The Sundance Film Festival: Days One and Two

Thursday, January 31, 2019 - 4:55pm

NOSELL

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The first two days of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival felt a lot like the first two days of college. I was alone in an intimidating, new environment, surrounded by people I didn’t know, struggling to acclimate to a tight routine and figure out how to get from place to place. As someone in their final semester, I found this change to be especially jarring. But as the days went by, the Sundance experience slowly became less about trying to fit in with the festival’s esteemed guests and more about what the festival was really focused on: a celebration of independent cinema.

Sundance kicked off its first string of premieres on Thursday evening. That first night, I embarked to the press screening for “Native Son,” and though the film itself wasn’t the best way to start the festival — as you’ll read about in my review below — the palpable air of excitement from fellow cinephiles and critics was exhilarating. Making conversation is the first big step in ingratiating yourself into the Sundance culture, a challenge I pushed myself to prevail against by chatting with the woman in front of me in the line for “Native Son,” who just so happened to be a Michigan alum. Amazing how a festival as big as this can still feel like a small world. 

The following morning, I ventured to two equally captivating panels, the first being an interview moderated by the Jewish Film Institute with filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer, who discussed in comprehensive detail his riveting documentary “Where’s My Roy Cohn?,” and the second a wonderful, important conversation on advancing inclusion in the film industry, conducted by The Black List creator Franklin Leonard. With hours to kill before my second and third screenings of the festival — “Share” and “Give Me Liberty” — I explored the downtown area of Park City, where crowds of people bundled in expensive jackets, boots, scarves and beanies shuffled about.

Over the course of these busy 24 hours, I learned very quickly that Sundance isn’t as scary as I thought it would be. Sure, there were plenty of folks who looked like they could destroy me if I met their eyeline, knowing immediately that I was a novice. But I had to remember that everyone is here for the same reason, that learning the tricks of the trade is second-hand to the jittery anticipation of seeing a movie for the first time.

‘Native Son’:

With the recent critical and commercial successes of “Get Out,” “BlacKkKlansman” and “Sorry to Bother You,” social allegory cinema is in high demand. Young audiences are craving stories that can unspool the intricate web of social conflicts plaguing our society, with the hopes that current issues like race relations, gentrification and microaggressions can make us think deeper and give us some sense of clarity about how to combat the systemic nature of such problems.

“Native Son,” first-time director Rashid Johnson’s daring, disjointed adaptation of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, is one such story that tries so desperately to say something, anything, important about modern-day racism and class divides. And while the film has all the right pieces — timely themes, gorgeous visuals, an A24 stamp and a refreshingly diverse young cast — none of these elements coalesce into a tale that you can sink your teeth into. Even the modernized update of Wright’s book, while certainly ambitious, fails to wring out any new insight from its source material.

Segmented into three chapters — “Fate, “Fear” and “Flight” — “Native Son” revolves around Bigger Thomas (Ashton Sanders, “The Equalizer 2”), a green-haired, black-nailed loner who receives a lifetime opportunity working as a chauffeur and caretaker for an affluent white family in the suburbs of Chicago. The light-hearted first act, “Fate,” presents a promising start, immersing us in Bigger’s fragmented world through his love of punk rock, his strained relationship with his mother Trudy (Sanaa Lathan, “Nappily Ever After”), his rowdy friends and his high-maintenance girlfriend Bessie (Kiki Layne, “If Beale Street Could Talk”).

All that dramatic momentum, however, loses steam when the second act, “Fear,” kicks in. The coming-of-age undertones slowly evaporate into a dread-induced thriller when Bigger begins to service the Daltons, a family whose socioeconomic bubble and all-too-harmless demeanor bring to mind the creepy antagonists from “Get Out.” Even more disturbing is Bigger’s connection with his employer’s rebellious teenage daughter Mary (Margaret Qualley, “The Leftovers”), a social justice warrior with good intentions but prone to making problematic assumptions about Bigger’s attitudes and interests.

