Early on in Audrey Diwan’s Golden Lion–winning feature, Happening, a young woman is singled out in a classroom, unable to answer her professor’s query about a poem. Through a group of classmates, we learn that she is set to leave school to get married, though their gossip is cut short when the professor turns his question onto one of them — the film’s central character — Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei). She, though, does not fumble, and indeed expertly holds forth on the poem’s recurring war imagery, its historical context, and even the writer’s use of anaphora. But before the end of Happening, adapted from Annie Ernaux’s 2000 novel of the same name, an unwanted pregnancy will place Anne into much the same position as that former classmate: As a young woman living in France circa 1963, she will be forced to either choose domestic life as an unwed mother, or else risk imprisonment and death for a chance at a life made possible by a university education. (“I’d like a child one day, but not instead of a life,” Anne remarks to a sympathetic doctor who’s nonetheless unwilling to help her.) And as Diwan suggests using claustrophobic compositions, a pervasive atmosphere of conflict and suspense, and a recurring use of militaristic, in-the-trenches imagery: for a young woman, this situation is a war of its own.
For the most part, Diwan does not develop the film dramatically: Happening does not progress toward an end that illuminates the beginning (or any other moment of the film), but rather functions as an intensely linear experience. It sets up Anne’s attempts to get an abortion against a series of impediments — financial, personal, physical — and charts her efforts at overcoming them. Among the university students, Diwan sketches out a believable atmosphere of repressed sexual desire and concomitant prudishness, but by and large, details of environment and character are used to highlight Anne’s growing isolation. As the weeks pass on, the script methodically closes off various alternatives, leaving Anne with only more drastic options.
All this makes for an undeniably physical experience: A scene where Anne uses a metal skewer to try and induce a miscarriage recalls a similarly squirm-inducing passage in Titane. And it’s hard to deny that Diwan gets the effects she wants, conveying something of what Anne is going through, what she feels in the moment. But when, toward the end of the film, Anne declares her desire to become not a teacher but a writer, pointing to both Ernaux’s source novel and a kind of retrospective viewpoint that’s entirely absent from the film, one does wonder at the limits of Diwan’s approach. The film’s intense physicality is no doubt true to Anne’s present-tense experience, but especially given the period setting, one does wonder at a different sort of film — one that widened its scope enough to make room for just one moment of reflection.
Writer: Lawrence Garcia
Something in the Dirt
DIY genre auteurs Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are back, delivering another trippy two-hander. Across the past decade, these two have built some very intricate works out of little more than ambition and sticktuitiveness, a two-man show that writes, acts, directs, and edits, responsible for truly idiosyncratic stuff like The Endless, about (maybe) a UFO death cult, or the sex-panic vacation nightmare Spring, which also happened to be far more interesting and touching human/monster romance than something like The Shape of Water.
Unfortunately, it seems all that moxie does in fact have limits, and their latest project, Something in the Dirt, doesn’t really transmute its tantalizing subject matter into much more than a thesis, and a rather tepid one at that. We begin with erratic, likely borderline unstable Levi (Benson) moving into a dingy L.A. apartment that mysteriously features a door that won’t open and walls scratched up with spooky cryptograms. In short order he meets downstairs neighbor John (Moorhead), an equally intensely weird dude, and they bond pretty quickly, eventually heading up to the aforementioned scary apartment where they witness a levitating ashtray that shoots laser beams. And since this is L.A. after all, it seems like the only thing to do is to make a documentary about this.
Things get massively more complex from there, with mysterious — and possibly disparate — events piling up, along with repeating numbers and patterns, buried artifacts, and endless theorizing. Eventually we realize what we’re watching is a documentary about the making of their documentary, which also contains its own sets of talking heads and a trove of apparent reenactments of situations that can’t possibly be corroborated. More impressive still is that almost all of it never leaves the apartment. Benson and Moorhead have done a fine job technically crafting this very intricate structure, bringing to bear their formidable DIY skill to this obvious COVID shoot. Unfortunately, what’s being examined here is the desperation of the conspiracy theorist, the need for self-validation via an investigation that never stops — the unsatisfying nature of Levi and John’s quest is baked into the premise. Mileages will vary as to whether one finds that to be a feature or a bug, but it’s hard to ignore the irony that all of Benson and Moorhead’s formal ingenuity has here been placed in service of this rather trite subject.
