Dispatches From Sundance Film Festival 2020: Part 3

Indiewood/Hollywoodn’t film critic Jake Kring-Schreifels has been keeping a regular diary over the course of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. In his third and final dispatch Jake delivers a festival wrap-up that is both hefty and juicy; he shares a range of musings along with seven film reviews. Jake’s take-away impressions of the festival in Park City include the ways that streaming companies have changed not only the nature of indie film distribution but the feel of film festivals themselves. Jake is nostalgic for the opportunity for true “discovery” that festivals once offered, wondering if the future of film festivals is as “digital libraries” that merely announce Netflix’s streaming slate for the coming year (or Amazon, Hulu, HBO and the rest). As Scorsese has mentioned in his surprisingly controversial comments late last year, much of this issue is about where indies find their funding in the evolving filmmaking terrain — always a topic of interest for IndieNYC. Jake begins his pondering with a report on The Last Thing He Wanted and Wendy. Then his experience is buoyed by Minari — an unexpected gem and evidence that festival surprises still exist. As he discusses Horse Girl and Lost Girls, Jake contemplates the importance of actors, even at festivals that tend to glorify directors. Finishing his week with Us Kids and The Night House, Jake is reminded that despite so many of these films’ online destinations, festivals still offer the thrill of a shared audience experience, sitting in the dark with strangers in a big theater. Jake leaves Park City feeling enlivened, and that’s excellent news. (Look for movie trailers at the end of this article.)

Egyptian Theater marquee at Sundance Film Festival

Egyptian Theater marquee at Sundance Film Festival

The Last Thing He Wanted and Wendy

Generally speaking, Sundance prides itself on new discoveries. The fun in attending a festival like this is that you get to watch new voices make their first impressions, and then wait to see which studio decides to support their work and distribute it. But the longer I stayed in Park City, the more that sense of mystery dissolved. Entering the festival, Netflix had already claimed seven movies, many of which will be released in the coming weeks. While a few titles earned some big deals after the weekend, the dialogue regarding what had surprised and delighted—what movies might find a deal and a promising theatrical rollout—was more like a whisper. Most had already been bought and scheduled. In a few years from now, it seems logical that this independent film festival could become a “streaming festival,” a kickoff akin to a Marvel event in which Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Disney and the rest of the emerging digital libraries can announce their slate of movies for the upcoming calendar year. 

More and more, instead of individual films, streaming services are investing in filmmakers—along with their brands—to expand their premium content. Netflix, for example, re-committed to Dee Rees, whose 2017 Mudbound initially helped grow the idea that a streaming service could be a place where serious, Oscar-worthy films were made. When Netflix agreed to take on her fourth feature, The Last Thing He Wanted, they were hoping Sundance might be an ideal venue for a filmmaker whose debut, Pariah, had premiered there in 2011—that this premiere could kickstart publicity before the movie dropped and became ready for home viewing. At its opening on Monday night, however, it took about 15 minutes before it had lost the entirety of the sold-out Eccles Theater.

Anne Hathaway in "The Last Thing He Wanted" by Dee Rees

Anne Hathaway in “The Last Thing He Wanted” by Dee Rees

Funding the biggest disappointment of the festival is a risk Netflix takes in this approach, though it’s hard to know the economic burdens attached to a project like this. The Last Thing He Wanted certainly seems expensive, at least based on the production value, international locales and bevy of big-named actors (Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, Willem Dafoe). And yet, somehow, its ingredients amount to an incoherent confection. That might be because the script is adapted from a Joan Didion novel (of the same name).The movie remains loyal to the rapid-fire, intellectual and poetic dialogue of its source material, a formidable task for anyone trying to keep pace with its jet-setting story. As the movie progresses, confusion abounds. 

Elena (Hathaway) is a journalist at The Atlantic Post covering Central America and reporting on its Contra activity. When she narrowly escapes a dangerous encounter in El Salvador (one of the movie’s few bright spots) and returns to Washington, her newspaper, feeling pressure from the government, orders her to cover Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign instead. Back home, her forgetful father (Dafoe) enters the fray with some poorly disclosed debts and deals to his name, while a U.S. State official (Affleck) keeps his eye on Elena and her nosy nature into exposing the arms deals being struck. 

At first, understanding this web of stories and characters seems like a daunting prospect. The performances, specifically Hathaway’s, are committed and engaging. She’s sweaty and determined and you feel like she’s onto something each time she interrogates a government employee or security member. But as the plot thickens, comprehension becomes nearly impossible. Rees is moving everything except the audience; her camera zooms in during conversations, her subjects frantically race throughout cities and jungles, while you are unfortunately left behind. It’s clear she’s playing within the sandbox of other espionage thrillers, but the intrigue has no bite, nobody to latch onto and understand. Providing motivation is everything in a political and historical tale. In The Last Thing He Wanted, it’s never a priority. 

