By Sean Boelman
The 2021 Sundance Film Festival had the premiere of plenty of great films which remained in the conversation throughout the year, and 2022’s lineup looks to be much of the same. With a slate that includes plenty of high-profile premieres with big directors and stars, as well as plenty of exciting indie films from across the world waiting to be discovered, this year looks to be a strong one.
We at disappointment media are excited to be covering the 2022 virtual edition of the Sundance Film Festival. Here are some of our thoughts on some of the films we have been able to screen! Be sure to check back on this article regularly, as we will be adding more capsule reviews throughout the festival.
Shalini Kantayya’s last documentary received quite a bit of acclaim after its Sundance debut, and so her newest work about the social media app TikTok was one of the more intriguing documentaries in the festival this year, but it also had the potential to be a massive dud. And while it isn’t a total failure, there are a lot of things here that will rub viewers the wrong way. For every portion of the film that offers an interesting commentary on the terrifying TikTok algorithm, or the discussions of censorship that have troubled the app’s history, there are two that are just a fluff piece on influencers. It’s a mixed bag of a film.
Aftershock is the type of documentary where it is hard not to admire it at least for the fact that it does exist, even if its execution is a less than satisfying exploration of these ideas. Following a group of activists who are providing a voice for the Black women who have died as a result of unequal access to good maternal healthcare. When the film is exploring the injustices of the medical system in the United States, it’s an impressively timely watch, but when it comes to the case studies, they are presented in such a tear-jerking way that they don’t have the expected impact.
The Mexican film Dos Estaciones won a Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance for the lead performance of Teresa Sánchez, and it is absolutely understandable why. Sánchez does a tremendous job of the woman at the head of a community which is collapsing, and while the film itself is a bit of a slow burn, it works extremely well. As a commentary on how foreigners exert their influence to the detriment of local populations, the film is very profound and quietly angry, which when coupled with Sánchez’s performance, allows it to get its message across.
All That Breathes
Shaunak Sen’s documentary All That Breathes may be about a pair of brothers who run a bird conservatory, but this story is indicative of some of the greater troubles that are going on in the community in which it is set. Exploring both the ecological issues and political turmoil that are happening in the city of Delhi, there is a lot going on here, but it explores them in a way that is thoughtful and poetic. And as one of the more visually-oriented documentaries of the festival, the film will leave viewers in awe of how these brothers find the beauty in the darkness.
Ricky D’Ambrose’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film The Cathedral is the obligatory film in the NEXT category that received its selection due to its unique style more so than unique content. And while the film definitely isn’t bad — there are some really powerful moments throughout, especially if you can get on the film’s wavelength early on — one can’t help but feel like it’s a gimmicky approach to something that has been done many times before. It is still going to be exciting to see what D’Ambrose does next, because his debut shows a lot of potential, even if it isn’t a satisfying film in its own right.
Free Chol Soo Lee
There have been many documentaries about wrongfully convicted prisoners, but few as effective as Free Chol Soo Lee. Telling the story of a Korean immigrant who was falsely imprisoned after being accused of committing a gang murder, this is definitely one of the most tragic films to play at this year’s Sundance. Some really great use of archive footage transports the viewer back into the era in which these events took place and stresses the importance of us remembering this case today even though it happened so many years ago.
A lot of documentaries come out with stories that are so weird they must be true, and that is the place where Instant Life is coming from. However, this three-hour docuseries stretches what should have been an interesting story into something that is rather dull by going on too many tangents. Following the inventor of the novelty sea monkeys, there are some portions of the series that are interesting, like one about the legal issues that their creator’s wife is having in the modern day, but for the most part, it feels like a lot of rambling, which is frustrating.
The second of two films to be picked up by National Geographic out of Sundance, Alex Pritz’s The Territory follows the residents of an Indigenous community in the Amazon as their land is taken over by outside forces. Although the film does not have as much urgency as one would hope it would, it’s still an interesting exploration of a very important issue. And perhaps the most welcome thing about the film is that it takes a very human approach to the subject matter, rather than the environmental angle that films usually take.
One of the most widely acclaimed documentaries to come out of this year’s festival, Margaret Brown’s Descendant tells the story of the descendants of the last slave ship to travel to America from Africa. Yet despite this story being interesting on paper and having some intense ties to modern-day racism, the film’s dry presentation makes it about as interesting as a history lecture. Brown wisely avoids most of the archeological aspects of the story, instead opting for the human elements that are easier to connect with, but this is the type of film that makes its point early and overstays its welcome.
