Sundance really likes to push the idea that it’s a “community”—a network of artists converging on the same Utah ski town every January to support each other’s work, exchange positive reinforcement, and just bask in the glow of general movie appreciation. It’s not total bullshit; one reason this writer loves coming to the festival every year is that it does foster a certain sense of we’re-in-this-together unity, even if the only commonality shared by filmmakers, audiences, and critics in attendance is freezing our mutual asses off waiting on a shuttle to Main Street. But Sundance is also a competitive film festival, in more ways than one. Studios are competing for acquisitions. Journalists are competing for scoops. Everyone is competing for seats at that sold-out screening of that Next Big Thing. Oh, and the movies are competing against each other, too: The best of several programs are decided upon by juries and general attendees, the latter voting via paper ballots they stuff into boxes while exiting each venue.
In other words, while everyone may be a winner at Sundance (it’s an honor just to be invited, etc.), there are actual winners, too. And when people talk about what’s going to “win Sundance,” they’re generally referring to the film that will take home the top jury prize for the U.S. Dramatic competition, the closest the festival has to a best picture award. “You know the big Sundance winner when you see it,” I argued two years ago, after The Birth Of A Nation debuted to a preemptive standing ovation. But as of yesterday, when the last of the 16 films in this year’s U.S. Dramatic lineup screened, there’s no clear-cut frontrunner, no movie so well-received by both the press and the public that it’s certain to be named best in show. Some clear favorites have emerged, however, and they’re flush with Park City’s official currency: buzz.
More than a few of my peers have swooned for the unabashedly wacky directorial debut of Boots Riley, frontman of hip-hop group The Coup. But Sorry To Bother You (Grade: C+), which Riley also wrote, is a scattershot, intermittently pointed satire whose jokes and insights land with about the same (in)frequency. Like Blindspotting, another of this year’s U.S. Dramatic competitors, Sorry tackles race and identity politics in contemporary Oakland, in this case through the misadventures of Cassius Green (Atlanta’s Lakeith Stanfield), who makes a name for himself at a local telemarketing firm, mostly by perfecting the “white voice” he uses on the phone. Will Cassius sell out to move up? And will he lose his anarchistic performance-artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), to the office’s politically conscious union advocate, Squeeze (Steven Yeun)? Or maybe just to his own willingness to compromise his values for a piece of the pie?
Aspiring to a kind of 21st-century Putney Swope vibe, Riley’s freewheeling comedy doesn’t lack for ambition in either the gag or ideology department; this is a film with ideas about upward mobility, cultural assimilation, and the enduring hilarity—going back to Richard Pryor at least—of black guys doing their best nerdy white dude. (In one of the first hard breaks with realism, David Cross provides Cassius’ new phone voice, badly synced to Stanfield’s lips.) But there’s a messy, first-draft quality to how the film fits said ideas together, and a general sloppiness to the execution, with Riley botching the timing on too many jokes. Once Armie Hammer shows up as the company’s amoral CEO, tilting the plot into sci-fi dystopian lunacy, even Stanfield can’t keep Sorry To Bother You anchored to any emotional or political reality. Hit-or-miss zaniness swallows whole the project’s good intentions.
Sorry To Bother You is plainly a first feature, and that’s no insult: Even as some of the film’s comedy fell flat for me, I distantly admired its something-to-prove chutzpah. A very different breed of directorial debut, Wildlife (Grade: B) finds Paul Dano transporting his usual reserve as a performer (bellowing country preachers excepted) from one side of the camera to the other. Set in the suburbs of 1960s Montana, the film unfolds chiefly from the perspective of a teenage boy (Ed Oxenbould) watching from the sidelines as his father (Jake Gyllenhaal), who simmers with shame and resentment about not being able to hold down a job, and his mother (Carey Mulligan), increasingly gripped by discontent, drift quickly apart.
