The 40th Annual Sundance Film Festival has been going on for over a week now, but those of us who haven’t been able to attend in person have had to wait until some (and only some) of the movies are available to watch online through the digital platform. We’ve had Abe Friedtanzer on the ground, who has already submitted a few reviews, but here are few more shorter takes on some of this year’s movies in the dramatic competition.
Writer/Directors: Sam and Andy Zuchero
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Steven Yeun
Talk about one of the strangest premises you’re bound to see come out of Sundance, or possibly any festival or film this year, the tagline for Sam and Andy Zuchero’s debut film is “Long after humanity’s extinction, a buoy and a satellite meet online and fall in love.” And that is factually accurate.
After a quick sequence that shows the entire history of the earth from the Big Bang to the extinction event, covering billions of years in a matter of seconds, we meet the actual “smart buoy” and a satellite orbiting above the long-dormant and inhabitable earth, just as they connect online without knowing anything about the world around them or the long extinct humanity.
She starts finding videos online, including the social media of an influencer named Deja (played by Kristen Stewart), who is in a loving relationship with Liam (Steven Yeun). Incidentally, Stewart also voices the buoy (Me) and Yeun voices the satellite (Iam). What progresses from there is that we watch as they learn about each other, and about life and love and relationships, often by watching the lives of these long-dead influencers. It doesn’t all go well, as this unconventional relationship runs into many bumps and hurdles, but it’s fascinating to watch them learn about each other in such a uniquely human way.
Much of the film is told using found footage and various forms of animation, although it’s obvious that both Stewart and Yeun are giving these roles and the film they’re all. These roles give them both a chance to do great work, with Yeun proving that he may be one of the best actors currently working, and he elevates Stewart in the process.
It’s hard to tell who might like or love or loathe this movie, which has seemingly been quite divisive out of Park City. For those who have been in a dysfunctional relationship, there are parts of Love Me that might hit a little too close to home. For those who have been deeply in love, there are parts to the film that warms the heart.
Maybe it’s a misnomer to compare Love Me to a live action WALL*E, though it’s also difficult to avoid that comparison, since this movie similarly pulls you in with its deeply thoughtful approach to a love story.
Writer/Director: Titus Kaphar
Cast: André Holland, John Earl Jelks, Andra Day, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor
One ongoing theme of the films I’ve seen at Sundance so far, is that there are many extremely personal stories that make you wonder how much of what you’re watching really happened in the filmmaker’s life that inspired the film. Titus Kaphar is best known as an artist whose work has been displayed in many galleries worldwide, plus he’s directed a few shorts including the doc, Shut Up and Paint, but I went into Exhibiting Forgiveness knowing absolutely nothing about him or his film.
André Holland’s Tarrell acts as Kaphar’s stand-in, a successful artist whose homeless junkie father (John Earl Jelks) turns up at the worst possible time in his life, hoping to make up for his past misdeed. Tarrell isn’t quite ready to forgive and forget, and as we learn about the relationship between father and son, the dysfunctions between them go back many decades.
Exhibiting Forgiveness is a film that really grows on you, because there are earlier aspects of the film there just to introduce the characters and their relationships, but it’s when it gets into the real nitty-gritty, the familial problems that have led them to this point, that’s where the emotional fireworks begin and you start understanding
Jelks gives a terrific breakout performance, not just in the present day but also in a flashback where we see him being abusive towards the younger Tarrell. Origin star Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor has a smaller role as Tarrell’s mother, but she, too, has some strong dramatic scenes with Holland, and it’s that dramatic triangle and Kaphar’s trio of talented actors that form a perfect core for the story Kaphar is trying to tell.
Even so, make no mistake that it’s his writing and direction that makes Exhibiting Foregiveness such a powerful and singular drama that will leave you quite shaken up by its emotional ending.
Writer/Director: Jesse Eisenberg
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kieran Culkin
Two years after premiering his directorial debut When You Finish Saving the World at Sundance, actor Jesse Eisenberg returns with his second movie as a director, this one in which he stars with recent Emmy winner Kieran Culkin (Succession), and a far more personal story, as well.
Eisenberg and Culkin are cousins Dave and Benjie, who have been estranged but reunite for a trip to Poland to revisit the land of their grandmother, who struggled through the Holocaust to get to America. It’s immediately obvious that the two cousins have very different personalities that don’t always gel, and while Benjie is outgoing to their fellow tourists visiting many Holocaust locations, Dave is constantly embarrassed by him.
