2018 Sundance Film Festival: First weekend marked by #MeToo, films about racial injustice


There was never any doubt that the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements were going to be top of mind at the 35th Sundance Film Festival. At Thursday’s Day 1 Press Conference that kicked off the 10-day marathon of American and international independent cinema, the question wasn’t whether the topic of sexual misconduct was going to come up. It was whether there was going to be anything else to discuss. The festival set an appropriate tone right from the start. This year, we all found a "Festival Code of Conduct" insert in our press badges, with a hotline phone number to report any form of sexual misconduct. At the press conference, Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam said that they were sickened when they first heard of the allegations of rape and harassment directed at Harvey Weinstein (with a few of those incidents reportedly having taken place during past Sundances). But she firmly indicated that they were not aware of anything until stories started to come out. “I am sick of Harvey. I want to move past him. He wasn’t really that big a deal for us in the last couple of years,” said Festival director John Cooper. “When we have people like Harvey that come to the festival, they came with one thing in mind. It was for their own interests, to cherry-pick films for their own use,” said president and founder of the Sundance Institute Robert Redford. “It was too much control by the male dominance, but now I think it’s going to be more even-handed [for women]. And I think the role for men right now would be to listen. It’s a time of change that I think can lead to a new conversation. I’m hopeful.” The trio stressed that while the #MeToo movement isn’t necessarily a directly addressed element in this year’s lineup (as it takes, on average, two years to complete a movie once it’s off the ground), the lens through which we view the films has changed.

Comedian Bo Burnham’s directorial debut Eighth Grade (U.S. Dramatic Competition) is clear evidence of our forever-altered collective lens. On the surface, this sweet coming-of-age comedy (already bought by A24), elevated by Anna Meredith’s inventive synth score, isn’t necessarily connected to the #MeToo movement in any shape or form. But it features one perfectly written and acted scene that’s impossible to grasp outside of the current discourse on sexual misconduct. Eighth Grade follows Kayla Day (impressive newcomer Elsie Fisher), a young, single-parented teen who typically spends a chunk of her time online despite her loving father’s protests. Her favorite online undertaking is creating self-help videos: how to be your true self, how to be confident, how to put yourself out there. Except, the pimply, slouchy Kayla doesn’t seem to have figured out how to succeed at these things herself. At school, she is awkward, quiet and alone. While she tries to close the gap between her online self and in-person identity, she can’t help but default back into a shy awkwardness. But things look up for her when she gets paired with the lovable, nurturing high-schooler Olivia as a shadow and scores an invite to a cool party thrown by one of her popular classmates, in which she meets a good-natured romantic interest (Jake Ryan). The aforementioned scene takes place between Kayla and Riley (Daniel Zolghadri), one of Olivia’s friends a few years older than her age. They find themselves alone in a car through a scheme planned out by Riley. He convinces Kayla to hop on the backseat with him, talks her into playing ‘Truth or Dare’ and sexually intimidates her. Infatuated by an older boy’s attention at first (Eighth Grade never shies away from underscoring Kayla’s own sexual awakening), Kayla plays along and acts cool for a while. But her discomfort and escalating terror are impossible to ignore, until she yells out a firm NO, followed by apologizing for something she shouldn’t feel sorry for. (Spoiler: She manages to get away before worse things happen.) By its end, this younger (and significantly less dark) Ingrid Goes West brightly sees hope and potential in Kayla’s future, even though we know she’ll forever bury that one night in the depths of her heart.

No film was more plugged into the #MeToo movement than Jennifer Fox’s extraordinarily powerful The Tale (an early favorite to win the U.S. Dramatic Competition), starring Laura Dern in the role of Fox (the director herself), a productive and well-off New York City journalist in an enviable relationship with her boyfriend (Common). Her orderly life gets fractured when her mother Nettie (Ellen Burstyn) discovers a story Jennifer wrote as a class assignment at the age of 13, charting the course of an unusual special relationship between her early-teen daughter and an adult couple, Bill and Mrs. G. With her mother’s discovery and constant nagging, Jennifer starts to investigate the depths of her own mind, trying to recall the details and true nature of her relationship with the pair, which mostly takes place on a Carolina horse farm where she trains as a rider. Eventually (spoiler alert), she comes to understand how she’s convinced herself over time that it was all normal, just to be able to move on with her life. Through flashbacks, the bravely, brutally controversial The Tale offers a disturbing look into a specific past sexual trauma in a manner all women can alarmingly identify with. Mrs. G is brilliantly played by Elizabeth Debicki with an unsettling, porcelain-doll coolness. Predictably, both Dern and Burstyn are terrific (as is Isabelle Nélisse, who plays the young Fox). But it’s mandatory to also give Jason Ritter, who plays the calculating and disgraceful predator Bill, a hearty round of applause for signing on to such a tough role. (I won’t spell out the details of what he does, but note that the film’s end credits clarify all scenes of sexual nature were filmed with an adult body double and under parental supervision.)

