Sundance Film Festival Recap
It’s interesting how, so often, there are a number of movies, books, and albums with a similar vibe and or tone, released around the same time. Ideas seem to strike synchronously for many, resulting in a wave of content of the same/similar genre. How incredible to think that stories sneak into the psyche this way, world and culture wide. While the voices for change have been at the forefront of social media for some time, honest, cinematic portrayals of those who are in the margins are still rather scarce. Sundance 2018 sought to challenge this, head first and unabashed. I saw it with my own eyes, heard it with my own ears, felt it in that mountain air. And it felt good!
Out of the nine films I saw, here are my favorites, in order:
5. ASSASSINATION NATION
I saw this at Park City’s brand new theatre, The Ray. Although I love old theatres, it was satisfying to see this particular movie as crisp as possible. The story, loosely based off the Salem witch trials, follows Lily, (well-played by Odessa Young) as the small town in which she lives becomes subject to a mass hack, releasing the private data of nearly every citizen. People begin to notice that Lily and her friends (the excellent Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse and Abra) are some of the few not hacked and the “witch hunt” begins, forcing the girls to fight for their lives (and the greater good.) The film tackles social media culture, the way it allows us to make snap judgments on curation, and how it specifically affects young girls. What happens when women are able to harness their own power through platforms such as instagram? It also tackles “toxic masculinity,” transphobia, racism and class explicitly; a hard to come by (nearly impossible) feat. The sight of four, dynamic women standing together at the end of the film, tough as fuck and taking control, defending their LIVES, made me bleary. That being said, the stereotypical teen talk was a bit gratuitous at times. Let it be known that the teenage vernacular stretches beyond meme culture and “hashtag” this or that.
My friend and I ran into this screening about four minutes in after miraculously scoring two free tickets (it’s a long story). I knew almost nothing about the film other than the fact that it starred Nicholas Cage. I had no time to settle into the story, which is perhaps the way director Panos Cosmatos would have wanted it. The plot of the film is simple: man gets revenge on the psychotic cult that killed his wife (Andrea Riseborough). The execution, however, is very far from simple; flung into space, even. Psychedelics, absurd humor, a crazed Nicholas Cage and a soundtrack that treads the line between ambient and death metal collide into a completely immersive cinematic experience. Not a single note was missed performance-wise, either. Each performer had an incredible on-screen command, allowing the audience to settle into both the characters and story. I hope this gets a proper theatrical release; I can’t imagine it being anywhere near the same experience, watching on a television screen.
At the Q&A after the screening, the writers and leads of the film, Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, revealed that the script had been in the works for years leading up to the production. This shocked the audience, given how “current” the film is. Film currency is a peculiar subject, as many scripts aren’t written immediately before a film is shot, so how can they be current? Perhaps there are more undying themes than we all thought. The movie is about people we haven’t seen on screen before: two friends of different races in Oakland, California, one of whom is on parole for a crime they both committed. It is a commentary on police brutality, a conversation on friendship and a portrait of a changing, increasingly gentrified Oakland. Despite its heavy themes, the comedic aspects are some of the most powerful in a way, and work to amplify the moments that are meant to truly hit. I was pleasantly surprised by how big a role spoken word played in the film. It is worth noting that Director Carlos Lopez Estrada does an excellent job of seamlessly incorporating bouts of slam without turning the film into a musical. In fact, the poetry made the film feel exactly like real life, in a way I can’t quite explain.
2. SKATE KITCHEN
Right in the middle of my week, accustomed to the hustle of the festival but not the altitude (never used to the altitude) I got myself out of bed at 6:30 sharp, took a wrong bus then walk/ran to the theatre in the nick of time for Crystal Moselle’s enchanting Skate Kitchen. Based off the real-life Instagram page of the same name, the film follows 18 year old Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) as she befriends a group of deeply badass all-girl teen skateboarders in NYC. None of the girls in the film are actresses, but true New York skating kweens, discovered by Moselle a few years ago for her short of the same concept. The film feels almost like a documentary in its sincerity, as the girls are generally just doing what they normally do: skate, hangout with their friends and figure it all out (“it” meaning life, growing up, etc.) Indeed, there were similarities to Harmony Korine’s 1995 KIDS. However, I felt that it was more of a response than emulation. Each element of drama meanders rather than punches, and ultimately resolves in a nice skate-montage through the city (which, in my opinion, one can never have too many of).
Truthfully, writer/director Joesphine Decker’s last feature did not strike any chords with me. I do love her shorts, though, and the instant I heard her and Miranda July would be working together, I was excited. The film closely follows Madeleine (by an inimitable Helena Howard), as the lines between the performance in which she’s cast and her real life begin to blur. It shows a seldom seen reality of single motherhood, mental illness, what it means to be an artist, what it means to come of age, and how everything always seems to collide, all the time. The nonlinear structure does take a little patience at times, as well as a certain openness in order to get the most out of the film. At the Q&A afterwards, Decker commented on the this, and how it is not dissimilar to a poem in that, it takes a bit of work to unearth, but those who do are in for a treat.
P.S. Because my opinion would probably be biased, I have not included my mother’s feature film, NEVER GOIN’ BACK on the list… but between you and me it is the real number one.