Reeling at Altitude: Missives from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Part One

Jumbo | Sundance Institute
Jumbo | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

There’s a question that has long been my personal riddle of the sphinx: what is “a Sundance movie”?

The term has an undeniable connotation, but (to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart), I can’t define it even though I know it when I see it. In a critics’ roundtable published by The Hollywood Reporter following last year’s festival, Jon Frosch described this “sometimes disparagingly employed term” as traditionally connoting “a certain kind of lily-white angst/quirk-athon a la Garden State, Little Miss Sunshine or Napoleon Dynamite,” and that’s about as close to a colloquial definition as I can imagine. Sundance remains by far the American film festival with the greatest name recognition, yet by the end of the millennium’s first decade, that name could be used as a jeer just as often as an accolade.

Another decade or so removed from those particular “quirk-athons,” though, what Sundance means has shifted—and, more than ever it seems, stratified. It can be easy to feel like there are two festivals running simultaneously—on the one hand, as Vanity Fair critic Richard Lawson recently mentioned on the podcast “Little Gold Men,” the decreasing multiplex space afforded to non-franchise films means that the traditional seller’s market aspect of Sundance has diminishing viability. Triumphing in a heated bidding war can more often than not mean acquiring a movie that won’t find the necessary oxygen to compete (see: Dope, a sensational coming-of-age comedy that was among the biggest sales of the 2015 festival only to land outside the top 100 films at the year’s box office). “Distributors,” as Lawson points out, are adopting an “austerity mindset” while Sundance is becoming “a showcase for stuff that Netflix or A24 already has.” When the festival’s early days are dominated by discussion of a Taylor Swift documentary that will be available on that ubiquitous streaming service a week after its high-profile Eccles Center premiere, it can be easy to wonder what Sundance even represents in 2020.

Running alongside this trade show, however, is the slate of low-profile discoveries that push the boundaries of how a camera can influence hearts and minds in the 21st century. During a given time slot this year, Park City visitors can choose between that Taylor Swift profile, a Ukranian documentary that sees a family use art to make sense of life during wartime, the first feature ever directed by a Saudi woman, or a romance between Mexican men weighing their love against the risk of crossing the border into Trump’s America. What Sundance means may have shifted and bifurcated, but it remains large and ever-expanding. While so many forces in the entertainment industry pay lip service to diversity efforts, Sundance has admirably put its money where its mouth is—according to a fact sheet provided to critics at the start of this year’s festival, 42% of features on the 2020 slate were directed by women, 34% were directed by filmmakers of color, and 14% were directed by filmmakers identifying as LGBTQ+. There is undeniable and pressing work to be done in raising those numbers, but with its status as best-in-class for inclusion among the top global festivals, Sundance’s contradictions contain multitudes.

We’ll shortly transition to six case studies of what a “Sundance movie” might look like at the dawn of the ‘20s, but first, a brief disclaimer: though Bright Wall/Dark Room is typically the Wild West when it comes to so-called spoilers, I recognize that few people reading this piece will have the opportunity to see these films anytime soon, and so I will take pains to avoid mentioning specific plot details beyond basic setups. However, I will be discussing the full shape of each film, including offering non-specific perspectives on their conclusions. I write with respect to that contingent that prefers to enter a film with as little foreknowledge as possible, but I’d also gently ask that group to consider why they’ve opened this tab in the first place, and whether they might be happier closing it.

With that settled, I’ll return to the words of Jon Frosch, who determined that the Sundance ideal remains the hunt for “that adrenaline-shot of discovery.” And, for all the tumult and uncertainty in the landscape of Hollywood and beyond, I’m happy to report that I experienced this thrill more often than not in the first three days of my Sundance sojourn, and it was never more potent than in my opening night selection.

Summertime | Carlos Lopez Estrada | Sundance Institute
Summertime (Carlos Lopez Estrada) | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Summertime is the type of unclassifiable movie that makes you want to reach for comparisons. The easiest might be “a Gen-Z Slacker,” as it sketches intersecting vignettes of disparate young people drifting through one Los Angeles day. But no comparison—even, as I heard one audience member vividly suggest as the credits rolled, “In the Heights meets Tangerine”—can quite approximate the effect of this magic realist spoken word musical that posits self-expression as the ultimate form of healing.

