Sundancing With Myself, Vol. 2

Dispatches from A(nother) Virtual Festival

Fire of Love (all photos courtesy of Sundance Institute)

About halfway through the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, I saw a debate arise on Twitter: to skip the pre-roll, or not to skip the pre-roll?

In this case, “pre-roll” would refer to the perhaps four to six minutes of video appended to the front of each virtual offering. This reel included a stirring land acknowledgment and call to action from members of Utah’s Indigenous groups, a brief introduction from a festival programmer and the featured filmmaker, and some jauntily animated special thanks and dissuasions against piracy. Endlessly rewatching such pre-roll videos is an inescapable fact of life at an in-person festival; at home, after perhaps one or two respectful viewings charged by the buzz of festival fever, it becomes all too tempting to scrub ahead, at least for those of us who’ve assigned ourselves double-digit viewings in the span of just over a week.

Thus, the debate: is something lost by skipping the pre-roll? If we abandon the last vestige of the festival experience, are we not (as one tweet asked) simply binging screeners? Particularly for any critic who’s recently devoted weeks or months to binging awards screeners, does pivoting to another cornucopia risk turning a joy into a chore?

I hope I haven’t framed these (eminently privileged) questions in such a way as to imply that I have the answers. 2022 marked my third year covering Sundance, but my second doing it from home. The 2020 festival—which roughly coincided with the emergence of COVID-19—sits just on the far side of a changed world, representing my last memory of travel, and, of course, one of my last memories of going to the movies without experiencing at least a slight mortal dread. 66% of my Sundance memories have now been made squeezing in movies around the margins of largely-homebound everyday life. And so, while I love what the pre-roll represents, I was guilty of skipping ahead; sometimes there just isn’t time to stand on ceremony.

There’s a reason why Sundance is the festival I gravitate towards each year. While the term “Sundance movie” may have distinctly mixed connotations, this slate represents not so much next year’s awards contenders as next year’s summer surprises. Where Toronto and New York select prestige fare pre-loaded with year-end expectations, Sundance breakouts like Hereditary, Eighth Grade, or Palm Springs often hit mid-year, offering a breather among action spectacles. This is the stuff I want an early look at, and so for any theoretical questions concerning how to Sundance, I was more concerned with the question of why to Sundance. And the answer is: even if we (and, to acknowledge the gleaming silver lining of virtual festivals, I do mean we in a way never before possible) are binging screeners, that only means we have access to a week of new sensation and perception in the doldrums of mid-winter. The results may have been a mixed bag, but I’m grateful for every morning, afternoon, and evening I got to spend witnessing new art with few built-in expectations. And that’s certainly true of two highlights of the festival—just one of the surprising pairs that emerged in my Sundance diet. I thus present, to begin with:

The Archival Docs

Fire of Love

Save for the occasional Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, documentaries rarely achieve the buzzy breakout potential afforded the narrative features. And that’s a shame, because it’s the category that often houses the most inventive and innovative work. And this year, that included not just the first acquisition of the festival, but my favorite selection: Fire of Love.

The easiest way to describe the films of Maurice and Katia Krafft might be to envision Jacques Cousteau studying volcanoes rather than marine life. Down to their Couseauian red beanies, these French volcanologists traveled the globe, studying the causes and effects of lava flows and eruptions, and capturing mind-bending, borderline psychedelic footage that made them world-famous figures, at least by the standards of field scientists of the 1970s and ‘80s.

Fire of Love is composed almost entirely of repurposed footage—most of it shot by the Kraffts, some of it taken from TV interviews with the couple—alongside abstract animations that accompany some of the film’s more poetic flights of fancy. As spun by the dulcet tones of narrator Miranda July, the Kraffts’ story becomes something closer to a fairy tale of fate and adventure; these two were improbably born in the same place with the same passion, and together they quested after the answers to earth’s buried secrets. This is a three-way love story, between the Kraffts and the earth beneath their feet. With a soundtrack drenched in classic prog accompanying imagery that begs belief, recycled footage becomes the vehicle for something visually and emotionally transcendent.

Riotsville, U.S.A.

