I Lost It at Altitude: Missives from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Part Two

Wendy (Benh Zeitlin) | Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Wendy (Benh Zeitlin) | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Ibegan the first of my Sundance dispatches by pondering the significance of this esteemed festival, and my plan was to take a similar approach in this second dispatch, perhaps expanding my scope to encompass broader questions about the meaning of independence in filmmaking. But when I found myself weeping in the parking lot between the Park City Fresh Market and the Doubletree Inn that lends the festival its ballroom for press and industry screenings, I realized another approach would probably be necessary.

The early days of my week in Park City were marked by a punishing wave of bad personal news. It was the sort of news that takes time to process, the sort that makes you want to be with family, and I could afford neither luxury as I rushed between screenings that took place over 2,000 miles from home. I managed to effectively suppress my emotions for the first few days, coasting on adrenaline and inner defensive reserves, but by the second half, the dam began leaking and then finally burst. My processing couldn’t happen between the movies, and so, I came to realize, it was happening during them, and my responses were being unavoidably impacted on levels micro, macro, and in between.

And isn’t it lucky that I write for Bright Wall/Dark Room the site that’s [checks notes] “devoted to exploring the relationship between movies and the business of being alive.”

More than ever, it seems there’s a tough paradox foisted on film critics. Based on anecdotal observation, a rising online contingent would prefer critics treat reviews like consumer reports—Who cares if YOU liked it, just tell me if it’s GOOD! I should hope it’s obvious that this is an absurd demand to make of a human being. There is no such thing as objective assessment among carbon-based life forms with chemical idiosyncrasies, and this demand for robotic calculation is never more ridiculous than in assessing art. We may be able to note technical elements of the craft, but movies are designed first and foremost to impact our emotions, provoke our minds, provide comfort, offer joy. How perverse to suggest that such a holistic object should be assessed like a car or a dishwasher. Yes, any effective critic must be able to step back and judge from the broadest perspective they can muster, attempt to identify what the ideal version might look like and then assess how close the finished product comes to that ideal. But if we pretend full dispassion is possible, we’re lying to our readers and doing a disservice to the art.

This is all boilerplate stuff, you’ve read it before and you’ll read it again, probably the next time someone on Twitter gets crabby that a critic dared to use the first person in reviewing a blockbuster. But it seems particularly relevant every January as Sundance reactions make their way to sea level. With the advent of social media, there seems to be an ever-more prevalent skepticism of “festival fever,” as films hailed as masterpieces during the heady rush of world premieres can often land with a distinct thud on general release. Look no further than 2016, when The Birth of a Nation won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award and shattered the record for most expensive acquisition in festival history only for reviews seven months later to center on terms like “uninspired,” “calculated,” and “hokey.”1

“Is it really a masterpiece of modern cinema,” to quote a tweet that made the rounds during TIFF 2019 and again during Sundance 2020, “or did you just get to see it 2 months before everyone else?”

I frequently took my mental temperature after this year’s Sundance screenings, searching for symptoms of that dreaded ailment, festival fever. I’ve fought mightily to maintain critical detachment, but it bears acknowledgement that the following assessments were made during one of the most emotionally tumultuous weeks I can remember. I write these words from a condo in Park City, and as I write them, I am battling profound sorrow; I am basking in the joy of meeting peers and idols within the critical community; I am carrying homesickness like a physical weight; I am savoring the bliss of waking up every morning with no responsibilities beyond doing my very favorite thing as many times as I please: going to the movies. I am experiencing the worst of times nestled snugly within the best.

I can’t pretend these factors haven’t impacted my experience of the seven films I’ll be reviewing here, but I’ve allowed myself to believe that’s OK. I may risk festival fever, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take in the interest of writing with my whole self during a week that’s been extraordinary in every sense of the word.

First of all, though, I’ll restate the disclaimer from my last dispatch: 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.

And on that note, let’s talk about some movies.

