2024 Sundance Film Festival - Day 8 Capsules

Exhibiting Forgiveness, Porcelain War, A Different Man, Gaucho Gaucho, Ponyboi

Posted By Scott Renshaw and Aimee L. Cook

Gaucho Gaucho *** [U.S. Documentary]
As they did in their 2020 documentary The Truffle Hunters, Gregory Kershaw and Michael Dweck explore a lifestyle that seems on the verge of vanishing, creating something that feels like an act of cultural preservation. Their subjects are the gauchos of Argentina, specifically the Calchaquí Valleys, where generations have engaged in the same cowboy lifestyle of farming and ranching. Kershaw and Dweck certainly engage in more than a bit of romanticizing, from the black-and-white cinematography that creates the vibe of a vintage Western, to opening the film with gauchos riding horses in slow motion set to a Bizet aria. But they also do an excellent job of capturing fine details through moments that almost feel dramatized: a father passing on traditions like rope-braiding to his son; gauchos exchanging tall tales about existential threats to their livestock; young kids whose entertainment consists of breaking branches with slingshots and racing to reconstruct a cow skeleton. Mostly, though, it’s a recognition of change—at times literally, through the dialogue of folks lamenting how many people are moving away from these traditions, and more metaphorically through observing kids with young Guada Gonza, who is determined to participate in traditionally-male activities like breaking horses and rodeo riding. The result is a simple, beautifully photographed study of a place in transition, understanding both its appeal and why the modern world is moving on without it.

Exhibiting Forgiveness *** [U.S. Dramatic]
There are some challenging things percolating beneath the surface of writer/director Titus Kaphar's movie, which might have made even more of an impact had he not been so determined to underline things that didn’t need underlining. It’s the tale of on-the-rise visual artist Tarrell Rodin (André Holland), whose burgeoning success is unexpectedly accompanied by the reappearance of his long-absent father, La’Ron (John Earl Jelks), in recovery from years of drug addiction and seeking reconciliation for the damage he did as a father. Holland’s performance is a winner, conveying how much anger and fear he hangs onto even as he commits himself to being a great father himself. And there’s a provocative thread running through Kaphar’s script regarding the specifically Christian idea of forgiveness, and how the faithful might lean into lovely-sounding admonitions like “turn the other cheek” and questionable criteria for what makes a “good person,” rather than confronting the genuine pain that people might feel. It’s a shame, then, that the material about patterns of abuse sometimes turns into overly-literal dialogue and confrontations; it feels particularly unnecessary when Tarrell’s wife (Andra Day) tells him that “some things can’t be worked out on canvas.” For the most part, it’s effectively-rendered family melodrama, thankfully providing more thorny exploration of why we should or shouldn’t forgive than thesis-declaring recriminations.

A Different Man **1/2 [Premieres]
For all the funky details in writer/director Aaron Schimberg’s psychological comedy-drama-thriller, it ultimately feels like a long walk towards a pretty simple idea. Our protagonist Edward Lemuel (Sebastian Stan) is a struggling New York actor facing perhaps a greater obstacle even than most struggling New York actors: His extreme facial deformities somewhat limit his options. When an experimental medical procedure results in a complete transformation of his appearance, however, Edward sees the opportunity to effectively start his life over again. From the outset, you can tell that Schimberg is aiming for a vibe that mixes Barton Fink-era Coen brothers with Charlie Kaufman in its surreal imagery and occasional deadpan humor, augmented by a terrific Umberto Smerilli score. But as the story transitions into its second half—and Edward begins to confront not just what his new face has gained him, but what it has cost him—there’s not much deeper thematic material to keep the story popping. The terrific performance by Under the Skin’s Adam Pearson emphasizes the idea that you are, ultimately, who you are, and that some limitations are all about how you choose to approach them—and by the time you’ve latched on to the likelihood that the title is meant ironically, there isn’t a whole lot left but waiting for the other ironies to get progressively over-the-top.

Porcelain War **1/2 [U.S. Documentary]
It’s certainly not surprising that being caught in a war zone should yield a tangle of thoughts and ideas, but that tangle manifests itself in a documentary by directors Brendan Bellomo and Slava Leontyev that never seems to find a specific focus. At the outset, we’re introduced to Leontyev and his personal/artistic partner Anya Stasenko, as well as their friend and fellow artist Andrey Stefanov as they navigate living through the Russian assault on Ukraine, specifically their home city of Kharkiv. In part, there’s a narrative here about trying to maintain humanity in the middle of such chaos, and how continuing to create art might help facilitate that, with the filmmakers at times employing creative animation of Stasenko’s detailed pieces. It’s also a portrait of how Ukraine has had to rely on civilian soldiers to fend off the invasion, with Leontyev as one of the trainers of these everyday folks-turned-warriors, as well as the challenges faced by those (like Stefanov) who have sent away beloved family members to be in safer places. Throw in some you-are-there battlefield footage, and there’s a lot to process here. It’s just hard to figure out what it all adds up to, although Leontyev’s narration is intriguingly poetic as he addresses the justification for using violence in defense of freedom. There’s material here that could be fodder for four or five different documentaries, with the one that we actually have in front of us unable to decide on one definitive concept.

Ponyboi ** ½ [U.S. Dramatic Competition]
This bold and unflinching portrayal of a young intersex sex worker's journey through the seedy underbelly of New Jersey unfolds over a single Valentine's Day, with the story starting in familiar territory: a drug deal gone awry, a mob on the tail, and a protagonist on the run. However, Ponyboi’s titular protagonist is not the usual hero we encounter in either mobster sagas or LGBTQIA+ films. Instead, you witness a complex character with a hardened exterior whose journey of self-discovery takes us on a roller-coaster ride of emotions, through flashbacks from a complicated childhood and a tumultuous relationship with their virile father, who gave him the nickname. Writer, producer, and lead actor River Gallo delivers a performance that is captivating and courageous. Embodying the character with a raw intensity, Gallo's portrayal is authentic and resonates with emotional depth, but I got the sense they were playing themself for the most part. As the audience gets to know Ponyboi, several revelations lead to understanding the complexity of who they are and are not—most notably, in a scene where Ponyboi attempts to stock up on hormone injections before fleeing town, the type of hormone is not necessarily the one you would assume. It’s a story of human connections, identity and redemption, but one that might have benefitted from a stronger performance at its center. (Aimee L. Cook)

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