From a Finnish coming-of-age story about a trio of highschoolers trying to find love to a Finnish coming-of-age horror about a young girl and her bird monster friend and everything else outside of Finland, here are all the films I screened at this years Sundance.
By Sean Blanford
For the second straight year, the interwebs played an almost exclusive home to this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Last year had a slew of potential Oscar contenders and winners, including CODA, Flee, Judas and the Black Messiah, Passing, and Mass, all either premiered or were heavily featured. The films listed below could be that next film, but it is much too early to speculate. Overall I screened 27 features, many of which made their world premiere. For me, the best part of festivals is going in as blind as possible about a film, maybe only knowing the cast, director, and genre, and hoping for the best. Sometimes it works, sometimes there are disappointments.
One note before heading into my rundown, I will be focusing on the films that premiered at the festival. Three spectacular films: The Worst Person in the World, After Yang, and Happening, have all had significant festival premieres in 2021 and have either already won or are in line for many awards wins and nominations. It is also impossible to see everything, no matter how much time you think you can devote in a single day to watch movies without allowing yourself to do small life things like eat, sleep, shower, and breathe fresh air. There are countless films like 892, Nanny, A Love Song, Brian and Charles, and many others that I hope to find distribution in the United States sometime in 2022. For now, here are my thoughts on the 24 world premieres I screened at this year’s Sundance.
Part One: The Disappointments
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. There are four films I screened that just didn’t hit the mark for me for many reasons.
Sharp Stick: The latest from actor/director Lena Dunham is a listless sex drama/comedy about a young girl (Kristine Froseth) who has a sexual awakening after having an affair with the father of a boy she caretakes after (Jon Bernthal). Froseth is the only thing about this film that makes it remotely watchable.
Babysitter: Another sex comedy, this time from Quebec, about a man who gets wrapped in a controversy after a video of him sexually harassing a news reporter goes viral, and his relationships with his wife, friends, newborn child, and the new babysitter helping around the house. Just an odd film by director and star Monia Chokri. I enjoyed elements, but it felt too focused on style rather than substance.
Speak No Evil: The blackest type of dark horror from Denmark about two families and a weekend together that turns into an absolute nightmare. I understand why some people would appreciate this film, but this was just too much for my taste. A film that left me cold by the end. Speak No Evil has been picked up by Shudder and will stream on their platform later this year.
When You Finish Saving the World: Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut is about a mother (Julianne Moore) and son (Finn Wolfhard) that don’t see eye-to-eye. There are no likable characters, and I’m sure that’s the point, but Wolfhard’s wannabe internet sensation is borderline punchable whenever he is on screen. When You Finish Saving the World will be distributed by A24.
Part Two: Great Documentaries
Here are the three documentaries I had the chance to watch, all of them being from good to outstanding.
Lucy and Desi: Director Amy Poehler focuses on the lives of Hollywood icons Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz using new interviews, as well as archived videos and audio diaries. You can tell that a lot of love went into making this, but it doesn’t shy away from the hardships the couple had and inform us of just how big of a mark they left on the television industry. Lucy and Desi was produced by Amazon and will stream on their platform beginning on March 4th.
The Princess: Princess Diana has been portrayed in television (The Crown) and feature films (Spencer) over the last year, and I loved this documentary because of how it is made up entirely of news footage from the time of her engagement to Prince Charles to her untimely passing at the young age of 36. While there may not be much in terms of new information, how the information is delivered makes this film so captivating. The Princess is an HBO documentary and is planned to have a theatrical and online release this year to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Diana’s passing.
Fire of Love: By far my favorite doc at this year’s festival, telling the story through beautiful archived footage of partners and volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, narrated by Miranda July. A love story about two people who found each other through their mutual love and admiration of volcanoes, Fire of Love is breathtakingly stunning. Fire of Love was purchased by National Geographic.
Part Three: The B Tier
Four films had some things that I liked, but I didn’t love as much as the rest.
Call Jane: An inspired-by-true-events story of The Jane Collective out of Chicago in the late sixties and early seventies, the film stars Elizabeth Banks as Joy, a mother who becomes part of a group of abortion activists who perform the procedures in secret led by Sigourney Weaver. The performances were all sold, except the underutilization of Kate Mara. I wish that the film had focused more on the bigger picture of The Janes rather than highlighting Joy specifically.
You Won’t Be Alone: The feature debut of director and writer Goran Stolevski tells the story of a young girl who is transformed into a witch and the many lives she inhabits in 19th century Macedonia. You Won’t Be Alone is a very heady film that some have described as Terrence Malick-esque, but it is being mismarketed as a horror film. Yes, there are witches and plenty of blood and guts to be spilled, but otherwise, it isn’t ever horror-adjacent. Out of all the films I watched at this year’s festival, this is the one I am looking forward to revisiting to see if my thoughts on the film change with a second screening. You Won’t Be Alone was acquired by Focus Features and will be released on April 1st.
Alice: Kiki Palmer stars as a slave who escapes, only to discover that it is actually 1973. There are easy parallels that are being made between this film and 2020’s Antebellum, but that is selling this film far too short. Alice is a bit uneven at times, but between Palmer’s performance alongside co-star Common and the film’s final act, this was a captivating watch from start to finish. Alice was acquired by Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions and will have a theatrical release on March 18th.
Watcher: Maika Monroe stars as a woman who recently moved to Romania with her fiance but becomes troubled when she feels that she is being stalked by the man peering at her from the apartment across the courtyard. Monore’s performance is the best part of Watcher, and it would be a notch higher if not for its unplausible ending. There is suspending your disbelief, and then there’s what was presented in Watcher. The film is worth watching for Monroe alone.
