaz contributes extensive recollections of her parents, and a handful of performers from the generations after Lucy and Desi speak to the couple’s legacy in the entertainment industry. Ultimately, the film is standard in form for this type of biographical documentary but obviously made with love for its subjects. Lucy and Desi will debut on Amazon Prime Video in March.


 

*The festival officially kicked off on January 20, but I didn’t see any of the premiere screenings that night. My festival started on the first full day, January 21, so that’s when I’m starting this diary.

 

The Ghost of Christmas Present and Scrooge in Scrooge (1970)

 

I grew up in a movie musical-loving household, so, naturally, our yearly dose of A Christmas Carol came in the form of Scrooge, the 1970 musical interpretation of Dickens’ holiday classic. While this version is my sentimental favorite, I concede that this adaptation makes a number of baffling decisions. For one, Scrooge was an obvious bid to capitalize on the success of 1968’s Oliver!, but none of the creatives involved with that project were involved with Scrooge. (It shows in the songs, which vary wildly in quality but nevertheless can’t manage to reach the heights of anything like “As Long as He Needs Me.”) Casting a then thirty-four-year-old Albert Finney—who can’t sing a note—as the titular old tightwad is another head-scratcher. (I love Finney’s ridiculous old man theatrics, but your mileage may vary.) The film’s most controversial choice might be in its third act, when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come goes a step further than usual and literally shows Scrooge his place in hell. (After this prophetic vision of eternal damnation, Scrooge’s decision to change his ways seems a bit more, uh, selfishly motivated.)

I will fiercely defend, however, the film’s unexpectedly breezy Ghost of Christmas Present.

In any version of A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Present has one job: to get Ebenezer Scrooge to care one iota about his fellow man. The second spirit who appears to Scrooge espouses a philosophy of goodwill to all and promotes charity and unselfishness, challenging Scrooge to reevaluate his miserly outlook. This ghost is generally jovial and pleasant, until suddenly he isn’t. There often comes a point where the spirit drops the Father Christmas act to reprimand and shock Scrooge into thinking that maybe he should start giving a fig about someone other than himself.

I find myself indirectly chided and reproached by well-meaning people online for “not caring” about this or that every day. If you’ve ever used social media, you, too, might recognize some of the tactics that The Ghost of Christmas Present regularly uses for cajoling Scrooge into paying attention to and doing something about the ills of the world. Among other strategies, the second spirit pulls out:

  • The “why is no one talking about this” tweet: The Ghost of Christmas Present assumes Scrooge’s ignorance of the degradations of poverty, showing Scrooge how the working-class lives in hopes of sparking a revelation.
  • The heart-wrenching GoFundMe link for medical bills: The Ghost of Christmas Present tells Scrooge straight up that Tiny Tim will die if the old man doesn’t do something about it.
  • The litany of dire predictions about the future: The Ghost of Christmas Present tries to scare the stuffing out of Scrooge by dramatically revealing the freaky allegorical waifs under his robe, Ignorance and Want, who will inherit the earth if no one practices Christian charity.

In Scrooge, the Ghost of Christmas Present is good vibes only. The ghost’s stern side never surfaces; Kenneth More infuses his incarnation of the second spirit with his signature blithe charm. If you don’t understand that life’s a romp—or a “perpetual spree,” as he sings—you’re doing it wrong, babe. Here I must confess that in my younger days, at the height of the YOLO craze, I once used a lyric from the Ghost of Christmas Present’s song, “I Like Life,” as an Instagram caption.

More’s Ghost of Christmas Present inspires goodwill towards men in Scrooge’s heart by getting Ebenezer lit. The two of them get drunk together, on the “milk of human kindness” that looks suspiciously like red wine. Then they fly off to invisibly attend a pair of Christmas parties. In remembering how wonderful and enjoyable life can be, Scrooge’s cold heart begins to warm, awakening a generosity of spirit.

Cheers to that. Admonishment, guilt, and fear only go so far as methods of persuasion when they become a constant barrage, even when I’m sympathetic to the causes being put forth. I’m not being the tone police here; I think righteous anger has its time and place. Sometimes we all need to be woken up a little bit, slapped like Bill Murray in Scrooged. But let’s be honest, if the Ghost of Christmas Present showed up at my door at two o’clock in the morning and started in with a talking-to, I think I’d just tune him out. Keep scrolling. I know the world sucks, what’s new.

My grandmother, who might easily be an antivaxxer and a Covid skeptic based on her preferred news sources, just got her booster shot the other week. When my mom thanked her for getting her vaccine and doing the right thing, grateful that it didn’t turn into a point of contention, my grandma texted back, “I love life too much to ever wager on giving it away!”

I like life / Here and now / Life and I made a mutual vow.

Life and I / ’Til I die / We’ll both try to be better somehow.

Perhaps More’s unrelentingly merry Ghost of Christmas Present is onto something. I like the idea of a “mutual vow” between life and I. It’s symbiotic, a give and a take. Getting high on life becomes an essential part of living a generous, open existence and remembering to love other people. I guess it seems kind of obvious, but, man, it’s been easy to hate people these last few years. I don’t need more reminders of how awful the world is right now. I need to be reminded of all of the wondrous things that make being alive so incredible, all of things that I want everyone in the world to have.

Like every good charity event planner, my favorite Ghost of Christmas Present knows that, sometimes, reaching this beatific state of generosity requires a few glasses of wine. And that’s okay.

 

 

[I rarely write about new releases, so I’m not in the habit of doing spoiler alerts at the top of my posts. BUT this post includes spoilers for Eternals. *Taylor Swift voice* Don’t say I didn’t, say I didn’t, warn ya.]

 

Every so often, a satire or parody comes along that is so effective, so indelible, that it starts to replace the original target as a reference point. I’m thinking, for example, of the way that reviews of the recent spate of Bohemian Rhapsody-inspired music biopics reference Walk Hard far more often than they reference the films that Walk Hard lampoons; or consider the way Weird Al’s “The Saga Begins” completely eclipsed Don McLean’s “American Pie” in the minds of a micro-generation of Zillennials. (Or is that just a “me” thing? No, I’m willing to bet that all the Radio Disney play of this song rotted the brains of other people my age, too.) Well, right now, I want to talk about a recent case of this phenomenon that inadvertently tipped me off to a plot twist in Eternals, the most recent entry into the MCU.

If you’ve seen Eternals and you watch The Boys, you may have guessed by now that I’ve gathered you here today to discuss Homelander. It’s no secret that Homelander, the show’s premier villain, serves as the main fascination for many viewers of The Boys. Antony Starr does standout work on Amazon Prime’s sick superhero send-up; search “Antony Starr Emmy” on Twitter, and you’ll find an abundance of outraged fan tweets about how Starr’s been robbed of a nomination two years running. While I have a more measured appreciation of The Boys as a whole, I will concede to the fanboys that Starr gives one of the more surprisingly intricate performances on a television drama in recent memory.*

 

A still from the TV show The Boys of Homelander (Antony Starr) using his laser eyes

 

The whole conceit of The Boys boils down to this: if superheroes really existed, they’d be power-mad perverts to whom no rules apply. So it’s no surprise that Homelander, the leader of the show’s elite superhero squad called the Seven, turns out to be the most power-mad and perverted of all. The show, as well as the comic series it’s based on, is ostensibly a satire of other superhero properties. As Doreen St. Félix observes in her stellar review of season two, the show sits uneasily at the halfway point between satire and genre deconstruction (Alan Moore’s Watchmen seems to be a bigger inspiration for The Boys than anything else), but I do think that the satire is the hook, so to speak.** The show most plainly reads as a satire of other superhero properties when one looks at the supes that make up the Seven. Each member of the Seven is transparently modeled on a member of DC’s Justice League, and Homelander is Superman. To be more specific, he reads like Marvel’s Captain America with Superman’s powers.

This means that Homelander has super strength, the ability to fly, and, of course, laser eyes. And because this is The Boys, Homelander does some horrific fucking things with his laser eyes, let me tell you. His favorite move is slicing people in half, which the show repeatedly depicts with its usual level of graphic violence. At the end of season one, Homelander kills his boss and lover in cold blood by looking into her eyes and focusing his laser gaze directly into her skull. In season two, Homelander imagines committing mass murder with his laser eyes, razing a crowd of protesters to the ground. We’re forced to watch this lurid scene play out before a quick cut reveals that Homelander hasn’t actually used his powers to silence the assembly but merely fantasized about it.