The same techniques used in Fire of Love are on display in Riotsville, U.S.A., a film composed entirely of TV broadcasts and footage shot by the US military. The documentary takes its name from a model town erected in the late ‘60s and used as an army training ground for quelling civil unrest. With this eerie and appalling footage at its core—military officers gather on bleachers to watch school-play reenactments of the Watts riots staged by costumed troops, laughing and applauding while “rioters” are shoved onto buses and hauled away—director Sierra Pettengill widens the film’s scope to examine the tensions undergirding the ‘60s, and the continual reverberation of those tensions. We learn (to name just two memorable passages) the story of the Kerner Commission, assembled by Lyndon Johnson to try and prove that antiwar protests were incited by Black “agitators,” and we learn the story of a public television network forcibly shuttered over a supposed liberal bias (seemingly a euphemism for affording civil rights activists any platform at all).

Both Riotsville, U.S.A and Fire of Love shape reams of diffuse footage into something inventively compact that coasts on a sense of narrative inevitability. This includes both films’ third-act shifts, which flip the script on the prior two thirds—in Fire of Love, a shift from the jubilant study of “red” volcanoes into the more solemn and dangerous study of “gray” ones; in Riotsville, U.S.A., a late addition of unstaged riot footage that depicts the seldom-discussed civil rights protests at the 1968 Republican National Convention. These gear shifts aren’t quite indictments of the pleasures found in the prior two thirds, but they serve as bracing reminders of the stakes and cost of the stories being told.

Actors from Love, Actually Have Aged and Are Now Experiencing Wistful Regret


It would stand to reason that after decades of stellar work on both sides of the Atlantic, Bill Nighy and Emma Thompson have accumulated a significant share of warm audience recognition. And this year, both actors traded on those warm associations to add extra poignancy to English character studies in which they grappled with a mounting awareness that there’s more to look back on than forward to.

Living faces what’s likely a significant barrier for some audience members: director Oliver Hermanus has seen fit to remake one of the great films by one of the great directors, Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru. Of course, without Kurosawa remakes, we wouldn’t have The Magnificent Seven or A Fistful of Dollars, so the notion of remaking the master shouldn’t be looked upon with too much skepticism. If Living doesn’t quite ascend to the heights of those classics, it manages to attain liftoff largely thanks to Nighy’s performance, and a screenplay by the perfectly-matched novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (author of The Remains of the Day, to which this portrait of postwar emotional austerity may as well be a companion piece).

Nighy stars as one Mr. Williams, a civil servant whose comfortably numb lifestyle is rocked by the news of his terminal illness. Suddenly seized with an ennui borne of decades spent passionlesly pushing paper, Williams abandons his post in search of the sort of experiences he’s denied himself until now. Handed a role that demands underplaying, Nighy—as capable of flamboyance as any of his peers—wrings pathos from every half-formed feeling that comes bubbling into his consciousness. The film opens with credits in the style of mid-century Technicolor domestic dramas, but Hermanus and cinematographer Jamie Ramsay don’t create a pastiche of the classics so much as an Academy-ratioed update, casting a gloss of modern framing and lighting onto characters and settings that might have stepped out of David Lean’s This Happy Breed. The aesthetic results are often achingly impactful, perfectly in keeping with the story they’re supporting.

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande might best be described as a sexual chamber piece. Taking place all but entirely in one room and all but entirely between two actors, the story concerns Thompson’s repressed, widowed schoolteacher, who employs a sex worker (Daryl McCormack) to help her experience a lifetime’s worth of sensuality as efficiently as possible. What ensues is one of the more casually frank films about sex I’ve ever seen, a glossy and witty two-hander that accumulates electric tension between two electrifying leads. The script explores the ambiguity and contradictions of sex work, taking its time to build an inherently frustrating bond between two people who both seem to need the one thing neither can give due to the boundaries of their relationship: love. 

