Day 5: February 1, 2021
On day 5, I got to play catch up with a few films I had heard excellent things about over the past few days. I started with Fran Kranz’s Mass (Premieres), one of the best-received films of the festival so far. This chamber piece features knock-out performances by Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, and Reed Birney as the parents of a victim of a Columbine-esque mass shooting and the parents of the shooter. The film consists almost solely of the conversation that this set of parents has with each other—a conversation that seems to have been set up in an effort to help the victims’ parents heal and find closure. The film is heavy and highly charged, but the script and the performers hold onto emotional and moral nuances and contradictions that could easily have been glossed over in a less thoughtful version of this story. Kranz’s film will no doubt be a conversation starter.
While I doubt it will be as widely seen, Amalia Ulman’s autobiographically-inspired El Planeta (World Dramatic Competition) should also start conversations. Ulman’s film might be one of the best depictions of middle class economic precarity I’ve ever seen; Leo (Amalia Ulman) and her mother (played by Ulman’s real mother, Ale) struggle to get by after Leo’s father dies and leaves them with nothing. Leo’s mother has never worked, and Leo was a student studying abroad. They don’t qualify for social benefits, but they can’t find jobs in Spain’s depressed economy. So they skate by, running small-scale scams to get what they need and maintain appearances. The film is funny, but in a “what else are you supposed to do but laugh” kind of way. It’s a breezy film about a tragic situation; the tone of the film expertly evokes both Leo and (especially) her mother’s fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude about their misfortunes. The more I sit with this one, the more I like it.
Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill’s Cusp (U.S. Documentary Competition) has gotten praise for its sensitive depiction of teenage girlhood. Like El Planeta, although operating in different ways, Cusp addresses serious topics without being an Issues Movie. Bethencourt and Hill follow a group of three teenage girls in a small Texas town over the course of one summer; the girls party and hang out, wasting time in that distinctly teenage way. One of the film’s most disquieting through lines becomes the way these young women must constantly deal with the consequences of pervasive, gendered power imbalances; the idea that women are “scared to say no” to men (to non-consensual sex, to controlling boyfriends, to abusive fathers) crops up again and again in the film. Bethencourt and Hill don’t neglect to honor their subjects and show the joyful moments, too, making sure to document the girls’ lives beyond just their trauma.
At the last minute, I decided to squeeze in Sean Ellis’s Victorian werewolf tale Eight for Silver (Premieres). I thought I needed a little burst of good genre fun in between all of my serious movies, and I was definitely right. Although the film could use a tighter edit (its runtime is too long for the amount of story it’s trying to tell), I got a kick out of Ellis’s grimy, gothic monster movie. The creature design for the werewolves could have been more creative, but the mechanics of how a person turns into one of these monsters delighted me. (One particularly gory reveal might be the highlight of the whole thing.) This one is worth catching for fans of monster horror.
The world premiere of Judas and the Black Messiah (directed by Shaka King) capped off my day of screenings. Warner Brothers chose to use the Sundance festival as a launch pad for the film’s awards campaign; the film certainly feels like a glossy studio production in a way that made it stand out from the much smaller films I’ve been watching all week.* King’s film follows William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), the FBI informant who ultimately enabled the assassination of Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton (an unbelievably good Daniel Kaluuya, standing out even in a film packed with strong performances) in 1969. The film is primarily about Hampton’s assassination, tracing O’Neal’s journey as he gets closer to Hampton and ending with the police raid on Hampton’s Chicago home that served as the pretense for his murder. The film works as a powerful indictment of the FBI’s COINTELPRO project, and it’s encouraging to see a movie with such a radical (and thoroughly anti-cop) heart get made by a mainstream studio.
Day six will be my last full day of screenings! Check back tomorrow for another review roundup.
*Judas and the Black Messiah will be released in theaters and on HBOMax (WW84-style) on February 12. Because of the pandemic, the Academy lengthened its eligibility release window, so Judas will be eligible for Oscars at this year’s awards. If I didn’t have the Sundance pass, I wouldn’t have seen the film at the festival since it’s being released next week; but I’ve been looking forward to the film, and I thought I might as well get into the premiere if I could.