It’s fun to think back to our collective naïvete, isn’t it? I, for instance, remember last year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival, which was deemed a temporary necessity – vaccines had just been approved, and they would take some time to roll out, but hey, just this once, and then next year we’ll see you in Park City! Hurray!
[Party hat emojis]
[Sobbing face emojis]
That, of course, is not how it went; a giant bloc of dipshits decided they couldn’t trust that vaccine, so now here we are, about to enter year three of this roiling hellscape. Sundance held on to the notion of a hybrid festival as long as they could, God bless ‘em. But they eventually had to make the call to go online-only, and once again, I found myself not in Park City but in a New York City hotel room, watching a whole bunch of movies on the in-room television.
One of them was Sharp Stick, one of the buzziest titles of the festival, pre-loaded with the potential for controversy and discourse – primarily because it flowed from the pen of Lena Dunham, who has been a mostly-inexplicable cultural dividing rod since Girls debuted on HBO all those years ago. It’s the story of Sarah Jo (Kristin Froseth) is a naïve 26-year-old babysitter who embarks on an ill-advised affair with her employer (Jon Bernthal), and follows up that sexual awakening with an enthusiastic descent into the sinful underbelly of L.A.
It’s a tight script, full of uncomfortably funny/truthful scenes, but if the performers aren’t right, it doesn’t work at all. Yet every role is beautifully cast. Bernthal is wonderful, playing his potentially loathsome character with such warmth and doofiness that, initially, it’s very hard to hate him; Jennifer Jason Leigh is pitch-perfect as Sarah Jo’s weary, hippie mother, a five-time divorcee who is full of ill-advised theories and advice. And Froseth is a real find as Sarah Jo, a delicate, complicated character – if she swings too childlike it seems exploitative, if she’s too worldly it seems fake. But she (and Dunham’s perceptive screenplay) hones in on the reckless abandon of your first sexual relationship, and the brain-scrambling that often follows.
Like Dunham, Cooper Raiff is another writer/director/actor with a specific style and distinctive voice (and no hesitation about casting himself as an object of desire for beautiful people). His latest, Cha Cha Real Smooth, has one of those extremely Sundance premises (verbatim: “A young man who works as a Bar Mitzvah party host strikes up a friendship with a mother and her autistic daughter”), but it’s so earnest and so charming, you’re sort of willing to grant its preciousness. Raiff is a likable presence, and it’s always a pleasure to see Leslie Mann, but the star turn here is by Dakota Johnson, as a woman whose destiny has been determined for her entire adult life, enjoying the possibility of doing something reckless.
A few years back, through the oddities of festival programming and “something’s in the air” timing, Sundance featured Christine and Kate Plays Christine, two ruminations on the same subject, in the same year’s program. It happened again this year, with Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ documentary The Janes and Phyllis Nagy’s fictionalized Call Jane, both dealing with a clandestine network of Chicago women who helped other, desperate women get safe abortions when the procedure was not yet legal. Sundance did Call Jane a solid by debuting it a few days before The Janes; it’s a fine film, sporting some sharp scenes and excellent performances (particularly by Elizabeth Banks, Chris Messina, and Sigourney Weaver), but takes considerable and sometimes inexplicable liberties with the story, and really goes off the rails in the back third, spiraling into personal melodrama (about entirely fictional characters!) that seems to miss the bigger picture.
The Janes takes pains to give all available context – the horrifying dangers of pre-Roe abortions, the general second-class citizenry of women, the activist scene in Chicago (and how male-dominated it was), and the blossoming of the women’s lib movement – to tell its story, before getting into the roots of the organization and the fascinating logistics of how they did what they did, and did it without getting caught for most of the period in which they were active. The archival footage is strong and the interviews are first-rate, and the underlying theme of allowing women to take their own power and claim their own agency (“We wanted every woman who contacted us to be the hero of her own story”) still resonates loudly.
Ramin Bahrani is usually a narrative filmmaker, but his documentary debut 2nd Chance concerns the kind of hustler he typically focuses on in his fiction: Richard Davis, the inventor of the modern-day bulletproof fest, who shot himself on-camera 192 times to prove its effectiveness. You can tell from that thumbnail description that this was a showman, an entrepreneur with a healthy dose of chutzpah; he was also endowed an abundance of ego, narcissism, self-preservation, and criminal negligence. He’s a guy who lies as freely and easily as he breathes, which makes him a slippery subject and a tricky interview, but Bahrani is fascinated by his flaws, and the strange stories and sidebars around him. It’s occasionally clumsy – when Barhrani, who also narrates, tells us right at the beginning that “Richard’s story was a metaphor for the country,” it’s a tad on the nose – but is frequently gripping and surprisingly emotionally resonant.
Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love is drawn, per the opening credits, “from the deep archives of Katie and Maurice Krafft” – married volcanologists who drew a fair amount of attention in their heyday because they were charismatic on camera, dedicated to their work, and god at what they did. Their biography is fascinating; they were children of the sixties of who were disappointed in humanity, and decided to dedicate themselves to something greater, to the feeling, comparatively speaking, “of being nothing at all.” Miranda July voices the narration, which is poetic and lovely (“In this world lived a fire… and in this fire, two lovers found a home”), but the draw here is the incredible images they captured over their two decades in the field. And Dosa tells their story within those images, drawing conclusions and making assumptions about their dynamic on the basis of what’s captured incidentally in their footage and photos.
There’s a similar sense of the immortality of filmed images – the people who make them may leave us, but their work will not – in the poignant comedy/drama Leonor Will Never Die. Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco) was once a legendary Filipino action filmmaker, but those days are far behind her now. Yet the creative fire lights up when she sees a newspaper ad for a screenplay competition, and she isn’t even slowed down by a television falling on her head; she ends up in a coma, but in that state, she finds herself in the movie she’s writing. The Purple Rose of Cairo influence is strong, but first-time writer/director Martika Ramirez Escobar comes up with plenty of her own inventions – and emotions – while carving out a distinctive dry wit and deadpan style.
But the most direct meditation on cinema – the good it does, and the bad – is Branwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, Nina Menkes’ essay film on the male gaze and its implications, based on her talk “Sex & Power: The Visual Lange of Cinema.” And she intricately breaks down the components of that language, using copious clips from a good number of canonical films, complimenting her commentary with interviews filmmakers, historians, actors, and experts. It’s a tough film to criticize, because so much of it is quite thought-provoking, and she’s addressing pressing issues of gender inequality in the film industry (throughout its history and very much at the moment), and horrifying normalization of rape culture and imagery. But many of the clips are taken so fully out of context as to erase intention altogether – she sometimes uses scenes that are, in fact, about the very subjects she’s addressing – and she frequently dismisses female directors who “appropriate the male gaze” even when they’re weaponizing it (as in Cuties, Hustlers, or Titane). Some of those arguments are just plain bad faith, and there shouldn’t be room for that in a film where so much of what surrounds it rings so true.
However, the best film I saw at the festival was another form-breaking, wide-ranging documentary. RIOTSVILLE, USA takes its title from the fake cities constructed on U.S. Army bases in the late 1960s as training grounds for military and police units to train, and the images shot there (by contemporaneous military and television cameras) are both grim and hilarious. But director Sierra Pettengill uses that footage as an entry point into an exploration of revolution and protest, and how it was effectively quelled, in this period – the idea that something was in reach and lost, thanks to a machine that kept on grinding, no matter what. It’s a film of shocking facts and fascinating footage, held together by the ambient, unsettling score and hauntingly poetic narration, a historical documentary that reminds us how provocative and trenchant such films can be.