Writer: Matt Lynch
892, the feature directorial debut from Abi Damaris Corbin, attempts to tell the true-life tale of ex-Marine Brian Brown-Easley, who in 2017 walked into a Wells Fargo Bank in Atlanta, Georgia and, armed with a bomb, took two hostages in a desperate attempt to get back what was rightfully his. The title refers to the amount of money owed to Brown-Easley by Veteran Affairs, who mistakenly seized a disability check to pay for outstanding debts, and through his actions, he hoped to shed light on a government that regarded its former soldiers as nothing more than disposable parts once their services were no longer needed. Which is to say, 892 is notably well-intentioned. Unfortunately, Corbin’s portrayal of these particular events frequently comes across as Hollywood-ized pandering, a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller that adopts a posture of topicality but is, in truth, primarily interested only in delivering cheap thrills in the name of a good time. If the logline sounds familiar, 892 is indeed quite reminiscent of John Q, that half-remembered Denzel Washington thriller from 2002 in which a financially strapped father seized control of a hospital emergency room in order to get his son the medical attention he so desperately needed.
The Brown-Easley of 892, as portrayed by John Boyega, is a good-hearted man prone to acts of aggression, barely living above the poverty line and one check away from the streets. His ex-wife (Olivia Washington) has no patience for his volatile mood swings or the empty promises made to their daughter, who is presented here as a scripture-spouting vessel of innocence and purity who simply wants a puppy and to name it after a Lord of the Rings character. Given this setup, it would be easy to assume that Brown-Easley’s actions were motivated by a mingling of paternal love and rage at the system, a la John Q, but, 892 makes explicit that the former Marine also suffered from PTSD-related mental health issues that affected his grip on reality, his reluctance to take daily medications altering his emotional state and cognitive reasoning. And while 892 finds cause in righteous anger regarding America’s treatment of its veterans, its vitriol is just as forcibly aimed at the systemic racism inherent within the country’s institutions. Boyega’s Brown-Easley repeatedly discusses how the SWAT teams outside of the bank will show no hesitation in gunning down a black man if given the opportunity, regardless of the promises made by an empathetic hostage negotiator (Michael K. Williams) or a news producer (Connie Britton) covering his story. It’s for this reason that 892’s conclusion is never in question, sapping the film of any tension while simultaneously, depressingly vindicating the fears of the man it desperately tries to humanize.
Unfortunately, Boyega simply isn’t up to the demands of the role, employing a melodramatic style that actually fits the film around him but fails to engage on a purely emotional level. In other words, you can feel Boyega trying here, at the expense of any naturalism that would have otherwise lent a more sensitive texture. What seems like a reach for the complexity of Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon instead lands more on the register of Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending, where dialogue delivered at a level barely above a whisper whiplashes into bouts of over-exaggerated screaming that seems far too calculated to be truly believable. For his part, Corbin manages to lend the film the sheen of a big-budget thriller that belies its indie roots, the crisp cinematography courtesy of Doug Emmett working in tandem with Chris Witt’s accomplished editing to deliver a film that moves swiftly, but it’s only in service of obvious platitudes about the situation at hand. What does impress, however, is how the aftermath of the film’s events is presented: there is a deep respect paid to its true-life participants, a too-rare eschewing of sensationalism in favor of a quiet dignity that proves both more heartfelt and more haunting than expected. Nicole Beharie and Selenis Leyva, portraying the two hostages kept under Brown-Easley’s watch, are likewise excellent in surprising ways, bringing a raw authenticity that the rest of the film unfortunately cannot or will not match. And it’s moving to see Williams in his final film role, the actor hinting at hidden reservoirs within a man who has seen these events play out before, and fatalistically knows how they will end, despite his role in the drama. But those high notes are mostly supplemental, and while the necessity of telling stories like Brown-Easley’s is not in doubt, the particular execution 892 is, boiling itself down to basic action-film theatrics and undermining any noble intent.