What’s fun about this pairing is that both Eisenberg and Culkin began their careers almost at the same time in 2001 and 2002, although Eisenberg was more of a Sundance regular than Culkin who, before Succession, was not particularly active, other than a great role in Edgar Wright‘s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
A Real Pain is warm and funny, with Culkin delivering a performance that makes it obvious that his tenure on Succession has really upped his game as an actor to the point where he could be giving Oscar-worthy roles soon enough. Eisenberg has made a far stronger and more mainstream film here but one that still allows him to include things that are important and personal to him. It was very little surprise this was picked up Searchlight Studios, because they know this be an entertaining film which hopefully will get a theatrical release and not just be dumped to Hulu.
Writer/Director: Laura Chinn
Cast: Nico Parker, Laura Linney, Woody Harrelson
Laura Chinn is an actor/writer whose big break came in 2019 with her Pop TV series, Florida Girls, and who brings this extremely personal coming-of-age story to Sundance, already having theatrical and streaming distribution from Searchlight Studios and Hulu in place for next month.
The movie stars Nico Parker (The Last of Us) as Doris, a 17-year-old Floridian girl in St. Petersburg 2005, whose brother is deathly ill with cancer, and on his way to the Suncoast facility to spend his last days. It also just happens to be where Terry Schiavo is being allowed to slowly die in a much more publicized case. Doris’ mother (Laura Linney) is already grieving and concerned, while being quite uptight and overprotective, but when she decides to spend nights with her dying son, Doris uses that as a chance to make some friends at school by throwing a party. Doris also befriends Woody Harrelson’s Paul and they bond over their grief.
Coming of age films have been the stock-in-trade for Sundance, to the point where you’re almost guaranteed an entry if you go that route. There have been so many great coming-of-age movies, as well as more than a few mediocre ones. Suncoast is slightly better than mediocre, but it’s also trying to fit in so many ideas into a semi-autobiographical story that it creates an erratic tone that takes time to resolve.
If it isn’t obvious from just looking like her, Nico Parker is the daughter of filmmaker Ol Parker and Thandiwe Newton, but she’s also a solid actor in her own right, holding her own against Linney and Harrelson. (Harrelson was so great opposite Halee Steinfeld in Kelly Fremon Craig’s Edge of Seventeen, that those seeing this might hope for more scenes between him with Parker. In some ways, when Parker is paired with a trio of shallow classmates, those are the least interesting aspects of Chinn’s film, but that makes up possibly 30% of the overall movie.
There are also moments that are quite grim, since so much of it deals with the death of Doris’ brother, and it takes almost the entire movie before all of it comes together, building to something quite emotional. (There’s a gorgeous cover of The National’s “Slow Show,” which contributes greatly to this last act.)
Despite its problems, “Suncoast” shows Chinn to be a filmmaker who has a knack for taking something deeply personal and molding it into something that can connect with the viewer by the time it comes to an end. More than anything, the film shines a spotlight on a true star in Nico Parker.
Writer/Director: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Cast: Jay Will, Mary J. Blige, Chiewetel Ejiofor, Camila Cabello, Michael Kelly, Mare Winningham
Although Chiwetel Ejiofor’s second film as writer/director (after 2019’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind) was not part of Sundance’s Dramatic Competition this year, it premiered as part of the Premieres track, having already been picked up for release on Paramount+, it has so much DNA in common with Exhibiting Forgiveness, it seemed appropriate to review it in this grouping.
Based on the novel by Jeff Hobbs (a book whose very title is a spoiler), it introduces us to the title character, a brilliant inner city youth from Newark, New Jersey, who is able to attend Yale despite having many issues back home that continually drag him back into the world of drugs and crime from which he’s been trying to escape. Ejiofor himself plays Rob’s father, Skeet, who ends up in prison, accused of killing two women, so Rob’s mother (played by Mary J. Blige) is thrilled for Rob to get out of East Orange to pursue a better life.
There are aspects of Rob Peace which feel very much like standard biopic fare, but others just seem quite erratic and their own thing. For instance, for much of the first half, every single person who talks about Rob is saying how smart and wonderful he is, but eventually, Rob’s past catches up with him, and he’s forced to manufacture and sell drugs to help get his father out of jail.
