As A.A. Dowd pointed out in our inaugural dispatch from Sundance 2022, by the time Robert Redford retreated from the festival in 2018, Sundance had developed a self-sustaining ecosystem—and a legend—of its own. I’m new to this particular festival as an official member of the press corps, so the affectionate bagel-shop references coming from my colleagues don’t resonate with me. Here’s the part where I make my big confession: I never thought attending Sundance in person sounded all that great.
From the outside, critics’ tales from Park City play like a hybrid of war stories and inside jokes, ravings from a group that sounds suspiciously like a cult about how fun it is to push your physical and mental limits for days on end. Of course, descriptions of being on the ground at many film festivals are going to play that way. I’ve been half-delirious at more than one Fantastic Fest. But you don’t have to wait for hours in three feet of snow in Texas in September.
Last year, I watched some ticketed screenings as a paying customer on the Sundance virtual platform. And in those moments, the future of festival-going seemed exciting, if unstable. Some sales agents and distributors worry that allowing anyone who’s interested to tune in to a festival screening will damage a film’s future money-making prospects. I can see the validity of this argument, but from where I was sitting, Sundance 2021 movies like Censor, Judas And The Black Messiah, and Summer Of Soul didn’t lose much buzz after they made their way out of the fest and into the (still virtual) world.
As we settle into the indefinite “new normal,” I suspect we may find that those cinema-obsessed few who follow festivals closely enough to have a list of anticipated Sundance titles will become a new prong in the festival hype machine, a fourth estate sitting alongside critics, publicists, and the festival itself. That last pillar keeps filmmakers warm in January, at least: Sundance is a close knit community—some might even say an incestuous one—with alums who keep coming back again and again until they’re part of the family.
A classic example of the Sundance family reunion took place before my first film of the festival, the opening-night selection When You Finish Saving The World. The film was written and directed by Jesse Eisenberg, who—as a member of the Sundance programming team pointed out in a video introduction—has a more than 15-year relationship with Park City. From The Squid And The Whale in 2005 to last year’s Wild Indian, Eisenberg is a Sundance regular—which may explain why his directorial debut is an archetypical “Sundance movie.”
When You Finish Saving The World stars Julianne Moore and Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard as mother and son living in the left-wing college town of Bloomington, Indiana. Evelyn (Moore) is a lifelong activist of the Birkenstocks-and-granola variety who owns a nonprofit for victims of domestic violence. Her disappointment in teenage son son Ziggy (Wolfhard), a songwriter and semi-celebrity on the film’s TikTok analogue, is palpable. Disgusted with Ziggy’s fixation on his personal brand, Evelyn goes looking for a replacement child—though she won’t admit those are her motives—in the form of a young man living at the shelter.
Eisenberg expanded When You Finish Saving The World from his award-winning audio drama, and though the material now includes the visual component of shuttered storefronts and one craftsman house decorated with your standard old-hippie accessories, the focus very much remains on dialogue and performances. The script teeters between poisonous satire and earnest uplift, and though the plot is thoughtfully charted, it never decides if we should sympathize with these characters or not. What kind indie is this, exactly?
Evelyn and Ziggy, to be perfectly frank, don’t like each other all that much, which is an unusual and interesting dynamic for a mother and son. At the same time, they’re a lot alike—oblivious planets on their own narcissistic orbits, both convinced of their own moral virtue. Wolfhard and Moore’s performances are what make When You Finish Saving The World worth a watch. A dinner-table fight late in the film plays like a gentler version of the family confrontation in Hereditary, while Eisenberg lingers on both actors’ faces in scenes where they process emotionally destabilizing information.
In Ziggy, the film finds the right balance of meanness and sympathy. The character’s not dumb, exactly—talking about his music, he comes across as sensitive and thoughtful. But his lyrics are hilariously terrible, and he’s the type of shallow person who will feign interest in “political things”—nothing specific, just “political things”—in order to impress a crush. Another interesting note of ambiguity arises through Evelyn’s intentions towards Kyle (Billy Bryk), the helpful, caring teen who’s everything her own son is not. For a time, it seems as if Evelyn is about to cross some inappropriate interpersonal lines with this young man—which makes it all the more disappointing when the movie eventually lands on predictable indie sappiness.
