Critics' Conversation: Dazzling Docs and Diverse Voices Lift Sundance 2020

By Jon Frosch, Todd McCarthy, David Rooney, Leslie Felperin, Beandrea July

If narrative features at this year's fest felt a bit small, the powerful, ambitious documentary selections — as well as striking works from and/or about people of color — saved the day.

JON FROSCH: Here we are, team, another Sundance under our belts! As usual, it’s hard to confidently qualify a given edition of the festival as “good” or “bad”; depending on what you see (this year, there were 114 feature-length world premieres), Sundance can either be a thrill or a slog. Or, more typically, both — sometimes even within the span of a single movie (hello, Justin Simien’s Bad Hair).

I did think the narrative films felt a bit smaller this year. I personally didn’t see, or hear of, anything like a Call Me by Your Name, Manchester by the Sea or Get Out — rich, big-swing movies that played huge at Sundance and then had the scale and stature to sustain momentum all the way to awards season nine months later. (Or even something like 2019 standout Give Me Liberty, a scruffy, scrappy film that nonetheless boasted a thrilling thematic sprawl — the dysfunctional, funny, beautiful chaos of the American melting pot — that few selections seemed to match this year.)

But that’s fine! The impulse to look to this festival as a launching pad for “Oscar movies” is, for critics, an unproductive one. Let Sundance be Sundance. With that said, I thought there was some excellent filmmaking on display over the past 10 days, as well as an assortment of superb performances that — here I go again — creative awards strategists and voters (ha, ha) could fill categories with.

My favorite was Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (a title destined to be bungled in perpetuity). I’ve admired, but never been wowed by the Brooklyn filmmaker’s previous work (including 2017’s Beach Rats), but this one, an unsentimental yet shatteringly compassionate chronicle of a Pennsylvania teenager’s efforts to terminate an unplanned pregnancy, is major.

BEANDREA JULY: I’ve just resorted to calling it the “teen abortion movie” because my brain refuses to retain the actual title. At the same time, I love how Hittman pulled that title from the pre-abortion intake form that asks patients to disclose the frequency of certain behaviors. And the scene in which the protagonist, Autumn, has to answer those questions — posed by a sympathetic counselor — is where the film breaks open emotionally in such a delicate yet piercing way. It’s a textbook example of less is more.

JF: Agreed. David, you reviewed the film, and something I know we both loved about it — aside from the note-perfect intimacy of the direction and the gorgeously understated central performances by newcomers Sidney Flanigan as stoic protagonist Autumn and Talia Ryder as her cool, unflappably supportive cousin — was how clear-sighted it is in framing this character’s choice as a pragmatic, rather than emotional, one. Autumn simply isn’t “ready to be a mom,” as she says when questioned by a social worker; the film’s hushed, organic-feeling suspense stems not from whether she will have a “change of heart” — we can tell she won’t from the get-go — but from how she will navigate the legal and logistical hurdles that lie in her way (Pennsylvania requires minors to have a guardian sign off on an abortion).

At the same time, Hittman doesn’t artificially pump up the anxiety; there are no contrived obstacles thrown in, nothing that further complicates or intensifies Autumn’s journey for the sake of viewer entertainment. Nor does the writer-director rub our noses in the grey-skied bleakness of working-class lives the way many American indie and European social-realist filmmakers do. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is an utterly un-manipulative movie — no small feat given its still-divisive subject matter — as well as a moving, masterfully calibrated portrait of steeliness, resolve and unconditional love.

DAVID ROONEY: It’s exactly the type of honestly observed, fine-grained drama we always hope for from Sundance, and at least for me this year was in short supply. I love the way Hittman refuses to let it be become an issue movie, instead keeping it focused on a 17-year-old taking control of her body and her future without the screenplay feeling the need to trumpet any false notes of empowerment. I found that the absence of big speeches and hand-wringing drew me even closer to her, thanks also to the emotional transparency of Flanigan in a performance of exquisite delicacy.

I missed one of the more widely praised Dramatic Competition entries, Minari. Todd, I saw you mentioned Ozu in your review, which is high praise.

