February 7, 2022

Sundance Film Festival 2022 highlights

By Shane Danielsen
Still image from ‘Utama’, directed by Alejandro Loayza Grisi. Image supplied

Still from Utama, directed by Alejandro Loayza Grisi. Image supplied

Ricky D’Ambrose’s largely autobiographical ‘The Cathedral’ is breathtaking, while a handful of feature debuts also impress

Operating as a virtual rather than an in-person event for the second year in a row, this year’s Sundance Film Festival seemed even lower-wattage than in 2021, yet this was no bad thing. For many years a branding exercise rather than an actual descriptor, the term “independent film” (long synonymous with Sundance) has suddenly become meaningful once more, as studios shutter their boutique, lower-budget divisions to concentrate more or less exclusively on tentpoles and franchises. In this climate, inhospitable to dramas and comedies alike, filmmakers have scrambled to find ways to tell smaller, more personal stories, usually by cobbling together tiny budgets from a messy patchwork of funding sources. 

That’s not to say that money doesn’t sometimes follow: Apple TV acquired world rights to Cooper Raiff’s comedy Cha Cha Real Smooth (which also won an audience award) for US$15 million – a figure reminiscent of the festival’s heyday in the early 2000s; and Sony bought Living, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru starring Bill Nighy, for US$5 million. But these deals, by far the festival’s biggest, were very much the exceptions. For the most part a sense of diminished expectations prevailed, on the part of buyers and audiences alike.

The best film I watched, ironically, was not a Sundance discovery: rather, it was funded in full (to the tune of just 150,000 euros) by the Biennale College of the Venice Film Festival, and premiered there last September. The Cathedral, by Ricky D’Ambrose, is a study of an American life – largely autobiographical, according to its 35-year-old maker – and also a study of the life of America, from the late 1980s through to the first years of the new century, as framed by the experiences of an extended Long Island family. Part (moving) picture-book, part aide-mémoire, the film charts the birth and evolution of its maker’s artistic sensibility amid a period of national and personal decline.

D’Ambrose alternates short dramatic scenes with tableau-like shots of particular objects that happen to be resonant in his personal cosmology (a paper plate of leftover birthday cake, a lipstick-red fire alarm on a classroom wall) and also with clips taken from news footage from the period. Bill Clinton’s first State of the Union speech is framed as a moment of prelapsarian grace: a summit of American wealth and potency. The Soviets have fallen, the Cold War is over and the future is bright, both for five-year-old Jesse Damrosch, the filmmaker’s alter ego, and for the country to which he belongs. 

But thereafter the calamities begin piling up, both on a national level (the Oklahoma City bombing, Hurricane Katrina and, inevitably, September 11) and a personal one (marriages end, family fissures deepen, grandparents die). A female voiceover narrates these shifts in fortune in a cool, matter-of-fact tone; the effect, at times, is not unlike early Peter Greenaway remaking Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes

With his fixed camera and precise framing, his preference for narrative elisions and astute use of off-screen space, D’Ambrose’s debt to Bresson is clear. But by casting Brian d’Arcy James as Jesse’s father – a man first dismayed and then enraged by his irrelevance to the world and to the family he tried to build – the filmmaker introduces an element that pushes against the self-imposed limits of his aesthetic. Bristling and petulant, James’s performance seethes with all the emotion the film’s formalism holds at bay, and the resulting tension – between conception and execution – is breathtaking to behold. 

Jesse (played by four different actors of various ages) remains little more than a cipher throughout, watching alertly from the sidelines; nevertheless, there’s an undeniable pain underlining this account, a raw, howling grief directed as much towards time and fate as at the shortcomings of parents. Its final moments, in particular, are unbearably moving, a recognition that, as you grow older, all that’s left to you are scraps of memories that begin to resemble a séance. A ghost-train procession of those now gone.