There have been plenty of documentaries to come out since the height of the MeToo movement that explore the cases of celebrities coming forward against their abusers. HBO’s Phoenix Rising is one of the more intimate ones, offering an impressive level of access to its subject Evan Rachel Wood. And while this is a no-holds-barred look at Wood’s abusive relationship with musician Marilyn Manson, and it obviously goes down some dark paths as a result, a feeling of hope is dominant, just as the title would imply. Although only the first half of the two-part documentary was shown, it is still thoroughly affecting.
Julian Higgins’s directorial debut God’s Country is an already solid film elevated into a legitimately strong one by an astounding lead performance. This movie truly rests on Thandiwe Newton’s back, who is absolutely crushing in her role. The story is simple, and the things that it has to say about racism and sexism are interesting if somewhat shallow, but Newton’s restrainedly powerful turn gives it an undeniable emotional oomph. Also impressive is the level of potential that Higgins shows behind the camera in crafting his moody, neo-Western atmosphere. It may not be the most grippingly-written, although Higgins and co. pull it off well.
The annual zany shock comedy in the festival midnight section this year is Monia Chokri’s Babysitter, and while there is some interesting commentary here about misogyny and the fragility of the male ego, the film doesn’t feel like it’s hitting quite hard enough in exploring these topics. It’s a film that seemingly prides itself on being edgy, but it doesn’t push all that many boundaries and is in fact quite tame for the section (especially compared to some of the films that have filled its niche in past years). That said, it works pretty well from a stylistic angle.
Am I OK?
Tig Notaro is a pretty widely beloved comedian, and so her feature directorial debut (co-directed with Stephanie Allynne) was definitely one of the more hotly-anticipated premieres of the festival. Unfortunately, Am I OK? is a very standard romantic comedy, and while it does have a few moments that feel intimate and special, much of Lauren Pomerantz’s script devolves into rather bland territory. Dakota Johnson is charming enough in her role, but the character’s arc is about as generic of a sexual discovery as they come. But perhaps even more disappointing is that the film isn’t all that funny, sorely lacking a humorous touch.
Bradley Rust Grey’s romantic drama blood is certainly a very intimate film, even if that feeling of intimacy doesn’t always translate into genuine emotion. Following a widow who travels to Japan and is embraced by an old friend, it’s quite pensive but not in a way that is overly gloomy. This is a film that deals more in mood than anything else, and it doesn’t have the substance to back up its nearly two-hour runtime. That said, Carla Juri’s performance is effectively tender, and those who are satisfied with watching her vibe in Japan for the length of a feature may find this more entertaining.
Premiering in the World Cinema Dramatic competition, Girl Picture is the type of coming-of-age drama that confuses edginess for insight. Although the film is sure to find it’s fair share of fans — it’s stylistically interesting, and its frank look at rebellious youth will connect with many — Alli Haapasalo’s film ends up feeling like an imitation of better films that came before, which is disappointing given the fact that it so desperately wants to stand out amongst the pack. The three lead actresses all give strong performances, but that’s hardly enough to carry a script that is far more standard than its ideas.
Nina Menkes’s film theory documentary Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power has an interesting thesis about the objectification and commoditization of women’s bodies in cinema, but it is argued in such a frustrating way that the film becomes quite angering. Menkes entirely dismisses anything that is presented satirically, and also almost everything that shows women reclaiming their sexuality (even in films directed by women). Yet Menkes gives herself (and a select few others) praise for the same work that she shames others for? Even more embarrassing is the fact that the film makes some genuinely ignorant points that verge on conspiracy theory. This film’s heart is in the right place, but it’s not effective in execution.
James Ponsoldt’s filmography has been a wild ride, with the generally acclaimed The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour being bright spots, and his last film, the (perhaps unfairly) maligned The Circle stalling his work. Well the “kids” movie Summering is a career-killer, a truly atrocious film in a way that is just hilariously misguided. It’s like a modern riff on Stand by Me that doesn’t make any sense, with characters that have no reason to be friends other than their proximity, and a cast with no chemistry whatsoever. And there are some scenes in the film so laughably bad that you will be wheezing.
Ramin Bahrani is a filmmaker known for his propensity for social subtext, but his newest film, the documentary 2nd Chance, is surprisingly and disappointingly flat. Telling the story of the pizzeria owner who became an entrepreneur when he invented the bulletproof vest, this is one of those documentaries that is meant to be a wild but true story, but this isn’t as crazy of a tale as Bahrani seems to think it is. In fact, Bahrani can’t seem to decide what angle to take on his subject: is he a Byronic hero with a tragic rise and fall, or a bad guy representing the worst of capitalism? By the end, the audience won’t really care.