Director Carlos López Estrada follows his urgent but scattered 2018 debut Blindspotting by collaborating with 25 young Angeleno poets, each of them listed as co-screenwriter (Estrada takes only an “additional story” credit). It may seem counterintuitive to argue that this deliberately formless work is more cohesive than the conventionally plotted Blindspotting, but Estrada displays a remarkable ability to identify his strengths and then sprint towards them even at the possible expense of commercial viability (a cynical presumption on which I dearly hope to be proven wrong). 

Shedding the classic storytelling structure of Blindspotting, Estrada takes its most confounding element—the shocking and surreal climactic burst of poetic passion—and fashions an entire film to support this type of electrifying moment that was unfortunately doomed to sit uneasily alongside traditional storytelling. Where some directors might sand off the controversial aspects of their early work in the interest of carving out a sustainable career, Estrada does the opposite, conjuring a world where explosions of ecstatic poetry are commonplace, where a bigot on a bus can be defeated through the power of rhythmic rhyme—a world where, as one character titles her self-help book, you can “Rap Battle Your Demons.”

In the wake of the premiere, the most common complaint seems to be the unapologetically amateur nature of the poetry, which represents at least half the script. The point is undeniable, but it’s also, at least to my eyes, what makes the film remarkable. The young protagonists of Summertime are struggling to make sense of their identities and their place in the world, and their skills with self-expression are appropriately half-baked. If Estrada’s film can often feel like the world’s glossiest class project—according to press notes, the script is adapted from a real high school showcase—that means it represents an unusually raw vision of the world as seen by its emerging voices. Estrada, evincing an admirable lack of ego, provides just enough supporting style and structure to create a crowd-pleasing work of art while remaining unobtrusive enough to allow his young collaborators the status of primary auteurs.

While there are frequent jabs at typical Gen-Z idiosyncrasies (notably one perfectly imperfect use of “praxis”), the satire carries a sense of good-humored self-reflection as these characters take stock of their identities on the cusp of adulthood. While Slacker is the easy comparison, I found myself thinking more often of Dazed and Confused, another story set at the fault line of the painfully familiar and the thrilling unknown. Though the world of Summertime may seem supernaturally supportive of its characters (nowhere more evidently than in the most overtly surreal, and most outright comic, element, which sees one pair of characters experience years’ worth of incident in just a few hours), it never elides the spiritual wounds inflicted on its young heroes by indifferent or hostile powers. It simply acknowledges and honors that pain, and then returns to its steadfast belief that the arc of history is bending in their direction.

In an introductory video attached to the Summertime profile on the Sundance website, Estrada cedes his time to the 25 young screenwriters, each of whom offers some personal introduction (“I’m a Pisces moon;” “I’m a stressed-out college student”) but one in particular rang in my head throughout the film, only gaining in resonance as the climax approached: “I’m Gordon Ip,” says the young man who commands the final stretch of Summertime with a showstopping act of service industry rebellion, “and I think you deserve love and affection.” 

If Summertime risks dipping its toe into the saccharine, it’s all in the service of that essential message: everyone (with the possible exception of bus-riding bigots) is deserving of love and affection, and I can hardly think of a more worthy theme, or a more uniquely remarkable film.

“Uniquely remarkable” is an apt descriptor for several of the films I watched in this first half of my trip to Park City, but the significance of the term can diverge sharply—and not always for the best.

Jumbo (Zoé Wittock) | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Jumbo is destined to be remembered for a pithy logline—it’s the one where a woman has an affair with an amusement park ride—and that simplistic description is by no means inapt. This is, indeed, a movie about a sexual affair between a human and an object. But what appears at first to be a psychologically acute story of objectophilia (a real condition marked by sexual and romantic attraction to inanimate objects, one that studies suggest is frequently correlated with autism spectrum disorders) transforms into something far eerier before taking an abrupt and deflating turn into facile uplift. It’s an odd medley, but what do you expect from the one where a woman has an affair with an amusement park ride?