Hardly less superb, though utterly different in tone, was Emily the Criminal, a tough, tense little crime thriller that marks the auspicious feature debut of writer-director John Patton Ford. Aubrey Plaza stars as a young woman with a heavy burden of student-loan debt and a felony record (for aggravated assault) that keeps her from any job that might begin to relieve it. She scrapes by with shiftwork at a catering company until one day a friendly co-worker tips her off to a side-hustle: “dummy shopping”, that is, purchasing goods with cloned credit cards and then selling them on to bargain-hungry consumers. I feel personally invested in this shadow-economy, since I bought my TV (the same TV I watched this film on, in fact) in precisely this way: a brand-new 75” Panasonic I scored for $400 in a parking lot in Bellflower from a Puerto Rican gangbanger with a pistol tucked into his belt and two pitbulls barking in his van. 

Seduced by the promise of easy cash, Emily is also lured by the romantic attention of her handler Youcef (a very hot Theo Rossi). Their scenes together have a genuine sizzle, though the relationship – like the plot entire – is shot through with a noir-ish fatalism. There are few happy endings in this milieu, as she quickly realises, after first being beaten up by a guy she’s trying to scam, then being held at knifepoint by some rogue buyers as desperate as herself. Each of these incidents serves to amplify a violence inside Emily that she thought she had under control, leading her inexorably to a point of no return. But then, what choice does she have? She has nothing, after all, to go back to.

Plaza has been a compelling presence ever since Parks and Recreation, but despite sterling work in films like Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), she looked for a while like she might be typecast as an affectless, sarcastic Gen-Z slacker. She clearly felt the same, and so began developing and producing projects to star in, under her wonderfully named Evil Hag Productions. To date, she’s made Ingrid Goes West (2017), Black Bear (2020) and now Emily the Criminal, the strongest yet. Like the best noirs, it’s both a crime story and a snapshot of social malaise, the action glancing sideways every so often to take aim at the failure of labour unions in the United States and the bullshit practice of unpaid internships at wildly successful companies. (“You want to tell me what to do,” Emily snaps at one would-be employer, “then put me on the fucking payroll.”) Ford refuses to judge his heroine too harshly – and why should he? When the deck is so clearly stacked against you, there’s no shame in gaming an unjust system. Emily may have made some mistakes, but she’s also smart, courageous and justifiably pissed off. You’re on her side.

Equally outstanding was Palm Trees and Power Lines, the debut feature from writer-director Jamie Dack, which I managed to catch despite the strenuous attempts of its publicist to deny it any publicity. I’m very glad I made the effort, since it’s likely to rank as one of the best American films of the year, tackling a thorny subject with admirable care and diligence, but also a ruthless honesty that bespeaks real artistry.

Lea (screen debutante Lily McInerny) is a 17-year-old girl drifting through idle summer days in a suburban backwater. (The film was shot around Los Angeles, though you’d never know it.) She’s directionless, restless; her friends are beginning to bore her. Her single mother (Gretchen Mol) is a fitful presence in her life, perpetually distracted by one rotten boyfriend or another. The opening shots – of Lea wandering aimlessly beside a highway, sunbathing in her yard, watching a YouTube make-up tutorial – suggest a dreamy, even wistful portrait of adolescent longing à la The Virgin Suicides. But the tone shifts abruptly when, in a diner with her buddies, she first notices Tom (Jonathan Tucker), a guy twice her age, who winks at her as he leaves and then saves her from an angry manager after her friends skip out without paying. He’s friendly, charming, attractive. And above all patient: careful never to push too hard or ask for too much too soon. He takes her seriously, listens to her complaints; he tells her she’s beautiful. And so, inevitably, Lea falls in love with him – unaware, as she does, that Tom is a pimp, and simply grooming her to turn her out.

Composing in widescreen, Dack favours simple frames, long takes and a desaturated, low-contrast palette. The effect is elegant but not showy: your attention is fixed on the performances, and the gross power imbalance they reveal between these two characters. McInerny and Tucker are each superb, and the electricity of their scenes together is enhanced by Dack’s measured pacing; she’s admirably unafraid to let a beat play long, so as to better drive home the full horror of what’s taking place. (I watched two actual horror films at Sundance, and neither was remotely as unsettling as this one, a kind of treatise on the nature and limits of informed consent.) Dack won the festival’s US Dramatic Directing award, and thoroughly deserved it: her grip doesn’t slacken for a single instant throughout the film’s 110 minutes – right up to an ending as unexpected and powerful as one could wish for.

