Sundance 2017 Dispatch 2: 'Call Me by Your Name,' 'Mudbound,' and weekend recap

ScreenerBlog

While in Sundance, one can lose oneself in movies (Mudbound and Call Me by Your Name praise to follow), bury one's head in Twitter for film discussions and talk to fellow moviegoers about nothing but cinema. It’s easy to ignore the world outside the loop of the festival venues and live in a bubble for a few days. And that’s pretty much the case with all film festivals that have the scale of Sundance. But this particular Sundance feels mighty different. As I mentioned in my previous dispatch, the lens of politics is present in every conversation and interpretation. And on Saturday, with the rest of the country—actually, the rest of the world—politics once again ran through the festival’s veins and flooded the historic Main Street. Starting bright and early that morning, the “Women’s March” united locals, visitors, filmmakers and celebrities alike. So I braved the cold and the snowstorm, ignored the warnings about extreme traffic and headed to the march, my priceless ticket to Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick be damned. (Side note: The Big Sick is one of this year’s most buzzed-about titles and has already been bought by Amazon Studios for $12 million.) Turns out, the warnings were on point. After sitting in traffic for an hour with Indiewire’s inimitable Kate Erbland, we made it to the march. I didn’t get a chance to stomp my snow boots down the Main Street alongside Charlize Theron and Maria Bello (when we got there, the march had already reached its destination—it’s not that long a street after all), but I did catch almost all of the inspiring speeches from the likes of Kimberly Peirce and Jessica Williams. "The Daily Show"’s Williams, who stars in the closing-night film The Incredible Jessica James, was especially powerful. “Williams isn’t my real name,” she said. “It’s my slave name. I am my ancestors’ dream.”  It was a historic morning to remember around the globe, and Park City proudly contributed to the solidarity, organically formed against the newly inaugurated 45th President of the United States.

With shuttle service practically paralyzed and the traffic gridlocked, I missed half a day of screenings on Saturday (but surely for a worthy cause). My first viewing that day was Chasing Ice director Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Coral (U.S. Documentary section), in which he dissects the complex phenomenon of “coral bleaching” (or more plainly, mass coral death) with clarity, urgency and even a hopeful sense of humor. Here, Orlowski teams up with an ex-advertising executive passionate about coral reefs, who decides people’s ignorance of the subject can be treated as an advertising problem and launches a campaign to create awareness and action. Orlowski also joins forces with an instantly loveable, self-defined coral nerd, various camera designers and celebrated scientists to document the process of bleaching through newly designed underwater time-lapse cameras. Orlowski’s film is a loving portrayal of all individuals involved in these selfless environmental efforts, includes breathtaking underwater footage, and shines a timely light on a lesser-known climate-change problem that has long been “out of sight and out of mind.”

Saturday’s next viewing—Mudbound (Premieres)immediately became one of the hottest titles and tickets of the festival, earned one of those infamous Sundance standing ovationsand is still awaiting a distribution deal. But it is surely bound to land a home soon with big figures and become one of the major titles of 2017 upon its theatrical release. Directed by Dee Rees (of the astonishing, multi-award-winning Pariah) and co-written by her and Virgil Williams (adapted from the acclaimed novel by Hillary Jordan), Mudbound is an artful, historic epic set in the South during the direct aftermath of WWII. Tracing the lives of two families—the McAllans, inexperienced farmers, and the Jacksons, longtime farm workers– that are juxtaposed and pitted against each other, the film often shifts perspectives and gradually darkens and deepens in its themes of race relations, with Rees masterfully controlling the anxiety as it builds. In Mudbound, while the McAllans and Jacksons are united by geography, they are separated by brutal racism and class warfare, which only worsens when the elderly McAllan, a Ku Klux Klan member, continually harasses the Jacksons. Rees’ film is a relentless epic of the best kind and signals that big things are ahead for this flourishing director with a distinct voice. Mudbound is a phenomenal slow-burn and boasts rain-soaked, lyrical cinematography by Rachel Morrison and unforgettable performances by Garrett Hedlund, Mary J. Blige (a revelation in acting) and Jason Mitchell. Mudbound doesn’t pull its punches on any of its historic themes around race, class and related violence, the residue of which is still present in society today. It is at once timeless and timely, but more importantly a thoroughly cinematic experience with major scale and scope, which Rees handles with staggering confidence.

My final viewing for Saturday was Taylor Sheridan’s much-anticipated directorial debut Wind River--yes, the same Taylor Sheridan who wrote Sicario and Hell or High Water, the latter of which might (or will) win him an Oscar nomination tomorrow morning. The film follows wildlife tracker Cory (Jeremy Renner) and newbie FBI agent Jane (Elizabeth Olsen), who team up to solve a crime after Cory discovers a corpse in the Wind River Indian Reservation. Wind River carries elements of many of Sheridan’s previous work, a particular interest in the American frontier among them. It’s an elemental and brawny watch, with an impeccably orchestrated shootout scene towards the end as one of the highlights. While it’s a confident feature debut, the script of Wind River is bereft of the kind of ironic humor that informs (and elevates) much of Hell or High Water. I couldn’t help but desire a lighter touch in this film, which is no doubt an impressive watch overall. Plus, it has a truly committed Elizabeth Olsen, who immediately brings The Silence of the LambsClarice Starling to mind.