<small>Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Bill & Turner Ross)
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Bill & Turner Ross) | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

It took perhaps fifteen seconds for Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets to enchant me. I’ll admit to being a sucker for a vintage-style opening title sequence, and when this new film from Bill and Turner Ross, presented in the U.S. Documentary Competition (words I’m choosing carefully), kicked off with a credit design suggesting some long-lost late-’70s masterpiece underscored by the triumphantly melancholic strains of Buck Owens’ “Big in Vegas,” I knew I had stumbled onto something special. It just wasn’t until several hours later—to both my delight and regret—that I would discover how special.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets details the final night at Las Vegas dive bar Roaring 20s, observing the day’s events and minor dramas as the regulars arrive to toast the passing of their beloved institution—the place, in the heartbreaking words of one patron, where they can go when nobody else wants them. I knew little about the film going in save that this logline was most appealing in that morning’s melancholy headspace, and slipping into Roaring 20s, bathed in warm neons so rich the Rosses seem to have invented indoor golden hour, was exactly the spiritual salve I didn’t know I craved. Before long, I was wishing I could spend all day in the company of this downtrodden but spirited community.

As the story unfolded, however, the prickly questions emerged. First, and most pressing, was my creeping sense of exploitation—while I found comfort in sharing the company of these boisterous alcoholics, there was an inescapable discomfort to the awareness of my privileged position. I told myself there was no shame in observing people who’d offered themselves up for observation, but I couldn’t forget that while they would be returning to lives they admit to using alcohol to escape, I would walk out into the light of another day at an elite film festival. I may have shared the barflies’ collective laughter as Michael—scene-stealing and seemingly homeless failed actor, self-described as 58 but looking 70—brags of only becoming a drunk once he’d already ruined his life. But, I wondered, was that laughter mine to share?

As I rolled these productively uncomfortable questions around my head, further uncertainties developed: wasn’t this story just a little bit too satisfying? How was it that each of these figures could be so distinct? How was it that every line caught on film could be so rich with poignant wit? And how often in real life do you see comic relief subplots as convenient as the mischievous teenagers loitering behind the bar who just so happen to be repeatedly found committing perfectly amusing mischief? If this was the most entertaining documentary I’d seen in years, didn’t it seem just a bit too good to be true?

I’m playing coy with what’s by now an open secret: though it’s never acknowledged onscreen, the events of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets are staged, or at least stage-managed. Despite being an ostensible portrait of Las Vegas, the film was shot in New Orleans, and the patrons are hired, some of them professional performers (Michael the failed Las Vegas actor is, in fact, Michael the successful New Orleans actor) and others genuine barflies recruited for the social experiment. In press notes, the Ross brothers discuss a process that falls somewhere between mockumentary and improv exercise—the circumstances are created, but, at least so they claim, the interactions are genuine, as is the alcohol consumption.

It’s a fascinating concept, using mistruth in search of truth, and on the one hand, I’m disappointed that I wasn’t aware of the conceit going in. Upon learning the trick, I felt duped, but I was duped only by my own preconceptions—the film is a documentary of a sort, and the only lies it tells are ones of omission. On the other hand, meanwhile, the unique circumstances of my viewing experience—one of those quirks that can only happen when you’re among the first audiences to see a film—forced self-reflection even more revealing than my studious mid-film pondering on the nature of exploitation. What did it say about me that the catharsis I found in Michael’s words felt less genuine when I found out Michael was not, in fact, a tragic figure? The film was conceived to convey a message about a certain slice of American life in the year 2020—the arc of history is a frequent focus, as discussions of endless wars, baby boomer social irresponsibility, and the looming Trump presidency coalesce into a tacit suggestion that the close of the Roaring 20s represents the close of something far more spiritually significant—and I benefited from that message. So what was actually lost in the bargain? Did my frustration mean that my supposed concerns of voyeurism were actually a shield for an ugly sense of entitlement to others’ pain?

These aren’t questions I’ll be finished considering anytime soon, but they’re also not questions audiences will need to concern themselves with, as the open secret will precede the film’s wide release. Whether it could be more powerful to walk in oblivious or informed is but one of many questions left open by this immensely enjoyable experiment. It may be on the low end of buzz for the year’s festival, but it’s unquestionably among the highlights.

Wendy (Benh Zeitlin) | Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Wendy (Benh Zeitlin) | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

I left Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets and headed straight for the Eccles Center, lining up almost two hours early to be sure I got a prime seat for Wendy. I count writer/director Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild among my most cherished films, and the announcement that the follow-up I’d waited seven years for would premiere at Sundance provided a shot of elation unlike anything I can remember. But for as enormous as my expectations were, they were measured as well. The trailer had thrilled me while also giving me pause—didn’t this just look like the same movie but with higher production values? Still, that seemed a minor complaint when so much of the joy in Zeitlin’s prior work (both Beasts and his formally identical short film Glory at Sea!) lies in the aesthetic. If Wendy’s greatest weakness was that it reminded me of one of my favorite movies, that didn’t seem like much of a problem.

