Sundance 2017 Dispatch 3: Leading into the week with experimental works and conventional tales

ScreenerBlog

No two worlds can be as far apart from one another as the frosty, snow-covered environs of Sundance (hit by an especially big storm this year, the biggest Festival director John Cooper has seen in his 28 years in Park City) and the glitzy glamour of the Oscars. But surprisingly, these two worlds collide in more ways than one. It was just last year when Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea premiered in front of a sobbing, emotionally crushed audience at the Eccles. And yesterday, it received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. That being said, yes—this year’s Oscar nominations announcement coincided with the sixth day of the festival, when films continue to premiere and crowds maintain their presence across town. Naturally, the independent films of Sundance were ever so slightly overshadowed by the Academy Awards chatter yesterday. “Have you seen La La Land yet,” I heard one Eccles volunteer ask another. On my way to the Park City Live house to attend a recording of “The Daily Buzz,” the shuttle conversations were also taken over by the gold statues of Hollywood. And naturally our Daily Buzz “Hot Topics” conversation started with going around the room and voicing our opinions on this year’s Oscar surprises, snubs and reasons to celebrate. We also discussed our Sundance favorites thus far and dissected Amazon’s newly announced, controversial 100K deal, an agreement in which Amazon Studios would pay Sundance films up to 100K for streaming rights for two years, that was met with mixed reactions from the film community. Have a listen!

But of course, in just a few hours and after many instances of Twitter complaints about Amy Adams’ absence or Mel Gibson’s inclusion in the race, it was back to independent film and business as usual. Films I was able to view throughout the weekend, ranging from wildly experimental to conventional underdog tales, affirmed there is still a lot more to take in at Sundance. Among the experimental films I saw, the most unique and abstract title was surely the Julian Rosefeldt-written and directed Manifesto (Premieres), starring not one, but exactly 13 Cate Blanchetts. Rosefeldt’s film can best be described as a thought-provoking art installation, aiming to distill the intertwined nature of life and art through wisdom-filled words of various 20th-century artists and personas. Wearing many hats—from a TV anchor to a housewife—the culmination of Blanchett’s 13 roles adds up to one of the actress’s career-best performances. It’s the kind of film one hopes to discover at a festival.

The Experimenter director Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime (Premieres) is a bold, formal and purposefully distancing exercise in love, loss and memory. Anchored by terrific performances from a quartet of actors (Jon Hamm, Lois Smith, Geena Davis and Tim Robbins), Marjorie Prime follows Marjorie, who is well into her late eighties and spends her days with a digitally rendered (but corporeal-looking) version of her late husband. This Prime version of her husband would be only as believable and complex as Marjorie allows him to be. So she feeds him with information to enrich their dialogue, while other layers of familial relationships start revealing themselves. Marjorie Prime, similar to the filmmaker’s The Experimenter, is not the kind of film one can have an immediate emotional connection with. But its intellectualism and slow cadence are what make it compelling, with a surprising aftertaste that grows long after the end-credits roll.

During my first Sundance in 2013, writer-director Eliza Hittman had a film in the NEXT section titled It Felt Like Love that observed the flourishing sexuality of a curious, quiet teen. With Beach Rats (U.S. Dramatic Competition), Hittman continues on her confident streak as a storyteller and returns to similar salty geographies and sensuous sensibilities. Her film follows Frankie, a miserable teenager who leads a bleak life somewhere around the far side of Brooklyn. With a budding sexuality and growing curiosity about his own sexual identity, Frankie spends a lot of time online and starts hooking up with random guys he meets, while also pursuing a girl to mislead his friends and satisfy his clashing urges. Yet, his actions soon take an unpredictable and dangerous turn. Shot on super-16mm, Hittman’s dreamy, slow-burning feature looks exquisite and introduces a phenomenal young talent (Harris Dickinson) in the lead role.

It wouldn’t be Sundance without at least one boundless crowd-pleaser in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. This year, that film is the Geremy Jasper-written and directed Patti Cake$, which sold to Fox Searchlight, the perfect home for it, for a whopping $10.5 million. It’s perhaps too generous a number, considering the underwhelming box-office performances of similarly youthful, crowd-pleasing titles like Dope and Morris from America from recent years. But nonetheless, it’s an exciting acquisition that will introduce the intimidatingly talented Danielle Macdonald to the world, in a star-making performance as Patti: a fierce rapper from Newark, trying to break into the music world. For the most part, Patti Cake$ operates like a classic underdog story with an outsider everyone would like to root for at the center, elevated by side stories of love, friendship and a mother-daughter tale that brings home the tears.

Joshua Z. Weinstein’s Menashe (NEXT), easily one of the highlights of the festival, is a loving portrayal of an idiosyncratic persona from the Hasidic Jewish community of New York. Played by Menashe Lustig (who apparently had never watched a film in a theatre until Sundance), the affable, kindly Menashe is an oddity within his community from the first moment we’re introduced to him. A grocery store clerk trying to raise his son Rieven alone after the death of his wife Leah, Menashe often goes against what tradition mandates (e.g., he is not allowed to be a single parent as per custom) and insists upon finding his individual voice, rising up against a community critical of his ways and doubtful of his faith. Having received just one chance to prove his worth when his rabbi allows him to spend a special week with Rieven leading up to Leah’s memorial, Menashe embarks on a personal mission to prove all his doubters wrong. Weinstein’s feature debut is not only a heartwarming character study enriched by a delicate father-and-son story, it is also a rare, compassionate peek into a subculture not often represented in film with this level of empathy and sincerity.

Adam Sobel’s The Workers Cup (World Documentary Competition), which underscores an ongoing, large-scale case of abuse of workers’ rights, can perhaps also be called an underdog tale, in addition to an earnest human-rights documentary. The film follows a group of men who work for one of the many companies hired to build state-of-the-art sports facilities in Qatar in preparation for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. These men are among the millions of migrant workers from various countries including Nepal, Ghana and Kenya who sign up for the work opportunity with dreams of playing soccer and providing for their families. Sobel’s documentary soberly observes the vast gap between the workers’ dreams and the dire reality, in which the men live in isolated camps they are not allowed to leave, work inhumane hours, making next to nothing in return. When they finally get their own soccer tournament going (the workers of various companies play against each other, which is only a marketing vehicle for the companies abusing their rights), they find a small glimmer of hope in an otherwise grim world they’re forced to live in. The emotional power of The Workers Cup grows through both getting to know each man closely and the smart juxtaposition Sobel employs in displaying the workers’ living conditions, surrounded by wealth that will always be out of reach for them.

I will be returning home tomorrow, but there is still a lot on my schedule today and tomorrow, as well as films I have already seen but will cover in a final dispatch. Among them are David Lowery’s A Ghost Story (which overnight became a beloved Sundance film that I will watch on my way to the airport) and Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick that I was lucky enough to score a ticket to last night.