The rest of my weekend was marked by several other rich offerings. Marti Noxon’s To the Bone (U.S. Dramatic Competition), which empathetically portrays the life of a teenager struggling with anorexia, caught me off-guard and quietly devastated me. Lily Collins delivers one of the finest performances I have seen in Sundance this year, and the film is anchored by several scenes that honestly handle the complexities of motherhood and the familial bond. While I am not quite sure whether there could be a broad audience for it, its specificity and overall rareness surely deserve recognition and a distribution deal. Amanda Lipitz’s instant winner Step (U.S. Documentary) was a very welcome and uplifting crowd-pleaser in the vein of 20 Feet From Stardom, that drew multiple instances of applause at the Press & Industry screening I attended. (Note: this doesn’t happen often during P&I screenings.) In her heartfelt documentary, Lipitz follows three women who attend the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, an institution that pledges to send every one of their students to college, and their fearless step-dance team the “Lethal Ladies." We watch as she dismantles all the economic hardship and impossible barriers these women face on a daily basis—Step’s organic depiction of intersectional feminism is one of its greatest strengths—and cheer as they find a rousing creative outlet in their dance routines, through which they exuberantly let off steam they can’t anywhere else. A bonus of having this documentary in Sundance is surely having the “Lethal Ladies” around—they delivered a terrific performance during the “Women’s March” protests on Saturday.

Ry Russo-Young’s beautifully written Before I Fall is an entertaining nail-biter set on the West Coast that follows a young woman’s dark, Groundhog Day-esque journey on a particular, eventful day in high school. If Everybody Wants Some!! didn’t convince you about Zoey Deutch’s talents, this film certainly will. During the film’s post-screening Q&A, Deutch stressed the importance of having complex female journeys onscreen and sang the praises of her director: “The film is about this woman's journey, and her starting as a follower and [then becoming a] leader in the alpha-way. In the 'taking responsibility for your actions' way. And speaking of leaders, I just want to say this woman [Ry Russo-Young] is a fucking fearless leader. She's extremely talented, but more than talented, she works really hard. She commands the set with a whisper.”

In co-directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross’ wonderfully feminist dramedy My Happy Family (World Dramatic Competition), easily among the best of the festival (and a strong contender for one of the best of the year, period), we follow a contemporary woman in Tbilisi, Georgia, who decides to leave her family and rent an apartment on her own. Skillfully orchestrated through multiple long takes (think: Farhadi), My Happy Family is both a multi-faceted character study and a biting, playful critique of patriarchy, in conversation with the filmmakers’ previous effort, In Bloom. Exquisitely paced with a strong sense of generational female camaraderie at its core, My Happy Family is already making me look forward to the next project of the filmmaking duo.

I saved the most delicious for last. Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash follow-up Call Me by Your Name is a stunner that works on every single creative level imaginable. Set in a coastal Italian town in the 1980s, with swoon-worthy, lived-in period details caressed with the Mediterranean sweat and breeze in every scene, Call Me by Your Name is a sensual, sun-kissed and irresistibly sexy gay romance and coming-of-age tale. Co-written by Guadagnino, James Ivory and Walter Fasano (adapted from André Aciman’s novel), this masterful film traces the love story of Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), the son of an academic, and his father’s live-in summer assistant Oliver (Armie Hammer). Their initially secret love, flourishing amid lazy summer afternoons spent with swimming and consuming juicy, sweetly ripe fruits of the season, aims straight for the heart and hits the viewer right on target. Along with his cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Guadagnino’s camera (much like his work in I Am Love and A Bigger Splash), constantly teases one’s senses and expectations, and reveals the story like extended foreplay of the best kind. (Pay special attention to one long take in town, during which Elio confesses his feelings to Oliver.) As the father, Michael Stuhlbarg gets a lovely scene towards the end of the film, delivering a beautiful monologue to his son, in which he articulates his love and acceptance of him. (When we are ready to talk about the best scenes that define 2017 come December, this one will pop up in conversations multiple times.) Armie Hammer is pitch-perfect, but frankly the show here belongs to Timothée Chalamet, whose instant stardom won’t be a surprise to anyone who saw him in Julia Hart’s Miss Stevens in 2016. The long, quiet take Guadagnino grants him at the end, through which we witness the transformation of his battling thoughts and feelings, is a towering accomplishment if ever there was one. Call Me by Your Name is a film that dares to tickle you with the sensuality it finds in unexpected places and to ripen before your eyes with warmth and compassion. The rest of Sundance surely has large shoes to fill.