Sundance screens all-star slate for 2022 festival


Photo provided by Sundance Film Festival

The Sundance Film Festival is being shown virtually through Jan. 30.

By Bryce Forren

The Sundance Film Festival, held in the winter beauty of Park City, Utah, is the premier American platform for independent cinema, showcasing a diverse array of feature films, documentaries, shorts and experimental projects submitted from around the world every January.  And this year you can watch it from the comfort of your home in Oxford.

This year’s Sundance is all-virtual for the second consecutive year due to COVID-19, meaning that the festival’s film premieres – as well as its secondary programs and post-viewing live Q&As with directors and cast.  The 2022 Festival began Jan. 20 and will run through Jan. 30.  Here are a few films from the first weekend that are worth catching:

After Yang (Spotlight, 2021)

Kogonada’s feature debut “Columbus” (2017) was a project dedicated to stripping back the noisy spectacle of a frame to extract every detail it can from its characters. The South Korean director, who goes by a single name, uses his camera as a patient listener and, by extension, is a demonstration to its audience of the rewarding nature of humble observation. “After Yangsees Kogonada applying this same meditative restraint to the backdrop of a genre film; in this case a speculative science-fiction story about identity, loss and the spiritual power of memory and attachment.

Jake (Colin Farrell) works tirelessly throughout the film to remedy the sudden malfunction of Yang (Justin H. Min), an android who lives with Jake’s wife, Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) and adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) to serve as an older sibling figure for the latter and teach her about her Chinese heritage. 

Yang, who was bought “certified refurbished,” is the emotional core of the family he belongs to, often pushing each member to reveal their own compassion in a space where they rarely appear vulnerable with each other. In true science-fiction fashion, Kogonada’s film is invested in the qualities that define humanity, and finds a compelling lead in the genuine connections that humans share both with each other and in how the delicate details of their passions can be translated into textured emotional worlds. 

The Worst Person in the World (Spotlight, 2021)

With the confidence of a seasoned filmmaker, Joachim Trier introduced his contemporary, intimate odyssey with a reminder that he is “coming from the Ingmar Bergman part of the world.” 

The Norwegian director’s invocation of the Swedish giant of art cinema, spoken as a modifier to his classification of the film as a “strange take on a romantic comedy,” has layers beyond what he perhaps intended as a joke at the expense of Scandinavian melancholy. “The Worst Person in the World” isn’t as hyper-fixated on motifs of isolation or devastating ideological tensions as Bergman’s work often was, but it shares in its dedication to character study, constructing intimate worlds where thoughtful, well-rounded protagonists are given room to introspect. 

The film’s protagonist Julie (Renate Reinsve) isn’t, in fact, the worst person in the world. However Julie’s frustration at her inability to bloom where she is planted often mistakes the disillusionment of young adulthood with the harsh existential belief that her clumsy, self-destructive pursuit of happiness indicates a fatal character flaw. 

With the assistance of a screenplay that pushes the film to an immense emotional and temporal scope, Reinsve intelligently faces the vast and difficult journey of understanding the self-forgiveness and humility required to distance oneself from the designation of main character.

You Won’t Be Alone (World Cinema Dramatic Competition, 2022)

Goran Stolevski admitted in the post-screening discussion of his debut feature that the project was inspired as much by the writing of Virginia Woolf and the films of Terrence Malick as it was the Macedonian folklore that birthed the witches at its center. 

Set in Macedonia’s mountainous regions in the 19th century, Nevena (Sara Klimoska) escapes grueling isolation in the early years of her young adult life when she is taken under the wing of a cruel, deformed witch (Anamaria Marinca). The allure of Nevena’s new life as a witch comes in her ability to inhabit the bodies of others, allowing her first experience with the outside world to be one that takes on a number of disparate identities. 

With its subsequent fixation on a fluctuating self, “You Won’t Be Alone” taps into the spirit of Malick’s work. Drenched in natural lighting, the camera often echoes Nevena’s awestruck captivation with the abundance of organic life that suddenly surrounds her. 

Though her character is non-verbal, the narration she maintains throughout every life she inhabits is poetic and reflective, reminiscent of the dreamlike voice-over in Malick’s “Days of Heaven” (1978). Through both this lyrical approach and a particular fixation on gender and sexuality, Stolevski’s film becomes a pendulum that swings between tranquility and brutality as if pushed by a current, interrogating the intrinsic dichotomy in Nevena’s environment that simultaneously suffocates and liberates her.

When You Finish Saving the World (Premieres, 2022)

With the sporadic edginess of one of writer-director Jesse Eisenberg’s own iconic roles, Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) strums heavy, ringing guitar chords to a virtual audience of thousands in order to drown out the voice of his mother, Evelyn, portrayed with staggering nuance by Julianne Moore.

 Although his stripped-back take on “Brand New” earns Ziggy stardom on what Eisenberg referred to as a “Tik-Tok analogue” in his introduction to the film, it isn’t enough to win over his activist high school crush Lila (Alisha Boe). She deems his desperation for stardom to be shallow and his repeated attempts at seeming politically conscious to be self-serving. It’s similarly not enough to impress Evelyn, a proud portrait of wealthy neo-liberal virtue signaling who repeatedly mourns the figurative death of a son who used to care about important issues as much as she did. 

Although it stumbles in achieving the warmth it clearly strives for, Eisenberg elevates “When You Finish Saving the World” above a conventional condemnation of social media narcissism through his probing of Evelyn’s own preoccupation with herself. 

Her job at a domestic violence shelter indicates her authentic and meaningful desire to impact her community, but her obsessive and unwanted vicarious motherhood of an unassuming boy at her shelter (Billy Byrk) demonstrates a vain desire to be appreciated without consideration for the values of the other. 

As Ziggy is heard singing toward the end of the film, the mother and son are “two high-speed trains on parallel tracks,” rendered unable to appreciate the genuine aspects of the other’s principles and failing to see their own shortcomings reflected in their criticisms. Eisenberg’s directorial debut, though lacking in the streamlined confidence of other coming-of-age films like it, successfully executes an emotional journey in which characters are faced with noticing what they already have rather than searching for something that might be missing.

Dual (US Dramatic Competition, 2022)

The idiosyncratic, detached writing style of Riley Stearns’ “Dual” is initially jarring, as is a stilted performance by Karen Gillan. However, throughout its runtime the film effectively leverages the strengths of this off-putting tone, extracting the same sublime blend of soft science fiction and unsettlingly dark comedy as the work of director Yorgos Lanthimos. 

Sarah, who Gillan handles with a stuttering, deadpan delivery, finds her life overturned when she’s faced with a terminal illness. Deciding to purchase a clone of herself that will replace her after she dies, an unexpected fault in the plan leaves Sarah both alienated and faced with a new enemy. Stearns’ strict adherence to this detached style means his follow up to 2019’s “The Art of Self Defense” wraps the entire world of his film in the feelings of separation that Sarah feels between herself and the people she tries tirelessly to feel close to. 

Although its comedy often veers toward absurdity, Stearns is careful not to undercut the authentic emotional stakes of Sarah’s situation, often allowing the story’s farcical elements to exist externally from her, weighing down on her rather than emanating from her.