 

 

The moment Ikaris (Richard Madden) used his laser eyes in Eternals, I felt uncomfortable. The first time he uses his power on screen, he’s heroically saving ancient humans from the Deviants, the world-devouring threats from which the Eternals have been tasked with protecting Earth. Ikaris isn’t doing anything nefarious, in any way, but those laser eyes put the chill on me faster than Kevin Feige slapped “from Academy Award winning director Chloe Zhao” on all of the Eternals marketing materials after this year’s Oscars ceremony. Every instinct in me went, “HELL no, not the laser eyes,” and I distrusted Ikaris from the start for no reason other than the laser eyes. I fully blame Homelander.

Like Homelander, Ikaris is an obvious riff on Superman. He flies, comes from outer space, and has superstrength and heat vision. I can’t speak knowledgeably about the comics, but the film version of Eternals heavily leans into the Superman comparison, going so far as to have a child verbally mistake Ikaris for Superman. In various interviews, Chloe Zhao called Ikarus “our own take on Superman” and acknowledged the influence Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel had on her superhero film.

Recent cinematic iterations of Superman have trended towards the, shall we say, more disillusioned. When everything’s a gritty reboot, nothing is, and so by now I’ve come to expect that any new Superman (or “Superman”) will turn out to be Evil Superman, since that’s the edgier, more “realistic” option. Evil Superman has a storied history, but lately it seems that he’s taken over. See: Justice League (2017) and Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021), which adds the “Knightmare” sequence that hints at more Evil Superman. So I suppose it was expected that Eternals’ Ikaris would not only be the MCU’s Superman but also its Evil Superman/subversion of the Superman myth, as he does, ultimately, turn out to be.***

 

Promotional image from Zack Snyder's Justice League, close up of Superman's (Henry Cavill) face with his laser eyes activated

 

Despite being satire, Homelander is, arguably, the most culturally visible Evil Superman at the moment. Season two of The Boys was Amazon Prime Video’s biggest hit to date; although the streaming services rarely release meaningful viewership data, Nielsen’s weekly “Streaming Top 10” showed The Boys drawing in huge numbers. And so we’re back where we started, with the parody overtaking the original.

I won’t go so far as to say that Homelander has ruined Superman for me – that would be hyperbolic. But Homelander’s laser eyes are so disturbing that I think we need to put a moratorium on heat vision for now. I would like to say that I guessed where Eternals was going with Ikaris because I have such a finger on the pop culture pulse that I used recent trends to predict the arc. That would be a lie, however, and I can’t lie to you in good conscience. No, it was my absolutely visceral reaction to the laser eyes that prompted my suspicion.

Laser eyes are for villains now. Sorry, I don’t make the rules. 

 

 

 

*I’m partial to Starr’s work in season one, where you can literally see him turn the charm on and off (the way he makes his eyes go dead on command freaks me out), but Starr portrays Homelander’s mask-off villainy in season two with similarly terrifying precision. It’s a marvelously controlled performance in a notably unsubtle and over-the-top show.

**I could also go on at length about how it’s never quite clear what, exactly, The Boys is satirizing. Is it other superhero properties, or is it our (real) cultural obsession with (fictional) superheroes? In the same review, St. Félix notes how The Boys takes aim at the real world cultural domination of Disney/Marvel as much as it parodies the Justice League, in an apparent departure from the source comics.

***I wouldn’t say that Ikaris is quite evil in the film, but he secretly works at cross purposes with the rest of the Eternals for what he believes to be the greater good. That greater good involves the complete destruction of Earth, however, which I guess tips him into the villain category, relatively speaking.

 

Brett Goldstein as Roy Kent in Ted Lasso

 

[SPOILER WARNING: This piece discusses plot points from seasons one and two of Ted Lasso, so if you’re not totally caught up and don’t want spoilers, wait to read this until later! Also, I refer to “soccer” as “football” throughout the piece because the show’s British characters do so, and calling the sport “soccer” in this context felt weird.]

 

When I began watching the first season of Ted Lasso, Apple TV+’s breakout word-of-mouth hit comedy, at the beginning of the summer, I quickly fell in love with Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein). As someone who prefers a man with a hirsute torso, I thoroughly appreciated the positive chest hair representation.* Goldstein’s deliciously terse line readings consistently cracked me up. (The way he spits out the phrase “shape-based jokes” in episode eight might be a season one highlight.) Sure, Roy’s irritable and stoic to a fault, but he’s not mean. He has a good heart, and his tender relationship with his young niece Phoebe confirms it. As the ladies on the romance novel podcast Fated Mates pointed out in a recent episode, Roy is definitely a romance hero. And like many viewers of the show, I felt the warm fuzzies as his cute and genuinely hot romance with Keely (Juno Temple) sparked over the course of ten episodes.

Roy’s not only a romance hero, though. While his relationship with Keely is certainly pivotal to Roy’s character development, he’s not defined by their romance.** More than anything else, Roy Kent is defined by his anger. He speaks in a low growl (not Goldstein’s natural voice), and he’s always scowling. He liberally punctuates many of his sentences with profanity, as if he can’t quite convey his bottomless frustration without swearing. Goldstein delivers every line as if Roy’s angry he has to speak at all; this has, as I mentioned, a wonderful comedic effect, but it’s also a key component of Roy’s characterization. Through season one, it becomes clear that Roy’s anger issues come from an inability to acknowledge, process, and articulate his emotions. He’s angry that he has feelings, he’s angry that he has to face them, and he’s angry that he has to communicate them to other people.

Understanding this character dynamic, when it fully came into focus at the end of the season, sent a disruptive shock of recognition through me. When I was younger, I had anger issues. It took me a long time to realize that all of my furious anger had nothing to do with actually feeling angry. I had lots of other feelings, feelings that I told myself didn’t matter and should be stuffed. Those feelings came out as a misplaced, directionless, seemingly inexplicable rage when I could no longer deny them but still couldn’t properly express them. I thought that being emotional was being weak, and I’d angrily push people away at the moments when I was the most vulnerable. The last scene between Roy and Keely in the season one finale hit me in a profound way. I, too, have said “stay the fuck away from me” when what I meant was “I desperately need you to hold me.” If we’re being honest, I still mentally shout an exasperated “Fuck!”—Roy Kent style—when I’m metaphorically smacked in the face with an emotional epiphany. I’m working on it, but anger remains my instinctual reaction when I have to deal with my feelings.

Reflecting on Ted Lasso’s first season, I realized that I had never before seen my own anger issues depicted with such painful accuracy on screen.*** I saw myself in Roy Kent, in a way I could not or would not see myself in other, harsher characters defined by their misplaced anger. This new awareness complicated my fun, fangirl infatuation with Roy. I found myself wondering if I desired Roy Kent, in the fantasy way one desires fictional characters, or if I had been deeply identifying with him the whole time and misunderstanding what was happening. Like Loki having romantic stirrings for an alternate timeline version of himself, had I fallen in love with an alternate timeline version of myself?

Jason Sudeikis as Ted Lasso and Brett Goldstein as Roy Kent in the show Ted Lasso

Both reactions—finding Roy desirable and recognizing myself in Roy—are only possible because of the way the show treats Roy’s character-defining anger. It’s apparent that his anger issues come from an aversion to being emotionally vulnerable, and it’s true that, culturally, we often code this inability as “masculine.” We could fairly infer that some of Roy’s reluctance to feel his feelings comes from being steeped in a macho sports culture for the majority of his life. But there’s a distinct, purposeful way that the show avoids stating any of this outright. Roy’s trouble with accepting his feelings is never directly tied to the condition of his being a man.

In a recent piece critical of Ted Lasso’s (and Ted Lasso’s) brand of aspirational positive masculinity, Time’s TV critic Judy Berman pushes back against the recent trend of shows that self-consciously try to craft the “perfect man” for male viewers to emulate. She writes that as long as these portrayals of ideal men refuse to meaningfully challenge binary gender norms, they remain one-dimensional “teaching tools” and not depictions of full-blooded people. Berman concludes that these kinds of characters are ultimately not useful to the work of unlearning the behaviors of toxic masculinity. “Isn’t it possible that gender essentialism is exacerbating things?” she asks. “Whether male, female or nonbinary, the characters we need most now may well be ones defined by anything but their gender.” I wholeheartedly agree with Berman’s larger point, but I don’t agree that Ted Lasso is the culprit that she makes it out to be. The discourse around the show certainly perpetuates what Berman talks about, but I contend that there is a way to engage with the text of the show that complicates such surface-level readings.