I won’t bury the lede: when the title card hit and the familiar ecstasy of a soaring new Dan Romer theme kicked in, I burst into tears, and those tears extended well into the predictably thrilling and impressionistic opening sequence. It was, as they say, an ugly cry, a body-shaking, breath-hitching display borne of deep catharsis. After all those years of wondering whether the film’s protracted post-production would ever yield a finished product, I had found myself among the first audience to ever experience it. During a painful week, what comfort could be greater than escaping back into the world according to Benh Zeitlin? Rather than fighting for control, I savored my tears, relishing in the rare intensity of this emotional reflex. 

I lead with this extensive personal effusion so that you will properly understand how much it pains me to write what follows.

The most captivating elements of Beasts are inverted in Wendy. The evidently unstudied performers are traded for more conventionally film-ready actors (to be very clear, this is no slight against the immensely talented children who star in the film), the naturalistically uncanny setting is traded for a painfully overdetermined fantasyscape, and the grainy, hurried camerawork is traded for more conventional handheld gloss. All the formal roughness of Beasts has been sanded into a sheen, and the throbbing heart lost in the process.

I will grant Zeitlin and his co-writer/sister, Eliza this: they set themselves an incredibly difficult task. Wendy reimagines Peter Pan in a basically modern setting (the specific decade is left ambiguous), and while the story is timeless and beloved, it’s also a perilous minefield from a 21st-century perspective. Most famously, any traditional adaptation will be forced to reckon with the horrifically racist depiction of Native Americans (for as reprehensible as Disney’s adaptation is, never forget that it at least improves on J.M. Barrie, who names his tribe of “redskins” the Pickaninnies). But even shedding this element entirely—as the Zeitlins wisely do—you’re left with the story’s deep-seated patriarchal roots. In Barrie’s novel, Wendy is willingly drafted into servitude as mother to the Lost Boys, and the story posits that a girl could have no greater fantasy than traditional domesticity.

As the title indicates, the Zeitlins have endeavored to grant agency to a character sidelined by Barrie. It’s a noble impulse and one that largely yields satisfying results; Wendy is at last allowed to drive her own story. But beyond even this covert (if not overt) sexism, Barrie’s novel is deeply rooted in an Edwardian vision of childhood, a time when the ultimate fantasy would be to swim with mermaids and do battle with pirates. Adapting this perspective to a modern context would require significant reimagining—childhood innocence may be eternal and universal, but in a time where pirates have been replaced by Paw Patrol, updating it must mean something more significant than simply dressing your swashbuckling munchkins in T-shirts and sneakers.

I hate to harp on the ways the Zeitlins miss the mark on Peter Pan’s power, but it does account for the vast majority of the story’s dysfunction. According to J.M. Barrie, the Neverland is the physical manifestation of a child’s interior world, designed to cater to their every comfort and pleasure. In Zeitlin’s telling, the Neverland is a barren volcanic island, and while the film strenuously insists this is a child’s paradise, it essentially means accepting that children would give anything to reenact Lord of the Flies

In the post-premiere Q&A, Zeitlin mentioned that in his own childhood, fun was synonymous with danger, and it’s a concept resonant with Barrie’s story—what could be more dangerous for a child than doing battle with a villainous adult?—but Barrie also acknowledges the comfortable guardrails required for childhood danger to be fun. Peter Pan is a celebration of the freewheeling spirit of imaginative play, while Wendy seems to envision childhood bliss as screaming off cliffs, riding a ramshackle wagon down a hill and…that’s about it. Life on this Neverland appears punishing, and where Peter Pan suggests that a trip to the Neverland is a joyful rite of passage that each generation of Darlings is allowed en route to accepting the necessity of growing up, this hint of cyclical adventuring in Wendy left me less wistful than horrified.

