Piers Marchant at Sundance 2021: Day 1 & 2January 30, 2021
Best Film of the Day(s): Summer of Soul
Coda: It is mostly a truism that the festival tends to start things off on Thursday night with a genial offering, to whet the appetite, as it were, for the vastly more far-reaching, and oft-madcap rest of the program. Sian Heder’s sweetly realized light drama, about Ruby (Emilia Jones), a high school senior in Gloucester, MA, who works in the early morning non-school hours on her father’s fishing boat, and full-time as the only member of her family, including mom (Marlee Matlin), father (Troy Katsur), and brother (Daniel Durant) who isn’t deaf. Balancing out her workload, she joins the choir, in order to be able to spend time with her crush, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), and turns out to have significant enough talent that her flinty music teacher (Eugenio Derbez), encourages her to apply to the prestigious music college in Boston of which he is an alum. Formulaic, to be certain, but moving nonetheless, with fine performances from the family — in keeping with the film’s own set-up, all but Jones actually deaf — and a strong sense of their relationships, especially between Ruby and her father. Heder’s screenplay also plays out the difficult dynamic between Ruby, and the rest of the hearing world, as the lone interpreter and defender of her family. As she puts it, they can’t hear themselves being laughed at, but she has no choice. It’s certainly glossy, but it’s also heartfelt, as in one pivotal scene, as Ruby performs a moving duet with Miles for the choir’s big show, Heder unexpectedly douses the sound for a few long moments, giving us a moving sense of what her parents get to experience during their daughter’s moment of artistic triumph.
Censor: As the title suggests, Prano Bailey-Bond’s discreet horror flick is about the idea of repression — what we want to cut away from the ugliness of the human experience. Set during the Thatcherite ‘80s, during an era where “video nasties” had become the topic du jour of cultural critics and political wankers, suggesting the sudden proliferation of demented, ultra-violent straight-to-video releases in the UK was somehow leading the country into sadistic nihilism, as opposed to their representing the result of Thatcher’s choking brand of right-wing oppression. Enid (Niamh Algar), a censor working for the government to render such films as Asunder, and Violent Coda properly palatable to the squirming masses, by excising excessive eye-gougings, brutal rapes, and disembowelments just enough to pass the board. She’s already living with her own past demons, a younger sister who disappeared in the woods under her watch years before, leaving her family shattered. Bailey-Bond shoots the film until the very end, as if underground, even while literally outside. Enid makes her way through the tube stations, and pedestrian tunnels, to her windowless office, and back again, with overhanging branches, overpasses, and canopies keeping her away from contact with the outside world. Creepy — but notably restrained in its own depictions of violence, save for the grainy, 4:3 imagery Enid has to make her way through at her job — Bailey-Bond’s film works well as a half-remembered bad dream from a similar tableau as Peter Strickland, but doesn’t quite have to chops, visually or in its surreal storytelling, to push it past those boundaries. It’s gripping enough, but doesn’t stick with you terribly long.
Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised): In 1969, during the Summer of Love, when white hippies and counter-culturalists were grooving to Woodstock, and NASA had successfully landed whitey on the moon, an entirely different sort of cultural fusion was taking place in Mt. Morris Park in Harlem. A performer and concert promoter named Tony Lawerence conceived of the event, a big outdoor stage where for six consecutive weekends, people could flock to the free shows that featured Jazz, Afro-beat, blues, R ‘n B, gospel, Motown, and funk. More than 300,000 attended the concerts in total to watch legendary performers including B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson, Max Roach, Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, Hugh Masekela, a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, and, in the sort of fierce performance that defined her live presence, Nina Simone, but even though the shows were meticulously filmed, the footage had never found an outlet, until now. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial debut doesn’t just present the artists’ performances (though it certainly could have), but adds insight from some of the surviving artists, and some of those in the crowd who witnessed them. He also works to put the shows into the cultural context of the time, when a rare mixture of political outrage, multicultural strength, and a dawning of the Black Pride movement created a fulcrum for Harlem, and Black people all over the world. Hippies got the press, and much of the mainstream media coverage, but Thompson makes a strong case as to how the same repressive forces that lead to the explosion of the counterculture movement amongst white college students and young people, also affected the rise of rebellion and tide-shifting in communities of color. Watching Jackson and Staples perform a riveting version of MLK’s favorite gospel song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” in the wake of the black leader’s assassination, or Simone rip into “Backlash Blues” is to witness the shift of cultural winds, as they whipped across a steamy, jam-packed park in Upper Manhattan.
