Which films passed with flying colors?
After the Wedding (2019) dir. Bart Freundlich
A remake of Susanne Bier’s 2006 film of the same title, After the Wedding kicked off Sundance with a bang as the opening night premiere. Isabel (Michelle Williams) manages an orphanage in Kolkata seeking financing to help expand the reach and capabilities of her institution. When she is called to meet a potential investor, Theresa (Julianne Moore), in New York City, she discovers that Theresa is married to her ex-boyfriend, Oscar (Billy Crudup), and they are raising Isabel’s daughter, whom she and Oscar agreed to give up for adoption at birth. Unquestionably, the strength of the film rests in the incredible ensemble of actors who are all working at their best; Williams and Moore may even make some noise once awards season comes around. The drama is searing, sometimes even devastating, but Freundlich keeps our spirits up with delicate moments of affection, and hearty jokes that add some much needed and effective comic relief to help us survive the grudgingly emotional film.
Divine Love (2019) dir. Gabriel Mascaro
In 2027 Brazil, Joana works at a notary’s office where she tries to convince couples to reconsider getting a divorce. Outside the office, she belongs to a pseudo-Christian religious group, Divine Love, where she works on maintaining a healthy relationship with her husband, Danilo, and worships God in the hope he will bless her with a baby she has been unable to conceive for quite some time. Unfortunately, the film never comes to be the slick, edgy sci-fi tale that the beautiful, neon-glowing opening titles and techno score promise to deliver. Divine Love doesn’t use its period to elevate the story, but rather to plant a few cool gadgets that conveniently advance the plot and don’t help to craft a uniquely futuristic environment that forces the audience to reconsider life in our time. Instead, the film obsesses over its blunt, graphic pornographic scenes that make us more uncomfortable rather than invested in the relationships.
Honey Boy (2019) dir. Alma Har’el
Written by Shia LaBeouf, Honey Boy makes no attempts to disguise itself as anything but autobiographical from the start, as sounds robo-alien explosions reverberate through the theater as the opening logos appear on a black screen. The film’s lack of subtlety in addressing Labeouf’s fingerprints on the script is, in fact, a great strength, resulting in a deeply intimate, personal narrative that lingers with you far beyond the closing credits. Alternating between his time in rehab and beginnings as a young star, Jacob Tremblay and Lucas Hedges is perfect in the title role of Otis (aka Shia) as he explores his past growing up with his dad, James, played by Shia himself. Though much of the film’s success will be attributed to LaBeouf’s great script, the direction of Alma Har’el must not be overlooked, as her ability to hit notes of egregiously dark humor and raw father-son drama is a tremendous feat. Though, based on how it’s been framed over the years, one may think LaBeouf was just a bratty kid who couldn’t handle early fame, Honey Boy peels back the emotional layers of one of Hollywood’s most tumultuous stars to deliver what will surely be considered one of the year’s best indie releases of the year.
I am Mother (2019) dir. Grant Sputore
Following the extinction of mankind, a caretaking robot, Mother, raises Daughter (newcomer Clara Ruggard in a performance that should launch a steady career on the big screen), seemingly the only remaining human, having been artificially born in a fallout shelter. However, when a Woman (Hilary Swank), arrives at the bunker with a bullet wound and Daughter lets her inside, she begins to question the nature of her existence and the true motivations of Mother. Above all else, I am Mother should be applauded for the fact that it even exists as an indie flick with production and set design on par with any sci-fi blockbuster in recent memory. The steely gray, hollow, futuristic aesthetic perfectly counterbalances the post-apocalyptic wasteland lying just outside the bunker’s sealed entrance. However, the film never reaches the action-packed velocity we hope it too. Swank’s arrival seems as if it will increase the film’s intensity, but rather than turning into a taut thriller, I am Mother gets caught in limbo trying to play a game of “who can we trust?” Surely, the film leaves us with unanswered questions to ponder, but they’re more grounded in thoughts about the facts of the story itself rather than emotional subtext.
Imaginary Order (2019) dir. Debra Eisenstadt
Cathy (Wendi McLendon-Covey) is a control freak who micromanages every aspect of her life, as well as those around her. She is somebody who dabbles in a range of hobbies and activities but doesn’t truly specialize in anything as she drifts through life from one monotonous task to the next. As her life continually spirals further out of control, Cathy finds herself in a midlife crisis, day by day becoming more of a hypocrite, as she secretly betrays the values she publicly endorses. Ultimately, Cathy creates more problems than she sets out to solve, including but not limited to cheating on her husband, and accidentally having the son of the man whom she cheated with fall in love with her. In the same way that Cathy spreads herself too thin, so too does the film, as too many characters and fickle relationships result in a bunch of half-baked ideas. While Imaginary Order certainly has some highlights and laugh out loud moments, it doesn’t offer much more than that.
Native Son (2019) dir. Rashid Johnson
Adapted from a 1940 novel of the same title by Richard Wright, Native Son follows the life of Bigger Thomas (Ashton Sanders), a black teenager with punk rock green hair and anti-society gothic outfits to go with it, as he tries to leave his poor beginnings behind and make an honest life for himself. The true nature of Bigger’s character is hard to pin down throughout the entirety of the film, toeing the line between wanting an honest life and indulging in a life of crime, and oftentimes betraying everything we thought we knew about him from scene to scene. When he gets a job as the personal driver for the wealthiest family in Chicago, the daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley) and her political activist boyfriend, Jan (Nick Robinson) threaten his job and well-being as he drives them around to drug-fueled parties and secret activist meetings behind her father’s (Bill Camp) back. What begins as an interesting needling of the hypocrisy of white, wealthy, woke teenagers who often create the same problems they advocate to eliminate is destroyed by a midway plot-twist that delivers such a disturbing gut punch, it is impossible to recover. While each half may be a great achievement independent of one another, the combination of the two in one film does not function well, and even degrades from what was a strong first hour.
