Review by Sean Boelman
In recent years, the NEXT category at Sundance has been home to some idiosyncratic features, but nothing as truly experimental as Alison O’Daniel’s The Tuba Thieves. While the film does lack a sense of focus that it needed to tie itself together, it is such a fantastic experiment in filmmaking that it is hard not to be fascinated by it.
The film explores the filmmaker’s own experience with hearing loss against the backdrop of a series of robberies in Southern California targeting tubas. As is the case with many experimental films, this is the type of movie that you admire more than you enjoy it, but O’Daniel’s vision is so distinctive that it demands to be seen.
O’Daniel weaves between stories in an almost vignette-like manner, with thematic connections linking the various images we see. For audiences who are not a fan of experimental narratives like this, it’s possible that their patience will wear out quickly. And while the project doesn’t cohere as much as one would like, there are some individual moments that are absolutely brilliant.
The most interesting thing about the film is how it experiments with the cinematic form. O’Daniel uses common techniques in uncommon ways to create a cinematic experience unlike any other. For example, the use of the entire frame’s space as a canvas for captioning really reinforces the captions as a part of the creation rather than an ancillary tool.
Of course, the film also uses sound in unique, impressive ways, creating an interplay between silence and noise that creates a disorienting effect. Audiences will be transfixed by the experimental style of the film and absorbed in the world that O’Daniel creates, even if they don’t entirely understand the story.
Admittedly, the title and premise are a bit misleading, as the storyline of the tubas being stolen is hardly the focus of the film, instead serving as a recurring motif. It seems clear that O’Daniel is trying to create a parallelism between this story and her experience with hearing loss, and while she isn’t always effective at making that connection, the film at least deserves admiration for its ambition.
In a way, it feels almost as if O’Daniel is painting with too large of a stroke. The film is at its most interesting when it explores the relationship between its two main subjects, Nyke and Nature Boy. The other story threads are used to help solidify the themes but are too underdeveloped to work in their own right.
The Tuba Thieves is a movie that many people aren’t going to understand, much less enjoy. However, it is clearly one of the most ambitious, singular works of experimental filmmaking in recent memory, even if it doesn’t always sink all of the shots it makes.
The Tuba Thieves is playing at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 19-29 in-person in Park City, UT and January 24-29 online.