My third dispatch from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival includes capsule reviews of Phyllis Nagy’s Call Jane, Lena Dunham’s Sharp Stick, Monia Chokri’s Babysitter and Sophie Hyde’s Good Luck To You, Leo Grande.
dir. Phyllis Nagy, Premieres, USA, 121 minutes.
In a clever programming maneuver, Sundance premiered this picture – the directorial debut of Carol screenwriter Phyllis Nagy – a couple of days before The Janes, an excellent upcoming HBO documentary on the same subject. You’d assume the two movies would cancel each other out, but instead they complement one another quite nicely, with the doc providing a more panoramic, detailed version of the story and this semi-fictionalized dramatic feature paring it down to clean, irresistible storytelling hooks. Scaled back to the blinkered perspective of a Betty Draper housewife in 1968 (Elizabeth Banks, giving by far her best performance) Nagy’s film follows her discovery of the JANE network, a secret organization of Chicago housewives and hippies running an underground railroad for illegal abortions. Led by Sigourney Weaver’s no-bullshit mama bear, the crew of unlikely felons flouts the law to help women in need, with no questions asked because it’s nobody’s business. Almost shockingly entertaining, the movie doesn’t carry itself like “an important film about an important subject.” It’s practically breezy, full of warm humor and sly visual gags. There’s no angst or over-complication here, which is sort of the point: these women need help, it’s that simple. Also, it’s been way too long since we’ve gotten to watch Sigourney Weaver bulldoze her way into a movie and take the whole thing over like an Amazon goddess in denim.
dir. Lena Dunham, Premieres, USA, 86 minutes.
In her fine 2010 directorial debut Tiny Furniture and through all six seasons of Girls, Lena Dunham proved herself adept at astringently observing the foibles of a particularly privileged and incurious class, throwing herself with such gusto into the role of an often-insufferable protagonist I feel like the writer gets unfairly confused with the character. (Granted, Dunham’s intensely obnoxious public persona does her no favors in this regard.) Her first feature film in 12 years contains none of the behavioral perceptions that made Girls and Tiny Furniture so special. Instead, the film appears to take place on another planet altogether, where an exceedingly odd 26-year-old virgin played by Kristine Froseth gives herself a crash course in sex education after the long-delayed loss of her virginity to a meathead dad (Jon Bernthal) whose disabled child she babysits. Nothing about any of these characters makes the slightest bit of sense, starting with how this girl could remain so sheltered while living with her sex bomb Instagram influencer sister (Taylour Paige) and a mother who tells bedtime stories describing the penis sizes of her five ex-husbands. (She’s played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, of course.) There are none of Dunham’s critical insights and no conflict nor stakes to speak of. It’s just cartoony characters pulling faces and bland, sex-positive affirmations that sound like self-help pamphlets. A disaster.
dir. Monia Chokri, Midnight, Canada/France, 87 minutes.
The Apology Industrial Complex comes up for a drubbing in this frantic Canadian comedy from director Monia Chokri, adapted by Catherine Léger from her stage play of the same name. It starts when a drunk, suburban dad staggers out of an MMA fight and clumsily slobbers a kiss on the cheek of a local TV reporter during a live shot. The clip quickly goes viral and he’s suspended from his job. Realizing that the only way back to work is public atonement, he gets carried away and decides to write an entire book apologizing for the misogyny drubbed into him as a birthright by the patriarchy. (Meanwhile, his wife spends all day dealing with a screaming baby, wishing he would instead maybe help out a little around the house.) Matters are complicated to the edge of incoherence by a bookish brother trying to virtue-signal his erection away and a pneumatically built, blonde babysitter who likes to wear a sexy French maid costume to work. It’s all feverishly cut together in a flurry of grotesque, leering closeups and sickly colors, full of dreamlike interludes I’m not sure I fully understand but I laughed like hell all the same. Sundance’s virtual platform allows you to stream these things at any time of day, but this is the kind of movie better watched at midnight or thereafter.
dir. Sophie Hyde, Premieres, United Kingdom, 97 minutes.
Sometimes at film festivals certain story points strangely, accidentally overlap, and the day after the Lena Dunham picture I saw another movie in which a repressed woman draws up a list of sexual positions she wants to try for the first time. Except this time the character aching to have her first orgasm is 62-year-old Emma Thompson, giving one of the finest performances of her career here as an uptight, retired schoolmarm, recently widowed, who hires a hunky male sex worker to see what she’s been missing for all these years. The well-sculpted Irish lad, played by Daryl McCormack, needs to talk her through some chatty, natural nervousness at first, as the stagey screenplay by comedian Katy Brand is perhaps a bit too pat in how quickly it gets these characters breaking down each other’s carefully cultivated boundaries. But what a pleasure to watch the actress and her handsome suitor navigate this taboo terrain. Thompson’s comic timing hasn’t been so sharp since The Tall Guy (which had a similar joke about sneezes) and there’s something enormously moving about how she allows us to see the character’s growing acceptance and appreciation of her body –unlike in Sharp Stick, here it’s actually earned– building to a fearless final shot which I’m sure is gonna be all anybody talks about when the film comes out later this year.