by InRO Staff Festival Coverage Film

Sundance Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 1: CODA, Human Factors, The Pink Cloud

Credit: Sundance Institute

CODA

The title of Siân Heder’s sophomore feature is twofold: an acronym for the “child of deaf adults,” and the concluding passage or movement of a music piece. Centered around seventeen-year-old Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member in her deaf family of four, CODA mainly adopts the literal former definition, and most will struggle to grasp the significance of the latter. Look at the film’s underlying structure, however, and the tenor sharpens: this is predominantly a coming-of-age narrative, where identities will be challenged, shed, and reasserted; where one chapter concludes, another beckons on the cusp.

The Rossi family ‌— consisting of cheerfully grizzled Frank, vibrantly combative Jackie, their perpetually grouchy son Leo, and introverted Ruby ‌— eke out a living through fishing; at three every morning, they head out to sea on their trawler, where they snag and later sell the day’s catch. On the Gloucester docks, conniving middlemen seek to exploit the fishermen, and the family’s disability compounds their vulnerability. Ruby, their de facto interpreter, keeps the family business afloat, but at the cost of taunts and hostility from her school’s bullies. True to its figurative connotation, CODA installs in her a belatedly realized dream to sing and study music; at sea, she belts out a hearty rendition of Etta James’ “Something’s Got A Hold On Me,” but during choir practice with the eccentric Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez), words fail her. With her whole life spent in the shadow of her tight-knit clan, Ruby labors to develop a unique identity beyond the economic hardships befalling them and the reductive “CODA” affixed to her name. “Do you ever wish I was deaf?” she asks her mother. Without promise of hearing, privation suddenly means so much less.

Straddling a fine line between clichés of rom-com formulae and the more attuned notes of personal storytelling, CODA intelligently and sensitively uses the former’s saccharine and familiar beats to its advantage; by enforcing some predictability in narrative, Heder accentuates her characters’ lives with honesty and compassion. In matters of representation, deaf actors were cast for deaf roles, as was not the case with Éric Lartigau’s 2014 La Famille Bélier, of which CODA is a remake. Avoiding stereotypes of them at their expense and utilizing American Sign Language throughout their daily conversations, the film realizes its egalitarian and empowering portrayal of the deaf community without slipping into honeyed condescension.

More crucially, the exaggerated designs of lesser plot-symmetrical titles that necessitate the resolution of every single loose end are rejected in spite of the Rossis’ happy ending. In particular, Heder veers between broad caricatural strokes (effeminate, pretentious, yet gentle) and a certain naturalism in characterizing Mr. V, Ruby’s mentor and inspiration. With him, the times are both tender and tempestuous, without any sweeping dramatic flourish to magically resolve all woes. “The stars here, they don’t look as good as they do on the water”: CODA affirms the imperfect negotiations of identity, and identifies the perfection found in negotiation. For her audition into music college, Ruby performs Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” “I’ve looked at life from both sides now […] / I really don’t know life at all”; crowd-pleasing but no less compelling, CODA concludes with a spectacular coda.

Writer: Morris Yang


Credit: Klemens Hufnagl

Human Factors

There’s not one, but two structural/temporal gambits in Human Factors. In the film, an upper-middle-class family travels to the seaside for a weekend getaway following tumultuous events at home; it’s clear from the beginning that there is some tension between mom, Nina (Sabine Timoteo), and dad, Jan (Mark Waschke), as they converse in clipped sentences and force begrudging smiles through pursed lips. As they unpack and get settled in, Jan goes to the store for groceries. Upon his return, he finds Nina in hysterics, claiming that she surprised some thieves who then ran off. It’s a seemingly small thing; no one is hurt, and nothing was stolen, but the act becomes the fulcrum from which this familial unit totally unravels. The event likewise serves the same function for the narrative, as writer/director Ronny Trocker returns to this inciting incident over and over again, examining it from each family member’s perspective.