A still from "Wendy" by Benh Zeitlin

A still from “Wendy” by Benh Zeitlin

Wendy doesn’t provoke the same kind of disappointment, but it struggles for similar reasons. This loose adaptation of Peter Pan is Benh Zeitlin’s second feature, the follow-up to his Sundance debut darling Beasts of the Southern Wild. As he described before the movie premiered, the long period in between movies is “an untellable tale” and took “unprecedented patience” from Searchlight Pictures, which just recently dropped its “Fox” title. The unprecedented patience is needed for the entire duration of its runtime, too.

Once again, Wendy is collection of ideas and characters in search of a coherent story. It follows its titular character (Devin France) and twin brothers (Gage and Gavin Naquin) from an undisclosed small town, where they help their mother run a diner, to a newly realized Neverland—a volcanic island where Peter, played by a small Jamaican child (Yashua Mack), leads the small group of wild boys. The devotion to J.M. Barrie’s story begins to strain. What should be a child’s dream appears to be a mountainous Lord of the Flies arena, and those that begin to question their innocence quickly grow old. Much like Beasts, Zeitlin leans into magic realism (the island’s mother is a large fish, with no alligator to be seen), along with voice-overs from its lead actress. 

Here, Peter isn’t the unquestioned leader, and though Zeitlin has glossed up his filmmaking, he can’t escape the incongruencies of his plot. “To grow up is a great adventure,” Wendy says at one point, and you start to wonder why she was so enraptured in escaping from her mother, her home, in the first place. Zeitlin is attempting to capture wonder and majesty, and there are moments that transcend its inconsistencies. But this is a fable with no real moral, which means you can’t tell the difference between its characters’ triumphs and their defeats. 

Minari 

I didn’t have Minari on my original schedule. Then people started talking. The great thing about a film festival is when a hidden gem premieres. Suddenly, at its next screening, tickets come at a premium. Rearranging my afternoon to see Korean-American director Lee Isaac Chung’s beautiful third feature was the best decision I made this past week. 

The plot is spare, the story bountiful. A father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), moves his family from California to a plot of grassland in Arkansas to build a new life. He and his wife Monica (Han Yeri) are Korean immigrants, and the journey to the midwest is an attempt to find economic prosperity by cultivating Korean produce and cornering their demographic’s market. The movie’s momentum hinges on Jacob’s struggles to bring this plan to life, and to convince his wife that living in a trailer in isolation is what’s best for their family. It’s not an easy sell (the pair must also work at a chicken hatchery to make extra income), and the ripples from their constant glares and arguments reach their young daughter Anne (Noel Cho), and son David (Alan S. Kim), who must navigate the grim and unique realities of a house on wheels. 

Steven Yeun appears in "Minari" by Lee Isaac Chung

Steven Yeun appears in “Minari” by Lee Isaac Chung

Chung has stated his movie is semi-autobiographical, and you can tell how much care is put into the specifics of his family’s living situation. Not long into their stay, Monica’s mother (Yuh-Jung Youn) comes to live with them. She acts as a humorous presence and a nuisance for David, who complains that her unusual behavior isn’t grandmotherly. Their relationship—along with a white, religious neighbor (Will Patton) who helps Jacob on the farm—provides sporadic levity to the heaviness of a tenuous marriage and sputtering water supply that threatens a healthy harvest. Yeun captures this stress with small registers of emotion, showing everything in just a few glances and repressed smiles. The movie’s soft piano score hints both at Chung’s nostalgia and his father’s vision for the future. 

Minari is a small movie that feels monumental. It’s about a man looking for his dignity in front of his family, and a family learning to be patient as he searches for it. The title refers to a plant that lives in marshes and wet ground, which David and his grandmother grow together in a nearby creek, offering a taste of home. In the midst of a family’s internal conflict and imperfections, Chung suggests that establishing new roots requires a fertile foundation—and that venturing off the beaten path can be the only way to find it. 

Horse Girl and Lost Girls 

Sometimes a movie only works because of its star. In Horse Girl, the latest film from Jeff Baena, Alison Brie validates that theory. She plays Sarah, a saleswoman at her local craft store, whose hints at social awkwardness and mental instability start in small doses—at her nearby horse ranch and at home, where she obsessively watches a fictional television show called “Purgatory.” When Sarah’s roommate sets her up with a guy, hoping she can find some balance, Sarah makes a connection and they start seeing each other. He seems to like her quirks.

Alison Brie in "Horse Girl" by Jeff Baena

Alison Brie in “Horse Girl” by Jeff Baena

It doesn’t take long before Horse Girl detours from a romantic comedy to a portrait of mania. Sarah begins having lucid dreams of white rooms and dark alien figures. When she awakens from slumber, occasionally outside her bed, she notices discrepancies in time. Her world becomes an insular conspiracy—she even believes she’s a clone of her grandmother—and her inconsolable paranoia devolves into exasperation and fractures her relationships. Baena somehow manages to thread this emotionally frantic needle, deftly pivoting from structure to science fiction while being considerate to those with mental health issues. It’s a movie that leans on its lead actress, devolving into an alternate reality, and it rides her momentum to an unlikely and satisfying destination. 