Jumbo flirts with easy clichés—don’t let the subtitles fool you, this has all the DNA of a mid-2000s “Sundance movie,” right down to the triumphant hair-metal needle drop accompanying the soaring climax—but it’s largely saved by the seriousness with which it takes the interior struggles of protagonist Jeanne (Portrait of a Lady on Fire star Noémie Merlant, cementing her starmaking run with a performance diametrically opposed but no less magnetic). Jeanne is neurodivergent, but her ostensibly bizarre longings are treated with the same dignity regularly afforded neurotypical characters struggling towards self-actualization (the story acknowledges that Jeanne has been diagnosed with some psychological condition, one that has taken a significant toll on her family, though it elides naming that condition in favor of a disappointing deployment of “special,” absolving any necessity to faithfully represent clinical symptoms). At no point is she presented as worthy of mockery, and while I heard scattered laughs during one particularly stark sexual encounter between Jeanne and Jumbo (the tilt-a-whirl-esque attraction recently installed in the suburban park where she works maintenance) the laughter felt more astonished than derisive—the sole outright villains in this otherwise generous story are those who would dare to sneer at Jeanne.

I have overheard complaints around town that the mechanical focus of Jeanne’s objectophilia serves no thematic function—she could just as easily have been in love with a plant, one industry member groused in a line later that day—but I would point to the overwhelming euphoria as Jumbo takes Jeanne into his whirling arms (yes, the film does definitively gender the ride) and removes her tiresome connection to gravity. Jeanne speaks of her longing to be taken outside of herself, and writer/director Zoé Wittock has fashioned an ideal device to externalize that desire—not to mention allowing for several ethereal neon reveries that couldn’t help but take my breath away.

It’s notable, however, that everything I appreciate in the film comes in the first two acts. The story’s deliberate provocations reach their apex in a hallucinatory interlude calling to mind Under the Skin, yet in what feels almost like a twist ending, the uncanny is abruptly subsumed by the sweet, and the third act is devoted to the trite lesson that our differences make us special. The final moments of Jumbo call to mind nothing more than Little Miss Sunshine, and it’s strange to feel simultaneously elated and deflated, as the simplistic ending comes at the expense of the raw psychological pain that defined the preceding hour. 

If my greatest complaint is that the movie is too crowd-pleasing, then it must be an easy one to recommend, though I do wonder what the intersection could be of audiences looking for both abstract science fiction (the film plays coy as to whether Jumbo is indeed sentient rather than simply Jeanne’s delusion, but seems to suggest the former) and life-affirming sweetness. They’re two great tastes that, unfortunately, seldom taste great together.

That sense of unnerving tonal whiplash would return to me later that day, though this time the effect was far more potent, and even outright thrilling.

Black Bear (Lawrence Michael Levine) | Sundance Institute
Black Bear (Lawrence Michael Levine) | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

There is no subgenre of independent film more tiresome than the “lake house movie.” When a story features a small group of disaffected, affluent young white people holing up at a remote cabin to hash out their petty squabbles, the results tend to reek of a director more concerned with cheap convenience than compelling storytelling.

The first act of Black Bear (which is divided into two theatrical acts rather than the conventional cinematic three) follows this formula to the letter, as Aubrey Plaza’s enigmatic filmmaker visits a lakeside retreat in search of inspiration only to be drawn into the domestic agonies of a couple (Chrisopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon) who are trying not particularly hard to pretend they don’t hate one another. After nearly an hour of a sexually charged millennial riff on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I found myself struggling to stay engaged, even as the story’s quick descent into self-conscious hysteria indicated something trickier might be at play.

It would be criminal to reveal what happens in the second half of Black Bear, which is convenient as a critic because describing it would also be incredibly difficult. Suffice it to say writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine takes the trite “lake house movie” and turns it inside out, forcing the viewer to reconsider everything that came before while sprinting to keep up with what’s unfolding now, not to mention trying—quite likely in vain—to find the coherent plot thread that might unite the two. This shocking gambit results in an hour of electrifying, effervescent, and devastating filmmaking, even if it ultimately leaves the viewer holding a mass of seemingly contradictory puzzle pieces with little guiding sense of how to put them together.