Discomfort is to be expected when narrative and all-too-relevant subject matter collide, though in the case of “Native Son,” the discomfort is rooted in the jarring tonal shifts, plodding pacing and surface-level characterizations. These issues are no more realized than during a late second act twist so horrific and viscerally alarming, it elicited a bevy of anxious groans from the audience at my screening.

Though “Native Son” remains a distinct entry in the social allegory canon, the parallels with the aforementioned films are undeniable. It evokes the white-liberal guilt of “Get Out,” the provocative undercurrents of “BlacKkKlansman” and the surreal satire of “Sorry to Bother You.” But compared to those far more superior takes on the complex interplay between race, class and power, “Native Son” remains muddled and unfocused in its messaging. Through a series of poetic narrations by Bigger and some vague symbolism, the film suggests that blindness toward our own actions creates dire consequences for ourselves and for others, an idea that could have been intriguing had it not been for its flimsy execution.

There are, of course, a few instances in “Native Son” that save it from falling completely flat on its face. The fleeting moments of levity peppered throughout the film soften the ebb and flow of tension, especially during one early comical scene involving a rat that interrupts a family breakfast. Matthew Libatique’s reliable cinematography is as sharp as ever, amplifying the soft blues of Bigger’s bedroom walls and the orange tints of a house party.

Sanders is also a marvel to watch. Fresh from his breakout role in 2016’s “Moonlight,” he moves through each sequence with a swaggering gait, making the most of the film’s uninspired dialogue with an unprecedented balance of gravitas and charm. What’s frustrating, however, is the weak script, penned by Suzan Lori-Parks (“Their Eyes Were Watching God”), inhibits Sanders from giving a fully nuanced performance, ultimately undermining his character’s motivations and masking his emotional interiority. The same goes for Layne, who delivers a striking performance despite her character having very little substance and arguably not enough screen time.

Much like Bigger’s aimlessness, “Native Son” meanders in its storytelling, setting up a potentially thrilling story only to disappoint. In the melodramatic final act, “Flight,” Bigger muses via voiceover: “The only thing worse than being blind is seeing but having no vision.” Ironically, “Native Son” seems to have a vision, one that’s both specific and fitting to the current socio-political landscape, but can’t see its own faultiness. 

‘Share’:

In the wake of the #TimesUp and #MeToo era, victims of sexual assault and harassment are finally getting the justice they deserve. Yet they are frequently left out of the conversation, with the media spotlighting its attention more on the perpetrator of the crime. When those affected are given the time to speak out, they have the unfortunate duty of reliving their trauma over and over and over again, as evidenced by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s long, comprehensive testimony during Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court Justice hearing.

No matter how hard we try to bury it, trauma is truly inescapable, a constant reminder of our inability to control the terrible, inexplicable things that happen to us. In the Age of Internet, it’s even more amplified and publicized than before, a trend that “Share,” a sensitive, haunting, feature-length follow-up to writer-director Pippa Bianco’s 2015 short film of the same name, tackles with a humanistic deftness. In 87 lean, economical minutes, “Share” follows 16-year-old Mandy (newcomer Rhianne Barretto) in her quest to fill in the gaps of a humiliating experience captured on video that surfaced online. The experience in question remains ambiguous for both Mandy and the audience. It’s unclear whether an actual assault took place or not, but with the sparse details we’re given — a bruise on Mandy’s back and upper arm, a group of boys laughing at her unconscious body in the video — we get the sense that something nefarious definitely occurred. 

Rather than exploit Mandy’s assault like Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” did with its protagonist through pulpy, high-school melodrama, “Share” does something different. It concentrates less on the people surrounding Mandy — her basketball teammates, her parents, the alleged perpetrator of her assault, the investigators looking into the crime — and more on Mandy’s reaction to her circumstances. The camera lingers on Mandy, her face contorting with anguish and somber defeat, as she navigates the utter loneliness of being the center of unwanted attention.

