Sundance 2018: Child Sex Abuse, Encyclopedia Sales, Race Cars and More

By Mike Hughes

Without really intending to, we seem to have low-key ‘done’ Sundance this last week, mainly via the ewaitlist, which is cool fun.

Of the headline grabbing films, we saw The Tale, (with Laura Dern, Jason Ritter and an eleven year old Isabelle Nélisse) which has amazing parallel times and lines storytelling.

I can’t tell if it succeeds in its examination of memory so brilliantly in spite of, or because of, the subject matter and true life story of child sex exploitation.

What stunned me was when writer / director Jenny Fox came on stage at the end, inviting us to ask questions about ‘anything’, and assuring us that apart from one closing scene where there had been artistic licence, every bit was true. Indeed her research of her own past is a massive part of The Tale. Putting a face to the story was a massive reality slap. I had wondered if she became a film maker years ago partly because she knew she had this massively compelling story to one day tell, but her narrative suggests otherwise, that it was only in more recent years, in her forties and with an established career, that she really accepted that she had been abused, and had not simply had ‘an older boyfriend’, who happened to be her 40 year old running coach when she herself was a very young 13.

The Tale got bought on the spot by HBO, so while it will lack a theatre release, it will be accessible, and hopefully it’ll also appear in the UK on Sky at some point.

We were lucky to get a late night extra showing of Sorry To Bother You ( which I think Harpers sum up well with “WTF did I just watch”, in a very good way indeed. Tele-sales and human horse monsters come together most appetizingly. It’s a fab film, and all the way through, the visuals on screen were like having ice cream sundaes and candies constantly thrown at your face. It had a massively surreal side all the way through, and an absolute pearler was how the character played by Lakeith Stanfield (an African American) suddenly becomes massively successful in selling encyclopedias on the phone when he takes the advice of an older colleague (played by Danny Glover) to start using “white person’s voice”, so long as it wasn’t too white – not “Will Smith white!”

Not on the hype-list but equally worth seeing IMHO was The Last Race, a documentary about NASCAR stock car racing on the last race track in Long Island, a place where dozens once existed (who knew?) now given way to shopping malls. ( Hundreds and thousands of hours of multi-camera action and observation put together in a totally elegiac and balletic way, strangely helped by a lack of strong narrative. Director Michael Dweck has been documenting this track as a photographer for at least ten years, and filming since 2012. That cutting room floor must be three feet deep. They even brought along one of the cars, which we got to sign after the show.

A real unexpected delight was an 8 minute animated short Marfa which for me summed up why I like hanging around in small town America, and in particular the couple of times when I tagged extra time onto trips to music festivals to savor railway crossing settlements in rural Texas, with all their petty weirdnesses.

And the least satisfying was A Kid Like Jake, where Claire Danes and Jim Parsons portray parents of a four year old boy who happens to enjoy dressing up as a princess, which quite honestly in this day and age seems so utterly routine and non-controversial. What it did accurately portray was that as much as we think we have made progress as a society, we just keep slipping back to old bigotries.

I was hoping to see Danes and Parsons in very different roles to Carrie and Sheldon, but in the end I’m not sure I massively did.

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