Writer: Steven Warner
Despite its generic-seeming title, Tania Anderson’s directorial debut The Mission focuses on a very specific form of religious work: the two-year missions to Finland, undertaken by American Mormon teens as part of the customs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Anderson herself is based in Helsinki, though she identifies with multiple nationalities including American, but like many aspects of the film at large, there is a frustrating vagueness in the specificity of this choice. Aside from the difficulties that the missionaries have with Finnish, the general coldness that remains a consistent visual marker throughout, and the glancing interactions between the subjects, there is little that distinguishes the otherwise fairly universal difficulties and doubts at play here.
One thing that is obvious, though, is the choice of Mormon missionaries, whose ubiquitous nametags and solicitations worldwide have been, admittedly, something of an annoyance to outsiders. There is an unmistakable stigma that the film seeks to at least partially unpack, and one of its main strategies that ultimately blunts its most interesting aspects is to toggle between four main subjects: Elder Pauloe, Elder Davis, Sister Field, and Sister Bills, all of whom appear to be from somewhere in or around Utah, and are deployed from the Provo Missionary Training Center from 2019 to 2021. The pandemic isn’t mentioned onscreen but masks do appear towards the end of the film.
This equal gender divide is an element that goes unexplored: the men are expected to serve in a way that the women are still not, and yet the same infrastructure, including check-ins with the church and rotating companions more familiar with the country and the language, appears to be in place for them as well. There are maybe two scenes of discussion of actual doctrine, though Anderson also appears to frontload most of the more notable snubs, letting seemingly more than half of the film pass by before allowing her subjects the dignity of a positive interaction.
Besides that, however, The Mission seems stuck in presenting the most conventional version of itself, even as interesting insights appear at the edges. No talking heads are present, but there is copious voiceover duly noting the difficulty and uncertainty of the endeavor, especially as it involves young people separated from their families for a considerable amount of time. Perhaps unexpectedly, Elder Davis begins suffering from depression that becomes so severe that he is required by the church to return home against his wishes. Yet even his departure segues into a montage of joy and success among his fellow missionaries.
Though such montages are blessedly rare, The Mission nonetheless feels too vague, too prone to render its subjects’ respective personalities under a simple and blandly inspirational vein. The ending in particular, which sees all four missionaries as having matured and bolstered in their faith and commitment, jettisons much of the ambivalence that had been latently present beforehand. Aside from showing the rejections and (off-screen) a few baptisms, the film spends little time noting the specific cities, the passage of time, the actual practice of missionary work; and without any deeper insight, The Mission feels like the work of an institution, attentive only to the surfaces of a particular way of life.
Writer: Ryan Swen
It’s not much of a revelation to suggest that Sundance has gradually moved away from its independent roots and transformed into something more akin to a Hollywood talent incubator. It’s a charge that has dogged the festival for years; as critic A.A. Dowd has elsewhere noted, you’d have to go back to the ‘80s to find a version of the fest free of Hollywood’s presence and influence. While an avalanche of quirky dramedies followed in the wake of the one-two punch of Little Miss Sunshine & Juno’s massive box office success, actual indie filmmakers like Bradley Rust Gray have struggled to make more challenging fare on their own terms (it seems appropriate to note that Gray’s breakthrough film The Exploding Girl premiered at Berlin in 2009, not Sundance). Gray’s new film Blood continues his ongoing fascination with women navigating emotionally taxing situations, and it results in a sensitive, delicate film that also happens to have a gaping void at its center — it’s a character study that never finds any character.
Gray begins the film in medias res, as Chloe (Swiss actress Carla Juri) and her friend Toshi (Takashi Ueno) visit his grandmother. Toshi explains that Chloe is a photographer visiting Japan for an assignment, and that she’s been recently widowed. That’s essentially the only narrative thread for the entire film, which is filled with scenes of Chloe observing people at work, photographing them, and playing with Toshi’s young daughter, Futaba (Futaba Okazaki). Gray also inserts brief flashbacks to Chloe and her husband on vacation in Iceland, the cold, snow-swept landscapes standing in sharp contrast to the warm, vernal hues of her time in Japan. Blood rambles amiably along as these patterns repeat, eventually becoming formless vignettes arranged in seemingly random order.