Every Day in Kaimukī
The NEXT section in the Sundance Film Festival is the one which often allows for the most discoveries of unique films from independent artists, and Every Day in Kaimukī may be the most “indie” film at this year’s festival. A charming film about a skate-loving radio DJ in Hawaii who is trying to get out of the place where he grew up, the film may be slight and doesn’t have anything particularly new or insightful today, but the character development allows it to resonate nevertheless. The vibes are also great, as this is a fun, lighthearted hangout movie in a generally pretty dark lineup.
Rita Baghdadi’s Sirens is a music documentary, but it’s also much more than that. Following the Middle East’s first all-female heavy metal band, this is probably one of the best coming-of-age films you will see in a festival lineup that is stuffed to the brim with them. Although Baghdadi definitely respects the music of Slave to Sirens, she recognizes what makes the band special: its members. The film also explores the societal context in which their music is being made, from their sexual identity to the political turmoil in their home country, and while the short runtime holds it back, it’s still quite compelling.
Brian and Charles
A lot of features at Sundance have been developed by their filmmakers from their shorts with the same concept, but sometimes, they would have been better off staying as a short. Jim Archer’s Brian and Charles doesn’t make much of its premise — basically Frankenstein if it were a buddy comedy — aside from some occasional cuteness. It’s not a film that is easy to hate because it is wholesome and entirely harmless, but there is little that will leave much of a lasting impact on viewers. Co-writer/star David Earl is charming enough, but it’s clear that the film needed a bit of oil.
The last two documentaries that Steven Soderbergh was an executive producer on were The King and Citizenfour, both of which were excellent, so it was clear that The Exiles needed to be a priority at Sundance. Violet Columbus and Ben Klein’s film is excellent, telling the story of a documentary filmmaker who was one of the first people to start making a film about the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Although the film works well as a political documentary about the tragedy, it is perhaps more interesting as an examination of how society interacts and responds to nonfiction filmmaking.
There are some films in any festival lineup where it seems they were selected more for their star power than the quality of the film as a whole. Horror regular Maika Monroe gives a decent performance in the psychological thriller Watcher, but ultimately, the movie around her is so dull that even solid work from her only goes so far. Chloe Okuno has a very competent style in her feature directorial debut, but the fact that it is so unoriginal and feels more like a rip-off than an homage does not help it build tension whatsoever.
Leonor Will Never Die
The feature debut of Filipino filmmaker Martika Ramirez Escobar, Leonor Will Never Die is an intriguing work of metafiction, although like many first films, its interesting ideas don’t always come to fruition. The film follows a once-popular filmmaker who finds herself transported into her unfinished screenplay, and is an exploration of the relationship between life and cinema. However, it’s a bit too goofy to take it on its face value as a serious drama, and not funny enough to work as a satire. As such, what we get is a series of solidly-crafted homages, albeit ones that show the promise of a budding voice.
La Guerra Civil
The fight between Oscar de la Hoya and Julio César Chavéz was, at the time and still now, one of the biggest matchups in all of boxing history. And in her documentary La Guerra Civil, Eva Longoria Bastón tells the story of the fight while also exploring its context and significance within the Latino community. As a sports documentary, it’s not the greatest — its straightforward presentation causes the fighting scenes to be pretty dull — but its cultural aspects are fascinating. In other hands, it would have been another dime-a-dozen boxing doc, but Longoria makes it into something genuinely refreshing.
Fire of Love
The best thing about nature documentaries is often their stunning cinematography, and while there is absolutely no shortage of that in Fire of Love, filmmaker Sara Dosa has made a film that is part nature documentary and part real-life romance. Following a husband-and-wife volcanologist duo, the film focuses on both the work they did in regards to exploring the mysteries of the Earth, as well as how their common love for the planet brought them together. It’s a gorgeous film in more ways than one, and its unorthodox approach makes it easy to recommend, even for those who aren’t typically a fan of scientific documentaries.
Gabriel Martins’s Mars One is definitely reminiscent of the work of several Latin American filmmakers who came before him, but his intimate approach allows the story to resonate nevertheless. There is an interesting political context to this kaleidoscopic portrait of a low-income family in Brazil, but for better or worse, the film’s focus is firmly on the more emotional and introspective aspects of these characters’ lives. It’s a very well-shot film, and the script is moving and even occasionally gorgeous, but it bites off a bit too much to chew for it to be excellent.
The 2022 Sundance Film Festival runs virtually January 20-30.
The Snake Hole
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