Following the only standing ovation I have witnessed at the Eccles Theater this year, writer-director Fox said, “I'm sure you'll all understand this is pure memoir. I wanted to tell the story since this happened when I was 13. I truly did write the tale and hand it in at English class. I did get an A.” Traveling around the world, interviewing other women on their sexual assault stories, Fox one day came to terms with her own assault and rape, which she realized she had rationalized as a relationship in order to survive. “I realized [my story] was about memory and that’s how I constructed [the film]. There are very strong rules for working with minors. We had a studio teacher on set, we had a psychiatrist, a SAG representative, as well as Isabelle's mom who's out here, who was just amazing. The scenes with any physical contact don't have any physical contact. Isabelle was shot on a vertical bed. We rehearsed together a series of cues like 'Act like a bee is stinging you, act like you're running, like you're being chased by a dog.’ And she just rolled through these cues like the actor she is.” Tearing up and with his voice breaking, Jason Ritter said he was very grateful to know there were laws in place. “Everyone really respected those rules, no one wanted to create more drama on the set, and having a body double there for me personally allowed me to lean into it a little bit more.” Nélisse said since the beginning of the project she had a great relationship with Fox. “I felt comfortable with my mom being there, with Jennifer. And Jason was really sweet, and I really felt protected and comfortable, so it wasn't that big of an issue.” Burstyn continued, “The exploitation of innocence is really a deep criminal crime. Now it's a moment in our history to change it, and we're doing it.”

Racial tensions and racist police brutality were also recurring themes throughout the festival’s first weekend.

With a story that follows an ex, on-probation Oakland convict (Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs) who witnesses a racially charged murder by a police officer, director Carlos López Estrada’s shaky, a tad preachy yet spirited U.S. Dramatic Competition film Blindspotting (by co-scribes Rafael Casal and Diggs) was received enthusiastically by the audience on the festival’s opening night, even though its critical reception was mixed. Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Monsters and Men (U.S. Dramatic Competition) was perhaps the chief film to leave a mark under this umbrella. Dissecting the ripple effects of a coldblooded police shooting (power-tripping, panicked white cop shoots a young, innocent black man), the Bed-Stuy-set Monsters and Men approaches the story from three separate vantage points to examine the shooting’s impact on individuals and communities. One storyline follows a black cop, who is torn between his dignity/conscience and his loyalty to his murderer counterpart. Another perspective belongs to a proud, hard-working father who cares and provides for his family while keeping his head low. The last account is through the eyes of a young athlete, who, after watching the filmed murder online, becomes a protesting political activist. Unlike Blindspotting, Monsters and Men employs a subtle, non-prescriptive approach in delivering its clear message. This humanely told story doesn’t necessarily set out to spell out answers. Instead, it constructs a complete portrait of an all-too-typical racism-caused tragedy, making the audience see and feel the injustice for themselves.

With an initially light, gradually escalating touch, the U.S. Dramatic Competition film Tyrel from writer-director Sebastián Silva (Nasty Baby) explores racial alienation and the discomforting pressures of otherness, recalling Get Out in a way. (Don’t worry, the film isn’t treacherous in the vein of Jordan Peele’s frightening horror-satire.) Jason Mitchell meticulously plays Tyler, the only black man at an all-male weekend getaway in the Catskills. Unaware of the lily-white crowd that’s invited to the booze-filled birthday event, Tyler meets all the players early on, a few of whom insist on calling him Tyrel at first. Including characters played by Christopher Abbott, Michael Cera and Caleb Landry Jones, the group neither shows hostility to nor intentionally pushes out the visibly introverted Tyler. Yet, the painfully white-dominated conversations that include plenty of stereotyping and casually racist references dial up the tension level, both for Tyler and the audience. Increasingly, the night grows rowdy with hard-partying, drunken frat boys, robbing Tyler of a restful spot to sleep and gather his thoughts. Silva’s verite-style film is an organically built hangout movie subtly infused with Trump-era fears, exposing just how faux white wokeness can be. (Mild spoiler: REM fans, beware.)

Among the most polished films of the festival so far, writer-director Andrew Heckler’s haunting Burden (U.S. Dramatic Competition) tells the late-90s-set true story of Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund, brawny and tormented), a Ku Klux Klan member living in a small South Carolina town. Raised by a detestable Klan member father figure named Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson, fuming with hate), Burden gradually becomes a more accepting person once he falls in love with single mother Judy (Andrea Riseborough) and is touched by a principled, welcoming local preacher named Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker) on his redemptive journey. While set almost two decades ago, the infinitely cinematic, earth-toned Burden offers a chilling look inside Trump’s America through the lens of social class and inspects the deeply rooted, Confederate-worshipping plague of racism that has enabled today’s terrifying political landscape. It’s a dark, relentless film that loosely brings Mudbound to mind, but sometimes loses its well-calibrated balance through obvious metaphors. (Let’s retire the cinematic use of the deer as an allegory for purity and innocence forever, shall we?) Burden is still excellent stuff and will surely be generating much heated debate in the coming months, once it finds a distribution home.