The masses couldn’t go to Utah for this year’s Sundance Film Festival, so Sundance went to the masses. What is normally an 11-day frenzy became a virtual one-week symposium with an abbreviated lineup and far less Hollywood glitz. Anyone could buy tickets and watch the movies from home, democratizing an experience that is usually exclusive to those who have the resources or professional connections to travel. The snow-cloaked Park City mountains might have felt lonely, but the show had to go on.
Compared to last year’s festival, where “Palm Springs,” “Promising Young Woman,” “Minari” and “The Forty-Year-Old Version” premiered, the overall offerings were a bit tepid. But even without in-person buzz, “CODA” (more on that movie later) managed to break the record for the costliest acquisition in Sundance history, with Apple TV+ dropping a lofty $25 million for the rights. Meanwhile, Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, “Passing,” seems to be the title likeliest to make a dent in next year’s Oscar derby.
Of the Sundance movies I saw, my favorites were “Superior” and “El Planeta,” two quirky gems without major stars. As usual, there were highlights among the documentary slate, too, including profiles about “Sesame Street,” the spread of COVID-19, pioneering shark diver Valerie Taylor, civil rights lawyer Pauli Murray, body-camera surveillance and the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. You’ll be able to see many of them — on your couch or perhaps in theaters, if we’re lucky — before 2021 ends.
Here are 11 standouts.
The versatility that Rebecca Hall has shown in front of the camera extends to her directorial debut, a mannered but enchanting study in appearances literal and symbolic. Adapted from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, “Passing” follows childhood friends whose unexpected reunion proves to be a mixed blessing. One (Tessa Thompson) resides in Harlem, where she is happily married to a doctor (André Holland); the other (Ruth Negga, showcasing a wide-eyed glamour befitting the silent-film era) is wed to a wealthy racist (Alexander Skarsgård) and presents as white. With time, their divergent identities coalesce and clash.
Hall captures “Passing” in creamy black and white, heightening the story’s emotions while miniaturizing its grandest implications. The film can feel a bit measured, but that only barely detracts from its loveliness.
A low-stakes comedy with high emotional payoff, “Together Together” stars Ed Helms as a single guy who just really wants to be a dad. The sardonic surrogate (Patti Harrison in a star-making turn) he hires plans to use the funds to get a college degree, and they spend the ensuing 90 minutes figuring out how to make the whole weird configuration work.
A more hackneyed movie would turn the pair’s relationship into rom-com fodder, but sophomore director Nikole Beckwith (“Stockholm, Pennsylvania”) instead captures a budding platonic friendship that’s at once sweet and prickly. Helms, ever the ham, does the most intelligent work of his career, buoyed by a delightful supporting lineup including Julio Torres, Anna Konkle, Sufe Bradshaw, Fred Melamed, Nora Dunn and Tig Notaro. Even in its imperfections, “Together Together” shows refreshing depth.
Sundance has launched a thousand careers, and I suspect director Erin Vassilopoulos’ will be next. Expanded from a short film that premiered at the festival in 2015, Vassilopoulos’ debut feature is a playful Almodóvarian noir about a wannabe rock star (Alessandra Mesa, who co-wrote the movie with Vassilopoulos) fleeing her brutal partner (Pico Alexander). When she turns up at the doorstep of her semi-estranged twin (Ani Mesa), a square by comparison, the sisters’ lives merge in unusual ways.
Intermittently kooky without ever losing its groundedness, “Superior” has a humorous ease that’s both tender and thrilling. This is the work of someone with a bright future.
In “Kajillionaire,” one of last year’s sweet Sundance highlights, Miranda July invented a family of Los Angeles grifters who survive off low-rent scams. “El Planeta” could be called the Spanish counterpart, except its characters set their sights on luxury goods. The eccentric mother and daughter at the film’s center are broke, but they dress to the nines because they’re gifted swindlers.
Amalia Ulman, a multidisciplinary artist whose work has been exhibited in New York City and London, wrote, directed and stars in “El Planeta” opposite her own mom, concocting a gently absurdist comedy about weathering financial ruin. July herself is a fan of Ulman, and it’s not hard to imagine a hilarious, heartbreaking movie like this presaging a career just as idiosyncratic as hers.
