Sundance 2017 Dispatch 1: Climate change, election, and what I saw before the weekend

ScreenerBlog

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore. This is both the title of one of the opening night films of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, and the general mood amongst festival-goers before and following Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the United States. With Main Street hosting a Park City version of the “Women’s March” on Saturday, the discussions around the aftermath of the election can be heard everywhere: in ticket lines, jam-packed festival shuttles that take the attendees around the various, spread-out venues of Sundance and in the film introductions and Q&As. Predictably, the annual press conference that kicked off the festival’s latest edition was no exception. Festival founder Robert Redford, director John Cooper and Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam addressed how the mission of Sundance can evolve and grow with a new President at the White House, whose values stand against the Institute’s mission. Redford stressed the growing importance of documentary filmmaking (which he thinks of as "long-form journalism") and truth-telling and said the festival doesn’t occupy itself with politics, but focuses on stories instead. Cooper highlighted independent film’s power to bring out our human side and spread stories about people and places different than our own. Putnam reminded everyone to celebrate the founding values of Sundance, chief among them equality of voices and freedom of expression. Redford also addressed the importance “environment” plays at this year’s festival, especially with the "New Climate" program that features 14 environmentally focused documentaries, shorts and Virtual Reality experiences. “I began to be concerned about how we were savaging nature for short-term profit. In time, that feeling grew in me as I saw things shrinking all around me,” Redford said, with regards to his and the Institute’s advocacy and leadership in the area.

It was then no surprise that the festival kicked off on Thursday night with An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, which follows former Vice President Al Gore as he dissects the crisis of climate change, 11 years after Davis Guggenheim’s Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, also starring Gore. An Inconvenient Truth was basically a slick PowerPoint presentation that coherently told a story on the environmental emergency with indisputable facts. Yet the sequel, programmed out of competition in Doc Premieres, unfortunately doesn’t quite rise to the effective, urgent-feeling level of its predecessor. Co-directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s film is largely unfocused and feels leaner on facts. It also seems more concerned to portray Al Gore as an activist, advocate and swift dealmaker than furthering the conversation. This approach only partly works when it procures a pair of powerful moments, especially when Gore visits the conservative mayor of Georgetown, TX, also an environmentalist, who champions basic common sense in approaching this global issue. The film was in part a hopeful report and in part a scary warning (with a pair of newer ideas at its center, such as the relationship between worldwide peace and global warming.) The real treat of attending the An Inconvenient Sequel premiere was hearing Gore’s speech after the screening. The film shows that Gore took a private meeting with Donald Trump, a climate change denier, without spelling out the details. During the Q&A, Gore said he would rather not reveal the details of the meeting, in case he ends up having to have some more. He added, just two days after that meeting, Trump appointed someone as the head of the EPA who shouldn’t be holding that post. But Gore remains hopeful. “Who are we? Are we a pathetic, short-sighted species whose run on the planet will be over because we destroyed ourselves?” asked Gore, adding that he refuses to believe it. He said all people have to remember is that the will to act itself is a renewable resource, and is the core trait we need to have these days.

Two of the strongest offerings of the festival’s first two days came from female filmmakers and storytellers. Writer-director Maggie Betts’ feature debut Novitiate is a showcase of ensemble acting, with the likes of Margaret Qualley, Morgan Saylor, Dianna Agron and Melissa Leo firing on all cylinders. Novitiate follows young Cathleen (Qualley) growing up in the '50s through the '60s with a love for Christ, despite being raised by a non-religious mother. As she joins and moves further along the training program of a convent called The Sisters of Blessed Rose, the Second Vatican Council announcement with modernized principles for nuns arrives from Pope John XXIII and causes turmoil in the sisters’ lives. Novitiate charts Cathleen’s days at the convent as she receives both extreme generosity and emotional abuse, questions both faith and doubt and experiences a different kind of awakening inside her. This is a dark, critical and increasingly heartbreaking portrayal of a young woman with an uncertain future. Betts directs her scenes with palpable sympathy as her intricate dialogue follows suit in portraying all players inside the convent with detail and care. Betts is surely a bold filmmaking talent to watch in the coming years.

In Michelle Morgan’s witty L.A. Times (screening in the festival’s NEXT section), we are in the company of some dubiously likeable, curiously flaky Los Angeles men and women as they hop in and out of relationships with one another, dine at oddly named restaurants and wear breezy, luxe outfits. Morgan also plays the lead character Annette, a generally displeased motormouth whose complaints and lengthy logic-defying explanations have an operatic quality. Think of this as a West Coast Sex & The City, where snarky neurosis is replaced by cool and ease and heels are replaced by cars. But make no mistake: The very sharp L.A. Times isn’t a Los Angeles hard sell (as Sex & The City almost always felt for New York City). In the post-screening Q&A, Morgan said she loves LA, but it infuriates her all the same. So her film is an ode to those complex feelings. This longtime actress certainly has a long life ahead of her as a filmmaker and storyteller: Her voice is a unique one, informed by her real life and authentic insights.

Macon Blair’s aforementioned I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore follows the badass Ruth (Melanie Lynskey, as you’ve never seen her before), a fed-up, worn-down, nearly-40-year-old woman. Tired of general impoliteness and lack of social etiquette among everyone she encounters (Tony, a quirky, almost otherworldly neighbor played by Elijah Wood being one of the worst offenders as a dog owner who doesn’t pick up after his pet), Ruth reaches her limit and “breaks bad” one day when burglars break into her house and steal her laptop along with her grandmother’s silverware. Teaming up with Tony to chase the criminals and teach them a lesson once and for all, this violent, surprising-at-every-turn crime comedy rings like a contemporary, female Falling Down that draws from the likes of '90s Tarantino and (as many have pointed out) the Coen Brothers. Lynskey is terrific in it, but the real scene stealer? Christine Woods, in the role of a heavily accented Southern wife who means business when she takes the microphone.

The two Midnight films that screened –The Little Hours and Killing Ground– catered to deep horrors and weird quirks. Jeff Baena’s star-studded The Little Hours (with Alison Brie, John C. Reilly, Aubrey Plaza, Nick Offerman, Jemima Kirke, Molly Shannon, Dave Franco and Kate Micucci) is a playfully absurd medieval comedy with contemporary dialogue. Loosely based on The Decameron, the film develops around a group of foul-mouthed nuns, each trying to have it their way with a fugitive hiding at their convent, who’s on the run after having seduced the wife of a member of the high-ranking elite. It’s a "Gossip Girl"-meets-Dangerous Liaisons type of concept that wears thin eventually, but still ends up an uproarious watch when it works. Damien Power’s compulsively watchable and impeccably edited Killing Ground traces two camping families as they get terrorized by dangerous criminals. The two stories, which run parallel to each other, enter "troubling trope" territory in using rape as bait to weigh a male character’s masculinity. Still, Killing Ground scores positive marks in equipping its lead female character with the kind of agency her male counterparts and assailants don’t have.

The festival’s only true disappointment so far proved to be Gillian Robespierre’s Landline. In her second collaboration with Jenny Slate (first was the terrific Obvious Child), Robespierre tackles an aimless, poorly paced familial drama set in the 1990s in New York. Landline oftentimes reads like a “We’re making a '90s film” costume party and unfortunately doesn’t bother with character development all that much. In that end, I found myself in the nearly two-hour company of people I didn’t quite care about.

And that’s Sundance. You can’t always bet on a winner.