TODD MCCARTHY: I mentioned Ozu because it’s so seldom one notices an echo of his work in anything these days. As is frequently the case in the Japanese master’s films, even the direst and most potentially tragic moments in Minari are offset with a human warmth that lends a fulsome human dimension to the drama. The film, enterprisingly produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B, is about a Korean family that moves to, of all places, rural Arkansas to try to make a go of it. The circumstances they find there aren’t easy, but the movie has been made with gentle insight and an optimism that are in unusual this day and age.

BJ: Part of what makes the film stand out is that it takes place in the “heartland” in the 1980s — not the setting we typically associate with an Asian or even Asian-American family. That dissonance makes for some truly original storytelling. Special kudos to young actor Alan S. Kim, who really shines as the seven-year-old son. I can’t wait to see how audiences respond to this one. 

LESLIE FELPERIN: Well, once again we've all had very different film festival experiences. I wasn’t able to catch either Never Rarely Sometimes Always or Minari. Of the dramas I did catch, nothing met the very high watermark of last year’s The Souvenir by Joanna Hogg — one of my favorite films of the last few years.

I guess The Nest, Sean Durkin's long-awaited follow-up to his acclaimed Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), came the closest, although the consensus seemed to be that it wasn’t as good as that breakout. Indeed, I encountered some positively hostile reactions to it, although I couldn't quite work out why. Like Martha, The Nest is very withholding of backstory details, and doesn't offer the audience easy access to characters you want to root for. It’s the story of a nuclear family made up of a British husband (Jude Law), his American wife (Carrie Coon) and their two kids, who move to rural England so Law's avaricious finance hustler can try to make a killing. But I felt its study of a marriage fracturing under pressure was fantastically claustrophobic, reminiscent in its way of Henry James. There's even a touch of The Turn of the Screw in its suggestion that something supernatural may be afoot as the family rattles around a massive mansion much beyond their means.

DR: Another film about marital fracturing was, for me, a real discovery this year: writer-director Robert Machoian’s solo narrative debut The Killing of Two Lovers in the NEXT section. From its haunting sense of place to its incisively drawn characters and the visceral power of Clayne Crawford’s tightly wound performance as a heartland husband and father desperate to keep his family intact, this lean little jewel was a knockout. The artful misdirection that starts with the title carries through to the climactic violence, which plays out in entirely unexpected ways. The film’s visual scheme is so meticulously thought through — those graceful shifts between expressive wide shots and penetrating close-ups — and while manipulation of aspect ratios risks becoming an overused trick, here I found it a fully integrated storytelling tool, as is the unsettling soundscape.

I also loved the way craft aspects of one of the more polarizing entries of the main competition, Janicza Bravo’s Zola, fuel the story rather than just playing like self-conscious technical affectations (hello, Julie Taymor’s The Glorias). For a real-life story that first gained attention as the epic Twitter tirade of a stripper lured under false pretenses on a quick-cash Florida trip during which she’s almost forced into prostitution, the pinging insistency and short-attention-span rhythms of social media felt an ideal fit. Many at Sundance grumbled that the film lacks a third act, but I liked the poignancy of the girlfriend experience so cruelly shattered, and enjoyed the shifting dynamic between Taylour Paige and Riley Keough in the lead roles. Plus, there’s way more wickedly absurdist humor in this movie than you would expect to find in such a nightmarish story.

JF: I didn’t make it to Zola, but I’m with you on the impressively controlled, visually and sonically powerful The Killing of Two Lovers. It’s the kind of under-the-radar movie one hopes will find a life beyond Sundance. And agreed on the fantastic Crawford, who uncovers an almost child-like desperation and yearning beneath his character’s macho-rural scruffiness. It was one of the most vivid performances of this year’s fest.

