Sundance isn’t the first film festival forced online by the pandemic. But it arguably had the most to lose by doing so: much of the event’s reputation comes from its intimate wintry setting in the ski town of Park City, Utah. However, it has emerged with its dignity intact. Whittled down to a brisk seven days, the event delivered on almost every front with a broad range of independent movies, from the prestigious and worthy to the lo-fi and scurrilous. You could see everything from a polite literary biography (Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir) to a couple of French punks cooking a turd in their mother’s frying pan (the almost unendurable Mother Schmuckers).
The festival also maintained its traditional USP of being the first event in the calendar to premiere new work and, in the past decade, launch potential awards contenders (Whiplash, Boyhood and Call Me By Your Name all kicked off here). This year had far fewer A-list stars but the quality of films remained high, as typified by CODA, the story of a young girl’s relationship with her deaf parents, which sold to Apple Studios for a record $25m and swept the board in drama categories on awards night.
CODA’s dominance might suggest there wasn’t much competition, but there certainly was, notably from Clint Bentley’s Jockey, a terrific, low-key character study about an ageing rider who is tracked down by a young man claiming to be his son. The jury added a special acting prize for its star Clifton Collins Jr, who fully inhabits the role of a man on his last rodeo.
Bizarrely, acting awards are a rarity at Sundance, even though it is a proven launch pad for rising talent and a place to rejuvenate overfamiliar stars. It’s also a place for films that give actors a long leash, which is what director Fran Kranz does with his intense drama Mass, a four-hander starring Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd and Reed Birney as four parents in mediation during the aftermath of a school shooting. The mostly single-room setting is something of a handicap and may harm its future potential, but the acting is sensational as the couples wrestle with issues of guilt, blame and responsibility.
Mass pushed down hard on this year’s red-button topic, which was trauma and the after-effects of trauma. This was evident in two of the festival’s opening-night films. The first, Flee, is an animated documentary telling the story of Amin, a refugee from Afghanistan who experiences unimaginable hardship on his perilous journey to Denmark via Moscow. Coming at the same topic from a different angle was British film Censor, set at the height of the “video nasties” era. Niamh Algar stars as a prim film censor whose lofty ambition to protect the public from screen violence masks an inability to come to terms with the disappearance of her sister in childhood. While the subject of Flee eventually finds peace, Censor burns reality to the ground in its chillingly surreal climax.
Sundance is also a place where actors and directors can add another string to their bow, and this year, reflecting the festival’s admirable commitment to achieving gender parity without making a big song and dance about it, saw Robin Wright and Rebecca Hall going behind the camera. Both films had their moments but neither made a big splash; Wright’s Land in particular suffers from comparisons with Chloé Zhao’s Oscar-tipped Nomadland, being the worthy but not terribly interesting story of a middle-aged woman who gives up her city life and retreats to a cabin in the wilderness.
Hall’s film, Passing, is somewhat more ambitious; based on the 1929 novella by Nella Larsen, it tells the story of two childhood friends, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), who are reunited by a chance meeting. Both are light-skinned African-American women, but Clare, who is white enough to “pass” (hence the title), has disavowed her past, and the drama that follows deals with the fallout from that decision. The performances are exquisite, as are cinematographer Eduard Grau’s monochrome compositions, but the story itself is curiously wanting.
Documentaries have always been a big part of Sundance’s reputation, even if, for once, festival founder Robert Redford wasn’t on hand to remind us of the fact. The selection this year was varied and impressive, spearheaded by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s infectious Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised), which captures the extraordinary scenes at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969. The film, which won the festival’s top documentary prize, makes great play of the fact that Woodstock stole all the headlines that year despite the presence of Nina Simone, Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder in Harlem.
A similar championing of the underdog is what drives Edgar Wright’s documentary The Sparks Brothers, an exhaustive portrait of Russell and Ron Mael, AKA Sparks. Charting the band’s history from their 1950s Los Angeles childhood through to the present day, it’s a winning study of hard-won longevity and supports Wright’s thesis that it’s perfectly possible to be influential and underrated.
Sparks were called Halfnelson until they changed their name in 1971. That same year, a 16-year-old boy from Sweden was thrown into stardom with a lead role in Luchino Visconti’s Death In Venice, playing the idealised love object pursued by Dirk Bogarde’s ageing composer. The teenager was Björn Andrésen, and in Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri’s The Most Beautiful Boy in the World we find out what became of him.
Despite the ominous music accompanying shots of dozens of boys being talent-scouted for the role, this isn’t a story of abuse. Instead, it is something strange and equally sad. Now living in penury, Andrésen reflects on the absurdities of fame, which brought him a pop career in Japan and saw him immortalised in manga comics. But this isn’t where the darkness lies — the story of his mother’s disappearance and death is tragic enough, but the loss of a child in 1986 explains further the palpable anguish in his shuffling, skeletal frame.
Genre and genre mash-ups are always a big part of Sundance, and this year was all the richer for them, from the adult animation Cryptozoo, in which mythical creatures are all too real, to Ben Wheatley’s folk horror In The Earth, a kind of pandemic-set Heart of Darkness that harks back to the intuitive, atmospheric style of his earlier films such as Kill List and A Field in England.
To take things fully over the top, many looked to Nicolas Cage, who, for some time, had been touting his collaboration with Japanese film-maker Sion Sono as his craziest yet. Sadly Prisoners of the Ghostland, though striking, turned out exactly as it seemed it might, a wacky samurai-gangster crossover in which Cage’s bandit is sent into a cursed ghost town to find a missing girl.
In terms of pushing the envelope, that task was fulfilled by Swedish film Pleasure, directed and co-written by Ninja Thyberg. Originally destined for Cannes (cancelled last year), it screened with a warning for its graphic content and gave Sundance the final frisson it needed. Starring newcomer Sofia Kappel, it sees 19-year-old “Bella Cherry” arrive in Los Angeles determined to make it big in the porn scene.
It’s strong stuff, made all the more compelling by the casting of real figures from adult movies, but surprisingly kind to the (male-dominated) porn industry, which is mostly seen as supportive and even responsible. The scenes of bondage and violent rough sex are hard to watch, but this isn’t so much a film about exploitation as self-discovery. Seeing it with a Park City audience, who can be very vocal in their opinions, would have been something special. Let’s hope the full Sundance experience will be restored next year.