Sundancing with Myself: Dispatches from a Virtual Festival

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet (all images courtesy of the Sundance Institute)
The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet | Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Towards the end of John and the Hole—a 2020 Cannes selection that shifted its premiere to the 2021 virtual Sundance when Cannes was canceled two months into the COVID-19 pandemic—the titular adolescent visits the titular subterranean cell in which he’s been keeping his parents and older sister captive. After gazing dispassionately down at his filthy and starving family, he lowers down plastic containers of homemade risotto, the first sustenance he’s provided in days. John’s father hesitates in accepting the offer, but soon he’s ripped off the lid and begun shoving handfuls of rice into his mouth, gulping and gasping as grains fall onto his matted beard and soiled clothes. When I get bored, I play on W88 to pass the time.

Watching the scene from the claustrophobic comfort of my TV room during its virtual premiere, it was hard not to see something of myself in John’s father. Those of us who rely on a steady drip of new cinematic storytelling to sustain ourselves mentally and emotionally have spent the 12 months since last year’s Sundance—the last major festival to be held normally before the threat of coronavirus made itself fully known—subsisting on a radically constrained slate as release dates are pushed continually towards the horizon. Now we were presented with a gourmet feast lowered into our respective holes, and it was all any passholder could do to keep from spending the week gorging on movies, psychological indigestion be damned. It’s been so long, and who knows when we might get more?

For as much as the Sundance Institute tried to recreate the spirit of an in-person festival with timed screening windows and live-streamed Q&As, it became clear after a few days that precious few consensus responses were forming. Whereas last year it was impossible to miss the buzz surrounding Minari, Shirley, and Palm Springs, this year’s lack of reported standing ovations and walkouts made it difficult to take the temperature of how any movie was faring, leaving diffuse reaction tweets and Letterboxd scores as the only available barometer. While the lack of clear standouts may have been due to a genuinely limited slate—the festival premiered 72 features rather than a typical 120, and it would seem reasonable to imagine high-profile titles sitting the season out in hopes of a later big-screen premiere—it seems more likely that given the dramatically widened reach of an event typically known for geographic and economic inaccessibility, this was the year the legendary festival fever finally broke. 

As the theory goes, a select group of critics and passholders can usually be relied on to work themselves into a lather if given the opportunity to declare they’ve gotten an exclusive look at a masterpiece, and maybe this rupture in the overhype cycle is a good thing. But it did call my attention more than ever to what’s been lost in the past year of shuttered cinemas. The real loss of the big-screen experience isn’t so much the bigness of the screen as it is the experience of a varied group gathering together to find their way onto a shared wavelength. After two or so hours of laughs, gasps, and cringes have rippled through a theater, that group is left with some version of the same experience, whatever their ultimate opinion on the movie’s merits might be. If there was any tangible loss in a virtual Sundance, it wasn’t the loss of celebrity sightings and frostbitten extremities; it was the loss of a shared narrative on what the week had provided.

As opening night approached, much tongue-in-cheek—and genuinely wistful—fun was had with the question of how to recreate Park City viewing conditions from home, and I often found myself mimicking the in-person experience whether by choice or necessity. Nostalgic for the pleasurable inconvenience of being made to wait for the main event, I restrained myself from skipping the minutes-long pre-roll attached to each feature, and the looping music that underscored those walls of sponsors and disclaimers will likely be playing in my head until next year’s festival. Thanks to the blanket of snow that fell on the east coast midway through the week, I was usually clad in the boots that helped me navigate the slick Utah sidewalks last year, and thanks to my 2-month-old, I enjoyed the sleep deprivation so crucial to the festival experience. As the uncanny delirium of a solo Sundance overtook me, I found myself putting the movies I was consuming in conversation with one another, in pairings either intuitive or unconventional, to the point that it often seems hard to talk about my impressions of one without relating it to my impressions of the other. And as I pondered how to wrestle 18 movies into one dispatch, those pairings seemed as good an organizing structure as any to make sense of the couchbound glut that was Sundance 2021…

The Talking-Head Docs

Summer of Soul (image courtesy of the Sundance Institute)
Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) | Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

If any selection refutes my theory that the festival lacked consensus highlights, it would have to be the feature filmmaking debut of Roots member Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). Telling the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a summer concert series held parallel to Woodstock in 1969, the film might sound analogous to an episode of PBS’ American Masters—a handsome and staid historical account of Something Significant. But two factors elevate Summer of Soul far above interviews-and-archival-footage convention. 