TM: Speaking of knockout performances — we may be getting to the point where we’re taking Elisabeth Moss’ versatility for granted, but she’s topped herself in Josephine Decker’s Shirley, in which she plays horror author Shirley Jackson in a hot-house college campus setting. Her character is half-way off the wall, and it becomes fascinating to try to figure out when she’s acting up to achieve desired effects and when she’s actually losing it. Moss is capable of both great precision and completely surprising choices, and this has never been truer than it is here. Michael Stuhlbarg is also damn good as her professor husband in a film that can’t help but remind you of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Another actress who knocked it out of the park this year was Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman. After a somewhat tentative beginning, debuting feature writer-director Emerald Fennell takes a very disturbing story of sexual abuse all the way to an incredible climax that you really can’t see coming. The long arc that Mulligan sustains — from a woman who’s had her life derailed to someone who manages finally to take the upper hand to achieve justice, although at great cost — is astonishing, anchoring what initially looks like a cliched revenge saga but turns into something far deeper.

JF: Yes! I’ve never been a huge Mulligan fan, always finding her a bit remote despite her skill and finesse. But in Promising Young Woman, that guardedness is perfectly suited to her role as a damaged woman with a mysterious past and a very clear vendetta; you hang on the actress’ every haunted, witty word and gesture, hungry for clues as to what the character’s been through and what she has up her sleeve. The movie isn’t entirely polished, but it’s got passion, vision, a delicious randomness (Mulligan and Bo Burnham dancing in the pharmacy to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind”? Yes please) and a kind of ferocious integrity in refusing to let anyone off the hook when it comes to sexual misconduct. (That includes “nice” guys who themselves are gallant with the ladies but have no problem partying with predatory buds, as well as women who doubt or slut shame, rather than support, victims.)

TM: The other stupendous performance came from a more expected source, although a surprising one for Sundance; who would have expected the great Anthony Hopkins to dominate this festival? But that’s what he does in The Father, playing an old man in London battling dementia while insisting that he remembers everything. French playwright Florian Zeller, making his film directorial debut, has worked out an amazing visual correlative to amplify the deterioration of the man’s mental abilities that makes this far more than a stage-bound adaptation. Hopkins is nothing short of brilliant, never more than when he must finally face up to what’s long been obvious to others; the shattering of the man’s pride and sense of self is chilling.

While we’re on the topic of dementia, one of the most wonderful surprises of the festival was Kirsten Johnson’s Netflix documentary about her father, Dick Johnson Is Dead. It’s the tonal opposite of The Father, as it’s a funny, boisterous and wonderfully goofy collaboration between a parent and child that’s not just loving but quite likely rejuvenating to both participants. 

Another documentary I saw that’s worth seeing at the earliest opportunity is Bryan Fogel’s The Dissident, a devastatingly thorough account of the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi regime. Fogel and his team have been relentless in boring down on how and why Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in 2018, and the results could not be more sobering and convincing.

LF: Once again, the best films I saw at the fest this year indeed were documentaries. I was bowled over by two in particular: The Reason I Jump and The Social Dilemma. The first, directed by Jerry Rothwell, riffs off a non-fiction book of the same name that's extremely dear to my heart, in which non-verbal autistic Japanese teenager Naoki Higashida, translated by novelist David Michell and his wife K. A. Yoshida, explains how his mind works. Using stylized cinematography and sound design, the film manages to evoke the sensory distortion of someone on the spectrum, much the way 2016 documentary Notes on Blindness found a cinematic correlative to show what it's like to be visually impaired.

The Social Dilemma doesn’t quite take the same aesthetic risks, but director Jeff Orlowski's scrupulous, methodical explication as to why social media is basically evil, laid out by some of the boffins who built these platforms, was riveting. The case the film builds is complex and not easy to summarize, but if you watched any of those hearings where Mark Zuckerberg and the like spoke to Congress and wondered what exactly this issue is all about, this is the film for you. Not only did I actually follow the advice and delete most of the social media apps from my phone after the credits rolled, I found myself, ancient mariner-like, grabbing people by the sleeve and telling them they needed to see it — even the Lyft driver who took me to the airport on my last day.

BJ: Among the other documentary premieres, I can't stop thinking about Garrett Bradley's Time, a truly special film by a special filmmaker — and, refreshingly, a New Orleans story that's about more than Katrina or Mardi Gras. I also thought On the Record was very strong, and being at the premiere Q&A to see both Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, very serious doc directors, break down in tears was really something. That whole room was emotional. I didn’t get to see the Hillary Clinton doc. Was it surprising in any way or pretty much what one would expect?