Leaving aside the ways Wendy fumbles the source material, I was distraught to find Wendy utterly devoid of emotional truth. The greatest virtue in Beasts of the Southern Wild is Hushpuppy’s naturally childish interiority; her philosophizing may exceed a child’s vocabulary, but it at least follows a child’s loose relationship with logic. Wendy employs the same technique, with the title character offering periodic impressionistic commentary, but the material feels, like so much of the film, painfully overthought. Wendy’s recitations have all the truth of an adult straining to approximate innocence, another of the film’s limited—if not halfhearted—vision of childhood.

While I have further frustrations—notably with the film’s central big-swing fantasy elements, which I’ll refrain from discussing less out of respect for narrative surprise than out of my own bafflement—this supposed review is quickly approaching the status of a rant. I will happily acknowledge that for as many frustrating choices as the film makes, it makes a good deal of singularly unexpected ones. If you’re wondering how Captain Hook might fit into all of this, he is present and accounted for in a way that’s shocking and fascinating—if, like so many elements of the story, one that relies on fuzzy and ill-explained internal logic. I admire the Zeitlins’ choice to sketch their Peter to resemble Barrie’s original vision of the character as a vicious pint-sized dictator—if, contrary to Zeitlin’s protestations, one with distinctly uncomfortable optics, given the choice to cast a self-evidently amateur Montserrat native as the magical embodiment of wildness who teaches American children the freedom of life in the jungle.

Peter Pan hinges on the idea that children fear the compromises inherent to growing up. For any version of the story to work, that fear must be rooted in a sense that childhood, for all its tumult, is a time of comfort and happiness. Barrie’s Darlings are running towards something, a life of play that extends their current happiness indefinitely; Zeitlins’ Darlings are more focused on running away from a difficult home life, trading one discomfort for another, yielding a story focused on fear and sorrow, an airless and brutalist vision of childhood. I still believe in Benh Zeitlin; Wendy simply feels like what it is: a film that was agonized over for seven years. May his next inspiration come more freely, and the resulting product feel more alive.

Save Yourselves! (Alex Huston Fischer & Eleanor Wilson)
Save Yourselves! (Alex Huston Fischer & Eleanor Wilson) | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

I had planned to call it a day after Wendy, but my disappointment was so sour that I made an impulsive choice and jumped into one more line.

What if I told you there was a comedy about two phone-addicted Brooklynites who decide to go off the grid for a week only to miss the news that Earth has been invaded by aliens? Do you think you can pretty much guess how Save Yourselves! goes? Well, you’re probably right.

It’s hard to know how to review a movie that rates a perfect 5 on the 1-to-10 scale. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Save Yourselves!, there’s just absolutely nothing right with it either. I, along with the rest of the press and industry audience, chuckled a few times, but (it seemed to me) mostly out of reflexive communal acknowledgment of a joke. This is a film that seems built to watch on some subscription streaming service when you’ve run out of other options. If you happen to end up in that position, you won’t have a bad time. I just can’t imagine you’ll have a good one either.

If one factor might push Save Yourselves! from inoffensive to frustrating, it’s the potentially intriguing idea at the core. Once they’re forced to reckon with the global catastrophe on which they’ve missed the memo, thirtysomething protagonists Jack and Su (John Reynolds and Sunita Mani, both doing their usual thing, which happens to be a thing I enjoy so no complaints here), ponder what their fates might hold in a post-disaster wasteland. Jack happily muses that he might join the team rebuilding the internet before Su reminds him that neither of them have any practical skills. While drifting down this lazy river of a movie, I finally found myself engaged—it’s a thought I’ve entertained myself on the rare occasions that I feel brave enough to consider it. Like Jack, I can complete virtually no household project without consulting Google, and when I consider the fact that my sole particular skill—watching movies and posting my opinions on the internet—is one technological setback away from rendering me essentially useless…well, I usually run straight to some digital distraction to keep from thinking too hard about it.

This millennial anxiety is ripe for satire, but the device chosen by Save Yourselves!—a violent invasion of surprisingly cuddly aliens—places it so far outside the realm of the relatable that I failed to find any surface for sympathetic projection. I can’t say Save Yourselves! disappointed me, but that’s only because the movie couldn’t conjure even that level of engagement.