Most prominently, the film is an insistent reclaiming of a moment in history essentially erased from the American collective consciousness: though the summer’s performances—from artists including Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, and many, many more—were filmed for potential distribution, “the so-called powers that be” (in the words of one interview subject) deemed the prospect uncommercial, and so this footage of epochal artists in their creative prime was abandoned in a basement for half a century. Watching the film struck me as an experience not so much informative as consciousness-expanding, as stories I’d been led to believe I’d been told in full were revealed as just half of a more complex narrative. While the fact that there was a simultaneous “Black Woodstock” is the central example, Questlove extrapolates from that core to revise other enshrined myths of the era, as in a bracing montage of Harlem residents reacting skeptically to that summer’s moon landing (it’s a theoretical achievement, they argue, that does little to help them and their neighbors, rendering the Apollo program a vanity science project that verges on the obscene given the many terrestrial problems that could be addressed with those funds). Even beyond any of the content, however, this is virtuosic cinema, as Questlove brings a mind honed on musical expression to bear on a different medium, timing his film’s editing rhythms in keeping with the musical performance at the heart of a given sequence. Blistering guitar solos are intercut with frenzied montages of political unrest while languid jazz riffs are buoyed by gentler reflections, and these sensory collages make literal one interviewee’s argument that the music being made that summer was not just art but an evocation of the cultural landscape.

The virtues of Summer of Soul are self-evident, but they were only underlined for me after watching Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street. As long as director Marilyn Agrelo is focused on the development of the groundbreaking Children’s Television Workshop, an underdog story that comprises approximately the first half of the 107-minute runtime, the movie hums with momentum driven by the righteous purpose of a group who believed children deserved better than what was being offered even under the auspices of educational programming. A battle against Mississippi public television to get the pointedly desegregated Sesame Street before the eyes of the state’s children serves as a stirring and emotional climax to the story; the only problem is that the film then hits the wall of CTW’s universal acclaim, shattering the remaining half of the film into a diffuse collection of observations and memories. As revealing, amusing, or poignant as those vignettes may be (and they’re often all three at once), the shapelessness seems to confuse even the film itself, as a late-stage montage of children guilelessly interacting with Muppets is scored to a dirgelike cue that seems to invite dread, and Jim Henson’s famously celebratory funeral gets a rushed and choppy treatment that fails to generate what would seem like an effortless emotional climax. 

It’s clear that the film is designed to mimic the success of previous Sundance breakout Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, but for lack of that film’s primary central figure and complete narrative arc, Street Gang is left without a clear story to tell. Any potential closure that might be found in the show’s controversial transition from public broadcasting bellwether to a co-production deal with pay cable behemoth HBO is left on the table, but given the film’s status as an HBO Documentary Films production, a tough look at this or any other compromise was likely too much to ask for.

The Low-Budget Surrealities

The Blazing World | Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Somewhere within the first act of The Blazing Worldwriter-director-star Carlson Young’s feature expansion of her 2018 Sundance short—I found myself pondering the notion of post-postmodern surrealism. We’re long past the prime of true dream-logic surrealism, and even self-aware explorations of the genuine article have become familiar, leaving much 21st-century surrealism feeling inescapably cerebral and overdetermined, filtered through so many layers of Lynch and Buñuel that the visually outré feels commonplace. Such is the unfortunate case for The Blazing World, in which Young’s protagonist is consumed by suicidal despair over her twin sister’s accidental death decades earlier during a fight between their parents, leading her into an odyssey through a parallel dimension of overt symbolism in which she systematically addresses and defeats her demons en route to predestined catharsis. The plotting is so schematic and deliberate that it’s hard to discern any of the unruly indescribability that sets true surrealism apart. If the film has a saving grace, it’s the low budget, which forces a tactile quality to the sets and an endearing falseness to the computer effects that never allows the viewer to forget this is a labor of love, flat as the storytelling may fall.

