Piers Marchant at Sundance Day Two

January 25, 2020

Sundance 2020: Day 2

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Number of Films: 5
Best Film of the Day: Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Zola: Back in 2015, a Twitter user named @zola began a long, outrageous thread concerning a wild road trip she had been on with a woman she had just met at the restaurant where she worked. The plan was for the two of them to go down to Florida for a long weekend to dance at strip clubs and make a bundle. What followed was an absolutely insane odyssey of horror, involving pimps, guns, gang bangers, and someone jumping off a balcony. Directed by Janicza Bravo, with plenty of snap, crackle and pop, the film stars Taylour Page as our long suffering narrator and Riley Keough as the brazen, hopeless Stefani, who leads her newfound friend into the depths of hell. At its root, it’s a funny, if not sporadically chilling sort of chaotic joy-ride, with Zola’s commentary peppering the proceedings, along with a bevy of social media pings and whooshes (as another critic pointed out, the tweet whistle is half the soundtrack). Bravo pulls out a creative bag of tricks and gags  —  including a propensity for Scorsese-like screen freezes, while she describes one character or other  —  all of which gives the film a zany, madcap quality that imbibes the film with plenty of zing. Riley, a trashy southern drawl in her back pocket (just hearing her call Zola “beech” endearingly never ceases to be amusing), takes to the character like James Franco took to his role in Spring Breakers (a film with which Zola shares a certain Florida-crazed DNA), and Page makes an adroit straight person, taking in the insanity all around her, but despite these amusements, it’s really only skin-deep. There’s no deeper sense of anything, which, while in league with its source material, also puts something of a cap on just what the film can achieve. 

La Llorona: if the source of all horror, cinematic and otherwise, is, essentially those elements that make up the human condition, than guilt is one of the more powerful evocations from which to draw. Jayro Bustamante‘s horror film is a timely political allegory set in Guatemala, as an aged and deposed former dictator general (Julio Diaz) is being tried for genocidal war crimes, his family, wife (Margarita Kenefic), daughter (Sabrina De La Hoz), and young granddaughter (Ayla-Elea Hurtado) are all forced to huddle up in the general’s mansion, as throngs of outraged citizens hold a neverending seething protest outside. What’s more, the General, now a slightly shriveled old man, seems to be coming unglued, hearing someone sobbing in the house whom he is convinced is a Guerilla assassin. When his mainly indigenous staff catches wind of this  —  the crying female spirit  —  they quit en masse, leaving the mansion badly understaffed, until a young, new woman (Maria Mercedes Coroy) arrives, leaving the General further discombobulated, as the nightmares and visions he and his wife endure begin to coalesce into an unnerving climax. Apart from everything else, Bustamante’s film is about the searing power of empathy  —  the General’s wife starts the film as a racist, uncaring mouthpiece, but gradually gets her layers of denial stripped away from her  —  and the powerful idea that one’s actions, even if unpunished in the material world, still have dire consequences. 

Never Rarely Sometimes Always: Eliza Hittman has made a trilogy of sorts with her first three films. In 2013’s It Felt Like Love, a young teen woman in Brooklyn convinces herself to pursue a callous and contemptuous boy in order to lose her virginity; Beach Rats (2017) follows the trevails of another Brooklyn-based teen, as he attempts to pursue his interest in men while continuing to maintain his bro-heteroness. In her new film, she has moved the setting to a hardscrabble town in rural Pennsylvania, but her characters remain familiar. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a dour-faced high schooler has discovered to her horror that she’s pregnant, and too far along to get an abortion without her parents’ cosign, something she wants to avoid at all costs. Enlisting the aid of her cousin, the feisty, resourceful Skylar (Talia Ryder), the pair head off to New York, where Autumn can get the procedure without her parents’ knowledge. With little money and no earthly clue about the city, the two young women are forced to endure a vagabond lifestyle, spending the nights on train platforms, or endlessly going from station stop to station stop, until Autumn can be properly treated. Hittman’s eye for detail and emotional complexity  —  her characters can rarely articulate anything their experiencing  —  is incredibly acute, and she pulls tremendously understated performances out of her two leads. In the film’s most searing scene, Autumn goes through an exhaustive intake interview with a sweetly caring counselor. Shot in a long single take, the back-and-forth covers the most basic details of Autumn’s life and also some of her most buried pain and trauma. The camera stays fixed on her face, as she is asked to finally unpack some of the misery she has worked so hard to tamp down, and the result is one of most devastating sequences you will see this year. 

Black Bear: What to make of Lawerence Michael Levine’s meta-within-meta film in which the first half is a specific sort of indie drama in which a young couple (Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon) living up in a glorious lake house away from New York get visited by an actress-turned-director (Aubrey Plaza), there to work on a new project; and the second half is, essentially, the Noises Off-like behind the scenes riff on how the trio (now with the actresses’ roles switched) worked together to produce a variation of the film we were just watching? In part one, dubbed “The Bear in the Road,” Plaza’s character is territorial and coquettish, instantly attracted to Abbott’s lonely musician, and enticing him into disavowing his care for his pregnant partner. In Part two, “The Bear by the Boat House,” Abbott is now the film’s director, and Plaza is his wife, also the star of the film in which she is now the clingy partner, as Gadon arrives from the city on a visit. There is a lot to unpack here  —  or, alternatively, there isn’t terribly much at all, depending on how you see it  —  it being the kind of film that begs for further viewings to untangle its many layers. Whether you will want to put that sort of work into it is unclear. Still, the leads are all tremendous  —  Plaza, light-years removed from her “Parks & Rec” days  —  is a revelation of ferocious, billowing emotion, and Levine is clever enough with his structure to keep things rolling along.  

The Night House: The Midnight slate at Sundance, as with most such designations at other festivals, is by nature a roll of the dice. Some nights, you’ll find something absolutely brilliant (The Babadook, The Nightmare), many other nights, something a good deal less so. David Bruckner’s ghost story isn’t close to one of those conceptual masterpieces, but does offer some serious jumpscare thrills en route to a far too explicated finish. Rebecca Hall plays Beth, a grieving widow, whose architect husband just left their modern manse overlooking a lake to shoot himself in their wooden rowboat. Obsessed with trying to find why he might have done such a thing, Beth slowly begins to unravel his dark, secret life, even as her dreams become waking nightmares of visions, blasts of music from their downstairs stereo, and seeming visitations by either her husband or another dark force from behind the veil. With a sadistic sound design that periodically shocks your system, and a beseeching performance from Hall, who carries this film from first frame to last, Bruckner’s effort dutifully serves up enough genuine creepiness to earn your attention, even if the story slowly devolves into something out of the Final Destination franchise. 

Tomorrow: Utilizing a slightly more sane pace, I start the day with Dee Rees’ Shirley; check out the much lauded doc Boys State; get my ‘80s on for The Go Go’s; and finish up with Miranda July’s long-awaited next film, Kajillionaire. 

Into the frigid climes and rarefied thin air of the spectacular Utah Mountains, I’ve arrived in order to document some of the sense and senselessness of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Over the next week, armed with little more than a heavy parka and a bevy of blank reporter’s notebooks, I’ll endeavor to watch as many movies as I can and report my findings. 11:56AM  |   URL:  https://tmblr.co/Z52bPy2nOIxGY
(view comments)  (Notes: 7)  FILED UNDER: sweet smell of successssospiers marchantfilmsmoviessundance 2020sundance international film festivalpark cityzolala lloronanever rarely sometimes alwaysblack bearthe night houserebecca hallaubrey plazariley keoughtaylour pageeliza hittman


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