Palm Springs (Max Barbakow)
Palm Springs (Max Barbakow) | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

This sense of deflation was half the reason I’d planned to avoid comedy in Park City. Sundance comedies are so often airless retreads—and thus the ones with a spark of originality become the greatest candidates for festival fever. By a certain point in the screening cycle, critics tend to be so eager for simple cathartic laughter that some innocuous mediocrity (like last year’s Blinded by the Light and Brittany Runs a Marathon) can garner full-throated recommendations they certainly wouldn’t receive at sea level. That’s why I almost decided to skip Palm Springs. It sounded appealing, but the last thing I wanted was to risk a terminal festival fever diagnosis.

But here’s the thing: by this point, I was pretty eager for simple cathartic laughter.

The central plot conceit of Palm Springs2 will be revealed in the headline of just about every review, and, presumably, the trailer. But just in case I manage to catch someone who’s totally unaware of the movie: skip this review. That conceit is revealed quickly, but there’s great joy in piecing it together in the opening stretch, and if by any chance you can go in cold, the treat will be all the greater.

But there’s really no way to talk about the movie without talking about the central conceit, so: by now we may as well just declare “the Groundhog Day movie” its own subgenre, right? Even Nyles (Andy Samberg) acknowledges the familiarity of the premise when he explains it to Sarah (Cristin Milioti, a powerhouse performer I can only hope will now finally get the star treatment she deserves) after inadvertently drawing her into his metaphysical torment: this is one of those infinite time loop situations she’s probably heard about. And so if “the Groundhog Day movie” has achieved trope status, the question becomes what spin the filmmakers might put on the ball. And I was delighted to find that Palm Springs has one hell of a fastball.

The story’s first significant innovation is to join Nyles at the midpoint of his infinite loop. Having woken up countless times on the day of his girlfriend’s friend’s wedding (a truly chilling choice for an endlessly-repeating day), Nyles has gone full nihilist, and once maid of honor and fellow self-destructive narcissist Sarah tumbles into the loop alongside him, she moves quickly through the acclimation process, meaning the story can devote almost an entire two acts to what screenwriting convention might call the “fun and games” portion. Palm Springs has a truly remarkable go-for-broke spirit in how far it’s willing to take the premise of two openly heartless hedonists who team up to wreak havoc with their eternal clean slates. Call it the altitude, call it the exhaustion, but I saw two comedies back to back, both in private critics’ screenings, and where one elicited rote chuckles the other featured not just hysterical laughter but a mid-film applause break to acknowledge the miracle run of one particular mayhem montage.

Alongside those antics, Palm Springs is elevated by plot intrigue—this is the first “Groundhog Day movie” I’ve seen in which the “learn your lesson” solution quickly proves futile, forcing ingenuity in finding an escape—as well as a stacked ensemble of comedy ringers, from emerging stalwart Meredith Hagner to the film debut of invaluable TV utility player Conner O’Malley. But most remarkable of all is the genuine emotional resonance it sneaks into the premise. I will admit, I did not expect a movie that opens with the “Lonely Island Classics” logo to leave me an emotional puddle, but Palm Springs eventually distinguishes itself as a tough contemplation of the term “forever.” 

Living a full life requires a strange cocktail of remaining actively engaged while accepting some essential mundanities, and identifying the thin line that unites the two without lapsing into either self-destruction or inertia becomes all the more urgent when you consider joining your own volatile chemistry with someone else’s. By forcing the characters—and the audience—to ponder how much can change when nothing can change, and how to make peace with life’s finite horizons, Palm Springs achieves a shocking hat trick: huge laughs, gripping story, and resonant philosophy—plus some effortlessly affecting romance as a sweetener. Call it festival fever if you must; I’ll call it finding the movie I needed at the moment I needed it, and all I can hope is that it will meet plenty of others in the same place.

Minari (Lee Isaac Chung)
Minari (Lee Isaac Chung) | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Another odd festival phenomenon is the whiplash that comes from forced double (or triple, or quintuple) features. Programming the perfect pairing is a classic cinephile hobby, but at a festival you have no choice but to haphazardly mix and match, hoping at least for the uniting factor of “good.” I exited Palm Springs and walked around the Doubletree to almost immediately get back in line for my ultimate festival whiplash, and I was thrilled to find that the uniting factor was “great.”

“Try to find something wrong with Minari,” I overheard one prominent critic (rather aggressively) challenge another the next day. “You can’t. It’s perfect.” And reader, I did try. As the credits rolled, I jotted down one criticism only to immediately realize I was forcing it for the sake of being critical. Rarely does a movie come along that is so deeply lovely, every frame aching with gentle grace. I tried to find something wrong with Minari. I can’t. It’s perfect.