Roy Kent works as a fascinating case in point. Roy’s anger issues can’t concretely be linked to toxic masculinity because they’re never quite linked to masculinity at all. (Compare what we know of Roy’s history to, say, Jamie’s. Jamie’s relationship with his dad is, I would say, more clearly the “toxic masculinity” storyline of the show if that’s a thread for which we’re looking.) For this, Roy’s character immediately becomes richer, and his journey becomes more complicated. The show takes pains to treat Roy’s character-defining trait with nuance and, quite frankly, ambivalence, in a way that would simply not be possible if Roy’s anger issues were neatly labeled as a harmful result of toxic masculinity. 

By decoupling Roy’s anger from masculinity, Ted Lasso assures viewers that Roy Kent isn’t a “bad man.” This signals two things simultaneously: Roy is a safe character to identify with, and Roy is a safe character to root for in a romance. The moment that Roy’s anger issues become unambiguously linked to gender, the whole thing, in my opinion, would fall apart. There’s too much cultural baggage. His character absolutely works best outside of a pointedly gendered context, particularly given the pop-culture track record regarding men with anger issues like Roy’s. 

It’s rare to find an angry male character who isn’t explicitly a product of toxic masculinity. These types of characters often serve as villains or tragic warnings, men who would rather punch someone than cry, to their own detriment and to the danger of everyone around them. While men don’t have a monopoly on anger as a whole, misdirected anger, specifically, is often popularly associated with masculinity. Women are in touch with their feelings, and men aren’t. Or, perhaps, women are socialized and expected to be in touch with their feelings, and men aren’t. (I’m not a gender essentialist, so you know which one I think it is.) When “being a man” means sucking it up and burying your feelings, it follows that being unable to process emotional responses in a healthy way has become a pervasive problem among men. Denying your emotional responses and developing anger issues can go hand-in-hand. Invalidating your feelings and stuffing them down is like loading a cannon; those feelings are going to explode out in some way eventually, and probably not in the way you mean for them to.

Many pop-culture depictions of displaced anger end up being portraits of abuse and/or abusers, violent men who misguidedly and/or unconsciously overcompensate for their general feelings of hurt by lashing out at people more powerless than themselves. These abusers are the extreme examples of what the unhealthy standards of masculinity can create, and they serve as pop culture’s most common form of toxic-masculinity-related cautionary tale. I find it incredibly telling that Goldstein, in an interview last fall with Esquire UK, described Roy Kent as “Bill Sykes, if Bill Sykes had a heart of gold, and wasn’t a murderer.” Goldstein repeated this comparison in a different interview last month, asserting again that he based Roy on “Bill Sykes if he hadn’t killed Nancy.” The unbearable English-ness of casually referencing Dickens aside, the comparison speaks to the strong connection in our cultural imagination between misplaced anger and abuse. 

Brett Goldstein as Roy Kent in Ted Lasso

All of this is subtext to which Ted Lasso remains attuned. I find Roy so compelling precisely because he isn’t Bill Sykes. He isn’t even particularly physically violent. I keep waiting for Roy to punch a wall, even, but he never does. But that is not to say that Roy’s anger isn’t sharp. Roy’s explosive, emphatic swearing has a certain auditory violence to it—which makes a comedic subplot in S02E08, where Roy realizes that he needs to stop swearing in front of Phoebe, metaphorically rich—and often functions as the main indicator of Roy’s fundamentally angry state of being.**** In yet another interview, Goldstein likened Roy’s physicality to a “walking fist.” Even though the Roy we see in the show never acts on any violent impulses, Goldstein’s tightly coiled body language does, indeed, suggest that Roy is always a breath away from starting a brawl. 

Ted Lasso and Brett Goldstein communicate the violence of Roy’s misplaced anger in subtler ways than we might be used to with characters of his kind, but I would argue that Roy’s anger, as presented in the show, still has a definite edge. It’s been curious, then, to see almost no critical discussion of Roy’s anger issues. It’s as though, if we’re assured that his anger won’t result in physical violence, his anger issues aren’t that pressing. Much of the writing I’ve read about Roy Kent doesn’t even use the word “angry.” Softer adjectives like “grumpy,” “gruff,” and “surly” do the work of describing Roy’s brusque manner while sidestepping the point. Roy’s anger isn’t a personality quirk, it’s the core of his character.

This is where we get to the knotty heart of the matter: Roy’s anger is both his biggest strength and his greatest weakness. Anger often serves as the motivating fire in Roy’s belly. Over the course of season one, Ted weaponizes Roy’s anger to, arguably, righteous ends by goading Roy into putting the unbearably cocky Jamie in his place to restore the balance of the team. (Another perfect line delivery from Goldstein: “Vanilla vodka. Such a child.”) In S01E07, when Nate memorably reads the team to filth before a match in Liverpool, Nate tells Roy, “Your speed and your smarts were never what made you who you are. It’s your anger. That’s your superpower.”

Later in that same speech, Nate tells Roy that he needs to let out his anger on the pitch again. “I’m afraid of what [your anger] will do to you if you keep it all for yourself,” Nate finishes weakly as Roy glowers at him, inches from his face. Ted Lasso understands this tension, too, that Roy’s anger can both fuel and destroy him. While Ted largely works to channel Roy’s anger to benefit AFC Richmond (in both seasons one and two), Keely encourages Roy to let his anger go. As their romance develops, Keely gently diffuses Roy’s temper and gets him to open up about his real feelings, those vulnerabilities and hurts that he’s been suppressing because he doesn’t know how to talk about them. She coaxes him into being comfortable expressing his emotions in an honest way instead of angrily denying them.

Through the course of two seasons, Ted Lasso carefully navigates this contradiction at the center of Roy Kent. His anger is an elemental component of his existence, and he has to learn how to deal with it in the healthiest way he can. The show can treat Roy’s anger with a certain amount of ambivalence because the harm of his anger is mostly self-directed. He’s not cruel or irredeemable, as many of pop culture’s angry men are. He’s just a human being who finds his feelings frustrating and annoying and would prefer they didn’t exist. Learning to validate and process one’s emotions isn’t a simple journey, and I would argue that Roy’s season one character arc isn’t simple in the slightest, which is what makes it so powerful. Part of that power is rooted in the way the show stops short of simplistically diagnosing Roy’s misplaced anger as a symptom of the harmful pressure to “be a man.”

Juno Temple as Keely Jones and Brett Goldstein as Roy Kent in Ted Lasso

Positioning Roy as the “heterosexual dream man,” as many discussions of Roy’s character have, re-centers masculinity in the conversation around Roy’s anger. I think this is why, even though the show does position Roy as a romantic lead, I’ve found myself bristling at articles like this recent one from Paste Magazine. I can’t say that the interpretation of Roy as a “dream man” is totally wrong; the show does set up Roy as a romantic lead and asks us to invest in his relationship with Keely. And he is pretty dreamy. But because  I am the Roy Kent in my relationship, I guess I see it from a different point of view. (I’m lucky enough to have found my Keely—now there’s a dream man.) I know firsthand how hard a relationship with someone like me can be. It’s disconcerting to see the work Roy and Keely do together in their relationship simplified to fit a “patient woman trains an emotionally illiterate man” narrative that doesn’t do justice to the complexity of their dynamic.

I was frustrated with Roy’s season two arc for the first four episodes, mainly because it leaned so heavily into the “dream man” characterization. Keely was his sole narrative link to the AFC Richmond orbit proper, and it wasn’t clear if Roy would continue to fit into the show as anything other than Keely’s perfect boyfriend. There are moments, in these first four episodes, that seem designed to generate swoons on Twitter. Some of these moments work as thoughtful character beats, like the one where… well, you know exactly what scene I’m thinking about right now. Others didn’t land so well for me—take, for example, Roy’s outburst in S02E01 where he tells Rebecca not to settle for fine in her love life, that she deserves someone who makes her feel like she’s been “struck by fucking lightning.” (Yes, Roy’s always taken no bullshit, but a relationship pep talk? From a man who repeatedly refuses to join the Diamond Dogs in session?) After retirement, Roy seemed adrift as a character, and I wasn’t sure if the writers were intentionally cultivating this sense or not.