Black Bear is the type of film built for fan theorizing—there are ample clues as to what’s “really happening,” but the film is so deliberately abstract that it would seem the height of folly to suggest textual evidence supports a clear interpretation. Immediately upon finishing, I began trying to diagram my own grand unified theory only to quickly realize I was far more interested in reflecting on the thrilling and emotional head trip I’d witnessed, “solving it” be damned.

More than any film I’ve seen in the past few years, Black Bear benefits from extratextual awareness. The first closing credit is a hand-written dedication to “Sophia,” and those familiar with Levine’s work will recognize the nod to his wife and frequent collaborator, Sophia Takal. The dedication turns subtext into text within this nesting-doll story of the ways partners can manipulate and abuse one another when life intermingles with work, and the psychological ravages that can result. The film practically begs the viewer to consider Levine as an invisible and omnipotent co-lead, and though I have to wonder how effective the experience might be for anyone unfamiliar with his collaborations with Takal, not to mention the wisdom of crafting the first half of a film to be intentionally stilted, for anyone willing to continue pondering the experience beyond the end credits, it’s an unusually rich one.

Perhaps most rewarding of all, Black Bear is a massive leap in scope and ambition for Levine, whose previous work has often riffed—albeit unusually effectively—on existing tropes. Wild Canaries—in which he co-stars with Takal as another pair of lovers trying to pretend they don’t hate each other—is a Brooklyn-set comic noir that features scattered moments of bracing emotion but nevertheless evaporates as soon as the credits roll. Levine followed that project with the screenplay for Takal’s directorial project, Always Shine, an engaging but nevertheless slight riff on the “persona swap” tradition, and that experimental dip into Bergmanesque waters serves as a link to Black Bear. Levine now moves beyond thematic sampling into the more metatextual and cerebral experimentations of Bergman and his midcentury European contemporaries, but if there is a case to be made that Levine is once again putting a 21st century spin on existing tradition, there’s an even stronger case to be made that he’s now made the shift into full-throated originality, and for all the puzzling chaos still ringing in my mind, I’m eager to see where he takes his craft next.

If Levine has used Sundance 2020 to stake his claim as a fully-formed auteur, he’s joined by another director who attempted an even tougher trick in what’s almost certainly the buzziest film of the festival, and among the most divisive.

Zola (Janicza Bravo) | Sundance Institute
Zola (Janicza Bravo) | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

With an hour to go before the doors opened, the line for the press and industry screening of Zola had packed the holding tent and extended down the corridor, and the queue continued to grow even as it became clear the demand for seats would far exceed the supply. That desperate persistence is easy to understand—few films in recent memory have come loaded with as much intrigue and mystery (carefully cultivated by A24, who released only one promotional still and withheld press notes until the moment that screening ended).

Even among a lineup dense with alluring loglines, Zola stands out as the first feature film ever adapted from a Twitter thread. That announcement had certainly piqued my interest—like so many of the Extremely Online, I remembered the week in 2015 that social media was set ablaze by the epic thread, soon referred to simply as #TheStory, that began, “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out??????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense”—but my curiosity went into overdrive with the announcement that the director would be Janicza Bravo. I’d been fascinated by Bravo’s short films, as well as her debut feature, Lemon (a vehicle for her husband, abrasive comedian Brett Gelman), which tend to function as collisions between Adult Swim and Samuel Beckett. With a history of such aggressively hysterical and alienating work, it was clear that Bravo’s interpretation of Zola would be no mere recounting of events.

For anyone who may not recall #TheStory, the story is this: Zola (newcomer and instant star Taylour Paige) is a Detroit waitress and stripper who experiences an idyllic evening of friendship at first sight with fellow stripper Stefani (Riley Keough). The following day, Stefani impulsively invites Zola to accompany her for a weekend of stripping in Florida, and Zola—despite the misgivings of her concerned but supportive boyfriend—joins Stefani and her two male companions for what’s meant to be a carefree and lucrative road trip. Instead, as the trip’s focus turns from stripping to more intimate sex work…well, Zola and Stefani fall out, and if—at a hyperkinetic 90 minutes—it’s not particularly long, it’s unquestionably full of suspense.