As Minari begins, patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) has just moved—or dragged—his family from their home in California to a trailer in the middle of an Arkansas field. Jacob, along with his wife Monica (Yeri Han), is a Korean immigrant, and he’s convinced himself that if he cultivates a farm yielding Korean produce, he can corner the market on other immigrants longing for the taste of home. This is the simplest version of what Minari is about, but it also feels like one of those stories that’s about everything. The script is intensely specific, never going for an easy generality when it could instead go for an unexpected detail, and Chung provides a master class in the theory that the more personal the story, the more universally impactful it can be. From the perspective of a northeastern white man, there are few familiar details in Minari, and yet every moment rings with the sort of resonance that can only come from a story representing one particular soul.

According to press notes, writer/director Lee Isaac Chung based the story heavily on his own childhood, and though it may be his fourth film, there’s a feeling of discovery. Chung’s first feature, Munyurangabo, is a miraculous act of cinematic activism, Chung having traveled to Rawanda to lend his technical abilities to a group of local students, largely ceding creative and technical control before bringing their story to a global audience. His most recent, Abigail Harm, is a filmic poem that updates a Korean folk tale to modern New York, dancing across the screen like a feather before disappearing on the wind. Then he took nearly a decade off and returned with a masterpiece.

Minari is rich in story but low in plot. There is constant incident, much of it humorous and much of it heartbreaking, but Chung takes a reserved approach, allowing the story to breathe and soak in its moments of elegance. Each member of the family (with the exception of daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho), one possible and very minor complaint) is granted their own rich emotional journey—I could easily focus this entire write-up on the love story between son David (seven-year-old Alan Kim, justifiably an immediate darling of the festival) and the recently-arrived grandmother (Yuh-Jung Youn) who brings painful reminders of a culture ostensibly his own yet utterly unfamiliar. It’s Yeun, though, who most distinctly emerges as a performer of towering emotional acuity. In one shot that’s lingered with me more than any other from my week at altitude, the camera traps him in an extended and extreme closeup as he plays a man experiencing overwhelming emotion while refusing to admit he’s experiencing overwhelming emotion. You’ll hear a lot of praise for Yeun’s performance. All of it will undersell work that simply can’t be honored in words.

More than anything, I admire Minari’s lack of external antagonism. A story of Korean immigrants in Arkansas could so easily dip its toes into xenophobia for the sake of drama, but it’s an indulgence Chung avoids save for a few moments of basically innocuous youthful racism (at church, David and Anne each meet a white peer who seems duty-bound to callously acknowledge their ethnic difference before extending the offer of friendship) while even the most outrageous character (Will Patton’s radically evangelical farmhand) is treated with dignity as the film smiles at his eccentricities. No character in Minari is a saint; Jacob’s stiff-upper-lip trends dangerously close to emotional abuse, while one particular cruelty David enacts on his grandmother elicited waves of vocal revulsion. But Chung takes the challenging path of finding everyday internal dramas that prove just as captivating, if not moreso, than battles with villainy. Difficult as it is to gauge the authenticity of unfamiliar stories, I can’t see Minari as anything but a two-hour sustained shot of emotional truth.

Sylvie’s Love | Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Sylvie’s Love (Eugene Ashe) | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Though the Sundance slate was packed with tough and provocative works, I decided to chase comfort on my last day, a gift to myself as my heart was tugged increasingly towards home. And with a logline that promised swooning period romance, Sylvie’s Love seemed like an excellent bet.

It may be a personal bias, but I take it as a bad omen when a film starts in medias res and then quickly jumps back in time. Of course there are countless exceptions to this rule, but unless there’s thematic resonance to the broken chronology, I often find myself thinking, If you can’t hook me with the start of your story, maybe your story needs a better start. This was the bias Sylvie’s Love immediately had to fight against, and one it unfortunately failed to surmount.

After a brief prologue set in the early 1960s—glamorous Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) encounters dashing Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha) on the streets of New York and they exchange a greeting that indicates long-lost emotional connection—we jump back five years to their first meeting. Sylvie is a television-obsessed and inconveniently engaged young woman working the cash register at her father’s (Lance Reddick, tender in a way I’ve rarely seen) record store; Robert is a financially-strapped jazz musician who strolls in and is granted a job on the spot. And for as inconvenient as Sylvie’s engagement may be, with her fiancé fighting in Korea, there’s very little standing in the way of the theoretically-turbulent love story we spend the remainder of the film following.

