My fifth dispatch from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival includes capsule reviews of John Patton Ford’s Emily The Criminal, Juan Pablo González‘s Dos Estaciones, Jamie Dack’s Palm Trees And Power Lines and Tig Notaro & Stephanie Allynne’s Am I OK?
EMILY THE CRIMINAL
dir. John Patton Ford, Premieres, USA, 95 minutes.
The worst-kept secret among film critics is that after ten days of earnest Sundance movies which are basically a diet of dry granola, you’re aching for a down-and-dirty crime picture like this one. Aubrey Plaza, who produced and stars in the film, gets this, I think. I’m told she’s appeared in ten Sundance premieres over the past ten years (I’m not gonna do the math myself, but having been there the whole time this sounds about right) and she’s a fascinating, adventurous actress who understands what a relief it will be for audiences to kick back and watch her cut loose as an art-school-dropout delivery driver, digging into her thirties and drowning in student debt, stumbling into a stolen credit card scheme and discovering that she happens to be really good at it. This is the tightest, most satisfying little noir I’ve seen in a good long time, grounded in the profoundly drab, everyday downtown L.A. grind with an expertly compressed approach to character development. The movie is quick, concise and exciting, like a paperback page-turner you can’t put down. The politics are interwoven into the story instead of superimposed on it, compacted into a fleet, 95-minute running time that calls to mind the fast and furious 1940s crime dramas to which director John Patton Ford keeps harkening back. I really dug this one.
dir. Juan Pablo González, World Cinema Dramatic Competition, Mexico, 98 minutes.
The camera remains locked-down, like our protagonist’s emotions in director Juan Pablo González’s statically mesmerizing character study. It’s a film as stern as artisanal tequila company heiress Maria Garcia (Teresa Sánchez), stoically facing the impending end of her family’s business. She’s a movie character more remote than we’re used to seeing, operating somewhere between fortitude and denial as her legacy sinks deeper into destitution, crowded out in the marketplace by a nearby American interest while an agave shortage and unexpected floods shift their survival prospects from dire to unrecoverable. Sánchez isn’t giving you much, so you find yourself leaning into her performance even more intently. So does her new assistant (Rafaela Fuentes), with an understated yearning that keeps pushing to the edge of something more substantial without ever daring to say so out loud. González and cinematographer Gerardo Guerra constantly shoot these characters through doorways and windows, isolating them in frames within frames that seem to shrink along with their fortunes. The movie lulls you into the sleepwalking day-to-day rhythms of a business that’s already dead but just won’t accept it yet. When the camera finally moves it’s almost seismic, a sudden sense of release and freedom that carries through the ambiguous ending of this difficult, quite thoughtfully-directed picture.
PALM TREES AND POWER LINES
dir. Jamie Dack, U.S. Dramatic Competition, USA, 110 minutes.
The one movie I saw this year with a content warning certainly earned it. Nobody’s ever going to call writer-director Jamie Dack’s devastating debut an easy sit, yet I found something quietly revelatory in her evocation of an essential American emptiness – a nowhere from which our dangerously naive seventeen-year-old protagonist Lea (Lily McInerny) yearns to escape during an idle summer in which she finds herself the object of affection for a controlling, possibly violent suitor (Jonathan Tucker) twice her age. There’s more than a hint of Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk in his undershirt and rockabilly swagger, but Dack is careful to establish that her lead character is at least more experienced physically –if not emotionally– than Laura Dern was in that unnerving 1985 classic. The desolate, dollar store doldrums of the film reminded me of something Martin Scorsese supposedly said to his production designer on The Irishman, that he wanted the movie “to look like nothing.” You can see all the warning signs and so does Lea, yet all her dumb decisions make sense because we can feel her aching for anything else, for something that isn’t nothing. I was sure that a certain scene in the middle of the movie was going to be the most upsetting thing I saw during the whole festival but that was only because I hadn’t seen the ending yet.
AM I OK?
dirs. Tig Notaro & Stephanie Allynne, Premieres, USA, 86 minutes.
For all the advances Sundance has made, there are still going to be movies like this. A stunningly banal celebrity indulgence co-directed by comedian Tig Notaro and her wife Stephanie Allynne, produced by star Dakota Johnson, it’s a wispy, no-stakes comedy about a 32-year-old slacker suddenly discovering she’s a lesbian after her best friend (Sonoya Mizuno) takes a job in London. This is one of those movies where the main character can have a minimum wage gig working the front desk at a spa yet still afford a massive apartment and go out to eat at expensive restaurants and get drunk at fancy bars every night. It’s also one of those movies where the characters have no friends or family except for like five principal cast members – which could be a shooting-during-Covid thing but I feel is more likely a lack of imagination by screenwriter Lauren Pomerantz. The absurdly charismatic Johnson is such a natural born movie star she kept me watching long after I normally would have called it quits on this entitled little piffle – a sorry bookend to the festival’s revival of The Incredibly True Adventure Of Two Girls In Love — but I did laugh out loud when Johnson was able to quit her job without any consequences and focus on her painting. I’d love to see Emily The Criminal’s reaction to that.