Early reactions posit Zola as a melding of Spring Breakers and The Florida Project, and I have to admit, I find the comparisons baffling. Despite their kinship as portraits of Floridian hedonism, Zola has none of the former’s droning hypnosis, nor any of the latter’s naturalistic grace. Comparing Zola to any prior work, in fact, strikes me as entirely misguided. Bravo (along with her co-writer, celebrated playwright Jeremy O. Harris) sets out to develop an entirely new cinematic language, and she succeeds wildly—until, abruptly and heartbreakingly, she doesn’t.

The fact that this is the first movie ever based on a Twitter thread is no mere trivia item. Bravo has been tasked with interpreting an entirely new form of storytelling, one that doesn’t obey any of the rules that have been tried and tested for centuries. Reading #TheStory is a chaotic experience; plot beats necessarily come in brief bursts designed to keep the reader pushing that digital lever for bites of intrigue, and Bravo envisions remarkably innovative techniques to mimic the dopamine rush of following a story that’s fighting to keep you glued to your phone. Most notable is the sound design, which makes use of familiar chimes and chirps to suggest either that Zola is composing #TheStory in her head as we follow her chaotic odyssey, or else to acknowledge that we’re viewing the events as related through the language of social media.

This technique could easily be labeled a gimmick, but it weaves into a broader tapestry of formal contradictions—moments of freeway pastoralism evoke the outsider’s lens of Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, while periodic visits to an eerie internal dreamscape recall cinematographer Ari Wegner’s recent work on In Fabric; abrupt whiplashes between outright comedy (Nicholas Braun as Stefani’s unstably jealous boyfriend feels like nothing less than an alternate-universe Cousin Greg) and ferocity (Colman Domingo’s sex trafficker keeps charisma and menace in such precise balance that it’s impossible to keep your eyes off him) are perversely unified by the gentle chimes of Mica Levi’s score.

The patchwork of mood and tone serves the aforementioned role in approximating the disunified experience of social media storytelling, but perhaps more significantly it functions as a potent destabilizing force in a story that could easily lapse into familiar exploitative tropes. Bravo and Harris are tasked with exploring an urgent epidemic of abuse, one often depicted with a raw brutality that can quickly slide into voyeuristic detachment. But Zola is no victim, and even Stefani, subjected to frequent manipulation and abuse, is granted a level of dignity and agency that similar stories often struggle to muster. By playing fast and loose with tone and style, Bravo kicks away crutches that viewers (by which I do generally mean white ones) may be accustomed to leaning on as they process such a story, inviting—if not forcing—reconsideration of the biases that influence expectations for a story of sex work.

I mentioned that Zola works until it doesn’t, and the final dip into dissatisfaction is shockingly precipitous. Without going into detail, Bravo and Harris change one key beat in #TheStory’s denouement, and though it may have been a necessary shift to save the final moments from cartoonishness, it throws off the chemistry in the final stretch. The shrug of an ending is particularly puzzling given that the film’s twin inspirations (#TheStory and David Kushner’s Rolling Stone piece that explores the participants’ Rashomon-style conflicting recollections, which Zola nods to in one abrupt and bafflingly outrageous interlude) provide multiple options for catharsis. In all likelihood Bravo and Harris have a thoughtful and resonant defense of their choice, but it’s hard not to feel like the camera simply ran out, leaving no choice but to roll the credits.

But this disappointment has to be weighed against the fact that Janicza Bravo approached a high-wire job—make an antic comedy that takes sex trafficking seriously—with a ferocious and singular eye. There was a window, shortly after the initial tweetstorm, when James Franco was set to write and direct the authorized adaptation of #TheStory, and that possibility serves as a horrific what-if—we know exactly what that familiar and ugly version of Zola would have looked like, and we must count ourselves blessed that Zola’s story can instead serve as a platform to elevate Janicza Bravo as a major, fearless auteur.