It feels cruel to criticize a film as fundamentally well-intentioned as Sylvie’s Love, which could function perfectly well as comfort food; with the shape of a classic melodrama and the swooning score to match, it hits the right beats and rarely taxes the emotions. But I found myself longing to be just a bit more taxed, or at least surprised. The emotional temperature remains at a standard pitch just barely elevated above baseline, as conflicts are resolved with minimal distress, and any pain is generally conveyed through shots of attractive people looking momentarily pensive before the story moves on to something new.

Of course, the same could be said of many entries in the classical tradition intentionally evoked by writer/director and former musician Eugene Ashe, and I imagine a good deal of my criticisms would be alleviated if the film had any particular aesthetic sensibility. There would seem to be one of two exciting directions—either formally imitate the period’s cinematic style (call it the Far from Heaven approach), or reach for some innovative sensory language to make the classical feel urgent (call it the If Beale Street Could Talk approach). Ashe takes neither, and while a minimalist style can satisfy with the proper confidence (call it the Brooklyn approach), Ashe’s indecision fails to support the performances, or allow them to cohere—Thompson’s mannered delivery seems to reach for the pastiche version of the story while Asomugha imbues Robert with emotional naturalism that creates the impression they’re sharing the frame while existing in different films.

Ashe is an emerging filmmaker, with Sylvie’s Love marking only his second feature, and if it failed to work for me, it failed nobly. The film is destined to provide plenty of evenings of cozy at-home viewing once it hits VOD, and I hope to see Ashe’s voice grow and flourish with future projects.

Nine Days (Edson Oda) | Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Nine Days (Edson Oda) | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

One of the great privileges of Sundance is the ability to enter a film devoid of anything but the fuzziest critical consensus, and so getting in any line represents a gamble. After feeling I’d made a bad bet with Sylvie’s Love, I couldn’t help experiencing additional trepidation as the last of my Sundance screenings approached. Nine Days had been among my top priorities from the moment the lineup was announced; I’m a sucker for both the metaphysical and the emotional, and if you promise to unite the two, I’m yours. But a premise this audacious—in a solitary house in the pre-existence wasteland, a man interviews souls hoping to be chosen for birth—could tilt towards either glory or embarrassment, with little conceivable room in between.

In line for the press and industry screening of Nine Days, I fell into conversation with a small clutch of critics clearly suffering the effects of cinematic overconsumption. As we compared punch-drunk notes on the week, a common concern emerged: the difficulty of repeatedly walking into screenings, experiencing between 90 and 120 minutes of emotion, and then being tasked with flipping the switch between the emotional urge and the intellectual. What do you do, we wondered, when a movie offers satisfaction to the soul that’s unjustifiable to the mind?

I attempted a reflexive cop-out: I’m lucky to write for Bright Wall/Dark Room because we focus exclusively on the heart and don’t worry so much about the head.

This claim was immediatelyand correctlycalled bullshit upon. Of course Bright Wall/Dark Room intellectualizes movies; I was lying to them and to myself. Naturally, my fellow critic did not take nearly so damning a tone, but his gentle pushback made me realize the false dichotomy I’d been allowing myself to hide behind. The relationship between the heart and the head is incredibly complex, and art provokes the ultimate interaction between the two. Suggesting you can experience a movie with only your emotions does as much disservice to the viewer and the work as demanding a purely intellectual approach.

It was a hell of a notion to hold in my head (and my heart) as I sat down for Nine Days, a feature-length philosophical debate on which approachcold cerebral self-defense or fearless emotional opennessyields the greatest chance of success on Earth.

Let’s cut to the chase: Nine Days is the discovery of Sundance 2020. This is the one that emerges out of nowhere and introduces a fully-formed voice capable of delivering an original masterpiece that instantly elevates them into the upper echelon of filmmakers. Even now, I have to keep reminding myself of a fact too remarkable to be true: Nine Days is Edson Oda’s debut feature. It can’t be possible, can it? Edson Oda made the most assured, imaginative, playful, fearless, and successful movie I saw at Sundance, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself in December saying the same of the entire year. And it’s his debut feature.