Thompson’s character—who goes by Nancy, though names and identities have a tendency to shift here—is often maddening, and casually cruel, but this inability to engage generously with the world is traced back repeatedly to her inability to experience the most basic of human pleasures, alienating herself from her own body, and thus her own selfhood, and thus the world. If there’s anything that this remarkably generous film holds in contempt, it’s the concept of stigmatizing sensual exploration as a pathway to self-acceptance. I was shocked to find myself openly weeping as the film moved into its final minutes, and credit must go to writer-director Katy Brand and editor Bryan Mason, whose deft building of dramatic pressure allows for a truly cathartic release.

Parenting Is a Nightmare!


Two of this year’s films operated on nightmare logic in telling gruesome fables concerning the perils and pitfalls of raising a family. In the more (initially) naturalistic of these selections, Resurrection, Rebecca Hall plays the single mother of a teenage daughter whose traumatic past comes back first to haunt her and then to resume its torment. What begins as a basically relatable story comes to a breaking point with a scorched-earth single-take monologue from Hall, conveying a backstory more gruesome than anything I’d imagined. From there, the story descends into a hellish space that’s hard to discuss without spoiling the effects, many of which stem from Tim Roth’s portrayal of (essentially) a human Big Bad Wolf. 

Following the movie’s premiere, I saw more than one comparison to The Silence of the Lambs, presumably in reference to Roth’s deliciously devilish antagonist. But this evocation of Hannibal Lecter—the sort of villain so alluring the viewer can’t help missing him any time he’s offscreen—casts confusion on writer/director Andrew Semans’ ultimate goals. For a story concerning the most debilitating of physical and psychological traumas, Resurrection is a yarn first and foremost, and it’s hard to reconcile the story’s mounting pulp theatrics with its simultaneous desire to trace a character’s descent into the deepest and darkest of post-traumatic stresses. Perhaps it’s unfair to suggest that a story of trauma can’t balance its seriousness with some cathartic grand guignol, but alongside so many other more pointed stories of the traumas done to women, I struggled to grasp what Semans was bringing to the table.


Where Resurrection positions itself as a story set in our world before gradually sliding off the axis of rationality, Finnish import Hatching is a fractured fairy tale from the jump. If Tim Roth’s Resurrection character channels Grimmsian dread, Hatching is awash in the same, as preteen Tinja rebels against her social media influencer mother’s maniacally manicured “perfect” life by incubating a magically-growing egg, and, eventually, the mutating creature that emerges. There’s a central metaphor being gestured at here, something concerning the toll taken by social pressures to conform, but (as in Resurrection) any subtext falls secondary to a swiftly accumulating list of grisly catastrophes. The story comes to a bitter conclusion in which the most innocent character receives the worst of the punishment, an appropriate note for a story that’s largely powered by dread and revulsion. But by closing on what feels like a slap of nihilism, the story comes to feel more like a bloody shaggy dog story than anything with lingering heft or bite.

The Janes

Call Jane

With what many presume to be the impending reversal of Roe v. Wade, it would seem significant that Sundance programmed two films covering the same historic stand for reproductive rights, the narrative feature Call Jane and the documentary The Janes. Both films concern the late-‘60s underground network of Chicago women who risked everything to arrange illegal abortions for any desperate young woman with cash to spare (the ethics of setting a price on a potentially life-saving procedure come up significantly in both cases). One film, though, manages to tell a far more engaging and satisfying story, and it isn’t the one with the benefit of a screenplay.

Call Jane is set in 1968, and follows Elizabeth Banks’ affluent housewife, whose planned pregnancy becomes a threat to her life, forcing her to seek an abortion before the gestation kills her. With no safer option, Banks’ character calls a phone number found on a flyer and finds herself drawn into the network of “Janes” (that name standing in for the full under-the-radar team), first for her own procedure and then progressively deeper into the organization’s structure. 

With Carol co-writer Phyllis Nagy’s assured and frequently stylish direction (the film favors long, drifting takes that contribute a dreamlike mood to even the most fraught situations), Call Jane is a supremely easy movie to watch—which is sort of the problem. For lack of exterior conflict, Banks’ character is able to seamlessly drift from a law-abiding life to a lawless one and back, with little suggestion that the authorities or the mob (with whom the Janes are complicit—at least so we’re told) are a particularly clear or present threat. Thus, the film lacks active antagonism, and while it’s appropriately agonizing based purely on subject matter, it rings hollow as a work of narrative. 