Who knows what Ejiofor saw in Hobb’s novel that made him decide to make it as his second film, because it’s not a story that resolves itself in a way that makes you think that highly of Peace. Then again, he’s found a true star in Jay Will, who gives such a layered performance that would have been even better if he didn’t start going more “street” as it goes along. Oddly, Ejiofor’s own performance is particularly overwrought, especially in his later scenes with Will, and though this movie is based on the true story about Peace, it seems to piled on too much drama.
It’s hard to figure out what we’re supposed to get out of this film, because Rob Peace is essentially a brilliant kid who squanders everything he has going for him to become a drugdealer. Are we supposed to relate to that or consider him some kind of hero?
Ejiofor is certainly a solid filmmaker, but it feels that as strong as Rob Peace is as a biopic, it feels somewhat misguided at times, and at times, it just feels kind of staid.
Writer/Director: India Donaldson
Cast: Lily Collias, James Le Gros, Danny McCarthy
The tagline for India Donaldson’s debut is also quite accurate, stating, “On a weekend backpacking trip in the Catskills, 17-year-old Sam contends with the competing egos of her father and his oldest friend.” And that is literally it. The movie follows Sam (played by relative newcomer Lily Collias) as she goes camping with her dad and his friend.
Here’s another movie that starts a bit like The Way, Way Back, one of the better Sundance coming-of-age films, but then quickly deteriorates into something that just doesn’t have the same level of entertainment or storytelling value.
The film is beautifully shot by Wilson Cameron and has a great score by Celia Hollander, but otherwise, there really isn’t much depth to the storytelling. In fact, there really isn’t much story to tell, as it’s almost a cinema verité movie disguising itself as a narrative. If nothing else, has found quite an enigma of a star in Collias, who is as effective in terms of the camera capturing her in a similar way as Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, but Donaldson’s movie doesn’t have that movie’s weight, and it just feels like you’re watching these people for no particular reason.
The majority of the dialogue takes place in a fireside chat between Sam and the two older men, that might be more interesting if the film has done anything to get the viewer invested in the characters, but it’s difficult to really grasp anything significant in that conversation. At one point, Sam tells her father that his friend inappropriately invited her into his tent to keep warm, and you think, “Ah, this is what will turn the film into something interesting.” That doesn’t happen, as nothing is done with that revelation. Instead, we just get long shots of Sam or of the enigmatic piles of rocks, and it even waits until the very end to hint at her sexuality, which also has no impact on anything.
Good One was disappointing, because you get to the end of it and wonder, “What was the point? What are we supposed to get out of this?” It looks beautiful and Collias is interesting to watch, but when you compare this to something like Suncoast, which has a far more clearly defined story, it leaves you quite wanting.
BETWEEN THE TEMPLES
Director: Nathan Silver
Writers: C. Mason Wells, Nathan Silver,
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Carol Kane, Dolly De Leon, Caroline Aaron, Robert Smigel, Madeleine Weinstein
A movie that was highly-anticipated is Nathan Silver’s 11th feature film* with a killer cast and a strong high-concept premise for comedy, but one that just never takes off. (*I personally had only heard of Actor Martinez but had never seen it.)
It stars Jason Schwartzman as a temple cantor named Ben Gottlieb, who has had trouble getting his life together after the death of his wife, when he meets Carol Kane’s Carla, and they realize she’s his childhood music teacher. They begin to bond, and Carla is interested in getting bat mitzvahed, since she never did so as a girl, so their friendship builds out of that.
The fact that Silver was able to get such an amazing cast is impressive in itself, but it’s a shame that the script just isn’t up to the caliber of the cast assembled. There’s also a subplot of the Rabbi atBen’s temple, played by Robert Smigel – great when he’s in a scene but sorely underused – trying to get Ben to go out with his daughter, Gabby (Madeleine Weinstein). That subplot feels so shoehorned in there, since it never really goes anywhere, and it just takes away from the time we spend with Schwartzman and Kane, which has its own share of problems but really should be the main crux of the movie, almost in a Harold and Maude way.
Silver attempts to bring it all together in a third act Shabat dinner that puts all the characters into the same place, so one hopes that maybe it will start to make sense of all the nonsense. But nope, the nonsense does indeed continue into one of the most ridiculous climaxes that makes one even madder that they gave the movie a chance at redemption.
Between the Temples has such a talented cast and original premise that could have gone to so many more interesting places, though all of that is squandered for a comedy that’s never very funny, as hard as it tries.