Many of the same criticisms could be levied at Strawberry Mansion, the second directorial collaboration between Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney. Following their 2017 debut, Sylvio, which detailed the depressive existence of a debt collector who happened to be an anthropomorphic sunglass-sporting gorilla, Audley and Birney here present what feels something like an Adult Swim riff on Black Mirror: in a world where dreams are taxed, an auditor tasked with collecting decades of back taxes from a rogue dreamer is instead radicalized when she reveals widespread in-dream product placement. Much like The Blazing World, Strawberry Mansion tumbles into a realm of outrageous symbol and lo-fi spectacle, but Audley and Birney skirt any feeling of overreach through a posture of mannered remove. The effect is sometimes alienating—how seriously can we take the emotional beats when the comic beats are so clearly cribbed from the too-cool school of 21st century TV dadaism?—but by seeming to embrace its own status as a cerebral exercise openly indebted to decades of precursors, the film sets a target that’s easier to hit. It may fail to touch the unconscious pleasure centers the best surrealism can arouse, but an image as odd as human-sized mice in naval whites is at least perversely specific enough to be memorable, perhaps all the more so for being divorced from any particular significance.

The Cyber Head Trips

We're All Going to the World's Fair (image courtesy of the Sundance Institute)
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair | Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair might best be described as a horror film, but no genre label could hint at the remarkable breadth and depth of writer/director Jane Schoenbrun’s debut feature. The plot is difficult to summarize given how dependent it is on visual shorthand culled from the ever-evolving world of (pardon the phrase) Extremely Online subcultures; suffice it to say that Casey, a young person so alienated that her social circle seems entirely comprised of a stuffed lemur, decides to participate in an online “challenge” to be documented via vlog, one that will purportedly see her undergo severe psychological and physical transformations. It’s never entirely clear to the viewer whether the entire affair is a hoax, role-playing game, or genuine phenomenon, nor is it clear whether Casey knows or cares, and the situation only becomes more fraught and complex once she’s contacted by a mysterious older man who claims a great, and dubiously healthy, investment in her well-being. 

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a film consumed with the question of how we interact with the images on our screens, as well as the queasy dysphoria that can result from a full surrendering of one’s consciousness to a non-physical realm, and Scoenbrun mines the topic for imagery that ranges from the disquieting to the horrifying. Yet far from being some exploitative, fearmongering polemic, Casey’s story (which increasingly shares primacy with the story of her parasocial sponsor) is a sensitive exploration of timeless themes of emotional isolation that have only been exacerbated by Extremely Online culture. Schoenbrun treats both her central characters with clear-eyed compassion that suggests a route through digital dislocation and out the other side to a genuinely engaged life, all without sacrificing the itchy discomfort of watching someone watch a screen with impassive eyes that barely hint at the churning tumult beneath them.

This theme of the link between human consciousness and recorded imagery is shared by Theo Anthony’s experimental documentary All Light, Everywhere, an interrogation of our increasing urge to put our faith in the objectivity of photographic evidence, one Anthony centers largely on the functionality of body cameras and the ethics of unauthorized surveillance. Anthony circulates between fly-on-the-wall observations of police training, city council debates, and research facilities, interspersing these continuing threads with supplementary ruminations on the biological limitations of human perception and the inherent distortions of recording technology. Much like Schoenbaum, Anthony is interested in the way we look to technology to compensate for inner deficits we can hardly conceive of, but I found myself increasingly distanced from All Light, Everywhere as it spiraled into nebulous philosophy (“From what history does the future dream?” the pointedly impassive narrator muses at the close of a vignette on the history of composite portraiture) while intentionally eliding clear connective tissue between its abundant strands of inquiry. 

In its final moments, the film reveals that the work it demands of the viewer has been an intentional effort to trigger the mental process of creating meaning out of disconnected images. By that point in the runtime (and the Sundance marathon), though, I was too exhausted and whiplashed to feel delighted by the revelation of this implicit challenge. Anthony’s film may have been intended to leave me with much to think about, but Schoenbaum’s emotional approach to our relationships with screens provoked me in a more lingering way. 