JF: As THR TV critic Inkoo Kang noted, Hillary isn’t particularly revelatory about Hillary Clinton the person; Nanette Burstein’s Hulu docuseries finds the former first lady, secretary of state and presidential election popular vote winner ever cautious and methodical, aside from that one flash of pique re Bernie Sanders. What the unapologetically HRC-sympathetic doc does do is offer a stirring reminder, for the many who need reminding, of Clinton’s progressive credentials. It also deftly illustrates how, over time, she became a symbol via which Americans of varying political stripes worked through their messy feelings about women in power, adultery, ambition and so much more. It’s well worth a watch, though of course the people most likely to learn something from it are the least likely to seek it out.

Beandrea, I agree with you (and THR film critic Sheri Linden) about Time, Garrett Bradley’s stunningly assembled portrait of a Louisiana woman fighting for her husband’s release from prison while raising their six sons, maintaining a career and becoming a prominent criminal justice advocate. Covering 20 years in a compact 85 minutes that flow, flutter and skip back and forth between past and present, it’s an epic of personal and systemic struggle — and titanic resilience — that radiates despair but also flickers of joy.

I also echo your praise for the compelling and powerfully contextualized On the Record, which, in allowing Russell Simmons’ accusers to speak at length, lays bare the devastation of rape and sexual abuse in unflinchingly plain, emotional terms. It’s a knockout punch. Ditto David France’s Welcome to Chechnya, a devastating, jaw-dropping look at the violent, state-sanctioned persecution of LGBTQ people in the titular Russian republic, and the activists working tirelessly to save their lives.

DR: Of the docs I caught, the one that most got under my skin — as a gay man as much as a critic — was Welcome to Chechnya, which I agree delivers a brutal shock to the system. I like France’s methodical journalistic approach to sensitive subject matter, and although I still think his account of the breakthrough in HIV/AIDS treatment, How to Survive a Plague, is his best and most emotional work, this movie is like a four-alarm fire-warning in a world increasingly in the hands of unstable autocrats. That applies not just to the barbarian heading the Russian republic who has endorsed the gay purge — claiming in public that there are no gays in Chechnya but then behind the curtains rubber-stamping their removal by any means necessary — but also to Putin, who has willingly turned a blind eye. Of course, from there it’s just a short, queasy associative hop to think about how cozy our own administration is with the Russian leadership, and the fact that we have a VP in the White House who has spoken in favor of LGBTQ conversion therapy.

The grim view of so much of the nonfiction material made the sheer endurance of off-the-grid traditions in harmony with nature — albeit with the threats of climate change and predatory commercialization — so uplifting in The Truffle Hunters, which seems likely to be this year’s Honeyland. This delightful vérité portrait of a group of crusty geezers in the Piedmont hills of Northern Italy and their nocturnal woodland forays to find the prized white Alba truffle, accompanied by their adored canine companions, combines visual poetry with folkloric history and elements of commedia all’italiana. It was a smart buy for Sony Classics.

TM: On a different note, Sundance has long been a festival where, every year, you hope to find at least one eye-opening new talent who will make a difference in the years to come. That discovery this year may well be Edson Oda, whose debut feature, Nine Days, is visually breathtaking, conceptually pretentious, madly ambitious, wonderfully acted and as unique as you could want. It’s anchored by an imposing performance from Winston Duke as an arbiter who, somehow, has the power to decide who will be admitted to the human race. This entails rather lengthy interrogations of the candidates, and the whole thing is both windy and penetrating at the same time. What’s indisputable, however, is that Oda has an amazing eye and creates images worth beholding. If I’ve seen any young director who I might guess could follow a Terrence Malick-like path, it could be Oda. I’d certainly be surprised to read that he just signed to direct the latest Marvel film.

