My second dispatch from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival includes capsule reviews of Thom Zimny and Oren Moverman’s Willie Nelson & Family, Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok’s Judy Blume Forever, Nicole Newnham’s The Disappearance Of Shere Hite and Davis Guggenheim’s Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie.
WILLIE NELSON & FAMILY
dirs. Thom Zimny and Oren Moverman, Indie Episodic Program, USA, 263 minutes.
You don’t come away from many four-and-a-half-hour documentaries complaining that they’re too short, but Thom Zimny and Oren Moverman’s sidewinding exploration of Willie Nelson’s seven-decade career is so rich, funny and suffused with gentle wisdom, I wish it could have gone on all day. The filmmakers begin with the breakthrough success of Willie’s 1975 Red Headed Stranger album and then circle back from the time of the preacher to his early, awkward attempts at fitting the Nashville establishment’s conception of a country musician. Spun off from long chats on the tour bus, the laid-back, anecdotal presentation can’t camouflage the moral seriousness in Zimny and Moverman’s embrace of Nelson as a great uniter of all tastes and tribes. Emphasizing what an insane idea Stardust was for a record – still his biggest seller! – the film focuses less on Willie’s work with fellow outlaws and highwaymen in favor of more unexpected collaborations with the likes of Ray Charles and Julio Iglesias. (There’s only time to play “Whiskey River” once, as opposed to the 72 times it’s heard in Honeysuckle Rose.) This is a warm, rousing portrait of an unconventional artist who found unprecedented success once he finally started doing whatever he damn well pleased.
JUDY BLUME FOREVER
dirs. Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok, Premieres, USA, 97 minutes.
Judy Blume is an American artist nearly as beloved as Willie Nelson. But it wasn’t always that way. Blume’s books eased my generation’s passage through the torments of puberty by doing what our parents and the rest of pop culture didn’t dare – talking to us straight about scary sex stuff and the complications caused by our changing bodies. At 84 years old, she’s still telling it like it is, affectionately and directly to the camera in this no-frills portrait that shines with Blume’s sweet, level-headed sincerity. Avatars of adolescence like Molly Ringwald and Lena Dunham attest to the impact of her novels, but what’s most moving is the author’s correspondence with her young fans, forming pen pal friendships with confused kids that lasted long into adulthood. She seems like an awfully good person, which is why it’s so maddening to watch the usual crowd of book-banning Jesus freaks and rightwing nut-jobs make Blume’s life miserable for telling the truth about young people having perfectly normal feelings. Though I must admit, a clip from an old episode of Crossfire during which Blume asks Pat Buchanan why he’s so hung up on masturbation might be my favorite thing I saw the whole festival.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SHERE HITE
dir. Nicole Newnham, U.S. Documentary Competition, USA, 118 minutes.
For more vintage footage of frightened blowhards shouting at lady writers, you can’t beat Nicole Newnham’s disarming documentary about controversial sociologist Shere Hite, whose 1976 study of female sexuality sent shockwaves through the culture, selling 50 million copies and driving insecure men insane by revealing that a vast majority of women are only able to achieve orgasm through clitoral stimulation. A former model, Hite was a willowy, ethereal figure and the film (narrated by a breathy Dakota Johnson) has a wonderfully frilly, feminine texture. It’s a sharp stylistic contrast to the cavalcade of sweaty, bellowing and staggeringly unqualified men regularly brought out on TV talk shows to dispute Hite’s research, all of them apoplectic at the insinuation that women aren’t being satiated by their massive boners alone. David Hasselhoff is at a hilarious loss for words, but Buck Rogers beefcake Gil Gerard comes off as a sinister colossus of unearned confidence, a harbinger of the increasingly hostile treatment the writer would receive from the tabloid press over subsequent studies. Hite eventually ended up renouncing her U.S. citizenship in 1995, basically chased out of the country by guys terrified of the idea that their wives might be faking it.
STILL: A MICHAEL J. FOX MOVIE
dir. Davis Guggenheim, Premieres, USA, 95 minutes.
A film about a beloved performer struggling with a devastating degenerative illness probably has no business being as funny and entertaining as this one. But then, the grace and good humor with which Michael J. Fox has lived with Parkinson’s Disease has long been an inspiration to millions. That responsibility weighs heavy on him sometimes, as revealed in director Davis Guggenheim’s lively documentary. Skillfully weaving together clips from Fox’s old films with slick re-enactments and the actor reading from his 2002 memoir, it chronicles the Canadian’s rags-to-riches rise and secret health crisis in his own wryly amusing, often salty, words. He talks us through years of using actorly tricks to hide his symptoms behind bits of stagecraft, spending entire seasons of his sitcom with props steadying his trembling left hand. It’s all intercut with contemporary footage of Fox’s physical therapy sessions, where we see him diminished but never defeated. He’s frank and darkly humorous about his struggles with drinking and depression, touching in his devotion to his family, and seems at peace in a way that will be a comfort to anybody who grew up with Alex P. Keaton. (He ad-libbed the “P.” during his audition, by the way.)