Part Four: The B+Tier
Here are a few of my favorites that just fell outside my top ten of the festival.
Piggy: One on this year’s Midnight screening, this Spanish film Laura Galan as Sara, an overweight girl picked on her family and classmates who struggles with a moral dilemma after her bullies go missing. A bloody good time thanks to the inspired and riveting performance of Galan. The film takes a while to get going, and the subject manner of body-shaming may be too triggering for some, but it sticks the landing emphatically.
Emergency: At last year’s festival, director Carey Williams brought is R#J, a 21st-century spin on the classic story of Romeo and Juliet through the eyes of social media. This year, he brings us Emergency, a feature-length adaptation of his own 2018 short of the same name about two friends, their planned night of partying, and how it gets derailed by the discovery of a passed-out minor who appears at a friends house. Adapting a short into a feature can be difficult because there are instances where the run time is padded with unnecessary B-stories. Still, Emergency works on many levels, starting with the chemistry between stars RJ Cyler and Donald Watkins.
Emergency will be distributed by Amazon, with a release planned for May 27th, 2022.
Master: One of the few films at Sundance that could be described as pure horror, Master is one of two films this year with A-level performances from Regina Hall (more on that later). Hall stars as a college housemaster and the events that bond her to Jasmine (Zoe Renee), a new student housed in a room famous for its haunted past. Master is a timely film that doesn’t shy away from its narrative of race relations for students and faculty alike at predominantly white colleges and in the county as a whole. A film I loved that I really wish ended a few minutes earlier. Master will be distributed by Amazon and will be released on March 18th.
Part Five: My Top Ten*
Here are my top ten films of the year’s Sundance that are not documentaries and are not one of the three non-premieres I mentioned earlier in this article.
10. Dual: A film I loved because of the stonefaced delivery behind Karen Gillan’s dual roles as a woman who gets an incorrect death sentence but is constitutionally forced to battle her clone to the death. If you’re a fan of Riley Stearns, who brought us 2019’s The Art of Self-Defense, you will more than likely love this film as well. That being said, it is another film at this year’s festival that fails to stick the landing. Dual was purchased by RLJE Entertainment.
9. Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.: The second of two films filed in the Regina Hall is a great actor cabinet, Honk for Jesus… is a feature-length premiere of Adamma Ebo and based on the 2018 short film by the same name. Telling the story of a beleaguered Southern Baptist pastor (Sterling K. Brown) trying to resurrect his image and congregation alongside his first lady (Hall) through the guise of a documentary. Hall gives one of the best performances I watched all festival, with a stirring monologue delivered late in the film that was chilling, to say the least.
8. Hatching: The pressures of perfection are highlighted in Hatching, a film about a young gymnast (Siiri Solalinna in her film debut), her relationship with her image-focused vlogging mother, and the egg she hatches in her bedroom. Its premise is just on the right side of bonkers to work, with great creature effects better than some more significant budgeted films of the same vein. The less you know about this film going into it, the better. Hatching was acquired by IFC Midnight and is scheduled for a theatrical release on April 29th.
7. Emily the Criminal: If you only know Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation and in films like Scott Pilgrim and Ingrid Goes West, then you will be pleasantly surprised by how good of a badass she is in this crime thriller. Plaza stars as Emily, a woman in Los Angeles deep in debt with no real future prospects who dives headlong into a life of nefarious activity to get by. As the film’s stakes get higher, so does the tension, and it’s one of the few films I saw this year that is great from start to finish.
6. Girl Picture: The more I think about this film, the more I love it. It is all centered around a great premise. Girl Picture follows a group of three teenagers over three Fridays, two trying to figure out their budding relationship while under immense pressure around them, while the third just wants to experience a good lay. The performances of all three lead actresses are fantastic, and you’re emotionally invested in what happens to all of them. Unfortunately, this film doesn’t have distribution yet, but I hope that it finds a home soon.
5. Resurrection: Possibly the most divisive film of this year’s festival, Rebecca Hall is captivating as a woman haunted by the ghosts of her past. Click here for my full thoughts on this film. Resurrection was acquired by IFC Films/Shudder.
4. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande: The last film I screened cracked my top five because of the chemistry between stars Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack as a retired teacher and the sex worker she hires. Single-location films with small casts are my jam, and in an era where they are becoming more prominent due to the ongoing pandemic, this feels like a film that could have been made at any time. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande was acquired by Searchlight and will stream exclusively on Hulu at a point TBD.
3. Am I OK?: Regina Hall is one actor with two great films at this year’s festival, and Dakota Johnson is another. Co-directed by partners Tig Notaro Stephanie Allynne, Am I OK? stars Johnson alongside Sonoya Mizuno as best friends who are at a crossroads in their relationship when Jane (Mizuno) is offered a dream opportunity to go home to London for her job, while Lucy (Johnson) has an abrupt discovery about her sexuality. My only minor quibble about the film is that I wanted five to ten more minutes to flush out the story more, but it subverted my expectations and isn’t like your run-of-the-mill romantic comedies. Am I OK? was acquired by Warner and will be an HBO Max exclusive.
T-1: Fresh and Cha Cha Real Smooth: Two films on opposite ends of the spectrum, and I could not decide which one I like more. One is a romance between a woman who finds love in the wrong place, and the other is a film about love in all facets of the word. My full review of Fresh can be found by clicking the link here, and you can click here for my thoughts on Cha Cha Real Smooth. Fresh was acquired by Searchlight and will have a streaming premiere on March 4th, while Cha Cha Real Smooth was acquired by Apple for a reported fifteen million dollars.
All images used are courtesy of the Sundance Institute.