The Janes

If it sounds like I’m being too hard on a film designed to raise awareness of a systemic injustice and the measures taken to fight back, it’s mainly because companion documentary The Janes functions as such a seemingly clear roadmap. While resolutely unambitious, formally—if you’ve seen a documentary assembled from talking heads, archival stills, and stock footage before, you can basically imagine The Janes—the story hews to a classical storytelling structure that happens to also be the truth: not only do the real Janes describe breathtaking scenarios that underscore the risks of illegal abortions, the story climaxes in a police raid and a race-against-the-clock court case. 

Even the real figure whose arc most closely matches Banks’ in Call Jane is shown to have shouldered the weight of her experiences with far more lasting psychological wear and tear than the fictionalized equivalent allows. The story of the Janes has all the trappings of an early-‘70s paranoia thriller; by leaning towards that quality rather than away, The Janes manages to spin an engaging tale that’s also deeply moving and agonizingly sad, a fitting tribute to all that was risked and lost on the road to what seemed to be lasting justice.

The Dakotas

Cha Cha Real Smooth 

Q: Hey, did you see the low-key, chatty dramedy starring Dakota Johnson about amorphously unhappy people who think love and/or sex might be the answer to their alienation?

A: I don’t know, which one do you mean?

In Cha Cha Real Smooth, Johnson plays support for the story of Cooper Raiff’s protagonist, a character who’s endlessly charming by virtue of being played by Cooper Raiff, even if he also happens to be caustic, inappropriate, self-sabotaging, and, by the end, outright destructive. Raiff—the wunderkind who appeared out of nowhere in 2020 to win Best Narrative Feature at SXSW with his campus dramedy Shithouse, while still solidly in his early 20s—is quickly carving out a space for himself as a practitioner of remarkably generous ensemble character studies, and while in his taped introduction he described Cha Cha Real Smooth as a “love letter” to any number of subgroups (single parents, neurodivergent young people, the generally existentially lost), something has continued to sit uneasily for me. 

More than anything, this film is a love letter to its own protagonist, and though he professes longing for Johnson’s emotionally erratic mother of an austistic teenager, he seems to long more than anything to be a good guy. From the beginning, his character displays signs of both kindness (his preternatural ability to welcome withdrawn people into a world of celebration) and cruelty (both his open antagonism of his stepfather and his casual disregard for characters who don’t serve his own desires). By the end, the balance has tipped some, but for all the challenges levied at Raiff’s character, he seems shielded from true consequences by virtue of the auteur’s love for his own creation.

Formally, Cha Cha Real Smooth offers a bumpy ride—it’s oddly breathless in the first act, with scenes frequently cutting off half a beat too quickly to feel natural, while the finale grows draggy as Raiff feels compelled to offer extended catharsis to as many characters as possible. A generous viewer could chalk the film’s sharp corners and blunted edges up to its alignment with the central character’s blinkered perspective—what is life as a 22-year-old if not chaotic, lurching, and largely self-absorbed?—but for this viewer, Cha Cha Real Smooth called to mind the longer and more aimless of post-Apatowian comic dramas. It’s hard to fault Raiff for having ambitions that he hasn’t yet grown into (who among us could get this close to making Jerry Maguire in our mid-20s), and I’ll continue watching his development with keen interest.

Am I OK?

If Cha Cha Real Smooth bites off more complexity than it can chew, Johnson’s star vehicle, Am I OK?, frustrates due to its low complexity. The story concerns a codependent friendship strained by one friend’s impending international move and the other’s hesitant exploration of her suppressed queerness, and there are precious few surprises that can’t be inferred from that logline. This is the sort of film content to (as the kids say) just vibe, but there are few aesthetic pleasures to be found—first-time co-directors Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne seem content with a look that screams “basic cable”—leaving the film to slog towards its conclusion. Johnson is unsurprisingly winning as the co-lead whose arrested development is intimately linked to her sexual repression, bringing nuance and pathos to a story that’s rarely told onscreen, and that representation for the cautiously coming out is easily the film’s greatest asset. It’s just hard not to wish that there were a few more to go with it.