Over in the World Cinema Competition, meanwhile, were two quieter but no less rewarding pleasures, both from Latin America. Dos Estaciones is both the title of filmmaker Juan Pablo González’s first feature and the name of a tequila factory located in the highlands of Mexico’s Jalisco region, where he was raised. Its motto – “Jalisco is Mexico” – attests both to the foundational role the state plays in Mexico’s cultural heritage and to its bedrock social conservatism. Yet González subtly queers the pitch: Maria Garcia, the factory’s owner and manager, is not only a respected jefé in what’s traditionally been a man’s world, but also an out-and-proud lesbian; and her hairdresser, Tatín Vera, is an openly transgender woman. Both these things are accepted matter-of-factly by the locals, perhaps because a broader change is already upending their small, surprisingly fragile world.

As the film opens, the factory – and, by extension, the economy of the entire village – is in trouble, weighed down by debts and crippled by a shrinking market share. The global tequila market, you see, has in recent years been upended by a proliferation of US-based celebrity brands, with everyone from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to Kendall Jenner launching their own lines. The practice is essentially fraudulent (“Celebrities just reach out to a local factory,” explains LA-based bartender Lucas Assis, “the factory sends out samples they have, they put their name on the bottles and market it at whatever price they think will sell”) but, what’s worse, the heightened demand has driven up the price of the blue agave plants from which the drink’s base ingredient is derived. As a result, many older producers like Dos Estaciones are being forced into bankruptcy.

Gonzales and co-writers Ana Isabel Fernández and Ilana Coleman construct their story patiently; the opening 20 minutes could easily be a documentary about the process of artisanal tequila manufacture. We witness harvesting in the agave fields, explore the factory (where bottles are still labelled by hand) and watch as Maria closely supervises her small team of workers. Teresa Sánchez, who impressed in Lila Avilés’ 2018 drama The Chambermaid, is about the only professional actor here, and she invests Maria with a steely, stolid imperturbability, so much so that when her facade finally cracks – via her tentative romantic overtures to a new hire, a pretty young accountant – the shift is almost unnerving. 

But the drama quietly builds around her, as a succession of Biblical calamities – a plague, a flood – force Maria to take desperate measures to ensure the survival of her business. The final act is as coldly forensic as a Michael Haneke film, and all the more powerful for its restraint.

Finally, there was Utama, the remarkable debut of Bolivian director Alejandro Loayza Grisi, which takes viewers to the high desert plains of the Altiplano in the Bolivian Andes, more than 11,000 feet above sea level, where an elderly couple live in a small mud-brick hut and tend a herd of llamas. Virginio and Sisa (played by non-pros José Calcina and Luisa Quispe) have inhabited the region their entire lives, and while their days are long and the work hard, there’s clearly a deep wellspring of affection between them. 

Lately, however, water has been hard to come by: ice deposits have ceased to form on the mountaintops around them and the rains they’ve been waiting for are late. The vast, arid landscape looks like the surface of Mars. “Time”, one neighbouring farmer sighs, “has gotten tired.” As if this weren’t bad enough, Virginio is suffering from a respiratory ailment that has begun to impede his ability to work. He takes care to conceal his condition from Sisa, but it doesn’t escape the eye of his grandson Clever, when the youth arrives unexpectedly by motorcycle. He urges the couple to come to the city and live with their family there (“There’s nothing left here”), but neither Virginio nor his wife are willing to leave – the film’s title means “our home” in their native Quechua dialect. Finally the old man undertakes a journey with his fellow farmers to perform a ritual that will, supposedly, relieve the drought. But what he gains instead is a sense of his own impending death.

The term “visually stunning” has become a cliché. But only when something like this comes along do you realise how devalued the phrase is. The opening shot alone – of Virginio walking toward the rising sun – almost beggars belief. Grisi began his career as a stills photographer, and his extraordinary compositional eye seems equally adept at capturing landscapes and portraits. (He’s not exactly hampered, either, by the contribution of Argentine cinematographer Bárbara Álvarez, who shot Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman.) These extraordinary images imbue this small, ethnographic tale with a mythic significance, becoming finally a meditation on the cost of living and dying on one’s own terms, and the prideful arrogance to which that too often is heir. It won the Grand Jury Prize and, if there’s any justice, it should enjoy a long and storied festival life.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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