A movie that could have turned maudlin, “CODA” is an effective crowd-pleaser about an ostracized coastal-Massachusetts teenager (Emilia Jones) whose deaf family relies on her ability to hear. Every day, Ruby wakes at 3 a.m., helping her fishermen father (Troy Kotsur) and brother (Danel Durant) catch the morning’s haul before heading to school, where she sometimes falls asleep mid-lecture. Torn between her parents’ co-dependence — the ever-reliable Marlee Matlin plays her mother — and the autonomy of impending adulthood, Ruby finds her own identity through tutelage from a choir teacher (Eugenio Derbez, hilarious) and a new love interest (“Sing Street” star Ferdia Walsh-Peelo).
In adapting the French comedy “La Famille Bélier,” Sian Hander, who also wrote and directed episodes of “Orange Is the New Black” and the movie “Tallulah,” has crafted a coming-of-age charmer that’s vibrant even when it succumbs to familiar emotional beats.
“The Pink Cloud”
“The Pink Cloud” begins by breaking the fourth wall. “This film was written in 2017 and shot in 2019,” a prescript announces. “Any resemblance to actual events is purely coincidental.” It’s a necessary bulletin: The prescient movie depicts a sudden global outbreak that forces people indoors. The titular smog is never fully explained, but its emotional trappings look all too familiar to our quarantine world.
Iuli Gerbase, a 31-year-old Brazilian, wrote and directed this hypnotic drama, centering it on a pair of strangers (Renata de Lélis and Eduardo Mendonça) trapped together after a one-night stand. As the years wriggle by, life unravels beyond their control. That Gerbase executed this film before anyone knew the term “COVID-19” feels startlingly prophetic.
“Flee” demonstrates what documentaries can achieve when there’s no footage of the corresponding events. Using hand-drawn animation to recreate the past, this film chronicles a gay Afghan refugee who was granted political asylum in Copenhagen as a kid. He’s an adult now, on the cusp of getting married and still reeling from his turbulent childhood.
Much of “Flee” unfolds as a conversation between director Jonas Poher Rasmussen and his subject, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. It feels like a therapy session, enlightening and emotionally rich.
Someone could program an entire festival with documentaries about precocious teenagers. “Try Harder!” joins the ranks of “Mad Hot Ballroom,” “Spellbound,” “Brooklyn Castle” and “Boys State” — films that chronicle kids who find refuge in education and face immense pressure to succeed.
Debbie Lum’s movie is a charismatic, if startling, portrait of a competitive California high school whose predominantly Asian American student body shares the same goal: getting into an Ivy League university. As promising as these youngsters may be, they are reflections of a country that measures accomplishments in how hard a person works. Lum critiques that ideal while underscoring the racial imbalances in college admissions and sketching a winsome snapshot of today’s youth.
“Mass” revolves around a heart-wrenching conversation between two couples. Ann Dowd and Reed Birney play the parents of a troubled teenager who killed his classmates and himself, and Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs are the parents of a boy who died on that fateful day. Six years later, they come together to air their grief, seeking a form of catharsis that may never come.
Fran Kranz, an actor best known for “The Cabin in the Woods,” wrote and directed “Mass,” cramming a ton of exposition into a plot that mostly unfolds in a single room. Somehow, it works. Even when the movie feels overwritten, it aches with the humanity of people who cannot explain the tragedy that befell them. All four actors give committed performances, and because “Mass” never becomes polemical, it’s a wonder to watch them calibrate their emotions in long takes.
“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street”
Not unlike the Mister Rogers documentary that lit up Sundance in 2018, “Street Gang” is an affectionate survey of a surprisingly progressive children’s show. “Sesame Street” targeted inner-city kids, its creators laboring to make the series’ every detail both educational and entertaining at a time when fuddy-duddies believed TV would do nothing more than corrode young brains.
Incorporating archival footage of Jim Henson, Caroll Spinney and other Muppeteers, director Marilyn Agrelo peeks behind the curtain of an institution that’s had a profound effect on American culture. Plus, you get to spend time with Big Bird.
So vivid it almost feels like a documentary, “Pleasure” follows a Swedish 20-year-old (magnetic newcomer Sofia Kappel) who relocates to Los Angeles hoping to become a preeminent porn star. (“I’m just out here because I want to fuck,” she proclaims.) Like the characters in “Boogie Nights” and “The Deuce,” she gets some blunt awakenings along the way. With fizzy colors and pitch-black wit, director Ninja Thyberg serves up a transportive provocation about the agony and ecstasy (but mostly agony) of an industry piloted by untrustworthy men.