John and the Hole: The title is, on first blush, terrible, but as with several things in this confidently enigmatic coming-of-a-kind-of-age tale from Pascual Sisto, there’s more to it than that. What initially sounds dumpy becomes somewhat cannily constructed: It’s meant to evoke a kind of modern myth vibe, along the lines of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” As it turns out, the film’s refusal to explain itself becomes a significant strength. John (Charlie Shotwell), is a 13-year-old kid from a wealthy family outside of Boston. Skinny and stammering, he’s also difficult to read, either by his parents (Jennifer Ehle and Michael C. Hall), or his older sister (Taissa Farmiga). Which is why, when John’s family wake up one morning at the bottom of a deep, cement shaft — part of a bunker built in the woods near their house — after having been drugged, and dragged there by John, their reactions run from mildly surprised to mildly upset. John leaves them down there, occasionally stopping by the edge to drop down food, water, and jackets, while he lives on at the main house, zipping around town in the family’s Volvo SUV, and taking out cash when needed from his dad’s ATM card. At first, he finds it liberating — eating a mound of chicken nuggets, endless pizzas, and leaving the mess littered around the house, as he attempts to stave off suspicions — but, eventually, he gets lonely, and realizes he prefers their company to being on his own. There’s maliciousness implied in his actions — a frequent shot looking up at John from inside the pit keeps re-establishing the peculiar power dynamic in the family — but nothing happens, it appears, that can’t be taken back. Sisto shoots the film sumptuously, drawing out the beauty of their immaculate house in contrast to the mess it slowly becomes under John’s ambivalence (an idea neatly echoed with the rest of the family down in the bunker, who quickly become filthier and filthier until the mud and grime seems etched into their pores). What conclusions it may draw are difficult to ascertain, in keeping with the nature of the project, but there is the definite sense that the nuclear family, as rigid as the formation may seem, remains a useful tool for healthy emotional growth after all.
In the Earth: Shot in the summer of 2020, in response to the pandemic (director Ben Wheatley explained pre-screening that he wanted a film that “reflected the politics of the times”), the film is loaded with imagery of madness and obsession. Or, you know, what happens to the human mind when it’s forced to stay in place for months at a go. Set in the near future, when a different and even more deadly virus has devastated the planet, the story concerns a scientist named Martin (Joel Fry), who needs to head deep into a boreal forest to find a research lab headed by a former flame (Hayley Squires). He is aided by a guide, a forest ranger named Alma (Ellora Torchia), who takes him on the supposed two-day trek. En route, however, they run into trouble in the form of Zach (Reece Shearsmith), a crazy devotee of the forest gods, and what he believes are their ritualistic demands. Breaking free from him, they arrive at the research lab, only to find similar insanity. Wheatley’s film feels rushed in places, and is violently incoherent in others, but its sense of immediacy is acute. With its characters having plunged into bizarre cryptic conspiracy theories, having plunged deep into the Boreal heart of darkness, and the sense that reality has been splintered, it ends up being a pretty fair summation of current life and times. It might not hold up under much scrutiny years from now, but it could hardly be more of the moment in the meantime.
Sundance goes mostly virtual for this year’s edition, sparing filmgoers the altitude, long waits, standing lines, and panicked eating binges — but also, these things and more that make the festival so damn endearing. In any event, Sundance via living room is still a hell of a lot better than no Sundance. A daily report.