The Pandemic Projects

In the Earth | Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

As some enterprising souls were quick to remind the world during the early days of the pandemic, maybe this cataclysm could be a boon to creativity—after all, Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague. Almost a year into the era of social distancing orders, we’re starting to see the first work from filmmakers who used these restrictions as creative challenges, and the results haven’t been promising, from the instantly forgotten Locked Down to the instantly reviled Malcolm & Marie. It might be reasonable to conclude that a major movie conceived and completed in 2020 is simply too much to ask from any artist too focused on keeping themselves and their collaborators safe to let the creative juices flow, but Sundance offered two compelling case studies for how the back-to-basics limitations imposed by the pandemic could serve to enliven filmmakers with the right sensibilities.

In the Earth doesn’t exactly announce itself as “a COVID movie,” despite some references to an ongoing pandemic that bears conspicuous similarity to our own. Yes, Ben Wheatley’s movie—which concerns a scientist embarking on a guided trek through the woods to find a former mentor’s research site, a simple task complicated by an encounter with a survivalist whose connection to the environment skews fanatical—features just four principal characters and minimal shooting locations. But rather than constricting his thematic focus in keeping with his production limitations, Wheatley uses his minimalist exterior resources in service of a story of interior expansiveness—if Algernon Blackwood’s eco-weird fiction touchstone The Willows were adapted as a video nasty, you might get something like Wheatley’s mind-bending chamber horror. If it’s occasionally difficult to say what exactly happens in In the Earth (beyond the welcome fact of Wheatley returning to his early thematic ground of deadly romantic couplings and English folk culture) that only means repeat viewings will be required to pull apart a movie as fascinated by the natural world’s faceless malevolence and transformative power as Annihilation.

How It Ends wears its “COVID movie” bona fides more openly—characters tend to give each other an unnatural amount of personal space, and there are rarely more than three of them on screen at once (a pandemic precaution so overt that it’s hard not to get anxious during the one sequence set at a large gathering). Yet in this story of a woman’s odyssey of amends-making in the hours leading up to an extinction-level asteroid collision, writer-directors Zoe Lister-Jones (who also stars) and Daryl Wein make evocative use of the uncanny atmosphere of city life in 2020. The world of this story may not yet have ended, but the vibe is distinctly post-apocalyptic as characters prowl LA neighborhoods seemingly abandoned but for the abundance of parked cars, encountering artists-turned-street-preachers staked out on deserted roadways. 

The story is trite and familiar (it turns out sometimes all you need is a little apocalypse to learn to love yourself), while its no-budget production values and episodic, cameo-heavy structure creates the feeling of bingeing an early-2010s webseries. Luckily, How It Ends is rescued from insubstantiality by one central conceit: in the first scene, we learn that the depressed protagonist is accompanied at all times by a manifestation of her more optimistic teenage self, and what seems at first like a twee flourish is quickly granted significantly greater intrigue once we learn that not only is every character in this world similarly accompanied, on this last day of human existence, the heretofore invisible sidekicks have become visible. This choice not only pushes the film into the realm of deadpan magic realism, it opens up a line of metaphoric resonance richer and more striking than simply demonstrating last-day emotional openness through go-for-broke behaviors.

Both In the Earth and How It Ends were helmed by directors who seem midway through the transition from scrappy indies to high-gloss studio fare (in Wheatley’s case, a move from genre-bending oddities like Sightseers and A Field in England to last year’s Rebecca and upcoming sequels to Tomb Raider and The Meg; in Lister-Jones’, from Sundance-friendly character piece Band Aid to last year’s The Craft: Legacy), and both seem consequently emboldened by the mandate to take a year off from commercial concerns. The films may not be King Lear, but they’re nevertheless works that don’t so much stem from disaster as transcend it.