To this point, I’ve been able to identify that “adrenaline-shot of discovery” to at least some extent in each of my initial Sundance picks. But now, sadly, it’s my duty to report on the first outright disappointment of my week at altitude.

High Tide (Verónica Chen) | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

High Tide, the Argentinian psychodrama written and directed by Verónica Chen, seems designed to ask tough questions. Unfortunately, those questions feel too scattered to do much provoking, and the potential answers are disconcerting in ways it’s hard to imagine were intentional.

The story opens abruptly, with protagonist Laura (Gloria Carrá) accepting the sexual overtures of Weisman (Jorge Sesán), the contractor whose crew is building a barbecue shed at her seaside home. Laura—as we learn through effectively detached drips of context—is married, and when Weisman disappears the following morning, his two workers (Cristian Salguero and Hector Bordoni) use her transgression as the opportunity for a campaign of menace, incrementally invading her home and sending her into a spiral of psychological collapse that quickly falls into a familiar playbook of woman-on-the-verge stories.

While this setup could make for enjoyable tension, the painful thorn at the base of High Tide lies in the fact that Laura and Weisman are of European descent, and the workers of indigenous descent. I can’t claim any awareness of Argentinian cultural history, but from an American perspective, the optics of the battle between a helpless white woman and a pair of non-white psychological sadists are cringingly uncomfortable. It’s certainly arguable that the story functions as social commentary, with Laura as either tacit villain or object of satire (comparisons to Parasite do seem inevitable) but by anchoring the viewer in her perspective, Weisman’s crew are left seeming less like characters than borderline-supernatural agents of chaos, playing into ugly racial dynamics while offering no particular subversion. Laura may be cast as increasingly unsympathetic—as her stress peaks, she ineffectually begs the workers to respect their lower social standing—but alongside her vivid journey, her tormentors remain othered and narratively disenfranchised. 

Paradoxically, this singular focus on Laura’s experience is the film’s greatest strength. The viewer is left with virtually no awareness of Laura’s life outside the immediate events of the story, creating an effective claustrophobia that mirrors her own mental alienation. Chen has an admirable eye for her story’s environment, creating chilling dread through simple composition of insert shots that explore the natural world. But Laura’s journey to self-actualization—which manifests in a seemingly triumphant mockery of her nemesis’ accent—leaves the story muddled, any moral ambiguity less provocative than unpleasant. On a purely semiotic level, brutal non-white men abusing a frightened white woman is imagery to be handled with extreme care, and it’s painful to sit through a feature-length example of such tired dynamics only to be left with no particular insight.

But, as the song goes, if you want the rainbow, you must have the rain, and with that cloud passed, we can close out with one of the festival’s triumphs, a radical act of genre revision and a bold step forward for another of America’s most exciting emerging filmmakers.

Shirley (Josephine Decker) | Sundance Institute
Shirley (Josephine Decker) | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Contrary to what you may have heard, Josephine Decker’s Shirley is not a biopic. Adapted from a 2014 novel, Decker’s fourth feature imagines the writing process of Jackson’s 1964 novel Hangsaman through the eyes of Rose (a fictionalized character played by Odessa Young), who accompanies her husband (Logan Lerman) to Bennington, VT where the young couple fall under the sway of their hosts, unstable literary genius Jackson (Elisabeth Moss, continuing to fearlessly plumb new depths in depicting minds in turmoil) and her own insidiously affable professor husband (Michael Stuhlbarg).

I confess to leaving Shirley—Decker’s first time directing someone else’s script—feeling unsure what I want out of a Josephine Decker project. Each of her three features to date (wildly divisive Sundance breakout Madeline’s Madeline, arthouse-grindhouse mashup Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, and fluid Arcadian nightmare Butter on the Latch) boasts electrifying craft but lacks the discipline to yield an emotionally resonant story. Thus I entered Shirley excited but wary. My wish would ostensibly be granted, a chance to see Decker’s style applied to a more conventional story, but there was always that chance I might realize I hadn’t been careful what I wished for. 

