PARK CITY, UTAH — When historians look back at this year’s Sundance offerings, they will see this as a moment of renewed moral urgency in indie film — but not of the conventional sort. The popularity of films like “Get Out,” “The Shape of Water” and “Call Me By Your Name” proved audiences want socially conscious films, but they prefer them with horror, fantasy and humor.
The choice of guest speakers seemed inspired by last year’s Women’s March through a dizzying blizzard. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jane Fonda and Gloria Allred are all subjects of documentaries this year and addressed audiences in intimate conversations — they were packed with celebrities and the hottest tickets in town.
Asked about the backlash to the #MeToo movement of survivors sharing stories of harassment and assault, Ginsburg said, “When I see women appearing everywhere in numbers I am less worried about that.” The day before, another Women’s March down Main Street blazed through the snow.
Even virtual reality and artificial intelligence projects came bearing messages. “Hero” takes people through a war-torn Syria to “build empathy,” and “Frankenstein AI” is an interactive design-learning piece in which participants “feed” stories and emotions into a computer program, as it attempts to prove that we can make AI more human, and therefore kinder. The overall tone of the festival is one of positivity and renewed energy.
Yes, “message films” can be preachy and dry, but the filmmakers from the 2018 Sundance class hide the medicine in candy. These films are hilarious, mind-bending, thrilling and chill-inducing. They are so irresistible that you find yourself not numb to the problems they present but raring to tackle them anew.
The opening-night found-footage documentary “Our New President” from Russian-American director Maxim Pozdorovkin is an artful mash-up of propaganda clips from the three most popular Russian news stations — Russia 1, RT and NTV — during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election and President Trump’s inauguration. The film attempts to immerse you in relentless falsehoods, as you track, for instance, how one news segment about Hillary Clinton’s deadly cough spawned hundreds more with even zanier claims — some of which are picked up and run by American television.
Pozdorovkin never attempts to be Michael Moore and insert himself into the narrative to tell you how outrageous all of this is. “I didn’t want the film to spark outrage,” Pozdorovkin told me. “Outrage leads to fatigue.”
His was one of the very few Trump films to get into the festival, which he attributes to the absence of finger-wagging.
Instead, the collage of footage becomes, at times, wildly funny. YouTube clips of young men wearing fur hats in Siberia proclaim Trump is their hero, because he worked his way up from nothing as a kid raised in Brooklyn. No matter that Trump is from Queens or the heir to his family’s fortune.
When the humor wears off, you’re simply left with shock. Could this kind of propaganda happen in the United States? “It’s already happening,” Pozdorovkin says. “Russia just took it to its logical conclusion.”
Battling some homegrown and uniquely American woes are a pair of films set in Oakland, which are both festival favorites. “Sorry to Bother You,” the debut feature from hip-hop vocalist Boots Riley, stars Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson as Oaklanders who get caught up in telemarketing for a shadowy conglomerate. This magical-realist tale is like if Afro-futurism took a sharp right turn into reality and stopped at a gas station to ask for directions back home.
In the film, an agitator inside the call center — played by a charming Steven Yeun — organizes the office into a union, and Stanfield’s character must decide if he’s going to join his co-workers or go it alone and try to make cash as a “Power Seller.”
What could be a staid story or a light comic drama turns to ultra-bizarre satire. Half the film, Stanfield speaks in a “white voice” over the phone to try to appease potential clients — it’s really the voice of David Cross. Armie Hammer plays a cocaine-sniffing corporate overlord draped in expensive hippie scarves. Oh, and there are horsepeople.
While Riley’s film takes an active, pro-labor stance and embeds that in a fantastical story, Carlos López Estrada’s first-time feature “Blindspotting” grounds its narrative about gentrification and friendship in reality, with a few carefully placed theatrical flourishes, courtesy of “Hamilton’s” Daveed Diggs and breakout Rafael Casal, both of whom are theater actors and verse artists.
The two men play friends watching Oakland get gentrified beyond recognition, cracking jokes at the newcomers’ expense. The film covers a kitchen-sink of topics — police violence, interracial relationships, toxic masculinity, the bonds of community — and is therefore a bit messy and unfocused at times, but absolutely charming and driven by two phenomenal lead performances. Casal tells me, “Oakland is a place where humor and brutality walk hand in hand,” and that’s what this film delivers.
Further up the West Coast, the Portland-set “Leave No Trace” shows a tender, honest depiction of PTSD, through the story of a man (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) who live off the land in a state park. This is director Debra Granik’s follow-up to 2010’s “Winter’s Bone,” which launched the career of Jennifer Lawrence, but curiously didn’t do the same for Granik — she, Tamara Jenkins (“Private Life”) and Lynne Ramsay (“You Were Never Really Here”) are making triumphant returns to Sundance after many years without a picture.
In “Leave No Trace,” the girl yearns for connection to the outside world while also struggling to hold onto her father, who becomes obsessed with getting increasingly further off the grid. Granik criticizes the systems that offer insufficient assistance to a vet with PTSD but also is empathetic to their limitations.
Another film about a woman taking her life into her own hands is the searing drama “The Tale” from Jennifer Fox, who delivers a semi-autobiographical story of victimhood unlike anything movie audiences have seen before.
Jennifer Fox, the character, is a mature woman satisfied in life and career, played by a magnetic Laura Dern, who reexamines an old relationship and realizes she was sexually abused as a child. Critics are already calling it a #MeToo movie, though this film could be made any time and it would be relevant.
Fox, who is an accomplished documentarian, treats the story’s flashbacks as interviews, with Dern’s Jennifer going back in time to interrogate the people in her past, trying to get to the bottom of the story — was she a victim, or a willing participant?
As things become clearer to her, we see memories rewrite themselves, a scene rewinds and then plays again with the new information intact — a fire now unlit, a new face in the room; this is formally an ambitious work of art.
Yes, “The Tale” is a complex story of complicity, denial and faulty memory, but it’s also the most accurate depiction of childhood abuse and its effects committed to the screen.
Lastly, Sara Colangelo’s off-kilter thriller “The Kindergarten Teacher” takes on a seemingly less critical American ill — the loss of art amid technology, capitalism and dwindling interest. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a kindergarten teacher who finds a poet savant in her class and becomes obsessed with nurturing his talent.
As silly as it may sound that a woman would risk her family and career to ensure one special artist would not lose his love of language, Gyllenhaal’s performance is enough to convince skeptics her mission is credible — and even, yes, political.
“As we were making this film, they were proposing cuts to the [National Education Association],” Colangelo tells me. “It felt important to preserve poetry at this time.”