And then, in S02E05 (“Rainbow”), Roy came roaring back. “Rainbow” is an undeniably Roy-centric episode that might best be described, in more ways than one, as “the one where Roy Kent returns.” Anyone with a shred of sense probably knew that Roy was likely going to come back to AFC Richmond as a coach; narratively, it’s the best way to keep Roy in the action without back pedaling his retirement arc, and it’s established in season one that Roy is a natural leader and an effective coach, albeit of small children. The whole episode works as a spin on the romcom formula, but instead of two lovers making their way to each other, Roy finally shows up for his date with coaching destiny.

How fitting that Roy’s big romcom moment is not, after all, with Keely, but with himself. “Rainbow” ingeniously subverts expectations by, once again, refraining from slotting Roy into a heterosexual, gendered role. He embraces his ultimate vulnerability not by committing to a romantic relationship or admitting romantic love (the stereotypical fear of straight men everywhere); instead, he admits that he can’t live without football, a sport that’s broken his heart and will undoubtedly do so again. Instead of angrily rejecting a career as a football coach to protect himself from further pain, as he has been doing up to this point in season two, he commits to the sport that he loves—a sport that, as Nate reminded him before the Liverpool game, requires his full, angry brilliance. 

I love the way Ted Lasso explores the paradox of the anger at Roy Kent’s core and his complicated anger issues. It only works so well because it does just what Judy Berman calls for: it explores a man’s emotional reeducation beyond the framework of the gender binary.

 

 

 

 

*While the fastidiously waxed Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster) makes some cracks about Roy’s chest hair, the camera frequently and admiringly lingers on Brett Goldstein’s shirtless body in the locker room scenes. Unfortunately, the now retired Roy is more frequently clothed in season two.

**Refreshingly, Keely isn’t defined by this romance, either, at least not in season one. While season two has, so far, mostly focused on Roy and Keely as a happy couple, I hope that future episodes will complicate their dynamic a little bit. In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Goldstein said of Roy’s post-footballer season two arc: “[Roy’s] not going to kill himself, it’s not the end of the world. But I think we can already see there’s a danger in how much he’s investing in his relationship with Keeley versus the rest of his life.

***One of my good friends got the rough draft/seed-of-an-idea version of this essay via text when she unsuspectingly messaged me about Ted Lasso a few days after I finished season one. She was like, I just started watching Ted Lasso, it’s so good. Roy Kent is the best! I replied with a casual, Oh cool, I might identify with Roy Kent to an unhealthy degree because I’ve never seen a character with anger issues like mine who isn’t an asshole abuser, and it’s making me really emotional! As Rebecca said in S02E02, “That’s why you have friends, isn’t it? To burden them with your issues and anxieties, right?”

****Ted Lasso is a smartly written show, and I really don’t think I’m giving the writers too much credit here. So much of what makes Ted Lasso work operates in the subtext. I love this choice partially because the series is a comedy and exists, first and foremost, to be funny, but I also love it because it’s tiresome to be constantly hit over the head with Important Themes and Lessons.

 

collage image of still from vampire films

 

Hello! It’s my pleasure to announce that this week marks the release of the first episode of Fang Club, a new podcast dedicated to discussing vampire movies of the 21st century. My friend and co-host Bri Martin and I are so excited to share our new project with you! We’ve had so much fun creating this podcast, and we hope you have just as much fun listening to it.

Our first episode dives into the 2015 instant-classic mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows. If you like vampires, movies, or vampire movies, give our podcast a try! Fang Club is available wherever you listen to your podcasts, or you can use the embedded player in this post to listen to our first episode right now.

As we get up and running, your support means so much to us, and there are ways to support us for free! If you enjoy our show, subscribe, tell your friends, and share on your social media. You can also follow the podcast @fangclubpod on Twitter and Instagram for updates and vampire memes. If you really like what we’re doing and feel so inclined, you can make a one-time donation to the pod through our Ko-Fi page. The podcast is a passion project and a labor of love for Bri and I, but any donations will help us cover the monthly cost of media hosting and the intermittent cost of digital film rentals.

Welcome to the Club.


 

 

Still from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

 

I don’t make it a point of pride to hate actors. If I don’t like someone’s acting, I generally keep it to myself. I much prefer to talk about things I love, and I always want to be surprised by things I thought I didn’t or wouldn’t like. But, until a few weeks ago, I was pretty sure that British actor Dominic Cooper was never going to surprise me. I had entirely written him off as not my cup of tea, and I was fine with that.

My sister and I used to call Dominic Cooper “Frog Man.” We first saw him as Willoughby in the 2008 miniseries adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, and we immediately hated him. In all fairness, by the end of Sense and Sensibility you’re supposed to hate Willoughby, but my sister and I specifically hated Dominic Cooper as Willoughby. We were teenagers, and we were judgemental. “Who would swoon over that baby-faced, bug-eyed guy?” we wondered. My mom, who watched the miniseries with us, agreed that he was no Greg Wise.* We incredulously marveled at the awfulness of Cooper’s shallow bad boy act.

 

Still from Sense and Sensibility (2008): close up of Dominic Cooper as Willoughby
Dominic Cooper as Willoughby in “Sense and Sensibility” (2008)

That was in the spring, and by the end of the year, my sister and I had been subjected to two more films where it was clear that we were supposed to find Dominic Cooper hot and sexy. Summer brought Mama Mia!, in which Cooper’s main number finds him cavorting shirtless around the beach. For the sake of transparency, I’ll admit that I viscerally disliked all of Mama Mia!, but Cooper failed to impress once again.** In the fall, Frog Man showed up in The Duchess, this time as Keira Knightley’s one-true-lover. I don’t recall him setting the screen on fire in that one, either. I haven’t seen The Duchess since it came out, but the fact that Roger Ebert’s very positive review of the film doesn’t mention Dominic Cooper by name in the main text at all seems to reaffirm my initial opinion.

2008 set the tone, and Cooper never recovered in my estimation. Until a few weeks ago, I had yet to see Cooper in a film where I was picking up the sexual charisma that he was ostensibly putting down. And it seems that he’s always cast in roles where he’s supposed to be sexy. There’s clearly something about the man; in real life, he’s dated two of his gorgeous co-stars (Amanda Seyfried and Ruth Negga), and he’s currently reportedly linked with Gemma Chan. Until a few weeks ago, I just never saw that something on screen. Until a few weeks ago, I still thought about him as Frog Man, wannabe sex symbol and sometime Howard Stark.

A few weeks ago, I watched Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter on a whim.

 

still from Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter
Young, shirtless Abe Lincoln doesn’t know what he stumbled into, and neither do I.

The 2012 action/horror film, based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s popular novel of the same name, pits our nation’s sixteenth president against the slave-owning vampire ring that runs the antebellum American South. I mean, it’s all there in the title. The film got mostly bad reviews and did poorly at the summer box office, and I, too, skipped it when it was in theaters. I’m going to be honest with you, I had pretty much forgotten that this movie existed until it popped up on the HBO Max homepage a couple of months ago.

I vaguely remembered that the film had briefly been on my radar because of Benjamin Walker. Fresh off of the unsuccessful Broadway run of the rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, in which he played the titular role, Walker signed on to play the lead in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. If it’s possible to be typecast as something so particular, it seemed for a time that Walker might make a career out of portraying outrageous versions of nineteenth-century American presidents. The actor brought Andrew Jackson to life on-stage as a hot, emo rock star—to, it should be said, scathingly satirical effect—so, naturally, Walker seemed like a fun fit for a cool, vamp-slaying version of Abe Lincoln.

I realize that I throw around the word “obsessed” very liberally on this blog, but I am well and truly obsessed with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. If you aren’t familiar with the show, this song will give you a taste of what the whole thing entails. (Popula-jizz-m!)*** I could absolutely talk about this musical for far too long if you let me, but I’ll spare you. I only mention it to say that when I decided to watch Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter last month, I did so mostly out of affection for Ben. And, of course, an urgent desire to turn off my brain for a couple of hours.

In truth, the cast of this ridiculous movie is stacked with charismatic actors. In addition to Walker, we’ve got Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Anthony Mackie, Jimmi Simpson, and Rufus Sewell—none of them A-list stars, but all of them reliable scene-stealers. Not one of them shines in this film, though. The odd but, I would argue, ultimately successful tone of the movie requires everyone involved to play it straight as can be, almost to the point of being deadpan.