JF: Did anyone have any major disappointments? I’m not sure what I was expecting, but, yikes, Alan Ball’s Uncle Frank! Some people joked it was like a gay Green Book, but I don’t think that’s fair…to Green Book. That film, for all its corniness — not to mention the embarrassing fried chicken scene — at least hit its marks with a kind of glib competence. Uncle Frank is just a thudding, cliché-swollen bore. (Though Amazon clearly thought otherwise.)  Meanwhile, a much better LGBTQ-themed film was hiding out in the NEXT sidebar: Heidi Ewing’s soulful romance I Carry You With Me, which moves fluidly between past and present, Mexico and New York, fiction and documentary, in ways both surprising and stirring. Kudos to Sony Pictures Classics for nabbing worldwide rights.

DR: I found what I saw of the high-profile Premieres crop largely underwhelming, particularly the inept American remake Downhill, which chipped away with dispiriting diligence at everything that was complex and distinctive about the brilliant Swedish source movie, Force Majeure. Despite Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ customarily prickly and watchable performance, this misfire makes one of the stronger cases we’ve seen in recent years just to leave great foreign-language films the hell alone, and let them find whatever audience they find, without the need to dilute their attributes in insultingly dumbed-down Americanized versions. That film made me actively angry. Which might be preferable to the deflating experience of watching a movie as pedestrian as Rodrigo Garcia’s drug drama Four Good Days, which made a real-life family-crisis story into trite Lifetime fodder and provided predictably showy windows for Glenn Close and Mila Kunis without fostering a genuine emotional connection to either of their characters. 

BJ: My main disappointment was how slow the sales have been. I’m aware that last year’s big spend has made buyers more cautious but it’s also somewhat disconcerting. I’m glad that Hulu picked up Bad Hair, which I really enjoyed. I loved how weird and esoteric it was. I love it when filmmakers let their freak flag fly, especially black queer ones who tend to have more at stake when they take big swings.

Like you, David, I also liked Zola, particularly the inventiveness of the sound design and the visual integration of Twitterisms into the film — really creative. A festival trend I noticed this year was storytelling about black life that moved away from typical “struggle narratives” and toward other stories more focused on the interiority of the characters. Aside from Zola and Bad Hair, I’m thinking of Miss Juneteenth, Farewell Amor, Sophie’s Love, The 40-Year-Old Version, Nine Days — films with black main characters that were not all about racism or slavery, and I liked or loved all of them. (I am not saying movies shouldn’t be made about racism or slavery; just that those aren’t the only stories about black life worth telling.)

Farewell Amor was a discovery for me; we’ve only begun to scrape the surface of stories that get into the emotional impact of global migration on families. And I loved Miss Juneteenth, which focuses on black beauty pageantry in Fort Worth, Texas. Nicole Beharie carries the movie in a confident, emotionally raw performance, and I liked how the film refuses to over-explain its world — and gives us an unexpected ending. 

I hope buyers will open their minds and see that there is an audience for these kinds of titles. And regarding what you said about Uncle Frank, Jon: I guess a Green Book type of movie gets a quick pick-up because it fits more easily in buyers’ minds than some of the more specific, nuanced stories. But these more interesting movies can’t become templates for success if no one is willing to have the courage to invest in them. 

DR: I agree that the robust plurality of voices within the narrative sections, while it's long been a key part of the Sundance mandate, has been evolving in rapid and gratifying ways the past few years. Of course we’re still waiting for a similar impact to fan out into the broader industry. In the meantime, this festival has steadily upped its game in terms of showcasing the work of women, people of color and, to a lesser extent this year, queer filmmakers. The days when I used to come to Sundance and feel slightly numb by the end of it because of the homogeneity of the American white straight male viewpoint seem long gone.

Even when the movies were imperfect this year, there was something quite thrilling about seeing cultural representation onscreen that falls outside the "norm." Miss Juneteenth is a good example of that for me — a movie I found dramatically a bit underpowered but bracing in its depiction of black women’s lives in an environment far outside what we usually see in movies.

BJ: Totally agree. And to reinforce that point: Radha Blank’s The 40-Year-Old Version was the most loved U.S. Dramatic entry of the festival among the critics I know. It really felt like Blank was picking up the baton from Spike Lee (She’s Gotta Have It vibes) and running with it. That alone is enough to make Sundance 2020 worth it in my book.

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