My first dispatch from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival includes capsule reviews of Jesse Eisenberg’s When You Finish Saving The World, Carey Williams’ Emergency, Eva Longoria Bastón’s La Guerra Civil and Maria Maggenti’s The Incredibly True Adventure Of Two Girls In Love.
WHEN YOU FINISH SAVING THE WORLD
dir. Jesse Eisenberg, Premieres, USA, 88 minutes.
In keeping with the time-honored film festival tradition of opening with a star-studded dud, Sundance 2022 kicks off with this grating exercise in overwriting that marks the feature filmmaking debut of actor Jesse Eisenberg. Expanded from a radio play he penned for Audible, the film stars Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard as a dopey social media influencer who has 20,000 fans on an app where he spends his afternoons crooning insipid love songs to teenagers all over the globe, much to the consternation of his strident, activist mom (Julianne Moore) who runs a battered woman’s shelter and couldn’t be less impressed with her son’s success. Mercilessly played by Moore, she’s a breathtakingly cruel creation who has all the compassion in the world for everyone except her immediate family. (The great Jay O. Sanders steals the movie as her silently suffering husband.) Eisenberg’s overly schematic screenplay sets mother and son looking to strangers for what they’re missing from each other, with Wolfhard trying to woo a student protestor who thinks he’s an idiot and Moore inappropriately over-investing in a hunky high schooler staying at the shelter. These characters are well-played single notes, repeating themselves so adamantly and often that the 88-minute film feels like at least two hours. Then, right when it’s starting to become interesting, the movie abruptly ends. I was grateful for the reprieve.
dir. Carey Williams, U.S. Dramatic Competition, USA, 104 minutes.
It’s the night before spring break and three students’ grand plans are interrupted when an underage blonde coed drunkenly wanders out of a frat party into their house and passes out on the living room floor. It sounds like the setup for a crazy college comedy – which this entertaining sophomore effort from director Carey Williams certainly is – but with the added complication that these are students of color who don’t dare call 911. I mean, who would the cops on this predominantly white campus blame for her condition? The kids try to take her to the hospital themselves, spurring all sorts of zany mishaps and misadventures undergirded by the very real fear that any encounter with the authorities could be fatal for these boys. Williams does a decent job juggling the contradictory tones, aided by enormously appealing performances from Donald Elise Watkins, RJ Cyler and especially Sebastian Chacon as the three roommates stuck transporting a weapons-grade white girl in what, when it’s really cooking, feels a slyly contemporary sociopolitical spin on The Wages Of Fear. My only real complaint is with the pacing, as some lingering pauses for showy character scenes sacrifice the urgency of their errand. Tighten it up to turn the screws a little more and this could become a classic of the genre.
LA GUERRA CIVIL
dir. Eva Longoria Bastón, Premieres, United Kingdom, 102 minutes.
“Quien es mas macho?” There are promises of a rich cultural history in Eva Longoria Bastón’s documentary directing debut, which chronicles the 1990s rivalry between boxing champs Julio Cesar Chavez and Oscar de la Hoya, and is most interesting when addressing questions of authenticity. Chavez, born in Mexico and famous for his pugnacious public persona and fighting style, was oft-referred to as a “real Mexican,” unlike his elegant, movie-star handsome opponent, who was born in East L.A. to immigrant parents. The movie attempts to investigate conflicts in the community when this good-looking “Mexican-American” challenger fought for Chavez’s title, stirring up age-old arguments about assimilation and generational divides that will have a familiar ring to members of any ethnic group in America, while also depicting two decidedly different brands of machismo. Alas, the fight’s colorful context takes a backseat to a boringly conventional boxing doc, cycling through a claustrophobic collection of talking heads in tediously televisual fashion. (Mario Lopez seems like a nice guy but was he really one of the only experts available?) After paying rigorous attention to the bout’s buildup, Bastón hustles through the aftermath and ensuing rematch in an awful hurry. It’s not unpleasant to watch but also indistinguishable from anything you can see every day on ESPN.
THE INCREDIBLY TRUE ADVENTURE OF TWO GIRLS IN LOVE
dir. Maria Maggenti, Special Screenings, USA, 94 minutes.
Once a year, Sundance screens a film from a previous festival, and without trying to read too much into things, I think it’s safe to say that the selection of this 1995 charmer from writer-director Maria Maggenti fits in quite nicely with new festival director Tabitha Jackson and programmer Kim Yutani’s concerted emphasis on diversity and inclusion. Jackson took over last year, Yutani in 2019 –replacing longtime Sundance stalwarts John Cooper and Trevor Groth– and if you’ve been attending for as long as I have, you can really feel them steering away from some of the flashier, starfuck-y aspects of the festival and more toward mission-oriented programing and movies like Two Girls, which seems quaint today but was actually quite radical at the time for having the effrontery to be about an interracial lesbian affair between high school students. What makes the film so special is how matter-of-factly it treats the provocative subject matter, and its goofy gentleness of spirit hasn’t aged a day. The production is a klutzy in that endearingly unpolished, early ‘90s indie fashion, with close-ups that are too close and other ungainly camera blocking. But most importantly, it’s a movie about people nobody was making movies about at the time, which is what we come to Sundance to see.