I admire director Timur Bekmambetov’s instinct to forgo a self-aware tone and easy jokes in favor of poker-faced seriousness. (Based on his filmography, I’m not sure that Bekmambetov is capable of making anything that doesn’t take itself seriously. But I suppose this inability is what made him the right choice for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.) There are few things worse than a film that transparently wants to be a cult-classic midnight-movie and winks at you about it every five minutes. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter works best when the ludicrous premise plays out in the most straightforward manner. For instance, the final action set piece, where Abe Lincoln simply kills a bunch of vampires on top of a train, plays like gangbusters.

In a way, Walker has the easiest job. To make good on the juicy promise of the film’s title and get a reaction out of the audience, all he has to do is be tall, look grave, and axe murder vampires while wearing a top hat. The bizarre visual of Abe Lincoln’s iconic physique engaged in battle with a bloodsucking monster doesn’t need embellishment. Weirdly, it helps that the totally freaky prosthetics Walker sports in the back half of the movie make it look like the actor is literally wearing Lincoln’s dead face as a mask. Most of the supporting characters, however, aren’t given material outlandish enough for the juxtaposition between affectless performance and fantastical action to work nearly as well. This movie is Lincoln-sploitation, and for the most part it doesn’t know what to do with the characters who aren’t Lincoln.****

 

Still from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, close up of Benjamin Walker as Abraham Lincoln
Big difference from young, shirtless Abe.

But one actor in the film operates in a slightly different register from the rest of the cast and stands out for it: Dominic Cooper, the one and only. I had no idea that he was in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter when I put on the film, so it was a genuine surprise when he popped up. About ten minutes into the movie, young Abe decides that he’s going to get revenge on the man/vampire who killed his mother when he was a child. Abe goes to a bar for some liquid courage, and Dominic sidles up to him as he’s drinking. “A boy only gets that drunk when he wants to kiss a girl or kill a man,” Dominic quips before slapping Abe on the back, knocking a gun out of his coat and confirming which it is. With that, we’ve been introduced to Henry Sturges, the mysterious man who eventually educates Abe about the world of vampires and trains him in the art of slaying the undead. 

Here I must note that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is vampire-sploitation as much as it is Lincoln-sploitation; we all remember the years when every publisher and every producer was trying to replicate the lightning-in-a-bottle success of Twilight. Just as Seth Grahame-Smith’s previous book, the wildly successful Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, was a mashup, so is Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (the source novel). It’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Dear America—or any other diary-format historical fiction, take your pick. Lincoln is the vampire slayer, obviously, and the Southern vamps are the unequivocally monstrous enemies that Lincoln must vanquish. [Light spoilers follow, if you’re worried about that sort of thing.] Henry Sturges is our Angel, our Edward Cullen, our sexy, good-guy vampire that the genre requires.

 

Still of Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) swinging an axe in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) shows Abe how to swing an axe to murderous effect.

I was startled when Frog Man showed up in the film and didn’t immediately prompt an eye roll. I was flat out shocked when he single handedly stole the whole show. Dominic Cooper, it turns out, was born to play a sexy, good-guy vampire. 

Cooper’s screen persona is intensely tied to an artificial sort of over-the-top sensuality which I have previously found uncompelling. In calling the actor’s allure artificial, I mean to say that the come-on is clearly put on; he’s laboring to seduce you. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, I want to clarify. Glamour and performative desirability are often part and parcel of being a movie star. But I had always felt that Cooper lays it on too thick, to a “dost-thou-protest-too-much” effect. That is, he works so hard to convince everyone of his hotness that I just had to assume he’s not actually that hot.

Unexpectedly, everything that normally registers as “too much” about Cooper’s mannered approach to exuding sex appeal—the pouty lips, the intense stares, the carefully mussed hair, the insistence on appearing shirtless in every one of his films—hits precisely the right note in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It all comes together flawlessly. It only took a film where Cooper plays a vampire for me to finally understand his appeal.

 

Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) and Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) sit at a bar in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
The dynamic duo in action.

Henry Sturges is Cooper “playing it straight,” in so far as Cooper always acts like a vampire. (Aha! A revelation.) In this way, the casting is brilliant. Cooper doesn’t ham it up in a way that contradicts the self-serious tone of the film, but his usual modus operandi is already rather exaggerated. I don’t think he could be legitimately deadpan if he tried, and that turns out to be for the best. The dynamics of this film only work if, as previously discussed, stony Abe has something spectacular to contrast with. In the action scenes, that’s the horrible Southern vampires. For the rest of the film, it’s Sturges’s sexy, good-guy vampire bit. 

 

Close up of Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) In Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
“He smolders over the top of teeny-tiny sunglasses.”

And Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter really fires on all cylinders during the scenes shared by Abe and Henry, because in the context of this otherwise icy affair, Cooper’s charisma is indeed spectacular. While it’s not revealed until partway through the movie that Sturges is a vampire himself, Cooper’s performance should tip off any observant viewer. He prowls around in the shadows, he entertains lady friends in an empty bathtub (in the middle of his living room in his clearly haunted house), he smolders over the top of teeny-tiny sunglasses. And there’s something so, well, vampire-y about the way Cooper strives to be seductive in all of his roles. He’s trying so hard it’s like he wants something from you (your blood). Cooper’s not menacing enough to be a villainous vampire, but the sexy, good-guy vampire is such a natural fit for him that I can’t believe he played a human in Dracula Untold. What a waste.

 

Still from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
I just…

I have to admit that willingness to be seduced may have a lot to do with what works for me about Henry Sturges. I love sci-fi/fantasy fiction, and I’m a sucker for sexy vampire tropes. While I normally find Cooper’s style excessive and off-putting, it’s perfect when he’s a vampire. Sexy vampires are excessive, verging on obscene, and, honestly, a little silly. I dig it. Where vampires are concerned, the more licentious, the better; and Cooper’s performance as Sturges hints at so much that the script leaves untouched. Sturges might only rip the throats out of bad men, Dexter-style, but I guarantee you that he’s into some convoluted sex stuff. (It’s implied that Sturges got turned into a vampire instead of simply dying because his soul isn’t pure, which raises so many questions, seeing as Sturges doesn’t seem all that evil. What is he into? I want to know.) Cooper’s giving me so much as Sturges, and I want it all

So, I never thought I’d say it, but I finally watched a film that made me think, “Wow, Dominic Cooper is HOT.” Surprises await you around every corner in this life if you keep your mind open. Stay curious, my friends, and you, too, might find that your frog was a sexy vampire all along.

 

Close up of Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

 

 

*Now there’s a dashing Willoughby. All three of us agreed that, on the whole, the men in Ang Lee’s 1995 film version were vastly superior to the men in the 2008 TV version—with one exception. I remember that we were all rather charmed by a pre-Downton Abbey Dan Stevens as Edward Ferrars.

**If you search Cooper’s name on Twitter, you will find many people who disagree with me on this. Maybe I just missed the point, but I’ve watched the “Lay All Your Love on Me” clip five times over the course of writing this piece and still don’t get it.

***I came to the musical first through the original cast recording (in high school, a friend burned me a copy—yes, I know, my theater kid is showing), but I did get to see the full show on stage when the Salt Lake Acting Company mounted it in 2012. I made my sister come with me, and they did not like it as much as I did, to put it mildly. Your own mileage may vary.

****2009 marked the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, and in the ensuing years several projects, both scholarly and popular, set out to capitalize on the small flurry of renewed interest in the man and his historical legacy. Grahame-Smith’s novel was published in 2010, hot on the heels of the bicentennial. In 2012, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter famously wasn’t the only Lincoln-related film release. That fall, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, for which Daniel Day-Lewis won the Best Actor Oscar, came out to almost universal acclaim.

 

Selfie of Leah and Keith sitting in a dark movie theater

 

After I booked my first COVID-19 vaccination appointment, I started to let myself look forward to exactly two things. These activities, while certainly not equivalent in importance, were the two most discrete things I had been missing since last March, when the pandemic struck New York. The first thing, of course, was being able to safely travel to see my parents and my sister. I bought a plane ticket to Seattle as soon as I knew the date I’d be inoculated; I practically levitated off the ground with happiness when I finalized the purchase, knowing that I wouldn’t cancel this trip out of safety concerns at the last minute like I had done twice before.