The Witches


It may not have been all of them witches at Sundance, but two films did use the archetype as a vehicle for contemplations of oppression, elevating recognizable injustices to the realm of something like folk horror.

Mariama Diallo’s Master follows two Black women as they attempt to assimilate at a prestigious New England university famed for sitting on the site of a 17th-century witch burning. The younger of these characters (Zoe Renee) is a freshman assigned to an apparently cursed dorm room, a notion that becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy as the pressures of representing not just herself but her race—in one of many casually gutting moments, a stranger suggests, based on nothing in particular, that her family must be immensely proud of her enrollment—lead her into a spiral of psychological self-destruction. The older, meanwhile, is a first-year dorm master (Regina Hall) who happens to be the first Black woman to hold that distinction, frequent reminders of which cause her own cycle of not just self-consciousness but newfound awareness of the legacy of oppression that precedes her appointment.

The supernatural is a tangible threat in Master (spirits are as frequently and casually glimpsed as those in the back half of The Shining), and if the film refuses to select one horrific lane, that overstuffed quality is both a deficit and an asset. Given how many plot threads are hurled into the air across a brisk 91-minute runtime, one might be hard-pressed to say what exactly happens in Master, but that simply means Diallo has managed to effectively convey the disoriented distress of her co-leads. I’ll admit to finding one ripped-from-the-headlines plot thread both over-obvious and ultimately unsatisfying, but it’s a minor complaint in what’s otherwise a stunning directorial showcase—Master calls to mind Oz Perkins’ The Blackcoat’s Daughter, not just for its campus setting but for its ability to conjure overwhelming dread from the first frame to the last no matter how seemingly casual the scene’s subject. But where Perkins’ film is a style exercise first and foremost, Diallo’s uses the tone of prevailing discomfort to externalize the internal experience of two good women driven to bad ends by a white-centric higher education culture so entrenched as to seem immobile.

You Won’t Be Alone

The reality of the witchy presence may be an open question in Master, but You Won’t Be Alone leaves no such ambiguity. The landscape of Goran Stolevski’s folktale, as gruesome as it is visually transcendent, is traversed consistently by a witch that the 19th-century Macedonian villagers—or perhaps their ancestors—failed to burn. Riddled with Krueger-esque scars, the consistently bemused sorceress claims a secluded young woman as a potential surrogate daughter only to vindictively curse the mute girl to pass through a variety of lives, progressing from ferality towards a more whole-hearted vision of human experience, dogged always by her mystical tormentor. 

It’s virtually impossible to discuss You Won’t Be Alone without mentioning the name Terrence Malick, whose 21st century work functions as an obvious roadmap for Stolevski’s ecstatic and elliptical narrative rhythms. There’s something electrifyingly unusual in seeing gore usually reserved for the video nasty tradition injected into a film that grasps towards the sublime, but I found the film’s overall effect to be more tedious than transporting. Like Master, the supernatural in You Won’t Be Alone serves a more essential theme concerning the abuses that women have historically been expected to withstand—it’s a worthy theme, and the story of a chain of existences proves unusual enough to be intriguing, but the result is too hazily lurching to prove fully immersive for this viewer.

The Futurists


“Why does every film at this year’s Sundance feel like an episode of Black Mirror?” critic Linda Marric rhetorically asked on Twitter a few days into the festival. I’m not particularly equipped to discuss the parallels between the 2022 slate and that perennial TV sensation, but I did find myself mentally comparing two films taking place in near futures in which technology causes more existential problems than it answers. That’s what Black Mirror was like, right?

The title of Riley Stearns’ Dual is a play on words—the film concerns a world in which duals duel. If that sounds confusing, I’m right there with you; Stearns’ film proved the most confounding of my Sundance experience. I watched Dual, and then I rewatched the last 15 minutes of Dual (another tangential benefit of the virtual festival experience). I watched another film, and then immediately circled back and re-rewatched the last 15 minutes of Dual. I still don’t know how Dual ends. So take this review with however many grains of salt you’d assign the opinion of someone who just didn’t get it.