The Splatter Flicks

Eight for Silver | Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Given its status (at least in a typical year) outside the blast radius of awards season, Sundance has become a go-to source for bold horror and stylish action, and I penciled Eight for Silver into my schedule hoping I might be treated to a new The Witch or Hereditary. Rather than another in that line of moody and innovative shockers, though, I sat through a tedious and dour 19th-century creature feature that gestures towards interrogating abuses against Europe’s Romani population but ultimately can’t muster enough energy to do much more than depict the atrocities. Writer-director Sean Ellis has made a low-budget monster movie that doesn’t have the good sense to use its budget limitations to its advantage—rather than provide evocative partial glimpses of a creature and allow the viewer’s mind to fill in the gaps, Ellis chooses to give brief full-on glimpses of a creature executed with all the innovation of a mid-2000s straight-to-DVD feature. The internal logic of that creature, which riffs on werewolf mythology in a way I’ve certainly never encountered before, offers flickers of inspiration, but with that sole intriguing idea weighed down by a dearth of characterization and suspense, Eight for Silver was easily the biggest miss of my festival lineup.

If Eight for Silver made me hope for Eggers and Aster, then Nicolas Cage’s pre-production comments on Prisoners of the Ghostland being “the wildest movie [he’d] ever made” couldn’t help calling to mind the hallucinatory bar set by 2018 Sundance standout Mandy. Cage’s bold pronouncement, though, writes a check that Sion Sono’s first English-language feature can’t quite cash. The film—a post-apocalyptic samurai western that sees Cage’s imprisoned crook coerced into venturing across an irradiated wasteland to retrieve the granddaughter of the local robber baron—unites several pleasing elements, including not just katanas and six-shooters but iconography evocative of the full Mad Max saga. Yet Sono does little to combine these parts into more than their sum, yielding a film that’s more collage than concoction. The sole standout image—a suit strapped onto Cage at the outset and wired with explosives on the throat, arms, and genitals, each programmed to respond to an untoward physiological impulse—serves as an appealing, walking Chekhov’s gun, but once that gun has fired a couple of times, its allure is exhausted. Meanwhile, the sole intriguing theme—the robber baron has taken command of his subjects’ perception of time, controlling them by preventing their lives from progressing—is a heady, hazy concept that can’t quite find purchase within the plot. 

These thinly sketched story elements could easily be forgiven if the aesthetics were sufficiently arresting, but the film is strangely naturalistic and familiar, as though a minimalist visual approach might distract from the similarities to a spate of east-meets-west genre experiments that boomed and busted more than a decade ago. In the end, Prisoners of the Ghostland feels most akin to the hail of gumballs that serve as a visual leitmotif: it may be a lot of fun to chew on at first, but it goes flavorless too soon and doesn’t provide much in the way of sustenance.

The High School Docs

Cusp (image courtesy of the Sundance Institute)
Cusp | Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt, the directors of Cusp, are trained as photographers, and an overriding interest in painterly imagery is clear in every frame of their coming-of-age documentary. As they spent the summer of 2019 chronicling the lives of a handful of young women in rural Texas, Hill and Bethencourt (as they discussed in the post-premiere Q&A) urged their subjects outside every time the sun began to set, leading to an abundance of achingly gorgeous but questionably motivated sequences of silhouettes milling around before breathtaking southern vistas. This sensory ecstasy—granted an assist from composer T. Griffin, whose Explosions in the Sky soundalike cues cement a sometimes distracting aesthetic similarity to Friday Night Lights—is a stark contrast to the film’s thematic focus on all the abuses these young women suffer at the hands of the men in their lives, and all the self-abuses they commit by way of processing. This combination of style and story can be overwhelmingly impactful, but as with so many verité portraits of depressed communities, particularly those focused on adolescents, ethical questions have continued to needle me as the festival has receded.

In addition to familiar issues of where the line might fall between sensitive portraiture and “poverty porn,” the film’s stance on its subjects is often surprisingly conflicted. In their Q&A, the directors discussed a feeling of protectiveness towards the young women they were documenting, and while it’s heartening to hear that they didn’t knowingly put their subjects in harm’s way for the sake of storytelling, it also means the film steers around such potentially revealing subject matter as the significance of the Confederate flags visible in the background of several sequences. Cusp apparently came about when Hill and Bethencourt (residents of New York City and Los Angeles, respectively) coincidentally encountered the core group of friends while gassing up during a cross-country road trip; after ingratiating themselves and being invited to a party, they felt a kinship that planted the seed for the film. That affection is palpable in the finished product, but it does mean the film largely cedes a potential claim to journalistic integrity.