Further complicating matters is a jumbled-up chronology that surrounds these events, leading up to and continuing after the disrupted vacation, which alters our typical reliance on a linear, cause-and-effect narrative trajectory. At first blush, one can’t help but be reminded of the tricky plotting gymnastics of someone like Christopher Nolan, but it gradually becomes clear that Trocker isn’t particularly interested in mystery (although the film frequently teeters on the edge of becoming a thriller). Each change of perspective reveals little additional information about the aborted home invasion — this isn’t another Rashomon riff, thankfully — but instead allows each member of the family to momentarily control the narrative; young son Max (Wanja Valentin Kube) mourns the loss of his pet rat who escapes during the commotion, while surly teenage daughter Emma (Jule Hermann) stumbles across a potentially dangerous house party with some locals. Trocker also expands his considerations to include a kind of State of the European Union, as Nina and Jan’s advertising firm mulls taking on a political client who, it is strongly implied, might be a right-wing nationalist candidate, and a steady, unsettling hum of news plays in the background of several scenes.

It’s a lot to take in, and it’s arguable that the looping narrative games obfuscate more than they elucidate. We eventually meet Nina’s younger brother, his new boyfriend, one of Nina’s exes, and get glimpses of the family’s home life, each a new wrinkle emanating out from the question of what exactly happened that day in the vacation house. Somewhat curiously, Trocker actually offers an answer, which we won’t spoil here, but it is sure to annoy some viewers with its casual flippancy. But the proffered “answer” ultimately isn’t the point of Human Factors, which instead suggests that both the love and animosity that underscore a close-knit family are ever-present, simultaneous and coexistent. Trocker has a firm grasp of his material, and the entire cast suitably delivers natural, unforced performances. It all adds to a highly effective study of middle-class malaise, less a puzzle to solve than a tapestry to contemplate.

Writer: Daniel Gorman


One for the Road

It seems only appropriate that Wong Kar-wai would lend his name as producer to One for the Road, an epic melodrama from Thai director Nattawut Poonpiriya that throbs with pangs of romantic longing and regret. A sharp thematic and tonal turn from 2017’s Bad Genius, Poonpiriya’s teen heist thriller that channeled the likes of Edgar Wright, One for the Road finds the filmmaker in a more wistful state of mind as he chronicles an emotionally-charged road trip between two estranged friends. Upon diagnosis of terminal leukemia, the contemplative and soft-spoken Aood (Ice Natara) sets out to make amends with each of his former lovers, recruiting best buddy and ladies’ man Boss (Thanapob Leeratanakajorn) to serve as chauffeur as they travel across Thailand. It’s here, in the film’s first hour, that Poonpiriya employs an almost fetishistic echo of Wong’s trademark style, indulging in the filmmaker’s love of slow motion, classic pop music needle drops (The Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra), and dramatic glances brimming with repressed anger and desire. This aesthetic approach works well given the story’s episodic structure, as each former flame is afforded only roughly fifteen minutes of screen time; the stylistic excess allows for an economy of storytelling that favors heightened emotion above all else, mirroring both Aood’s shortened timeframe and his state of mind. Indeed, sometimes all you need to express such grand feeling is a fleeting, immaculately lit shot of two individuals tentatively slow dancing in a dingy bar to the sounds of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” blaring on the soundtrack.

It’s only in the film’s second-half that Poonpiriya abandons the affecting melodrama of Wong and embraces something closer in temperament to Nicholas Sparks, as the story shifts to Boss and his own troubled romantic past. All arty pretense is abandoned as Poonpiriya adopts a style best described as late-period Lasse Hallström. In a peculiar bit of irony, the romantic relationship given the most run on screen is also the one that feels the most underdeveloped, as the film chooses to instead dole out one ridiculous plot twist after another, story structuring that would feel more at home on the Hallmark Channel. It also strands Aood on the sidelines for a large chunk of the story, eventually working him back into the proceedings in the most unsympathetic way possible. It’s a bizarre choice for a film that clearly aspires to an ending of pure waterworks but instead inspires nothing more than a shrug. Poonpiriyia is certainly a talented filmmaker, even as his style is undoubtedly derivative, but One for the Road is too slick by half, namely the second half. That first hour, though, is truly something special.