Amy Ryan in "Lost Girls" by Liz Garbus

Amy Ryan in “Lost Girls” by Liz Garbus

In Lost Girls, a true story based on the unsolved murders of several young women in Long Island, it’s easy to shiver. The barren trees, charcoaled skies and shadowy interiors certainly contribute to the chill. It’s felt more acutely by Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan), along with her two daughters (Thomasin McKenzie and Oona Lawrence), who begins a desperate crusade to find her daughter, Shannan, when she goes missing one night in Oak Beach. Despite Shannan calling 911 and sounding distressed, police take nearly an hour to arrive, long enough for her to disappear. 

While searching for Mari’s daughter, four skeletal bodies of young women are found, suggesting a serial killer had been attacking sex workers in this ritzy, private community. Shannan’s bones are eventually found, too, but not after Mari engages in a long and tenuous public fight with the county commissioner (Gabriel Byrne). Director Liz Garbus, making her narrative debut, has a real grasp of what’s important to her maternal subject and the intense agony of losing a child that only the other grieving mothers seem to care about. She elicits a performance of desperation from Amy Ryan, who slings insults and exasperation at a misogynistic and unsympathetic police force. The movie, not without its faults, surveys an unconcluded tragedy, which has claimed 10-11 lives in total to this day. But its bigger ambition—and achievement—is the portrayal and indictment of bureaucracy, which failed a family because of its ineptitude and discrimination. This is an angry movie, and justifiably so. 

Us Kids

Before the tragedy, “we were normal ass kids doing normal ass things,” says Samantha Fuentes in Us Kids, a new documentary from Kim A. Snyder that follows several survivors of the 2018 Parkland school shooting and the impact it’s had on their lives. Fuentes nearly died on that fateful Valentine’s Day. She was shot in the legs and absorbed shrapnel in her face. Her best friend, a standout swimmer, perished beside her. She shares a burden and trauma experienced by few others, and Snyder is keen on sharing some of the intimate and tear-inducing life Fuentes must survive each day. 

Emma Gonzalez, Jaclyn Corin, and Matt Deitschand in "Us Kids" by Kim A. Snyder

Emma Gonzalez, Jaclyn Corin, and Matt Deitschand in “Us Kids” by Kim A. Snyder

Snyder, whose previous documentary, Newtown, highlighted the families impacted by a different school shooting, is intent on capturing how a handful of teenagers responded to one at their own high school. It started personally, with several students springing in front of cameras, inconsolable and angry, ready to grieve through activism. It developed locally with community rallies and calls for gun reform. And it expanded nationally with an unprecedented march in Washington, D.C., and a summer bus tour invoking young people to vote out politicians financially backed by the NRA. 

This is emotionally rich material, at its best when it follows the personal lives of the survivors and activists. That includes Fuentes, who struggles with public speaking, as well as Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, who became the overnight faces of gun reform in America. The documentary isn’t heavily focused on all the information being shared and debated by its subjects; it prioritizes their physical and emotional states during bus rides with other young activists they’ve picked up along the way, using musical montages of mass shootings and politicians offering condolences to transition in and out of stories. Snyder has crafted a movie that puts these teenagers’ tireless and psychologically-wounded work into greater relief, the fervent start to a long political journey ahead. 

The Night House

Aside from seeing new movies in a condensed period of time, film festivals are good reminders that sitting in a theater can still be an electric experience. Such was the case during a midnight screening of David Bruckner’s The Night House inside a packed Egyptian Theater. It was the perfect way to end my week in Park City, sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers shrieking and gasping and feeling alive. 

Rebecca Hall in "The Night House" by David Bruckner

Rebecca Hall in “The Night House” by David Bruckner

Which is to say that The Night House is superb, one of the few horror movies that evokes genuine terror and a palpable sense of panic. Rebecca Hall, who also produced the movie, does most of the heavy lifting as a recently widowed schoolteacher. Her husband’s suicide has thrust her into a solitary life within their quiet lake house, which doesn’t take long to be haunted by his presence. It’s not worth spoiling much of the plot, except to say Bruckner has cranked the volume up on jump scares to a rare and unpredictable level. 

He gets a riveting performance from Hall, whose career has never really matched the talented way she can express a variety of feelings with her face in a matter of seconds. Bruckner is playing with the themes of Persona inside a ghost story, and as his movie progresses, the threat invading her home each night becomes more abstract, ending abruptly and conveniently. No matter. While streaming services continue to flex their movie-acquiring muscles, what a thrilling way to end this festival—locked to the big screen without a distraction, sharing scares for two hours in the shadow of snow-capped mountains.


Click here to read Dispatch from Sundance 2020 Part 1

Click here to read Dispatch from Sundance 2020 Part 2

Watch trailers for the movies in this article:

The Last Thing He Wanted trailer (Coming to Netflix Feb 21)

Wendy movie trailer (being released by Searchlight Feb 28)

Horse Girl trailer (coming to Netflix Feb 7)

Lost Girls trailer (from Netflix – streaming now?)

Those are all the trailers available now. Check back here for updates.

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