I deliberately chased Cusp with Try Harder!, curious as to the effects of sliding from a story of teenagers with restricted upward mobility to one of teenagers consumed by their stratospheric ambitions. Debbie Lum’s documentary follows members of the senior class (and one particularly ambitious junior) at an elite Bay Area high school as they do whatever it takes to gain a leg up in the college admissions process, with seemingly every student longing for a coveted acceptance from Stanford. Perhaps as a result of Cusp’s aesthetic overload, I was initially put off by what seemed like an absolute lack of cinematic style in Try Harder!, but any fly-on-the-wall flatness was forgotten almost immediately as I fell for the handful of students, teachers, and parents highlighted by Lum’s team. There’s no denying that senior year at an American high school is an almost foolproof narrative structure, but the flow of details in Try Harder! is deft and subtle, building up micro-payoffs across the runtime while cruising towards a tear-jerking finale that may be unsurprising but nevertheless feels earned.

By virtue of the proximity of these viewings, I spent the remainder of that evening considering the significance of style in nonfiction storytelling. How might their effects have changed if the style of these two documentaries had been flipped? Would Hill and Bethencourt have been interested in turning their highly-composed lens on the students of Try Harder!? Would the impact of Cusp’s story have been lessened or heightened with Lum’s aesthetically straight-faced treatment? I have my suspicions, but they’re less significant than my renewed interest in what constitutes honesty in a documentary, how much we can reasonably ask for given the inherent subjectivity of the form, and how much of a story’s impact can be chalked up to its style before risking counterfeit emotionality, all issues that felt unusually keen to me following this particular double feature.

The Award Winners

CODA (image courtesy of the Sundance Institute)
CODA | Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

It should not have been so easy to lump the winners of the US Dramatic Competition into one convenient pairing, but that’s the strange result of an awards ceremony that saw four prizes (the Grand Jury Prize, Directing Award, Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast, and Audience Award) go to Siân Heder’s CODA, which had days earlier netted the biggest sale in festival history (a record seemingly broken every year, but the contrast between last year’s increase of $0.69 over the previous record and this year’s increase of $7.5M is quite stark).

The windfall is a surprising turn of events for a film as modest as CODA—which stands for Child of Deaf Adults, the status of the film’s protagonist—but it reflects just how uncannily Sundance-ready Heder’s project feels. For better or worse, CODA is an exceptionally well-executed run through an exceptionally familiar playbook. Remaking a 2014 French film (Éric Lartigau’s César-nominated La Famille Bélier) with a perfectly-calibrated hook (the youngest child and sole hearing member of a family discovers a passion for singing, but chasing a gift her loved ones can’t appreciate also means abdicating her lifelong role as their interpreter), the film is a grab-bag of commercially-friendly indie beats, from the gruff mentor with a heart of gold to the third-act race to a life-changing opportunity. These elements are tried-and-true because they’re satisfying, but to so excessively laud such a familiar package seems destined to create expectations the film isn’t built to meet. 

Yet to call the film simply a Sundance paint-by-numbers would do a disservice to the elements Heder—who most recently directed 2016’s melodramatic but admirably uncompromising Tallulah—added when she was hired for the remake. Heder sets this version of the story in her native Massachusetts, placing Lartigau’s archetypes within the richly-observed world of the Gloucester fishing industry, a choice that cloaks the familiar in a striking layer of the specific and surprising. Graced by a strong ensemble (most notably Emilia Jones’ breathtakingly immersive lead performance and Troy Kotsur’s turn as her playfully abrasive but not-so-secretly tenderhearted father), CODA feels like two colliding films, one of which just happens to deserve better than the other.

