Indiewood/Hollywoodn’t film critic Jake Kring-Schreifels is keeping a regular diary over the course of a week at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Jake’s giving our IndieNYC website a Sundance first-look, writing about the movies he’s seeing, his observations around Park City and the excitement surrounding another year of new independent cinema. Check back to IndieNYC throughout the festival for his latest entries from Park City. Today’s report includes: Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Eliza Hittman’s new drama; Worth, a Michael Keaton-led legal procedural; Dream Horse, an uplifting racehorse saga; and Promising Young Woman, a feminist revenge thriller starring Carrie Mulligan. See which film Jake calls “the best thing I’ve seen at the festival.” (And look for some movie trailers at the end of this article.)
When those attending the Sundance Film Festival aren’t talking about the movies they’ve just seen, they’re usually complaining about the public bus system—somebody got on the wrong bus and missed a movie, or a driver accomodated a passenger’s request and delayed an arrival to a party. It’s easy to succumb to the relative inconveniences of the Park City festival circuit and complain. And then you watch a movie like Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always and remember there are much worse bus rides to take.
The deeply-felt drama is the best thing I’ve seen at the festival. It follows Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a pregnant 17-year-old living in rural Pennsylvania, where she feels isolated by her community and her family. The options to address the baby growing inside her are extremely limited, and rather than tell her parents or the unknown father about her predicament, she enlists her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) to join her on a trip to New York City to get an abortion. Autumn remains a quiet presence throughout this journey into the city, unready to be a mother or share the circumstances that have led her to this moment. Like her previous features, Hittman has made another movie about the consequences of sex, but also the societal neglect that fosters her particular situation.
In this way, as some critics have suggested, the movie feels indebted to the Dardenne brothers in its observations of institutions. Autumn can’t get an abortion without parental consent in Pennsylvania, and further complications arise when she is checked again at Planned Parenthood in Brooklyn and must extend her stay. She and her cousin lug their giant suitcase and navigating the subway without a place to sleep. You can sense the empathy from Hittman’s camerawork, observing a hardship and the people that choose to offer compassion, or disregard the two girls altogether. At a time in this country when abortion rights seem to be in peril again, Hittman has provided a movie that never scolds or preaches. It courts your understanding, and it makes you angry, heartbroken. In a climactic scene, Autumn must answer a questionnaire (influencing the title of the movie) from a clinician and the camera lingers on Flanigan. You realize it’s the first time she’s ever considered and verbalized the trauma of her past, eventually struggling to say anything. It speaks volumes.
The sighs and the sniffles continued at my next screening of Worth, a sensitively minded legal procedure about the unenviable task of creating the 9/11 Compensation Fund, the largest public entitlement program in the United States. The movie, from director Sarah Colangelo, follows in the recent line of Dark Waters and The Report, highlighting the mountain of work and time it takes to arrive at justice. For most of the movie, it seems out of reach.
Michael Keaton plays Ken Feinberg, the lawyer tapped with being Special Master in the weeks following the tragedies, a job he initially approaches with naïve optimism. His career has been spent, on behalf of corporations, determining how much a human life is worth—how much money should be awarded to families after a loved one has died. Unlike his colleagues (one played by Amy Ryan), he’s not prepared for the grievers and emotionally raw claimants to dismiss his simplistic formula. His primary antagonist is a widower played by Stanley Tucci, who objects to his math, his grammar, and his impartial approach to those most affected by the attacks. The pressing issue is whether Keaton will make special considerations for unique family situations, like for one man who asks for monetary support, even though its technically due to his boyfriend’s estranged and bigoted parents.
Worth sags a little in its middle, but is most effective when Keaton and Tucci engage in dialogue about approaching the handling of seven thousand victims’ families. Time ticks on a governmental deadline, the threat of a class-action lawsuit looms, and Colangelo provides a rousing climax from the It’s A Wonderful Life playbook. After the legal team listens to dozens of testimonials that reopen the wounds of that infamous day, it’s easy to understand that minds can only change when hearts do.
It’s hard to find anything unlikeable about Dream Horse, a movie, based on a true story, that wears its Welsh pride on its sleeve. Toni Collette, proving herself to be one of our most versatile actors, plays Jan, a supermarket cashier and bartender in her small, struggling village. One night, when she overhears a tax consultant named Howard (Damián Lewis) discussing his trials as a racehorse owner, she becomes intrigued at the possibility of breeding one herself. Using the little money she has, Jan purchases a mare, breeds it with a stallion, finds a trainer and convinces a small group of townsfolk to pay into a racing syndicate.
Against the odds, the motley crew’s horse, which they name Dream Alliance, begins to win. Director Euros Lyn captures this process with the standard sports movie formula, poignantly observing Jan’s close affection with Dream (“Come on, mah boy,” she yells from the owners’ box in thick Welsh) and the horse’s underdog status, especially late in the movie. But what makes Dream Horse bigger than a standard tale of competition is its careful attention to the town’s economic hardships and familial bonds. With a husband that has lost his energy and a sick father, Jan knows the horse racing venture is less about winning and all about having a purpose to wake up. The same is true for Howard, who escapes his job and finds joy back by the track. These are marginal additions to the plot, but they add the necessary complexion and context to rooting on this rag-tag team to the very end.
A lot of movies at Sundance this year have taken on the #MeToo movement, whether that’s been in documentary form such as On The Record or in spare narrative dramas such as The Assistant. None of them, however, are quite like Promising Young Woman, a wild feminist revenge movie from Killing Eve showrunner Emerald Fennell, who aims her anger at a culture of complicity.
The opening scene, an impressionistic montage of men’s groins thrusting on a bar’s dancefloor, crackles to Charlie XCX’s “Boys.” In the corner sits a drunken Cassandra (Carey Mulligan), nearly incapacitated, whose vulnerable status provides predatory men with an opportunity to take her home and have their way with her. But right before they pull down her pants, she cuts her charade, sometimes violently, and exposes their nonconsensual attempts at sex.
The reason behind her late-night teasing stems from the fate of best friend Nina, who took her life in college after being raped at a party. The bitterness around the school’s failure to charge any of the men involved fuels Cassandra’s seven years of gradual payback, emasculating all the “nice guys” in town. That basic motivation is much clearer than the actual movie, which pivots between sexual thriller, horror and romantic comedy. The tonal whiplash detracts from the otherwise caustic observations about the legal system and male-dominated spaces.
Promising Young Woman is at its best when Cassandra begins dating a former college classmate, Ryan (Bo Burnham). Over lunch they share stories about school and work, and you start to believe Cassandra might leave her crusades behind. Burnham, playing a pediatric surgeon, appears to be the ideal candidate to start this new chapter—they even share a moment in a pharmacy singing a Paris Hilton song—and his humor provides a breath of levity. But Fennell’s movie is too scattered to settle into a groove and too angry to let her subjects off the hook. She is taking chances here—for better and for worse—holding up a mirror to those who have evaded punishment, chucking a lipsticked molotov cocktail at their juvenile actions.
Check back soon at Indiewood/Hollywoodn’t for Jake’s next Sundance 2020 Update.
Watch Trailers for Films in This Article:
Never Rarely Sometimes Always trailer
Dream Horse sample clip (not official trailer)
Promising Young Woman trailer
No other trailers available yet. Check back for updates.