As this year’s Sundance Film Festival comes to an end and the mountains of Park City are being drained of celebrities, it’s time to take stock of what cinematic treasures this year’s lineup yielded.
Chatter among some who ventured to Utah was that it was an off year for the festival: Distributors weren’t with fervor, Oscar contenders , there wasn’t a quote-unquote “sensation.”
But with more than 100 films in the mix, Sundance was still a place to see engaging and significant work from indie filmmakers.
It’s impossible to see everything. I, for one, missed Hereditary, the horror project starring a reportedly fantastic Toni Collette that some have said is extraordinarily frightening. I also didn’t get around to catching the insane-sounding Assassination Nation – about teens on the warpath after a social media leak – .
I did get plenty in my eyes, though, including a breakthrough performance from Hamilton‘s Daveed Diggs in the Oakland-set drama Blindspotting and wonderful work from Carey Mulligan in the literary adaptation Wildlife. If you weren’t traipsing around the snow, here’s what you should know.
The Tale might be one of the most important things you’ll see all year
The Tale is difficult to evaluate as just another movie. After its premiere this past Saturday, I found myself approaching it more as testimony. Director Jennifer Fox has made a memoir of her own sexual abuse that would be astonishing no matter when it came out – but at this moment it stands as a vital entry into the ongoing cultural conversation about women’s experiences.
In the film, Laura Dern plays Jennifer. She begins to investigate her past after her mother (Ellen Burstyn) sends her a story she wrote when she was 13, which her experiences with her 40-year-old running coach and the horseback riding instructor that introduced them.
Jennifer had always acknowledged that her first relationship was with an older man, but her mother’s guilt and concerns force her to dig into her memories and accept the situation as rape and abuse. Strikingly, Fox uses structure to detail how the past can mutate in one’s mind. Jennifer, for instance, has to be reminded of how young she actually looked at the time. That’s when Isabelle Nélisse, who was 11 during filming, steps in for the flashbacks.
The movie is unflinching in its portrayal of what Jennifer endured, to horrifying and devastating effect. A card at the end notes that a body double was used and Fox explained in the post-screening Q&A how she kept Nélisse safe on set.
It feels beside the point to question filmmaking choices in The Tale. This is Fox’s story and how she wanted to tell it. And it’s one that, like so many that are coming out in 2018, people need to hear. As Sundance was going on and viewers were seeing The Tale for the first time, the survivors of Larry Nassar were facing him at his sentencing. The parallels speak for themselves.
… But Sorry To Bother You might be one of the craziest
The funniest, most exciting ride I sat through at Sundance was far and away Sorry To Bother You, an astute but also holy-shit-did-that-just-happen satire about race and the evils of corporations.
Whenever I’ve tried to describe the plot of this movie, I don’t seem to do justice to how inventive it is. But here goes nothing: Atlanta‘s Lakeith Stanfield plays Cassius Green, who lives in his uncle’s garage in a heightened reality version of Oakland. He gets a job at at telemarketing company and soon learns he can make the ranks of “power caller” by using his “white voice.” (The “white voice” is provided by David Cross.)
The upper echelon of the company is connected to a nefarious organization run by entrepreneur Steve Lift (Armie Hammer in coked-out Winkelvoss mode) that’s basically selling slave labor. Meanwhile, Cassius’ loyalties are tested when his friends start trying to organize a union. But I promise it’s even crazier than that.
It’s also packed with visual gags that delight. My personal favorite? The rotating collection of insane earrings worn by Detroit (Tessa Thompson), Cassius’ artist and agitator girlfriend. In one set: “Murder Murder Murder” dangles from one ear while “Kill Kill Kill” hangs on another. Put all of this together and Boots Riley has made a film that’s pointed and unforgettable.
Bo Burnham is a director to watch
The first movie I saw to truly capture my heart at the festival was Eighth Grade, the directorial debut of stand-up Bo Burnham. When I saw last year’s Sundance hit The Big Sick, I wondered to myself when Burnham – who played Kumail’s sarcastic friend – was going to break out beyond the comedy world.
Turns out I didn’t have to wait that long. I daresay Eighth Grade flew a little under the radar at the festival this year, but once it gets released by A24 it’s going to win audiences over.
Unlike many comedians who make the leap into directing, Burnham didn’t simply make a movie that’s an extension of his act. (Though I still wouldn’t be mad if he decided to make a musical.) Instead, he created a detailed portrait of the inner life of a 13-year-old girl in her last week of middle school.
The movie is perfectly pitched to make you cringe and cry, and Burnham has clear sense of style. If this is only his first feature, I’m already excited for what comes next.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post should be the next beloved YA movie
For years, it seemed like Chloë Grace Moretz was on the hunt for a YA property that would win her acclaim. And, frankly, she made a lot of duds in that period. I’m not sure her new one, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, will be a commercial hit – it’s too intimately staged, too sensitively underplayed – but it is wonderful.
Director Desiree Akhavan follows up her autobiographical Appropriate Behavior with this story of a teen (Moretz) who is sent to a gay conversion facility after she is caught with another girl in a prom-night hook up. Akhavan captures organization’s cruelty masked as kindness, as its protagonist navigates it with quiet skepticism.
The film condemns the treatment without judging the young men and women undergoing it, like Cameron’s roommate Erin (the fabulous Emily Skeggs), who truly believes what she’s doing is for her own benefit. All the supporting performances are winning – especially the sarcastic warmth of Forrest Goodluck and Sasha Lane as Cameron’s closest confidantes – and they help make this melancholy work shine.
Skate Kitchen will make you want to pick up a board
In a gametime decision, I snagged tickets to see Skate Kitchen by The Wolfpack director Crystal Moselle and, man, was I glad that I did. Totally valid – as the kids say – choice.
Moselle found her leads on the subway and built a narrative around a real-life group of teen girls that skateboard in New York. The plot is minimal, but it mainly follows Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), who, after being forbidden from skateboarding by her mother on Long Island, ventures into Manhattan to meet up with the collective she follows on Instagram.
From there, the movie is mostly a dreamy ride through Manhattan locations as Camille finds the friendship she lacked. The dialogue is casual and free-flowing – they talk of vaginas as easily as they discuss tricks – and the conflicts are familiar. Jaden Smith plays a cute but shitty guy who runs with a groups of dudes that frequent the same skate parks.
I would have happily spent a few more hours in the world of Skate Kitchen. It made me long for New York summers, immediately follow in Instagram, and start thinking I maybe I should get a board. (I definitely shouldn’t.)