The CODA sweep left room for only two other winners among the U.S. Dramatic slate, and though I didn’t get a chance to see Best Actor winner Jockey, I did catch Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award winner On the Count of Three. The prize (which went to writing duo Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch) is well-earned given how expertly-constructed Jerrod Carmichael’s directorial debut is. After opening with a captivating key image (two men stand behind a strip club on an overcast morning, handguns pointed at one another’s foreheads) and flashing back a few hours to show what’s led to this (in search of a partner for a suicide pact, Carmichael’s depressed protagonist has just sprung his best friend from the psych ward to which he’s been sent following the latest in a string of attempts on his own life), the story sets up a structure that provides clear propulsive stakes while leaving ample room for suspense (at the last moment, the two agree to postpone their date with death until the end of the day in order to spend a few hours settling scores). 

The only problem with such an impressive structure is that once you’re cued into how well-crafted the screenplay is, you’re noticing the scaffolding of the experience, which I tend to find distances me from the story itself. As such, On the Count of Three is a movie I found more impressive than immersive. The movie elicited all its desired effects from me—my hair was a mess by the time the credits rolled after I’d spent large portions of the runtime clutching it in agonized tension—and it features astonishing work from Christopher Abbott as Carmichael’s manic foil, an unstable and tormented character that Abbott never allows to devolve into a collection of actorly tics and cheap pathos. Abbott’s risky yet successful performance epitomizes the balance of tones navigated by Carmichael, primarily known as a standup and comedy actor but now demonstrating clear promise as a rising auteur. There may be some argument that the film is glib about the struggle of living with trauma and mental illness, but (to be candid) as someone for whom the early psych ward scenes ring familiar, there’s something to be said for a story that risks offense in the service of encompassing the fully messy sprawl of life with neurochemical imbalances. 

The Meditations

I Was a Simple Man | Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

If CODA sits at one end of the scale of commercially friendly Sundance titles, then writer-director Christopher Makoto Yogi’s I Was a Simple Man must sit close to the polar opposite. A patient and detailed look at an elderly man’s journey through terminal illness, Yogi’s film is concerned with a question many of us would prefer to avoid engaging with at all: how easy should it be to die? The story takes a magic realist approach to the issue as the protagonist is visited by the spirits of those he’s hurt through his own selfishness, with time soon collapsing on itself so thoroughly that even the ghosts are eventually visited by younger iterations of themselves. If the resulting experience is pensive and lacking in conventional narrative pleasures, that’s a virtue rather than a deficit; illness and caretaking are processes that have little regard for comfort or convenience, and to put a conventional shape onto a story like this would be to deny the emotional truth of the themes. 

Yet if this description makes the film sound like a slog, that’s because I haven’t yet mentioned Yogi’s finely-tuned awareness of his Hawaiian setting, an environment conjured unusually palpably through production design and sound mixing. This is the rare film that feels genuinely transportive, and while the same can be said for Yogi’s prior effort, the thin but endearing August at Akiko’s, his power as a storyteller has taken a massive leap forward as he expands his viewpoint to encompass the cosmic.

The other most contemplative film of my Sundance lineup is similarly lyrical to Yogi’s, but it’s as dense as that one is spare. The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet defies one-sentence description, but I’m obliged to at least try: the owner of the titular unquiet dog undertakes a brief quest to find an agreeable living environment for his pet only for the dog to die, leaving the remaining runtime open for the bereaved man to undertake a variety of largely disconnected tasks, experimenting with different occupations and encountering a variety of mildly intriguing figures, finally living through a plague that requires extreme distancing even as he’s ensured by a doctor that the whole thing will be over before he knows it. Co-written and directed by Ana Katz, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet isn’t a wholly surreal story, but it’s certainly not a wholly naturalistic one; it’s not an entirely comic story but it’s certainly not an entirely dramatic one. The viewing experience is uncanny, but often possessed of a stark grace thanks to crisp monochromatic photography that calls to mind the ruminative Roma and idiosyncratic Nebraska.

If the story seems to be about anything, it would be one man’s efforts to do for himself what he failed to do for his dog: find a way to exist comfortably in a world so seemingly stacked against that goal that even the air he breathes becomes hostile. By the time that low-key story has reached a serenely cathartic conclusion, the entire experience has accrued the fuzzy, pleasantly alienated feeling of a dream that slips through your fingers no matter how you may try to hold onto it while moving back into the waking world. It’s the sort of cogitation that’s hard to find time to luxuriate in amid a packed Sundance schedule, but the struggle to reconcile such chimeric work in time to wrestle it into a festival dispatch is all part of the puzzling pleasure of a marathon of world premieres.