Writer: Steven Warner


Credit: Sundance Institute

The Pink Cloud

Iuli Gerbase’s The Pink Cloud opens with perhaps the most interesting disclaimer since Kevin Smith’s Dogma, one that has since become a tagline for her film: “Any resemblance to actual facts is purely coincidental.” Written in 2017 and filmed in 2019, The Pink Cloud (or A Nuvem Rosa) has the most inadvertently perfect marketing its creators could have hoped for, so much so that the film could easily be mistaken as part of the same strain of opportunistic dreck as Songbird or Locked Down (or, more generously, in the realm of better, less cynical pandemic efforts such as Host and Staged). The Pink Cloud, thankfully, is none of these. Instead, this feature debut from Brazilian director Iuli Gerbase, despite its eerie prescience of current circumstances, is a frightening and inventive look at isolation and long-term love, unreliant on any Covid context to boost its brand.

The Pink Cloud follows web-designer Giovana (Renata de Lélis) and chiropractor Yago (Eduardo Mendonça) after a one-night stand that, due to the arrival of the eponymous pink cloud, is stretched to breaking point over the course of years of indefinite confinement. Despite the occasional appearances of friends and family facilitated by video call, the film firmly hinges on and is carried by the understated performances of de Lélis and Mendonça. More than in most cinema, performance is crucial here, as the narrative demands of its two leads the ability to portray the same people across the span of approximately a decade, and so that Giovana and Yago both indeed feel like completely changed people by the end of the film is a triumph for both actors. Similarly, even the minor characters of The Pink Cloud, who only appear only in occasional, isolated scenes, feel like authentic, fleshed-out people, their situations harrowing; Giovana’s sister, as one example, remains the same age throughout the film, and her storyline, which involves being trapped in a home under the supervision of a childhood friend’s father, becomes increasingly disturbing as the years pass. At times, the film’s pacing can feel slightly muddied by its sprawling timeline, and The Pink Cloud can tend to feel like an untidy collection of scenes rather than a cohesive narrative. And when progression does feel intentional, it can sometimes scan as inelegant, with subjects discussed/foreshadowed in one scene immediately coming to fruition in the next. All the while, however, the central performances manage to keep the story grounded, and the evolution of Giovana and Yago’s coupling feels mostly organic, save for one particularly large development in their relationship.

The ongoing pandemic circumstance could be either a blessing or a curse for The Pink Cloud, and while it certainly doesn’t deserve to be dismissed as gimmick or pigeon-holed as pandemic cinema, it’s hard not to be struck by how much Gerbase’s script gets right. From the specifics of unusual living arrangements (although not quite as unusual as Giovana and Yago) to the readiness of corporations to slap a disaster-themed label on any and every service, the film is indeed memorable for just how accurate it all is. It’s interesting to consider how outlandish, or at least science fictional, the premise may have been considered at the time of writing or production, but regardless, The Pink Cloud will perhaps be the truest cinematic text of any of 2020’s efforts to depict what living is like in this pandemic moment. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the past year of yoyoing lockdown mandates, it’s that life finds ways to keep meandering on, even if those ways are not entirely satisfying. Instead of indulging in the potential melodrama that could have been minted from this premise, The Pink Cloud finds horror and poignancy in the defining realities of the scenario: boredom, loneliness, and a complete inability to do anything about it.

Writer: Molly Adams


Knocking

Knocking, a psychological thriller of sorts that details one woman’s deteriorating mental state as she’s driven mad by mysterious noises emanating from the apartment above her, is exactly half of a good movie. But an excellent lead performance by Cecilia Milocco and crisp, evocative direction by Frida Kempff can only take this material so far, as the film flits through a series of clichéd genre tropes and overly-familiar formal moves. Milocco plays Molly, a seemingly normal middle-aged woman who, as the film opens, is being released from a psychiatric ward. She’s been there for a year or so, but is ready to resume her life, confident that whatever mental malady landed her in the hospital is now behind her. Molly moves into an anonymous-looking apartment building and sets about performing what she thinks is typical behavior — grocery shopping, picking out plants for her new home, etc. She’s convinced herself that everything is going great, that is until she tries to sleep and hears a constant, muffled knocking coming from the floor above her bed.