The source material is a novel by Richard Ford, and it’s hard not to suspect that his narrative, light on incident and heavy on eloquent, probing conversation, worked better on the page; Oxenbould’s boy hero is a largely passive observer, helplessly witnessing his family go up in flames (figuratively, but there is a lot of metaphoric fire, too), which is the kind of fundamentally internal conflict that literature remains better suited to explore. Wildlife, in other words, plays like another adaptation of a book whose power probably lay with the prose. All the same, it’s a very accomplished debut, with strong performances (Mulligan, especially, is magnificent, lowering her voice to a smoky purr and letting desperation nip at the edges of her confidence) and an elegantly straightforward style that’s miles removed from the flashiness of most American indie debuts. Did Dano pick up this uncommon fledgling restraint from one of the many first-rate filmmakers for whom he’s acted? There are shades, actually, of Kelly Reichardt in Wildlife’s sensitivity, as well as its transporting establishing shots of the Pacific Northwest.
Eighth Grade (Grade: B+), the first movie written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham (are we seeing a pattern here?), probably isn’t weighty or “important” enough to win Sundance’s biggest prize. But it’s wonderful all the same: a lovely, truthful comedy about the pure nightmare that is junior high. Burnham’s stroke of genius, luck, or both was the casting of Elsie Fisher, best known for voicing pint-sized unicorn fanatic Agnes in the Despicable Me movies. As Kayla, who shoots her own weekly YouTube advice column amusingly out of step with the reality of her status as class wallflower, Fisher brings a spot-on self-consciousness to the role—a fumbling sincerity, a struggle to get out every word, that makes her alternately invisible and vulnerable to her confident, shark-eyed teenage classmates. Eighth Grade gets what makes eighth grade such a horror show for so many kids, and it basically unfolds as a series of pricelessly awkward interactions, nailing middle school’s daunting social obstacle course without going full Welcome To The Dollhouse. The film isn’t much more than a modest slice of adolescent life, but its mixture of crushing realism and humane affection marks it as one of the festival’s biggest charmers.
But if we’re speculating, as critics on the ground here often do, on what will end up winning the jury’s grand prize, my money is on The Tale (Grade: B+). Undisguised autobiography, Jennifer Fox’s powerful cinematic memoir dramatizes a painful awakening: the moment when the documentarian came to terms with the sexual abuse she suffered as a 13-year-old at the hands of her running coach (Jason Ritter, very brave to take this role). When we first meet Fox, played onscreen by Laura Dern, she’s relegated the illegal relationship to the filing cabinet of her youth, misidentifying it as a common case of an older teenager dating an older man. But when her mother (Ellen Burstyn) digs up an old English-class assignment with some disturbing revelations within, the filmmaker begins to reassess the whole experience. And her trip into the past, reaching out to those who may or may not have known about the abuse, leads her to some uncomfortable truths.
The Tale, then, is a film about memory: the way it distorts and omits, creating an imperfect record, sometimes to shelter us from the harsh reality of our pasts. Fox, making her first foray into narrative (but not “fictional”) filmmaking, orchestrates this inner battle in inventive ways. Early on, she drops us into flashbacks of her youth spent under the tutelage of stable owner and horse-riding trainer Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki), who introduced her young student to the grown man who would soon take advantage of her. But once it sinks in for Fox how young she really was, The Tale restages the same scenes with a younger actress, to suggest a broadening awareness of the situation. The film puts the past and the present into almost literal dialogue, arranging contentious conversations between the middle-aged Fox and her younger self, as she attempts to negotiate the chasm between “victim” and “heroine.”
At times, The Tale plays like an adaptation of Paula Vogel’s stage play How I Learned To Drive, which used similarly fourth-wall-breaking devices to examine a young woman’s traipse through her own traumatic memories of childhood abuse. This is not an easy film; there are sex scenes, carefully and about as tastefully filmed as possible, between a child and the predator who grooms her. It’s not a perfect film either: Fox’s script reduces some supporting characters to dramatic devices, and the score by Ariel Marx is an overbearing, overused distraction. But the power of this material—and of Dern’s devastating performance—stays with you. And given the timely parallels between its true story and those of a nation (and industry) of women breaking their silence about the abuses of the past, it’s hard to imagine the jury seeing a more resonant option. If there’s a movie of the festival, The Tale is it.