Queen of Hearts (2019) dir. May el-Toukhy
Anne (Trine Dyrholm) has everything; a loving husband, an incredible job as an attorney doing admirable work, two beautiful daughters, a magnificent home, the perfect life. However, she is somebody who constantly seeks controversy, starting petty arguments with her husband and operating outside the legal bounds of her job to tell-off defendants she prosecutes who got off clean. This character flaw eventually becomes her downfall when her troubled teenage stepson, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), moves in with her family and they have an affair behind his father’s (her husband’s) back. Put rather simply, this is one of the best films I have ever seen. Director May el-Toukhy is so commandeering in control of your emotions from one scene to the next, that we feel like puppets on the end of a string, but we can’t resist coming back for more time and again. While this film may not be for all — with some rather graphic pornographic scenes and a hauntingly depressing end — those who are willing to put themselves through emotional hell for two hours and seven minutes will surely be blown away by Queen of Hearts, even if that means they’ll never watch it again.
The Death of Dick Long (2019) dir. Daniel Scheinert
After winning the Dramatic Directing Award in 2016 with his debut feature Swiss Army Man (2016), director Daniel Scheinert returned to Sundance with what is sure to be one of the most rambunctious and infectiously funny comedies of the year. Filmed in his home state of Alabama, The Death of Dick Long follows Zeke and Earl trying to cover up the death of their third bandmate, Dick Long. As the film progresses, it’s hard to decide who is dumber – Zeke and Earl, or the cops trying to put the puzzle pieces together and solve the mysterious murder. While the first ⅔ of the film is laugh-out-loud funny and a sprawling tale of mischief that becomes more and more absurd by the minute, a tonal change with the reveal of how Dick died going into the final act kills the momentum that had been building up to that point. Alas, a touching final few scenes, orchestrated perfectly to “The Weight of Lies” by The Avett Brothers, close the film on a high note, and remind us just how special and inspired this movie really is.
The Infiltrators (2019) dir. Cristina Ibarra & Alex Rivera
The Infiltrators is a part documentary, part narrative feature recounting how a youth activist group, The Dreamers, purposely had themselves detained and put into a Border Patrol deportation prison to help other illegal immigrants escape from the inside out. Though viewers will certainly be split along party lines in their feelings about the film’s subject matter, no one can deny the inspiring commitment these teenagers show in standing up for what they believe in the face of one of the world’s most powerful governments. Admittedly, the mixture of the documentary aspects of the film and the narrative scenes don’t mix too well, but it’s hard to fault the idea behind it, with the filmmakers attempting to show an exciting story while also highlighting the facts and larger political scene outside what was happening in the prison. Regardless, the filmmakers’ ambition is intoxicating, as well as the tangible passion they bring to every single scene, and the film makes for an interesting if flawed viewing that pushes the boundaries of storytelling in a compelling direction.
The Last Tree (2019) dir. Shola Amoo
Femi, a second-generation Nigerian boy living in England, is uprooted from a tranquil life in the English countryside and moved to inner-city London when his mother reclaims custody from his foster mother. Struggling to adapt to the foreign and chaotic environment, Femi gets wrapped up in a world of drugs, violence, and academic shortcomings that he must fight to get out of before it’s too late. Surely, Amoo’s directorial style is irresistible to the eye, with shot after shot painted just as beautiful as the last. However, while there are some powerful scenes throughout the film, they don’t add up to much in the end, and a last act — that feels as if it was just slapped on during post-production to bolster the film’s runtime — proves just that. Still, Amoo’s vision is something to be applauded, and there is no doubt stronger work lies on the horizon where he can combine his strong visuals with better storytelling.
The Lodge (2019) dir. Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz
Hoping to follow in the footsteps of last year’s Sundance horror hit, Hereditary (2018), The Lodge was surely one of the most anticipated selections in the Midnight category. While it might not have made quite the splash that Ari Aster’s film did, The Lodge proved itself to be a tense psychological horror that keeps you guessing until the very end. In what could be described as a cross between The Shining (1980) and The Thing (1982), two children — in the wake of their mother’s suicide — are forced to stay in a snowed-in cabin with their father’s new fiance, who just so happens to be linked to a satanic cult from her childhood. Although the plot and situational setup seem rather cliche at the beginning of the film, shocking twists come time and again that force viewers to question who it is we’re supposed to be rooting for as well as who to trust.
The Mountain (2018) dir. Rick Alverson
After his mother is admitted to a mental institution and his father dies from a sudden heart attack, Zamboni driver, Andy (Tye Sheridan), embarks on a road trip from hospital to hospital photographing surgery patients for a lobotomist, Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum). Quite frankly, The Mountain should be avoided at all costs. The film’s stoic, sterile nature, void of any emotion or compassion, is too heavy-handedly bleak, resulting in the viewer’s not being attracted to the story or characters but being held away at arm’s length, but rather us not wanting to touch anything happening on screen with a 10-foot pole. Admittedly, the first 20 minutes are intriguing for these same reasons, but the act gets old shortly and culminates with a completely incoherent third act that goes on for far too long.