With each passing day after the video circulates on social media, Mandy hesitates to seek guidance from her mother Kerri (Poorna Jagannathan, “Mile 22”) and father Mickey (J.C. Mackenzie, “Vinyl”), who encourage her to stay home from school and begin psychological treatment to help her remember what happened. She stops hanging out with her friends, refuses to let her concerned classmate Dylan (Charlie Plummer, “Lean on Pete”) drive her home and plays video games in the darkness of her living room — all due to the shame she carries with her and the confusion associated with that shame.

Bianco’s film is an exceptional and very necessary addition to the discourse surrounding sexual assault, a rare glimpse into how cinema can address an issue this thorny and layered. Through minimal dialogue, immersive sound design and rich visuals, “Share” says so much without saying much at all.

There’s no major confrontation, no over-the-top political undertones, no big dramatic twist — though the final beat of the film might surprise viewers. Instead, the naturalistic, subdued performances and the thoughtful subtext lay bare the aftermath of Mandy’s assault in a way that grounds the story without feeling reductive or trivializing. Instead of trying to seek out answers to such a large, systemic problem, “Share” seeks to understand how we are conditioned to compartmentalize trauma and the unintentional damage it can inflict on those who suffer from it the most.

‘Give Me Liberty’:

According to a recent study by the Brookings Institution, Milwaukee, WI is considered the most segregated city in the United States. It also happens to be the setting for “Give Me Liberty,” a compassionate and compellingly chaotic dramedy that investigates how segregation — and an overall sense of social alienation — impacts the most marginalized inhabitants of the city. In his English-language debut, writer-director Kirill Mikhanovsky (“Dubrovsky”) stuffs a multitude of busy subplots and an eclectic cast of unknown, first-time actors into one cohesive story — and mostly succeeds.

Set entirely over the course of one day, “Give Me Liberty” begins its wayward journey with bleary-eyed Vic (newcomer Chris Galust), a medical transport driver who picks up and drops off disabled passengers to their destinations. On this particular day, a riot breaks out, forcing Vic to restructure his schedule and find a way to take his gaggle of surly Russian relatives to his grandmother’s funeral. As problems continue to mount, Vic faces an escalating amount of pressure to get everyone where they need to be, including Tracy (newcomer Lauren Spencer), a young Black woman with ALS who gives Vic a hard time for making her late for work.

The nonstop energy pulsating throughout “Give Me Liberty” can be exhausting and overwhelming at times, but also exciting and quite fun. Storylines continually overlap one another, each edited with a head-turning swiftness and captured with a cinema verité-like sensibility. What helps keep the story from running out of gas, however, is the kinetic chemistry between the variety of eccentric characters, whose dysfunctional interplay increases the stakes for Vic as he zig-zags from Point A to Point B.

There’s a great moment early on in the film where Vic’s relatives bust out a rendition of “Let My People Go” to pass the time while Vic goes to drop someone off. It’s a scene that’s as entertaining as it is indicative of Mikhanovsky’s insight into understanding the absurdity and beautiful messiness that dictates everyday life.

Despite the welcome inclusion of marginalized characters, “Give Me Liberty” might give some pause for orienting the story around an able-bodied, white cis-male protagonist. In reality, however, the film doesn’t allow Vic’s everyman presence to overshadow the other subplots. In fact, out of the many storylines spread across the two-hour runtime, the one centering around Tracy and the disabled community in Milwaukee is undoubtedly the most captivating. Along with Spencer’s gripping, charming performance, the disabled characters in the film are given an all-too-rare chance to shine on screen, combating the often hyper-romantic, patronizing stereotypes embedded in media. 

Even when “Give Me Liberty”’s unpredictability can be too much to handle, especially during a claustrophobic climax, there is never a dull moment. Whenever the pacing feels overstuffed, there’s always a spellbinding scene of tenderness that manages to diffuse the tension. Late into the film, for instance, Vic’s estranged unstable cousin Dim (newcomer Maksim Stoyanov) accidentally rips a brand new sport jacket, causing him to laugh hysterically and then softly embrace his love interest, Vic’s sister Sasha (Darya Ekamasova, “The Fourth Dimension”). Through these shifts in tone, “Give Me Liberty” unveils our inherent pursuit of freedom from the mundane problems, both big and small, that demand our attention every day.