Sundance 2021: Families Are Still a Mess

Much has happened in the world since the last Sundance Film Festival — a pandemic, two Taylor Swift albums, an attempted coup — and while some of this year’s entries do reflect the changing times, quite a few fit comfortably into the familiar categories. 

For example, is there anything independent filmmakers love more than exploring screwed-up families, in ways both heartwarming and heartbreaking? I submit that there is not. 

CODA is the -warming kind, the sort of light, feel-good family drama that gets standing ovations at festivals. Based on a 2014 French film, La famille Bélier, that was never released in the U.S., CODA is about high school senior Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of a deaf family (played by deaf actors) in a coastal Massachusetts town. Her father (Troy Kotsur) and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) operate the family’s (barely) commercial fishing boat, relying on Ruby to handle the radio calls and haggle with the stingy fishmonger who buys their daily catch. 

Ruby also likes to sing, a skill for which her family has no use. Her mom (Marlee Matlin) actually rolls her eyes when Ruby joins the school choir, which is led by a standard-issue inspiring teacher (Eugenio Derbez) who declares after hearing about five notes from Ruby that she is good enough to go to music college. The conflict between Ruby pursuing her dream (which we didn’t know she had, but OK) and fulfilling her family obligations is routine, but Matlin and Kotsur both perform so naturally as the parents that you get caught up in the reality of it. 

Some corniness aside (Derbez’s performance is much sillier and less real than everyone else’s), writer-director Sian Heder pulls off some truly charming interactions among the Rossis, who despite their issues comprise a loving and essentially functional family. There’s a sublime scene of total silence where Heder shows us the world through the parents ears while the parents try understand Ruby’s singing ability by watching an audience’s reaction to it — empathy within empathy. It’s easy to forgive a few tired tropes (I forgot to mention there’s also an obligatory love interest for Ruby) when they’re surrounded by such humanity. (Grade: B)

The posh German family in Human Factors (Der menschliche Faktor in German; somehow the factor lost its The and became plural while being shipped overseas), is far less functional. Jan (Mark Waschke) and Nina (Sabine Timoteo) are at odds because Jan has made the unilateral decision to have their political consulting agency work with a candidate running on a “foreigners are scary” platform (“These days you don’t win elections with empathy,” says a staffer). More fractures develop when the pair and their two children are on holiday in Belgium and their vacation home is burglarized. The police are eager to blame foreigners. A theme develops. 

Writer-director Ronny Trocker keeps things interesting with  a simple gimmick: occasionally going back and replaying the burglary from a different family member’s point of view. (This culminates in an absurdity that is tonally out of place but makes for a nice moment of levity in a fairly serious movie.) Unfortunately, it’s not till the last replay that anything is actually revealed, and so much of what we’ve seen turns out to have been red herrings. (Grade: C+)

(Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Paul Özgür)

I was more intrigued by the family in John and the Hole, yet another traditional nuclear family (mom, dad, son, daughter) with something lurking beneath. Our 13-year-old protagonist, John (Charlie Shotwell), discovers a hole out in the woods — actually a cement bunker that was never completed — and decides it would be a good place for his mother, father, and older sister (Jennifer Ehle, Michael C. Hall, and Tessa Farmiga) to be kept. Hey, at least you always know where they are. 

This is slow-burn psychological horror, directed with precision by first-timer Pascual Sisto from a screenplay by Nicolás Giacobone (co-writer of Birdman). It’s been described (including by Sisto) as a combination of Michael Haneke and Home Alone, and I can’t improve on that. Young Shotwell gives an engaging performance as the not-quite-ordinary John, spoiled and wealthy, on the brink of adolescence but still a child. (One great moment relatable to all former adolescent boys: After attempting to impersonate his father’s voice, he realizes he’ll have better luck with his mom’s.) 

As for how it turns out, I won’t spoil anything, because I can’t. There’s an allegorical component to the movie, three scenes featuring two characters not connected to the main action, and I freely admit that I … didn’t get it. I’m comforted to know, however, that not getting it seems to be the consensus. It’s hard to say whether so many people missing it means Sisto and Giacobone should have worked hard, or whether it’s our fault for not meeting the challenge. I will say that I was intrigued, amused, and compelled all the way through, and that I’m curious to discuss it with viewers who are smarter than I am and perhaps watch it again. (Grade: B)

Speaking of how wrong I am, I would have bet a substantial sum while watching Mass that it was based on a play. It’s set almost entirely in one room with four characters, stagy in an appealing way (I like plays), with dialogue that occasionally sounds too much like dialogue. It’s an actor’s showcase, too: the parents of a boy killed in a school shooting meeting, six years later, with the parents of the shooter.

But Mass is based on nothing but real life, distilled through the mind of actor Fran Kranz (The Cabin in the Woods, Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse) into a highly impressive writing and directing debut. He captures so well the walking-on-eggshells and elliptical phrasing of awkward situations like this one, where despite everything people are still concerned with social niceties. About 20 percent of the dialogue consists of people saying “I’m sorry” or “I’m so sorry,” usually for heinous offenses like setting the Kleenex box in the wrong place or bringing a gift without considering how the recipient will get it home. Everyone is sorry, just so, so sorry for everything. 

Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton play the parents of the murdered boy; Reed Birney and Ann Dowd are the parents of the killer, who also died that day but wasn’t mourned publicly. All four are terrific, each character arriving with a different attitude, all four changed by the end. It’s a remarkably cathartic experience that dives deep into the subjects of healing and forgiveness. (Grade: B+)

(Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Nanu Segal)

Back in the realm of families that are relatively happy (all things considered), we come to Marvelous and the Black Hole, a formulaic but endearing comedy about a rebellious youth whose life is changed by meeting a kooky old person. It’s 14-year-old Sammy Ko (Miya Cech), an angsty, self-harming girl who misses her dead mother, resents her father’s new girlfriend, and is threatened with reform school if she doesn’t straighten up. While taking a community college class at her father’s (Leonardo Nam) insistence, Sammy comes across Margot the Magnificent (Rhea Perlman), a modestly talented magician who works kids’ parties. Cynical Sammy reluctantly becomes Margot’s assistance, then protege, all while navigating her tumultuous emotions. 

First-time writer-director Kate Tsang keeps a sunny outlook, even when the humor gets ever-so-slightly twisted. Glimpses into Sammy’s imagination are creative (if not narratively necessary), and anyone who grew up on Cheers should have automatic affection for Rhea Perlman. Miya Cech is fiercely funny as the strident Sammy. It’s the kind of movie where all that its defenders, myself included, can really say for it is, “Aw, come on, it’s cute!” Sometimes cute is enough. (Grade: B-)

Eric D. Snider has been a film critic since 1999, first for newspapers (when those were a thing) and then for the internet. He was born and raised in Southern California, lived in Utah in his 20s, then Portland, now Utah again. He is glad to meet you, probably.

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