I was thrilled to find Decker’s style on full display from the first frames. Present are the woozy observational camerawork and gauzy claustrophobic close-ups of Madeline’s Madeline, as well as frequent abstract horrors that call to mind the most unnerving moments of Butter on the Latch. Yet in seeing Decker elevate Sarah Gubbins’ screenplay, I couldn’t help feeling a mild loss, a sense that a joyfully rowdy voice—one that may be sporadically successful but always singularly daring—has been suppressed in service of someone else’s story. For every thrilling burst of surrealism there’s a beat of conventional plot that left me wistful for the palpable danger in every naturalistic moment of Madeline’s Madeline. It’s more than understandable that Decker’s future career might depend on an ability to synthesize her style with more palatable subject matter, and Shirley is undeniably her film, bearing no sign of formal compromise. It’s also, however, one that could have been directed—if to unquestionably lesser effect—by someone else, where Madeline’s Madeline, despite any of my misgivings over her choices, could be the product of no mind but hers.

But enough of what this movie is not—I am coming dangerously close to inadvertently denigrating a truly great film. Shirley is a remarkable work destined to shake up any arthouse audience lucky enough to encounter it. More than any prior adaptation of Jackson’s oeuvre, Decker and Gubbins conjure the vague normative menace that defines her classic works of subtle paranoia. As Shirley and Rose become increasingly bound to one another, and increasingly sequestered both physically and emotionally, Jackson’s life bleeds into an evocation of the fearful isolationism of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and as Shirley and Rose’s respective husbands recede into their own world of blissful self-indulgence, Decker paints a bracing Gothic vision of a society that would rather see women made invalids than allowed to exercise true agency. There’s a barely-suppressed rage coursing within Shirley as the two central women become ever more entwined, drawing from one another a power that may not save either from the social abuses they were born into but might at least generate enough energy to rebel.

There may be some growing pains in both pacing and lucidity as Decker transitions from exploring the far reaches of the avant garde to pushing the boundaries of the traditional, but it seems a small price to pay. In the hands of a less adventurous director, Shirley could have easily come across as standard historical fiction, but with Decker at the helm, it’s elevated to something that gets under your skin in ways few similar films have ever dared.

Sundance 2020
The sun dances outside Park City’s Eccles Center | photo by the author

Though Sundance may be synonymous with his name—not to mention sharing the name of perhaps his most iconic character—Robert Redford has eased back his public presence at an event that may well prove his greatest legacy. This year, he forewent the typical opening press conference, instead providing a brief and simple letter of welcome that was emailed to critics alongside that statistical breakdown of the festival’s inclusion efforts. He did appear in person at the beginning of last year’s festival, but his remarks were brief. “I don’t think the festival needs a lot of introduction now,” he concluded.

I would have to disagree. When there has never been a slimmer chance of mainstream viability for any film not based on a known quantity, the festival, and its role in the entertainment ecosystem, would seem to merit more discussion than ever. Even the programmed selections that might usually be labeled “Oscar bait” must be assessed in a world where a DC Comics property can lead the year’s nominations. We may have some longstanding theoretical sense of what Sundance means, but its mission now has an urgency tinged with déjà vu. Redford founded the Sundance Institute in 1979 in hopes of keeping the idiosyncratic spirit of the New Hollywood alive amidst the rising uniformity of popular entertainment. He believed, as Peter Biskind writes in Down and Dirty Pictures, “that American film culture could contribute more than stale sequels and retreads, that historically, before the renewed hegemony of the studios, film had been a medium for genuine artists and could be again.”

The history of the Sundance Film Festival has been dramatic, marked by triumph and ignominy, yet just over 40 years since Robert Redford’s first summit in the Wasatch Mountains, we seem to have landed exactly where we started. Sundance is, once more, among the sole significant life support systems for films that dare to exist as distinct from that most distressingly cold artistic term, IP. And so we return to my personal riddle of the sphinx: what is “a Sundance movie” in a landscape that’s come so far only to realize it was moving in a circle?

I write these words from the halfway point of my visit to Utah, and so the question remains up in the (thin) air. Come back for Part Two of these missives next week to see what answers the next batch of films might hold.