The second activity? Going to the movie theater, naturally. Movie theaters in the city reopened at reduced capacity in early March, after an entire year of closure for public safety. I wanted to wait until I was vaccinated before treating myself to a movie on the big screen, so I could revel in the experience without worry, guilt, or fear. And so, two weeks ago, the day before I left for Seattle, Keith and I went out to see a movie. We saw Riders of Justice. We both enjoyed it. But investing something that was once so regular for us with such a symbolic sense of special occasion—Things will finally feel a little normal again when I can go to the movies, I had thought to myself more than once—made the whole outing a bit overwhelming. 

Going to the movies again undoubtedly filled me with joy. I had missed the immersive experience of sitting in the dark and totally losing myself in a film. I had missed hearing strangers’ audible reactions to sharp jokes and shocking acts of violence, and Riders of Justice provided plenty of both. I had missed complaining about the odd, small screens at the Angelika like the provincial New Yorker I aspire to become. Walking out of the theater, putting together my thoughts on the film so that Keith and I could chat about it on the way home, it did somehow feel like I’d taken a big step towards reassembling my life after spending a year in limbo. It was unspeakably sweet to fall back into a well-loved, old habit.

Simultaneously, going back to the movies at last also felt like no big deal—almost a letdown. It didn’t actually mark much at all. I hadn’t suddenly found my “new normal” and discovered a clear way forward out of one of the weirdest years I’ve ever lived through. It didn’t heal anything. This strange, double feeling of elation and deflation kept recurring over the next couple of weeks, as I did several formerly commonplace activities again for the first time since the pandemic started last spring.

It’s nice to feel like things are returning to normal (as sick as I am of that phrase and the underlying assumption that “normal” was good for everyone before the pandemic hit), and I’m eager to come out of my suspended state of semi-solitude. Seeing my family again, in person, replenished my spirit in ways I can’t fully articulate; for now, suffice it to say that there’s absolutely no replacement in the world for a hug. I love walking outside without a mask on because it means I can smile at all of the cute dogs I see when I’m out in the neighborhood. Going to a friend’s house for dinner, inside and unmasked, brought on a kind of giddiness. The cautious optimism prompted by the rising vaccination rate and dropping infection rate in the U.S. feels, pardon my French, fucking great.

I’m not sure that I’m entirely ready to return to “normal” life, though. I first suspected that the transition might be more difficult than I wanted to admit when I read the March 4th edition of Anne Helen Petersen’s newsletter, Culture Study. The short piece was called “No I’m Not Ready,” and it resonated so deeply that I immediately had to re-read it. In the newsletter, Petersen confesses her personal feelings of hesitancy about jumping head-first into post-pandemic life. She writes about how it will be a long, complicated, and perhaps non-linear path for each of us to get back to “normal.” She writes:

 

Here’s where I remind you that we have endured nearly a year — a year! — of sustained, slow-motion collective trauma. … And you have had to make it survivable in some way. The brain and the body do not simply bounce back from sustained labor. Going to a bunch of weddings and getting toasted might be part of a strategy [to bounce back], but it is not the strategy.

 

Okay, wow. So, going out to the movies again might be part of a strategy, but it is not the strategy. Doing “normal” things again will help me feel normal in the short run, but it won’t help me process the grief, loss, and trauma of the last year. As much as I’d love to pretend last year didn’t happen (wouldn’t we all?), it looks like I’m going to have to face the last fourteen months.

I don’t have much of a desire to reflect for too long on the past year; I want to look forward, towards the good things presumably coming. I want to think about seeing In The Heights on the big screen and paying too much for movie theater popcorn, to keep it film-related. This post was supposed to be about the pleasure of returning to the movie theater, a little light-hearted and tossed-off missive from the front lines of the reopening. I wanted to look forward.

It turned out to be sort of ironic, then, that the film I chose for my first foray back to the cinema should be Riders of Justice. Anders Thomas Jensen’s dark comedy sells itself as a revenge flick, the sort of thing that would sit alongside Taken or any number of other slick actioners about a middle-aged man with special skills who avenges a wronged or murdered family member. The actual film is anything but that, however. Riders of Justice is, at its heart, a story about the necessity and difficulty of acknowledging the senseless nature of loss and trauma directly. It is, among other things, an exploration of the ways that people avoid dealing with their grief, to the detriment of their own mental health.*

 

 

The losses I’ve sustained over the past year are surely an order of magnitude smaller than those endured by the characters in Riders of Justice. I’m not presuming to make a one-to-one comparison; we’re talking about thematic echoes here. But I found it slightly unsettling to be confronted with such a film when I have been so determined not to face my own grief over everything lost, collectively and personally, during the pandemic. Especially when going back to the movie theater was supposed to signify that I was moving on from all of that.

I feel like a whiner when I try to talk about it. I’ve been so fortunate, all things considered. I tell myself that the losses I suffered aren’t big enough, important enough, to merit grieving, for God’s sake. (I don’t apply this ridiculous standard to anyone else, of course, only to myself.) I push forward, forward, always forward. I focus on what I think I can control. Then I sit down to write a quick, breezy blog post about what was a mostly nice afternoon, and it turns into… this.

I’m trying to sit with my feelings rather than brush them away. I’m trying to heed the advice I read again and again: I’m trying to accept my own emotional responses and be forgiving towards myself when I can’t effortlessly “bounce back.” I’m going to publish this somewhat sad, rather uncertain, and decidedly unpolished version of what I probably could have turned into a pat anecdote about the euphoria of emerging from my pandemic cocoon. Yes, the euphoria is real, but so is the lingering gloom. Recognizing that gloom, and recognizing that simply doing “normal” activities again isn’t going to dispel it, is the only way I can think of right now to start truly recovering. I’m not hoping to make sense of it or fix it. All I can do is honor that strange double feeling and give it space, here and elsewhere.

Near the end of her essay, Petersen writes that figuring out post-pandemic life as we process our grief is “going to feel periodically awful in new ways, and it’s going to be a continuing struggle, but it’s also going to be amazing.” Yep. That’s pretty much exactly how I’ve felt for the past month. Going back to the movies was no exception.

 

 

*In his four-star review of the film for rogerebert.com, critic Matt Zoller Seitz sums it up like this: “‘Did a therapist write this?’ is not a sentence one expects to see in one’s notes on a movie where Mads Mikkelsen guns men down with an assault rifle.”

 

 

About half an hour into Danton, Andrzej Wajda’s 1983 film about the period of the French Revolution known as the Reign of Terror, the movie’s two main players finally come face to face. Georges Danton (Gérard Depardieu) has invited Maximilien Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak) to a private meeting over dinner. Danton, the latest target of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, hopes to smooth things over with his one-time ally before Robespierre signs any arrest warrants. This tête-à-tête may be one of the film’s most famous scenes, and it’s one of my favorite parts of the movie. The scene deftly operates on multiple levels, suggesting the contours of the pair’s knotty personal relationship while simultaneously illuminating the stakes of their political disagreements. 

In outlining the men’s political differences, the scene clearly sets out the central historical analogy that defined Danton’s reception upon release and has continued to guide twenty-first-century audiences’ understanding of the film. It’s not much of a stretch to understand Danton as a critique of the communist government that was still in power in Poland in the early 1980s. In this reading, the liberal Danton and his allies (played by French actors) stand in for the Polish Solidarity movement and democratic Western Europe more broadly; the authoritarian Robespierre and his Committee for Public Safety (played by Polish actors, with French dialogue dubbed in) correlate with the repressive communist regime that Solidarity resisted.* It’s nearly impossible to read anything about Danton without running into a discussion of how and why the film links these two points of political change and unrest across two centuries.

The dinner scene functions as a key to the film because it’s the scene that most legibly articulates the historical parallels the Polish director seems so eager to make. The scene fascinates me for the way that it exemplifies the film’s nuanced approach to presenting these connections. It’s here that I suppose I should admit that I’ve been a bit obsessed with Danton since I first watched it last month. As I struggled to figure out what, exactly, has so thoroughly captured my attention about this film, I kept returning to the proposed historical parallel at its center. I think I find Danton so compelling because I appreciate how Wajda draws parallels that actively destabilize certain historical narratives, which were themselves destabilizations of earlier historical narratives. By making what was at the time a somewhat subversive analogy, Wajda’s film obliquely asks the audience to consider the malleability of historical narrative.