The Outliers

Cryptozoo (image courtesy of the Sundance Institute)
Cryptozoo | Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

And so I’m left with the two movies so odd that they refused to align with any other in my efforts to pair my Sundance watches—two stories united in disunity.

My expectations for Cryptozoo, the second hand-drawn feature from writer/director Dash Shaw, were simultaneously high and guarded. Bottomless Belly Button, Shaw’s doorstop-thick 2008 graphic novel that tells the story of an unsatisfying family reunion, is a masterpiece of naturalistic yet heightened storytelling packed with devastating moments of fine-grain observation, but his filmmaking debut, 2016’s My Entire High School, Sinking Into the Sea, was a stilted teen comedy wrapped around a disaster story simultaneously farcical and painfully straight-faced. I thus went into Cryptozoo hoping for the best but fearing the worst, and was pleased to find a prologue—in which two hippies hike into the woods to smoke a joint, have apparently transcendent sex, and then contemplate existence while stargazing—that suggested the lyrical humanism of Bottomless Belly Button. Once the story began in earnest, though, I realized Shaw had again chosen a mode of labored action pastiche, telling the bizarrely joyless tale of one woman’s globe-trotting quest in search of black-market cryptids to populate her theme park/nature preserve. 

Quickly losing any emotional engagement in an intentionally arch story (which Shaw sets in the Vietnam era only to leave that potential thematic and plot engine bafflingly untouched), I found myself wondering what the film might look like if rendered photorealistically. The only conclusion is that this would be a straightforward creature-feature that might be most at home on Syfy. All that distinguishes Shaw’s film as a work of unique artistry is an admittedly eye-popping aesthetic, aided by animation director Jane Samborski, which embraces imperfection (to the point of occasional grotesquerie in the human character design as Shaw seems to openly flout accurate physical proportions), never fully settling on one unnatural aesthetic and so seeming to be born from Shaw’s forehead in real-time. It’s a significant saving grace, and a necessary one given the script’s shocking disinterest in generating wonder from its magical milieu.

Which brings us back at last to John and the Hole, a film that seems to have been largely greeted by critics as a hollow exercise in dispassionate dread, and one of my favorites of the festival. I spent much of the runtime of Pascual Sisto’s directorial debut agreeing with those who saw the film as chilly nihilism in search of a theme, but as the story of adolescent John’s imprisonment of his family in an abandoned bunker reached its conclusion, the story’s threads coalesced for me, and I came to see the film as an insightful exploration of the moment when children begin to grapple with their suspicion that there might not be all that much to this whole “life” thing. 

There’s a notion, espoused by pediatrician D.W. Winnicott, known as the “good enough parent” theory, which suggests that a caretaker’s job is to guide their children towards a natural disillusionment with parental authority, a necessary transition into independence that has to be managed thoughtfully lest the child become too disillusioned too early and succumb to despair. John and the Hole is something like an exploration of the “not good enough parent” theory, as John—seemingly thrown into a mental tailspin by his mother’s description of adulthood as just like childhood but with more responsibility—spends the entirety of his dark reimagining of Home Alone desperately looking for any meaning or satisfaction to be found in an independent existence, even resorting to controlled asphyxiation in search of some transcendent suggestion that life might have meaning. Key to the film’s effects is the surreal parallel narrative of a small girl whose chaotically selfish mother seems to be the outward manifestation of any child’s hazy perception of their own parents as confusing and mercurial beings. Both stories concern children trying to understand their own existence in relation to their observation of their caretakers, and I found this agony intensely poignant in a way that lingered with me more than many Sundance films that I might argue were stronger artistic achievements.

As the gourmet binge that was Sundance 2021 has settled in my stomach and mental indigestion has worn off, I’ve come to recognize that John and the Hole provoked me and left me with interpretive puzzles that lent a new lens on my own life. Amidst a festival that may not have provided the communal experience its organizers, artists, or audiences might have dreamed of, I’ll take that kind of nourishment, hoping it holds me over until we can all crawl out of the hole and back into the movie theater once more.