Knocking is a genuinely unnerving film, at first; Kempff shoots much of the proceedings in close-up, tethering the viewer to Molly’s point of view while turning the interior of the apartment into a drab, claustrophobic box, with figures constantly hewed in by the architecture of the space. She also favors camera setups that are just slightly askew, framing Milocco’s face from above or below eye level, and using a slight wide-angle lens that keeps the image off-balance and flattened in subtle ways. But once Molly begins investigating the source of the noise and meets some strange-looking neighbors, the narrative quickly becomes a long road to a foregone conclusion. Despite her strengths as a visual stylist, Kempff can’t do much to elevate the hackneyed script by Emma Broström, which tries to liven up staid material with lots of garden variety symbolism and empty signifiers. We are given brief glimpses of what appear to be flashbacks to Molly and an unknown woman having a date at the beach, but these images are never explained, and indeed it’s never clear if they are supposed to be memories or fantasies. Their frequent recurrence suggests they are perhaps a skeleton key to Molly’s ailments, but like much else in the film, they remain vague and needlessly opaque.

Eventually, Molly becomes convinced that the knocking noises are actually Morse code, and she becomes obsessed with the idea that a woman is being held captive somewhere in the building. Soon, she’s trying to decode the message while pestering the police with her theory. Of course, given her background, her concerns are quickly dismissed, and it’s not long before Molly is plastering her wall with wild scribbles and cryptic notes (easy cinematic shorthand for conspiracy-minded obsession, so much so that it’s remarkable any filmmaker would still use such a hoary device in earnest). The film paints itself into a corner, with only two available options; Molly is crazy or something foul is genuinely afoot. Try as it might — and it tries very hard — Knocking can’t infuse this Polanski-esque psychodrama with any fresh insight or novelty, and even abandons its vaguely surreal subjectivity for an easy, pat ending. Still, Milocco gives a fine, carefully calibrated performance, and Kempff, making her feature narrative debut after working in documentaries, exhibits plenty of visual verve to suggest she’s clearly a talent to watch. Knocking, then, is something like her rough draft

Writer: Daniel Gorman


Credit: Mario Tursi

The Most Beautiful Boy in the World

In 1971, after being cast in legendary filmmaker Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, 15-year-old Björn Andrésen was thrust into international fame after the director declared him “the most beautiful boy in the world.” It’s a title that has weighed on the actor ever since, at once an impossible title to live up to and a kind of brand that hung over the wounded teenager’s life like a cloud. Kristian Petri and Kristina Lindström’s documentary The Most Beautiful Boy in the World seeks to explore the lingering effects of its subject’s eponymous designation, while simultaneously examining the generational ramifications of trauma and depression. Andresen was already a troubled young man by the time he met Visconti, having lost his mother only shortly before. He was thrust into the spotlight by his grandmother, eager to reap the vicarious benefits of fame. Cast as an object of unattainable queer desire in Death in Venice, a symbol of untouchable beauty at only 15 years old, Andrésen soon found himself turned into an international sex symbol, all before being discarded by the very system of entertainment that brought him white-hot fame. The early scenes of Andrésen as a cherubic yet awkward teen being examined by Visconti and his casting team — ogled, fawned over, and asked to strip to his underwear to be photographed — are incredibly difficult to watch, even without the context of the lingering trauma it would cause the young man.

Much of the film is devoted to the elder Andréson, now in his 60s, his youthful beauty long since faded and replaced by a haggard weariness, as he navigates his daily life; fighting an eviction challenge, facing a breakup, searching for his father, and learning the circumstances of his mother’s death. With his once famous visage now hidden behind a scraggly gray beard, Andréson seems haunted by his past, still unable to fully come to grips with the way he was taken advantage of and preyed upon by much older men. While his story does not include any direct physical abuse, the almost sanctioned way he was so blatantly exploited as a teenager is still deeply unsettling, and despite Visconti’s insistence that Anderson’s Lolita-like character was never intended as an object of sexual desire, Most Beautiful Boy makes clear the very real objectification the young actor faced.

If the film trends toward meandering in its middle stretch, what remains most remarkable about The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is its deep sense of empathy for its subject. It’s a film marked by profound sadness, and while it doesn’t really offer any real illumination into who Andrésen really is, what Petri and Lindström convey is that this is, in no small part, because Andrésen doesn’t really know either. Instead, he remains “the most beautiful boy in the world,” saddled with a moniker he never asked for and the heavy burden it still imposes. This beautiful boy is a person Andrésen clearly no longer recognizes, and Petri and Lindström frame his tragedy as a casualty of show business, a boy beset from the beginning with this impossible standard and cruelly cast aside as his beauty faded. Rarely has such a small story felt so achingly consequential.

Writer: Matthew Lucas

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