Working with cinematographer Eric Lin, Gray finds all manner of pleasant, picturesque compositions, and there are some standout moments interspersed throughout the tedium; a long boat ride finds Chloe and actor Issey Ogata attempting to bridge their language barrier and have a conversation, and in the process finds the right balance between uninflected naturalism and actual meaningful dialogue. Elsewhere, in the film’s most striking moment, one of the flashbacks has Chloe and her husband visiting an actual active volcano. But too much of the film is content to observe faces without actually revealing anything behind them. And while one certainly wishes to applaud Gray’s refusal to interject needless conflict or quirky comedy into his project, the film is in dire need of an interesting structural hook or some kind of formal daring (curiously, Gray has mentioned in interviews that he had originally wanted Michelle Williams to play Chloe, a bit of meta-textual casting that might have added some subtle gravitas to the proceedings. Instead, Chloe’s grief feels largely academic). Actions tend to play out in long medium shots, presumably to better capture some semblance of unvarnished realism, and there’s the occasional 180-degree pan that traverses a landscape or scans along the horizon line. It all wanders around pleasantly enough, content to hang around these people and simply observe. It’s understood that Gray seems to genuinely love these characters, but it’s just too bad he can’t convince us to do the same.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
A Love Song
A Love Song essentially served as the opening night film — or at least the opening-day representative — for Sundance 2022’s NEXT film section, introduced in 2010 and designed as a showcase for more purportedly innovative or formally daring work amid the tacit mainstreamification of the festival as a whole. On one level, it’s not hard to see what might be appealing about this film, directed by Max Walker-Silverman in his feature debut, as a first pick: Set and shot in rural Colorado, it is forthrightly rustic; it has two recognizable actors in the form of Dale Dickey and Wes Studi, something very much lacking elsewhere in the section (unless one counts Something in the Dirt’s Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead), and it tells a pleasingly coherent and emotional story without too much signposting.
But therein lies the question: how little must a film go outside the norm of the independent landscape to qualify as worthy of inclusion in a section like NEXT? It is both a positive and a negative that to say that, in an even somewhat more robust independent scene like the one in 1992, whose twentieth anniversary this year has been feted by the Criterion Channel, a film like this would be seen as the absolute norm, a solid and quiet work whose rhythms are built from little moments and the logical pairing of landscapes and weathered faces with 16mm.
The plot, such as it is, ostensibly revolves around the reunion of two widowers, Faye (Dickey) and Lito (Studi), childhood friends who haven’t seen each other in decades. Faye, who’s been waiting at a campsite in a national park near where they grew up, spends her days eating small lobsters fished with a miniature pot, reading and utilizing Audubon guides to identify birds and constellations, and interacting with some of the fellow campsite denizens, including the mailman, a lesbian couple on the cusp of proposing, and a cowboy-hat-wearing crew of four brothers and one young sister seeking to disinter their dead father buried somewhere around Faye’s trailer.
Much of the true, if somewhat muted charge of A Love Song comes from Faye and Lito’s two days, one night meeting — which begins with charming awkwardness and proceeds, like much of the film, in brief little moments, with the highlight being a guitar and vocal duet. But this is ultimately Faye’s film, as much because she is the center of the film for the 50-some minutes surrounding the encounter as because of what soon becomes an emotionally legible arc. Learning to let go of grief is certainly no novel storyline, and it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t fully spell it out, but after Lito departs, the emotional signposts on Faye’s literal journey up Mount Elbert only become more obvious.
None of this is to say that A Love Song is a bad film. While its rhythms can feel trite, unwilling to sit with the quietude for too long, the film has an unadorned quality worth appreciating. But the question remains, at least given the context of its presentation: should such a film be considered truly innovative, or simply its own kind of retrenchment or throwback, and what does that communicate about our present-day demands of cinematic art?
Writer: Ryan Swen