Sundance 2017 Dispatch 4: It's a wrap

ScreenerBlog

All good things come to an end eventually. The 2017 Sundance Film Festival is far from over: the awards ceremony is tomorrow and screenings will continue through the day after. But it’s over for me and for many other writers, critics and journalists, who one by one said goodbye to the snowy grounds of Park City mostly on Thursday and Friday. In its final weekend, the festival is left mostly to locals, the hardcore holdouts or those individuals (smart ones, as I think of them) who drop in for the second week of the festival to see the pre-vetted films that are generating buzz.

In my fifth year at the festival, I am noticing more and more that there is always an annual narrative about how it’s been an “underwhelming” Sundance. It never changes. This year, I couldn’t disagree more. The 2017 edition of Sundance was one for the books; one that was in touch with the current political and social turmoil, and not only through the "Women’s March on Main" that took place last Saturday. Its documentary programming included a trio of films looking at the Syrian political climate and refugee crisis (Last Men in Aleppo, City of Ghosts and the brutal Cries from Syria.) As I mentioned in my first dispatch, climate change was also a big topic in this year’s lineup. Additionally, from Mudbound to The Big Sick, many of the popular premiere titles in the lineup depicted timely themes such as racism and cross-cultural acceptance. Other than seeing an honest reflection of our times, the best you could hope for in a festival of this scale and scope is seeing a pair of masterful works (this year, they have been Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name and Dee Rees’ Mudbound for me), discover a few directors who are making their debuts or whose work is new to you (Michelle Morgan with L. A. Times, Maggie Betts with Novitiate and Marti Noxon with To the Bone made strong impressions), be lucky enough to watch some off-the-beaten-path films that no one else seems to be talking about nearly as much as they should (Nana & Simon’s My Happy Family, Alex & Andrew Smith’s Walking Out and Joshua Z. Weinstein’s Menashe) and be in the room to witness the birth of a brand-new star (you will hear of Patti Cake$’ Danielle Macdonald, everyone.) Despite including a few unfortunate duds, I have to say the 2017 Sundance Film Festival has been a great success by all accounts.

If you disregard Shawn Christensen’s Sidney Hall (which, despite strong performances from Elle Fanning and Logan Lerman, I sadly found unwatchable and left after its first hour), my final couple of days at the festival were marked by some truly outstanding titles. The biggest triumph was scoring a valuable ticket to Michael Showalter’s festival darling The Big Sick (Premieres), starring Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani. Telling the true story of its co-writers (Najiani and Emily V. Gordon, a real-life couple), the film follows the duo and their blossoming cross-cultural relationship. They meet-cute at a comedy club during one of Nanjiani’s stand-up routines.  Being a Pakistan-born immigrant, Nanjiani can’t go against his traditions and a family that insists he meets (via various fix-ups) and marries a nice Pakistani girl. But then, out of the blue, Emily gets sick and their relationship takes a new turn with the involvement of her parents, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Produced by Judd Apatow, The Big Sick is a layered and handsomely written romantic comedy that does justice to a contemporary couple facing modern-day relationship hurdles juxtaposed against Eastern traditions battling Western values. It has an undeniably big heart and honesty, and is charged by a heartwarming chemistry between the leads.

Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West (U.S. Dramatic Competition) was a true delight and a gradually darkening tale about the grim side of social media and fixation with online popularity. Among numerous films this year that had a backdrop of the perceived shallowness and rhythms of Los Angeles (L. A. Times and Before I Fall among them), Ingrid Goes West follows Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza), an obsessive young woman who moves to Los Angeles on a whim to get close to Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), a lifestyle guru with a huge Instagram following. In a very Talented Mr. Ripley-esque way, Ingrid manufactures a scenario in which she meets and befriends Taylor: an initially harmless attempt that takes a dark turn after a number of happy days of friendship. (This once again will bring The Talented Mr. Ripley to mind in more ways than one.) A uniquely talented actress with signature awkwardness, Aubrey Plaza shines in the role of Ingrid, a character that is finally a match for her talents.

In Mother of George director Andrew Dosunmu’s Where Is Kyra? (Premieres), Michelle Pfeiffer slips into a role that could be her comeback at last. Playing a Brooklyn woman with an old, sick mother and severe financial problems after losing her job, Kyra has no option but to get creative about obtaining money for survival. Dosunmu, and his (now Oscar-nominated) cinematographer Bradford Young, go for an extremely dark look and feel, frame Kyra to isolate her throughout, and use negative space on screen to further highlight Kyra’s out-of-place, helpless state. Where Is Kyra? mostly plays like a Chantal Akerman film in its pace while following Kyra’s daily routines and her newfound relationship with Doug (Kiefer Sutherland), and makes a timely statement about the thin line between financial security and demise. In that, Dosunmu’s Kyra very much shares a DNA with I, Daniel Blake’s Katie (Hayley Squires.)

Writer-directors Alex and Andrew Smith’s Walking Out (U.S. Dramatic Competition) tells an elemental story set in the wilderness, following a father and son bonding in a hunting adventure during their annual visit together in Montana. After the attack of a grizzly bear, freak accidents follow the duo and young David (Josh Wiggins) finds he has to quite literally shoulder not only his survival battle, but also his father Cal’s (Matt Bomer). Walking Out is initially a cold film, emotionally distanced from the audience. But as the survival fight of the father and son grows more intense (and as Cal shares his own first hunting stories with his son), the filmmakers create a unique bond between the characters and the audience, scored to Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas aria “When I’m Laid in Earth.” Ultimately, the hero here is DP Todd McMullen, who brings Philippe Rousselot’s work in A River Runs Through It to mind (and whose name earned a big round of applause at the Eccles).

My Thursday (and final) morning unfortunately didn't quite go as planned. Having caught the infamous Sundance flu the night before, I dragged my sniffling self to the Prospector Theater, conveniently located near my condo for the 8:30 am screening of David Lowery's A Ghost Story. But despite holding a ticket, I wasn't let in due to the large number of fancy pass holders who showed up at the last minute. Sometimes, you need to be prepared to hear "No" at Sundance, swallow your pride and turn around with a plan B.

Acquisition news is still coming in out of Park City (with Netflix leading the pack with nine titles so far), and Mudbound is still holding out. Whoever buys it, the news will be huge as it is, alongside Call Me by Your Name, the only possibly awards-bound title out of Sundance. But there is a lot of time to worry about all that. First stop is Sundance’s own awards tomorrow. The only thing I know for sure right now is that Sundance audiences absolutely adored Patti Cake$, so watch out for that one to make big waves this weekend.

Until next year…