The film’s script is based in part on Polish writer Stanisława Przybyszewska’s 1929 play, The Danton Case, which was significantly more admiring of Robespierre (whom the leftist playwright idolized and imagined as a proto-Marxist) and critical of Danton. Wajda’s adaptation takes the events described in the play but gives the material an ideological twist; the director’s formal choices align the audience with Danton. The dinner scene works as a potent example of how Wajda transforms an episode that shouldn’t, on its face, reflect well on Danton into an argument for the vital importance of Danton’s humanity.

 

 

Depardieu and Pszoniak are, by all rights, co-leads in the film. Both actors receive roughly the same amount of screen time, and both actors give riveting performances.** One can imagine a version of Danton that treats Robespierre, rather than Danton, as the hero. In this version, Robespierre’s cool, detached fanaticism is a commendable commitment to principle, and Danton is a mess, too beholden to worldly concerns to uphold the pure values of the Revolution. And one can easily envision a rendition of the dinner scene, specifically, that is dismissive of Danton. In the scene as it is, both men are allowed room to state their positions openly and rather equally. Danton doesn’t outreason Robespierre and win the argument. In fact, the meeting ends when Danton drunkenly falls asleep on Robespierre’s chest. Danton is a bit of a mess here.

 

 

As embodied by Depardieu, however, Danton is such a glorious mess, and Wajda’s camera is in love with him. The scene begins with Danton as he prepares for the meeting before Robespierre shows up. Danton anxiously tastes all of the food, frets about the flowers, and compulsively fusses with his outfit. A sense of doom hangs over the proceedings from the start. Danton is plainly aware that his life hangs in the balance, that this meeting must go well if he’s to save his own head. Danton goes from giving directions in a hushed whisper to shouting at his companions at the drop of a hat. He’s nervous, and the camera never quite settles, fluidly following Danton as he bustles around readying the room for Robespierre. 

As the minute of Robespierre’s arrival approaches, Danton suddenly has a moment of paranoia and demands that one of his associates forcibly remove everyone from the adjoining rooms in the hotel where he’s set the meeting.*** Danton’s man Bourdon violently and rudely clears the floor, disrupting a group of aristocratically-dressed people in one room who appear to be gambling, a private party of men watching a woman sensuously dance, and another gathering that looks to be a séance. The aristocrats get the worst manhandling, of course. The medium at the séance, however, gets an almost reverential treatment. Bourdon gently guides her out of her room, and she never seems to surface from her trance. She walks straight towards the camera, which is positioned just outside of the doorway, with her hands outstretched, humming. She turns into the hall at the last second, pitching her hum sharply upward, and the camera cuts back to Danton, inside the meeting room.

It’s a striking interlude that teases what Wajda mostly leaves out of the film. Bourdon’s rough manner acknowledges one of the major criticisms of Danton—that he and his cronies were thugs. Wajda sets up Danton and his opposition to the Terror as an analog for non-violent movements like Polish Solidarity, so he necessarily elides Danton’s involvement in violent actions earlier in the Revolution (like the insurrection of 1792 that led to the abolishment of the monarchy and the execution of Louis XVI). But Wajda does not totally sanitize Danton’s Cordeliers or change their character to make his argument. Instead, he makes Bourdon’s incivility more interesting to watch. Bourdon’s direct dealings with those in his way stands in stark contrast to the detachment of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, whose members sign orders of execution regularly without ever getting their own hands dirty. None of the members of the Committee ever look as good on camera as Bourdon does after he gets the order from Danton to clear the adjoining rooms. He grins like a fox, then he saunters down the hallway, casually smoking, anticipating violence with the cool eagerness of a Hollywood gangster.

 

 

When we return to Danton, Robespierre is just entering the meeting room. As the meeting commences, the camera finally starts to come to a rest. The camera slowly follows Danton as the pair make their way from the doorway to the table. From the beginning, Robespierre is still while Danton continues to be a flurry of motion. He offers up various dishes and platters. He almost chokes after he tears into a quail breast to show Robespierre it isn’t poisoned. When Robespierre repeatedly refuses food, Danton dumps all of the dishes off the table and onto the floor. He compulsively pours himself glasses of wine. He gesticulates with his hands as he speaks. Danton stands up, looming over the still sitting Robespierre, and physically assaults his adversary. Danton switches seats. He takes off his wig and offers up his neck to Robespierre’s guillotine. Through all of this, Robespierre hardly moves. He’s coiled up, intense but tightly contained.

 

 

Wajda’s framing of Robespierre is also rather static. While the distance of the shots varies slightly, Robespierre is almost exclusively shown from the same perspective: a portrait-like three-quarters angle. When the camera moves to show a side view of the table, Robespierre’s severe profile takes over the foreground while Danton carries on behind him. Robespierre’s almost inhuman immobility and composure stands out all the more in comparison to Danton’s restlessness.

 

 

When Danton moves, the camera follows him, but, for the most part, the camera stays still. The two men’s conversation is mostly composed of over-the-shoulder shots, switching between each man as he speaks. While Robespierre is framed very similarly in each of these shots, Wajda frames Danton in as many different ways as possible in the confined space. Danton can’t be defined by one type of shot; the camera must consider him from all different angles. Depardieu’s performance is the opposite of contained. Danton’s energy threatens to overflow the frame, and the camera constantly adjusts to try to capture it.

 

 

Danton’s argument in this scene boils down to a defense of individuality and praise of exceptional men. Danton accuses Robespierre of “chop[ping] off any head above the rest” and asserts that “all exceptional men are above the masses.” Wajda’s camera treats Danton as an exceptional individual, captivating in all of his unruliness and folly. (And drunkenness.) “You want men to act like the heroes of novels,” Danton admonishes Robespierre. “You forget we’re made of flesh and blood.” Robespierre might act more dignified in this instance, and he is even, perhaps, more articulate in defending his course of political action. But Danton is more relatable. 

Relatability is a key factor at work when formulating a historical parallel. History educators in a variety of contexts are enamored of the idea that if they can come up with the right example, then history will “come alive” for the people learning about it in the here and now. Frankly, it’s simply good pedagogical practice to assume that people aren’t interested in learning anything unless it relates to their lives directly. The majority of historical parallels make the past more knowable by making it more familiar—more relatable

When historical parallels are used to make us comfortable with what’s happening in the present, however, we get into the territory of myth-making. This happened with the French Revolution, particularly in France, but also in other European countries that undertook their own revolutionary actions in later decades and centuries. The French Revolution became an inspiration and a model, a warning and a failure. As each new generation sought to position the French Revolution to suit their own ends, the history underwent reinterpretation. Both Robespierre and Danton only rose in historical estimation in the later part of the nineteenth century, as various political factions reevaluated the legacy of the French Revolution and found new heroes to support their own agendas.

Robespierre’s reputation, in particular, was massively rehabilitated with the emergence of leftist, working-class political movements in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The eighteenth-century Jacobin’s commitment to principles of egalitarianism became a historical precedent for the kind of socialist thought that was gaining currency. As Robespierre’s intellectual contributions were rediscovered and newly appreciated by the European left, his status as the premiere “villain” of the French Revolution shifted. The Danton Case, the play on which Danton is partially based, is a product of this shift.

 

 

So Wajda took what was a popular historical parallel in leftist circles—a parallel that was used to give leftist governments an acceptable, Enlightenment-era intellectual heritage—and flipped it to make it uncomfortable. I find Danton so intriguing not because of the historical parallel it makes but because of how it makes that parallel. Danton and Robespierre used to be friends and allies, and their trajectories in the Revolution only diverged at the very end. Wajda understands that only a slight adjustment needs to be made to mount the case against Robespierre—who, it should be noted, is not necessarily vilified in the film. Danton is a variation on a theme, not a rewriting of the story. The dinner scene expertly illustrates Wajda’s approach. On some level, I think the film is designed to force the audience to think about historical parallels and how they work to reinforce national and political identities. It’s all about the framing, quite literally.

 

 

 

*Wajda denied on record that he was trying to make any such pointed connections, but these denials only came after the socialist French government (which had partially financed the film) reacted badly to the film’s perceived anti-leftist attitude. Robert Darton’s essay Danton and Double Entendre” provides the definitive overview of the reasons for the film’s cool reception in France at the time of its release. See: Robert Darnton, “Danton and Double Entendre.” The Kiss of Lamourette (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990).