Karen Gillan’s alienated protagonist—who, like everyone in the film, speaks in a robotically straightforward deadpan that eschews subtlety and figures of speech—learns that she is terminally ill. Soon, she’s enrolled in a program that clones the dying in order to seamlessly replace them in their loved ones’ lives—so far so futuristic. But there’s a catch: should the ill party recover, they’ll be forced to duel their dual to the death on live television.

If this premise strikes you as less than intuitive, welcome to the club, but I’ve stretched further to enjoy a good story. Unfortunately, Stearns plods through his intentionally unpleasant futurescape, chaining together vignettes as Gillan’s twinned characters are united and then turned against one another. Much like the pervasive comparisons between Malick and You Won’t Be Alone, Yorgos Lanthimos’ name has come up frequently in discussions of Dual, and it’s not hard to see an alignment between Stearns’ film and the exhausted nihilism of The Killing of a Sacred Deer. A number of the actors meet this task with aplomb; sadly, Gillan is not one of them, and given that she is in every scene, often acting opposite herself, her unsuccessful embodiment of a zombie-like character sinks the film’s effectiveness. 

I don’t envy her task—imbue an intentionally flat character (or two of them, sort of) with enough interior life to drive a narrative. Given that she’s done something similar in several Marvel films, though, I can’t in good conscience fault her for the ineffectiveness. In his previous features (the generally naturalistic Faults and more quasi-nightmarish The Art of Self-Defense) Stearns has demonstrated an admirable willingness to play fast and loose with tone, risking it all in favor of conjuring something unusual. I just hope that next time I can agree that the reward justified the risk.

After Yang

“Risky” might characterize the logline for After Yang, if only because I imagine few of us would have predicted writer/director Kogonada following up the smallest of small-scale indies, Columbus, with a sci-fi tale that hinges on artificial intelligence and cloning. And yet it’s immediately apparent that the fit is perfect—and that Kogonada has definitively demonstrated his ability to transcend any potential genre line while creating a body of meticulously composed and emotionally attuned films.

Colin Farrell plays the adoptive father of a young Chinese girl whose android brother—a simulacrum of a Chinese twentysomething purchased to help connect her with her heritage—suffers a catastrophic hardware crash. Farrell’s character embarks on a minor-key odyssey that begins as a search for tech support but soon turns up secrets—ones capable of changing not just Farrell’s worldview but humanity’s—contained within Yang’s programming. Kogonada, adapting a short story by Alexander Weinstein, creates an immersive world just a step removed from our own in which everyday feelings and frustrations are turned perhaps one degree towards the fantastical—when his wife suggests that he cut their neighbor some slack, Farrell snaps back, “His kids are clones and he paints his face for sporting events”—yielding a work of fiction that feels more speculative than prescient, but one in which genre play falls secondary to eternal concerns surrounding how to live a fulfilled life.

After Yang prompts the viewer to consider the mechanism behind the assemblage of their own personal narratives and worldviews. Through a series of plot reveals too effective to be worth spoiling in a review, Kogonada asks which threads in an ordinary day might be worth remembering—if an existence were to be compressed until only the unforgettable remains, what would those fragments look like? In Kogonada’s own worldview, the answer is (unsurprisingly to any fan of Columbus) the moments of stillness spent communing with the natural world, and the moments of connection with those we have the privilege of loving. These rewards are ones that the central characters, two parents seemingly cursed to communicate only through passive aggression, struggle to access and appreciate, but through their association with Yang’s extraordinary experience of the world, they come to recognize the simple pleasures of living in a moment and experiencing each other. 

It would be easy to say that After Yang prompts us to consider what’s lost when we outsource life’s hard stuff to the convenience of technology, but Kogonada’s film is too emotionally effusive to indict the viewer; rather, he invites us to wonder what more we might be capable of, and what rewards might lie in store. No frame in After Yang is thrown away; it’s a film that feels as finely and precisely wrought as a work of hand drawn animation. It’s hard to believe that a film so careful and confident exists, let alone one capable of identifying essential quandaries and visualizing them in ways never before imagined. There was no better film at Sundance than After Yang, and you won’t see a better one in 2022.