Funny how pet peeves become fond memories the moment you’re denied them. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug that way. I’ve been attending the Sundance Film Festival for almost a decade now—long enough to know what I love about this annual snow-globe gathering of movie stars, obsessives, and peddlers, and to know what I definitely don’t love about it, too. This year, though, the difference seems negligible. To paraphrase the triumphant rock band that soundtracked one of the first movies I ever saw at this fest, all of a sudden I miss everything: the long lines in spacious tents, the long crawls through Main Street traffic on packed shuttle buses, the unsatisfying crunch of the pizza wolfed down in the lobby of Park City’s roomiest venue, the Eccles Theater. None of these traditions will be part of the experience in 2021, at least not for me or most of the other film critics covering this largely virtual edition of the festival.
What is Sundance without the Sundance of it all—the parties, the parkas, the people? It’s always felt like camp to me: You bunk in condos that resemble cabins, see friends you haven’t seen in a year, and gather around the glow of a screen instead of a bonfire. Maybe it’s camp for indoor kids, come to think of it. All of a sudden I miss everyone.
There’s just no replicating that social aspect online, try though the organizers might to cram some of the live, participatory component into pre-screening webcam introductions as haltingly awkward as any Zoom call. This year’s festival, truncated in timeframe (it runs just a week) but not really in number of selections, will come down to the movies themselves, some of which I’ll be offering some criminally premature thoughts on over the next seven days. It’s too early, of course, to speculate how those will stack up against the lineup of a “normal” year. Probably best not to hold our breath waiting on a true triumph, but who knows? I didn’t go into Hereditary expecting anything.
Speaking of breath, if there’s one thing I won’t miss about my usual late-January treks down the snowy streets of Utah, it’s the altitude sickness. For those not normally on mountain time, this is an annual, literal headache… and also a genuine explanation posited, often by those not in Park City, for the wave of perhaps excessively generous buzz that comes crashing out of what feels like every other premiere. We have no such excuses this year. So while I can definitely see what many of my peers (and at least two usual festival roommates) see in opening-night selection Coda, I also have enough reservations about this agreeable crowd-pleaser to encourage my fellow critics to check for gas leaks in their homes before filing any more reviews.
What it’s got going for it, chiefly, is a novel cultural and dramatic perspective. The film’s protagonist, Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones, from TV’s Locke & Key), in many ways fits the profile of earnest, angsty indie-movie youth. She’s shy and tough, a dreamer who yearns to escape her seaside hometown but feels tied to her life there. The reason she’s stuck, though, is more specific than usual: Ruby is the lone hearing member of her family; her mother (Marlee Matlin), father (Troy Kotsur), and older brother (Daniel Durant) are all deaf, and have been relying on Ruby to act as their ears, so to speak, for most of her life. She’s especially vital to the family fishing business, serving as translator during haggling sessions with sellers and manning the radio on the boat.
The performances are mostly charming; Jones, a real find, is like a young Emma Stone, sensitive and acerbic when required. Coda is at its most riveting whenever it just focuses on the interactions in the Rossi household. All the deaf characters are played by deaf actors, and it’s rare to encounter a film featuring such long, uninterrupted stretches of ASL; even rudimentary dialogue exchanges and run-of-the-mill arguments feel like a peek into a too-rarely-explored corner of American life. Writer-director Sian Heder doesn’t attempt anything as stylistically immersive with the sound design as the recent Sound Of Metal, but that’s because the main point of view is Ruby, not her relatives; there’s only one scene that dips the audio to put us in their shoes, and it’s affecting both for its context and how late it occurs it in the film.
Trouble is, all of this material is so specific that it has the effect of throwing the more generic scenes into sharper relief. Too much of the film feels more informed by other movies than any real experience. There’s a certain poignancy to the revelation that Ruby aspires to be a singer, given that it’s a calling that wouldn’t just take her away from her folks but also be impossible for them to ever entirely appreciate. But the film uses this dream as a shortcut to uplifting clichés: Everything involving a tough-love music teacher (Eugenio Derbez, solid in a very stock role) could have been airlifted in from a cornier movie. Likewise, the teen romance, which is pure YA boilerplate—all tentative flirting and long jumps off lakeside cliffs, the universal language of adolescent awakening—despite the casting of Sing Street’s Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as the sweet love interest. By the time the movie is literally playing to the cheap seats, in the second of two climactic onstage performances, it’s clear that a stalemate has been drawn between authenticity and soggy Indiewood formula. Which, of course, makes it a fittingly prototypical start to this atypical Sundance.
One of my crankier regular complaints at Sundance is that the World Dramatic program is uneven at absolute best; for every Monos or Blind, there’s a dozen titles that travel to Park City because they likely couldn’t pass muster in Berlin or Venice or Cannes. It’s comforting to know that some things really don’t change, even during a time as uncertain as right now. Case in point: One For The Road is exactly the kind of overlong clunker this program too often offers. The film follows Boss (Thanapob Leeratanakajorn), the slick ladykiller owner of a trendy Manhattan nightclub, who returns to his home country of Thailand when an estranged friend, Aood (Ice Natara), calls to inform him that he’s dying of cancer. Upon arrival, the two embark on a kind of road trip down memory lane, Aood making amends with all his exes as though he were starring in some remake mashup of High Fidelity and The Bucket List.
Direct Nattawut Poonpiriya scored a huge hit in Thailand with his last feature, the academic-scam comedy Bad Genius, and he has an unabashedly commercial sensibility, coupled with a sense of style that’s simultaneously flashy and dreamy. The buried lede here is that he’s working this time with a rather significant producer: Wong Kar-wai, the legendary Hong Kong director of Chungking Express and In The Mood For Love. Here and there, Wong’s way with color, tone, texture, and a sheet of rain-speckled glass asserts itself, as though Poonpiriya got a contact high of sensual genius. A late, long flashback sequence in particular seems to activate Wong’s romantic influence, at least in how the younger filmmaker shoots his boozy urban spaces. But the style would have to be more consistently dazzling to make up for the interminable banality of this melodrama, which drags out the conflict between two generally unlikable, thinly sketched bar bros to an unconscionable 136 minutes.
Censor, the first of this year’s midnight selections, doesn’t suffer from that problem: It’s in and out in a cool 84. But that may be because its plainly gifted writer-director, Prano Bailey-Bond, seems uncertain as to how to fill out even a modest runtime. She’s got a great milieu and setup: During the early ’80s, when British authorities were cracking down on a wave of hyper-violent exploitation movies (the so-called video nasties of the era), a high-strung censor (Niamh Algar) begins to come unglued, her sanity shaken by a mysterious new film with echoes of her own disturbing past. The film has already caught comparisons to Peter Strickland’s seductive Berberian Sound Studio—it has a comparable grasp on the decade-specific look and vibe of cult trash.
Look and vibe, though, is about all Censor has to offer; it hits the same note of vague unease ad nauseam, even as the semblance of a mystery plot takes gradual shape. And while Strickland built his movie on the fascinating nuts and bolts of foley artists performing their craft, Bailey-Bond shows an only passing interest in the details of a censor’s job. The whole thing’s all carefully calibrated mood all the time—but the mood can be hypnotic, and I loved the final scene, when a periphery cultural critique (lot of Thatcher on the boob tube) finally crystalizes into nightmarish imagery: flashes of trauma scrambling the ideal of a sanitized society—an ending that suggests that limiting exposure to ugly art and entertainment will only project the image of a healthy society. Maybe the film as a whole would play better on a big screen. So there’s another thing I miss.