**This is all the more remarkable in Pszoniak’s case, since, as previously mentioned, his dialogue is dubbed in by a French actor.

***I’m not sure what, exactly, to call the place where Danton and Robespierre meet. Their room is private, but the building is not. I’ve seen the location referred to as a “hotel” in other pieces about the film, so that’s what I’m going with. If any historians who specialize in eighteenth-century France are reading this, please correct me if you know a better or more accurate term.

POST SCRIPT: If you are interested in fiction about the Reign of Terror, I would highly recommend Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. Mantel’s novel follows Danton, Robespierre, and Desmoulins from cradle to guillotine; and the book gorgeously evokes the atmosphere of the French Revolution through its many twists and turns. The events covered at the end of A Place of Greater Safety and the events of Danton overlap, but the characterizations of each main player differ significantly enough to make the film and the novel quite interesting to compare.

 

 

Day 7: February 3, 2021 / Wrap Up

Well, friends, we finally made it to the end of the festival! Before I get into my wrap up, I want to mention the three awards winners that I made time to catch up with on day seven. Animated documentary Flee (World Documentary Competition Grand Jury and Audience Award winner) is a stunner. Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen interviews his longtime friend (whose name is changed in the film for safety reasons) about his friend’s experience as an Afghan refugee. Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (U.S. Documentary Competition Grand Jury and Audience Award winner) will make you get up out of your seat and dance. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson directs this joyful ode to the Harlem Cultural Festival concert series that happened over the summer of 1969. The festival showcased a wide range of Black musical talent, and the documentary frames the festival’s lineup as a snapshot of what was happening in the Black community at the end of the 1960s. Ma Belle, My Beauty (NEXT Audience Award winner), written and directed by Marion Hill, takes us to the south of France, where a couple of newlyweds are suddenly reunited with their ex. The film explores the power dynamics of their polyamorous relationship in sensitive and intriguing ways, and the beautiful French countryside provides a lush and sensuous backdrop for the proceedings.

By the end of the final day of the festival, I was pretty exhausted.* I watched 29 feature films and one shorts program over seven days. I think that’s a new record for me, even at the longer, in-person festival. Out of curiosity, I did a little category breakdown to see how widely (or not) I sampled.

 

U.S. Dramatic Competition: 7

U.S. Documentary Competition: 5

World Dramatic Competition: 2

World Documentary Competition: 4

NEXT: 5

Premieres: 5

Midnight: 1

Shorts Programs: 1

 

My fiction/nonfiction split ended up being exactly 50/50, with fifteen fiction films and fourteen nonfiction features (plus the documentary shorts program). I’m really happy with that ratio; Sundance is a great festival for documentaries, and I try not to neglect the documentary categories in favor of the buzzier narrative films.

Overall, I think that Sundance did an exemplary job of putting on the virtual festival. The programmers still put together a solid lineup, all of the technical aspects of the platform worked seamlessly for me, and the whole experience still felt like an event. I think keeping the screening windows short really helped create a sense of temporal unity among festival goers, even though we were spatially scattered. In addition, the design of the festival’s centralized web portal created a nice sense of virtual space. I felt like I was “entering” the festival when I pulled up the website. While the in-person festival experience is irreplaceable, I hope that going into the future Sundance continues to use the virtual festival platform that they’ve built. I would love to see certain programs, films, or categories made available virtually in concurrence with the in-person festival. It could be an excellent way to increase the reach and accessibility of the festival going forward.

I’ll leave you with a list of my favorite films from this year’s festival. I will say upfront that I saw a lot of decent to good films this year; just because a film isn’t on this list doesn’t mean I didn’t like it.** But these were the standouts for me, especially after a few days’ distance from the whirlwind of the festival.

 

All Light Everywhere, dir. Theo Anthony (distribution TBD)

Censor, dir. Prano Bailey-Bond (distribution TBD)

Cryptozoo, dir. Dash Shaw (purchased by Magnolia Pictures, release date TBD)

El Planeta, dir. Amalia Ulman (distribution TBD)

Flee, dir. Jonas Poher Rasmussen (purchased by NEON, release date TBD)

Passing, dir. Rebecca Hall (purchased by Netflix, release date TBD)

Together Together, dir. Nikole Beckwith (purchased by Bleeker Street, release date TBD)

 

And that’s a wrap on Sundance 2021! I’ll be back with the monthly essay in a couple of weeks! It’s been fun trying out the festival diary format, and I hope you’ve enjoyed following along. If you’ve been into the recent influx of reviews on the blog, with the one-two punch of my favorites of 2020 list and my Sundance diary, let me know. I still envision this blog as a space primarily for essays about whatever films I’m currently thinking about, regardless of their current relevance, but I am open to periodically writing some reviews of new releases if that’s something my readers (you!) would be interested in seeing. 

 

 

*Sorry for the slight delay on these last two diary entries! I just needed a mental break. And the blog is called Delayed Responses, to be fair.

**I also want to say that while I would highly recommend catching Judas and the Black Messiah, it felt weird to put it on my favorites list because its premiere felt sort of outside the festival to me. It felt more like a special screening or something. But the film is well worth your time! It will be available in select theaters and to stream on HBOMax for thirty days, beginning this Friday (February 12).

 

 

Day 6: February 2, 2021

I made it to my final full day of screenings! I’ll be catching up on a few awards winners on the official last day of the festival, and I’m also working on a short wrap up post; so keep your eye out for one more dispatch after this one. Thanks for following along.

On day six, I explored the U.S. Dramatic Competition category, choosing three films I had heard positive things about after their premieres. First up, I watched Nikole Beckwith’s surrogacy comedy Together Together, starring Ed Helms and Patti Harrison. Helms plays a single man in his forties who wants to have a child and start a family, in an inversion of the usual stories about ticking biological clocks; Harrison plays the twenty-something woman he chooses to carry his child. This thoughtful little situational comedy explores the (platonic) relationship that develops between the two main characters. I found the film to be totally lovely and emotionally honest, and Helms and Harrison shine as two lonely people who strike up an odd-couple friendship under unusual circumstances.

Marvelous and the Black Hole (written and directed by Kate Tsang) brought me back into coming-of-age indie dramedy territory (after CODA on day one). Delightful newcomer Miya Cech plays Sammy, a rebellious thirteen-year-old who’s struggling to deal with her grief over her mother’s death. Through happenstance, Sammy meets Margot (Rhea Pearlman), a whimsical children’s magician. Over the course of a summer, Sammy and Margot become unlikely friends. The story hits familiar beats, but, as with CODA, the particulars are charming. 

Jockey also traces a familiar story arc, that of an aging athlete coming to terms with the end of his career and facing his own mortality. Clint Bentley, who wrote and directed the film, grew up in the horse racing world and brings a sense of authenticity and specificity to his portrayal of it. Character actor Clifton Collins, Jr. gives an excellent performance as the titular jockey; his work elevates the whole film to the next level.

My least favorite film of the day had to be First Date (NEXT), Manual Crosby and Darren Knapp’s early-Tarantino homage. The program notes describe the film as “Superbad meets True Romance,” and that about sums it up. Although the teenage leads add that coming-of-age element, the film is otherwise very much of a piece with the many, many Tarantino knock-offs from the late ‘90s. I suppose that the ‘90s are far enough past that this kind of movie counts as a throwback now, but Crosby and Knapp didn’t introduce any fresh or unexpected elements to liven things up. I wanted to like this one more than I did.

I only watched one documentary today: Egyptian filmmaker Ali Al Arabi’s Captains of Zaatari (World Documentary Competition). This understated film follows two teenagers, Syrian refugees living in the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp, as they try to get out and become professional soccer players. They get scouted by a Qatari sports academy, and the movie goes from there. This observational, subdued film allows many of its largest thematic concerns to flourish in the margins and remain almost unsaid. This restraint ultimately makes the film more powerful, subtly commenting on the way that real life doesn’t hit the triumphant beats of Hollywood sports movies. Similarly, the difficulty of life in Zaatari is implied through the boys’ fervent desire to transcend their circumstances, but the film doesn’t revel in misery. The film is ultimately a delicate look at the power of hope.

That’s all for day six! Check back in for my final Sundance 2021 diary.