There’s a phrase I love, and pardon its crudeness: artsy-craftsy jacksy-offsy. These were the words Sam Peckinpah used to damn The Last Picture Show, and they could just as easily be used to damn Nine Days. Part of being the audacious Sundance discovery is being divisivejust ask Swiss Army Man, a movie famous for Sundance walkouts, of which I saw more than a few during Nine Days. For as many people as I expect to list Nine Days among their favorite movies, I expect quite a few to list it among their least, but I can’t imagine it leaving anyone indifferent. In short: my favorite kind of movie.

For as potentially artsy-craftsy jacksy-offsy as Nine Days may seem, it takes as many cues from reality TV competitions as it does from existentialism. We meet Will (Winston Duke) in his home at the edge of existence, comfortably observing the progress of the lives he’s selected as worthy so far, before he’s suddenly faced with a newly vacated slot on Earth and tasked with selecting one of a handful of contestants to fill it (the significance of that life, and the personal weight of Will’s choice, are two of many story elements best left for the viewer to discover). Each of these souls represents a distinct potential individual who’s recently achieved some dazed form of self-awareness, and much of the film’s joy comes in seeing how each prospective person responds to Will’s cryptic tests, which range from typical moral dilemmas to observing existence and identifying preferences.

Every member of the small but sterling ensemble delivers work that ranges from exceptional to career-best. Tony Hale finds exciting new variations on his typical neuroses as one competing soul, while Bill Skarsgård finds subtle sympathy in his trademark glower as another. Benedict Wong brings electrifying charisma to every one of his blessedly frequent visits as a colleague of Will’s, while Zazie Beetz brings contemplative integrity to what could be (and will likely be accused of being) a hollow narrative devicecall it, if you must, the manic pixie dream soul. But this is Winston Duke’s showcase, and in playing the arc of a character trying mightily not to have an arc, he displays an infinite range of feeling. Coming on the heels of such varied performances as Black Panther and Us, Duke definitively cements himself among the greatest talents currently blessing our screens.

I could happily spend several thousand more words exalting the sumptuous imagemaking of cinematographer Wyatt Garfield, the score by Antonio Pinto that I plan to listen to countless times in the coming years, and so many other elements of a film I already cherish. Nine Days engages the mind while inviting the viewer to get out of their own headas Will repeatedly informs his contestants, there is no right or wrong answer to a given test. It seems timidity or aloofness are the only disqualifying factors for a worthy life, and even those souls who can’t overcome those limitations are offered dignity and respect before fading back into non-existence.

As the lights began to dim in anticipation of the Nine Days press and industry screening, I looked around the packed house and found myself experiencing one of those moments of grace that so often come in the hush before a movie, a sense of spiritual weightlessness as I prepare to transition into some new world. And looking around at the 154 souls packing Cinema 2 at the Metropolitan Holiday Village, I was struck by something beautiful: each of us was there to actively assess the movie and offer some theoretically authoritative perspective, but no two of us would have the same experience. One work of art would set off 154 chain reactions, leaving each of us different in some individualized way. Nine Days left me dazed, feeling a renewed awe for (to use another favorite term, one I have to be periodically reminded is hardly a universal perspective) the exquisite agony of existence. I had entered the theater feeling spiritually depleted, and I emerged restored. Others, I know, emerged frustrated, dismissive, maybe even enraged by this display of artsy-craftsyness. Standing in the parking lot in the dark, being dusted with powdered-sugar snow as I watched the flickering lights of the ski lifts on Park City Mountain, I felt grateful for the fact that they could hate the movie I loved. It won’t change a thing for me, and it testifies to the infinite capacity for experience in life, a spectrum only amplified by the art to which we bear witness.

I write these words from a shuttle bus that’s whisking me through Boston back to my family. During my week in Park City, my life changed in ways that will resonate like a stone tossed into a pond. The ripples caused by these changes may slowly go still, but the emotional agonies and spiritual ecstasies I experienced will remain under the surface forever. I may have been forced to do most of my processing at the movies, and that processing may have impacted my reviews, but I hope you now seek out opinions diametrically opposed to my own and savor the differences. Each will form some negative-space portrait of the person who wrote it, and I feel increasingly sure that those disagreements are the most valuable part of this thing we call criticism. As in so much of life’s complexities, there is no right or wrong answer. And what greater blessing could there be?