My fifth and final dispatch from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival contains capsule reviews of Jane Schoenbrun‘s We’re All Going To The World’s Fair, Ana Katz’s The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet, Fran Kranz’s Mass and Mona Fastvold’s The World To Come.
dir. Jane Schoenbrun, NEXT, USA, 86 minutes.
99.9% of the time I’d argue that theatrical presentation is the optimal mode for moviegoing experiences, but I must admit watching this creepy cyber-thriller on my iPad while bundled under the covers in the wee hours of a freezing morning brought an additionally unsettling dimension to writer-director Schoenbrun’s eerie evocation of the dark web’s allure. Star Anna Cobb is fearless as a tween falling down the rabbit hole of a Slenderman-y online urban legend involving self-mutilation and demonic possession, pieced together via some occasionally cheesy and often awfully upsetting viral videos. As Cobb burrows deeper she’s counseled by a terrifyingly toothsome, Momo-ish Skype avatar and the reason this all works so well is that we can never really be sure of what kind of movie we’re watching here. Is all this supernatural stuff for real or just the projections of desperately sad and lonely people grasping for a shared mythology? (It’s a more effective take on the themes of Rodney Ascher’s A Glitch In The Matrix, which also premiered at the festival.) Schoenbrun’s final scenes are shocking not just plot-wise, but more importantly for their compassion and humanity.
dir. Ana Katz, World Cinema Dramatic Competition, Argentina, 73 minutes.
Sometimes you spend a movie wondering where the hell this is going and by the end it feels like you’ve glimpsed the secrets of the universe. This elliptical oddity from writer-director Katz contains quick snatches from a couple decades in the life of an optimistic everyman (played by the filmmaker’s brother Daniel) as he drifts from job to job, briefly accompanied by a canine companion who –contrary to promises made by the title—barely ever barks. Shot in shimmery black-and-white, the movie leaps months and years in the space of every edit, time slipping away with no fanfare and the individual vignettes often intentionally unresolved. It’s an approach akin to Linklater’s Boyhood albeit on a more compressed micro-scale, flattening world-changing events (here’s a second Sundance movie that predicted a global pandemic) into the same import as everyday errands. Yet the cumulative effect of these episodes comes to feel cosmic in its ramifications. The way it finds grace in banality recalls Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such A Beautiful Day, though this picture is considerably more Zen. I can’t wait to watch it again to try and figure out how she did it.
dir. Fran Kranz, Premieres, USA, 110 minutes.
Kranz’s first feature is insufferably impressed with its own cleverness, right down to the dumb double entendre title. Proceeding with the ponderous solemnity of theatre kids desperate to be taken seriously, he crams two couples in a claustrophobic church basement seven years after a classroom massacre. The school shooter’s mom and dad (Ann Dowd and Reed Birney) are attempting to make amends with a victim’s parents (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton), but good luck figuring that out for the film’s first forty minutes, during which basic story information is coyly withheld to pointless and infuriating effect. It’s crassly exploitative and completely contrived, one of those movies people call “necessary” because it takes advantage of a topical issue to provide Oscar clips for actors. Four people sitting around a table is visually deadening, no matter how many times you change the aspect ratio for no reason. The revelations are so timed out and telegraphed you can set your watch by them. There’s no semblance of messy lives lived here, just the rigid, artificial structures of Dramaturgy 101. When Dowd came back for her encore at the end I almost threw something.
dir. Mona Fastvold, Spotlight, USA, 98 minutes.
As far as the new trend in windswept arthouse romances goes, Fastvold’s sophomore effort lands somewhere between Portrait Of A Lady On Fire and Ammonite in depicting secret Sapphic lovers in harsh, historical times. It’s an attentive and thoughtful piece of work starring Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby as neglected farmwives in a rough-and-tumble upstate New York of the 1850’s, here glimpsed as a grim life of oppressive tedium for which their chemistry provides the only emotional respite. They’re terrific together, with Kirby’s whiskey-voiced insinuations drawing out Waterston’s toothy, contagious grin. Husbands Christopher Abbott and the film’s producer, Casey Affleck, look on in suspicion and resignation, respectively, while the film flits through seasons at a sometimes-startling clip. It’s a beautiful piece of writing. Author Jim Sheperd adapted his own short story with help from The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford novelist Ron Hansen, giving the dialogue a florid formality and wit. But what stings you is Fastvold’s abrupt editing style, slashing at the pastoral photography and presentational period specifics to render the story’s emotional violence as a death of a thousand cuts.