As AA Dowd pointed out in our inaugural dispatch from Sundance 2022, by the time Robert Redford pulled out of the festival in 2018, Sundance had developed a self-contained ecosystem — and a legend — of its own. I’m new to this particular festival as an official member of the press corps, so 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 would sound so good.
From the outside, Park City critics’ accounts play out like a hybrid of war stories and inside jokes, the delusions of a group that looks suspiciously like a cult about how fun it’s pushing your physical and mental limits for days. Of course, the descriptions of being on the ground at many film festivals will play out that way. I’ve been semi-delusional at more than one Fantastic Fest. But you don’t have to wait for hours in a meter of snow in Texas in September.
Last year, I watched paid screenings as a paying customer on the Sundance virtual platform. And in those times, the future of festivals seemed exciting, if unstable. Some sales agents and distributors worry that allowing anyone interested to tune in to a festival screening could hurt a film’s future revenue prospects. I can see the validity of that argument, but from where I was sitting, Sundance 2021 movies like Censor, Judas and the black messiah, and soul summer didn’t lose much buzz after leaving the festival and stepping into the (still virtual) world.
As we settle into the indefinite ‘new normal’, I suspect we might find that those film-obsessed few who follow festivals closely enough to have a list of planned Sundance titles will become a new part of the machine. to festival hype, a fourth area sitting alongside critics, publicists and the festival itself. That last pillar keeps filmmakers warm in January, at least: Sundance is a close-knit — some might even say incestuous — community with alumni 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’re done 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 15-plus-year relationship with Park City. From The squid and the whale from 2005 to last year wild indian, Eisenberg is a Sundance regular, which may explain why his directorial debut is an archetypical “Sundance movie.”
When you’re done saving the world stars Julianne Moore and stranger things‘ Finn Wolfhard as a mother and son living in the left-leaning college town of Bloomington, Indiana. Evelyn (Moore) is a longtime activist of the Birkenstocks-and-granola variety who owns a nonprofit for victims of domestic violence. His disappointment in his teenage son Ziggy (Wolfhard), songwriter and semi-celebrity on the film’s TikTok analogue, is palpable. Disgusted by Ziggy’s fixation on her personal brand, Evelyn sets out to find a replacement child – though she won’t admit those are her motives – in the form of a young man living at the shelter.
Enlarged Eisenberg When you’re done saving the world of its award-winning audio drama, and although the material now includes the visual component of shuttered storefronts and a craftsman’s house decorated with your classic hippie paraphernalia, the focus remains on dialogue and performance. The script oscillates between venomous satire and serious elevation, and while the plot is carefully plotted, it never decides whether we should sympathize with these characters or not. What kind of indie is it exactly?
Evelyn and Ziggy, to be perfectly frank, don’t like each other that much, which is an unusual and interesting dynamic for a mother and son. At the same time, they are very similar – unconscious planets in their own narcissistic orbits, both convinced of their own moral virtue. Wolfhard and Moore’s performances are what make When you’re done saving the world worth a watch. A fight at the table at the end of the film plays like a softer version of the family confrontation in Hereditary, while Eisenberg dwells on the faces of the two actors in scenes where they process emotionally unsettling information.
In Ziggy, the film strikes the right balance between naughtiness and sympathy. The character isn’t dumb, exactly – speaking of his music, he comes across as sensitive and thoughtful. But his lyrics are hilarious and terrible, and he’s the kind of superficial person who pretends to care about “political things” – nothing specific, just “political things” – in order to impress a lover. Another interesting note of ambiguity stems from Evelyn’s intentions towards Kyle (Billy Bryk), the helpful and caring teenager who is everything her own son is not. For a while, it seems like Evelyn is about to cross some inappropriate interpersonal lines with this young man, which makes it all the more disappointing when the film ends up dropping into a predictable freelance sapper.
I would like to discuss the end of Master in this dispatch. But given that it just had its world premiere, that would be unfair to both readers and the film’s writer-director, Mariama Diallo. Diallo is also a Sundance veteran, though her resume isn’t quite as long as Eisenberg’s: her 2018 short “Wolf Hairwon 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 it’s 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 a simple imitation.
Regina Hall and Zoe Renee play two generations of black women at a New England college with a sinister occult past. Each feels the pressure of being marginalized on campus in their own way. Piling up microaggressions and strange coincidences on top of each other until they form an impassable prison wall, Master unfolds with the suffocating fatality of a nightmare. Which doesn’t mean it’s predictable. In the final 45 minutes in particular, the film zigzags where you’d expect it to zigzag to a splashy sacrificial finale.
While watching the movie, I remembered something Black Horror the author, Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman, discussed in an interview with The audiovisual club on the “final girl” archetype and its inadequacy when it comes to black women in horror. Coleman argues that black women, who grew up in a racist and misogynistic society, have been surrounded by monsters all their lives. These forces were there before a film’s particular evil appeared and will continue long after it has been vanquished.
Master dramatizes this idea, combining it with the studied use of classic occult horror and slasher techniques – low whispering, windows lit with red light, a girl alone in a dark dormitory over Thanksgiving weekend – for a unique and clearly conveyed point of view. Diallo also has an eye for composition, heralding her as a director to watch. (Variety, for his part, accepts.)
Watching Master back to back with another genre flick from first time director Chloe Okuno’s Observer, I started wondering how long quirky indie dramedies like When you’re done 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 Observer— that were programmed outside of that traditional genre sidebar. Part of the credit goes, once again, to get out, a milestone in changing critical attitudes towards horror in the late 2010s, alongside other Sundance darlings Hereditary and The witch.
Master and Observer were also both led by young women, another tectonic plate that has been slowly shifting over the past half-decade. Insofar as Observer is concerned with politics, the film reframes the thriller “The Idle Woman Loses Control of Reality” as a statement about the importance of religious 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 wandering aimlessly around 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 obsessed with the faceless man in brown boots who she’s convinced is staring at her. across the street.
The inevitable descent into paranoia and violence ensues, but this is a film that ‘speaks’ as much about style and craft as it does about plot. Using a stunning score and stunningly minimalist sound design, Okuno manages the tricky task of maintaining an eerie atmosphere throughout, punctuated with moments of Hitchcockian suspense. Whether the movie’s mom-jeans-and-millennial-pink aesthetic appeals to viewers is a matter of taste, but it’s current and tastefully applied.
Monroe makes a welcome return after a few years of wandering through direct fare and undistinguished supporting roles. She has been dubbed the new “Scream Queen” for her roles in It follows and The guest around the time the “high horror” trend really took off in the mid-2010s, and Observer is undoubtedly part of this tradition. But its roots go back much further. In many ways the film struck me as a modern film giallo, a descendant of Italian films from half a century ago that are equally preoccupied with knives, voyeurism, sexual danger, and directionless women with big cheekbones.
In reality, Observer remembered a movie I saw recently at the Music Box Theater in Chicago, 1971 by Sergio Martino The Curse of the Scorpion’s Tail. (Full disclosure: I sometimes work with the music box, but I wasn’t part of the lineup for this particular movie.) Sitting at home watching a brand new movie at a virtual festival reminded me the vital nature of movie theaters and how, even as we march toward a hybrid future, seemingly disparate realms of movie love continue to exist in dialogue with each other. And the cycle begins again.