I’d love to discuss the ending of Master in this dispatch. But given that it just had its world premiere, that would be unfair both to readers and the film’s writer-director, Mariama Diallo. Diallo is also a Sundance veteran, although her resume isn’t as long as Eisenberg’s: Her 2018 short film “Hair Wolf” won a special jury prize at the festival, and now she’s back with her feature debut. The obvious precursor to Master is the 2017 Sundance sensation Get Out, but this is one of the few “social thrillers” to live up to Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning debut in terms of horror craft and incisive commentary on liberal racism. The film has more to offer than mere imitation.
Regina Hall and Zoe Renee star as two generations of Black women at a New England college with a sinister occult past. Each feels the pressures of being marginalized on campus in her own way. Piling microaggressions and strange coincidences on top of each other until they form an insurmountable prison wall, Master unfolds with the suffocating inevitability of a nightmare. Which is not to say that it’s predictable. In the last 45 minutes especially, the film zigs where you expect it to zag towards a splashy sacrificial finale.
Watching the film, I was reminded of something Horror Noire author Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman brought up in an interview with The A.V. Club about the archetype of the “final girl” and its inadequacy when it comes to Black women in horror. Coleman argues that Black women, who have grown up in a racist and misogynist society, have been surrounded by monsters their entire lives. Those forces were there before a film’s particular evil appeared, and will continue long after it is vanquished.
Master dramatizes this idea, combining it with the studied use of classic occult horror and slasher techniques—low whispering, windows illuminated with red light, a girl alone in a darkened dorm over Thanksgiving weekend—for a unique and clearly conveyed point of view. Diallo has an eye for composition as well, announcing her as a director to watch. (Variety, for its part, agrees.)
Watching Master back to back with another genre film from a first-time female director, Chloe Okuno’s Watcher, I began to wonder how much longer quirky indie dramedies like When You Finish Saving The World will define the “Sundance style.” The Midnight section has long been a part of the festival, but this year’s Sundance lineup includes four horror films—including Master and Watcher—that were programmed outside of that traditional genre sidebar. Partial credit for this goes, again, to Get Out, a milestone in shifting critical attitudes towards horror in the late 2010s, alongside fellow Sundance darlings Hereditary and The Witch.
Master and Watcher were also both directed by young women, another tectonic plate that’s slowly been moving over the past half-decade or so. To the extent to which Watcher is concerned with politics, the film reframes the “idle woman loses grip on reality” thriller as a statement on the importance of believing women. Maika Monroe stars as Julia, the wife of a Romanian-American marketing executive who follows her husband to Bucharest for his new job. Unable to speak the language and left adrift after the abrupt (and barely discussed) end of her acting career, Julia spends her days aimlessly wandering the city. With so little to think about—she doesn’t even seem to like reading or watching movies—it doesn’t take long for Julia to become fixated on the faceless man in brown boots she’s convinced is watching her from across the street.
The inevitable descent into paranoia and violence follows, but this is a film that’s “about” style and craft as much as plot. With the help of a spine-tingling score and unnervingly minimalist sound design, Okuno pulls off the tricky task of maintaining an eerie atmosphere throughout, punctuated with moments of Hitchcockian suspense. Whether the film’s mom-jeans-and-millennial-pink aesthetic will appeal to viewers is a matter of taste, but it is current and tastefully applied.
Monroe makes a welcome return after a few years spent wandering through undistinguished direct-to-streaming fare and supporting roles. She was called a new “scream queen” for her roles in It Follows and The Guest around the time the “elevated horror” trend really took off in the mid-2010s, and Watcher is arguably part of that tradition. But its roots go back much further. In many ways, the film struck me as a modern-day giallo, a descendant of Italian films from half a century ago that are similarly preoccupied with knives, voyeurism, sexual danger, and directionless women with great cheekbones.
In fact, Watcher recalled a film I recently saw at Chicago’s Music Box Theater, Sergio Martino’s 1971 The Curse Of The Scorpion’s Tail. (Full disclosure: I sometimes work with the Music Box, but wasn’t part of programming that particular film.) Sitting at home watching a brand-new film at a virtual festival was a reminder of the vital nature of movie theaters and how, even as we march into a hybrid future, seemingly disparate areas of movie love continue to exist in dialogue with one another. And the cycle turns over anew.