Sundance 2020 reviews: Day 3 | Buzz Blog

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sundance 2020 reviews: Day 3

Never Rarely Sometimes Always, The Go-Go's, Boys State, Bad Hair and more

Posted By on January 26, 2020, 8:00 AM

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click to enlarge Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always
  • Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Never Rarely Sometimes Always ***1/2 [U.S. Dramatic]
The narrative around writer/director Eliza Hittman's feature is going to be that it's about abortion, but that's not the case. Not really. Not entirely. It is true that Pennsylvania 17-year-old Autumn Callahan (Sidney Flanigan) finds herself with an unplanned pregnancy, and—requiring parental consent in her home state—travels to New York with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) to have an abortion. Hittman does dig into plenty of details surrounding the circumstances of a teenager trying to terminate a pregnancy, including encounters with a pro-life “crisis pregnancy” center, and the details of the procedure itself. But on a much sadder, more profound level, Hittman connects abortion to a culture of men sexualizing underage girls, then making those girls the only ones responsible for the consequences. Flanigan and Ryder are both revelations, as Hittman (It Felt Like Love, Beach Rats) employs her trademark naturalism in a way that asks her actors to fill in a lot of blanks non-verbally. On some level, they're asked to be universal rather than specific in their characterizations, but the performances serve a narrative that doesn't just ask “why is it so hard for a teen girl to end an unwanted pregnancy,” but also “what is the world men are building that contributes to so many unwanted teen pregnancies.” (Scott Renshaw)

The 40-Year-Old Version *** [U.S. Dramatic]
Frisky, messy and funny as hell, writer/director/star Radha Blank's film is its own best evidence for an artist to take full control of their creative life. Her character is what seems to be a thinly-veiled version of herself, a playwright once lauded as a “30 under 30” prospect but now approaching her 40th birthday, teaching high-school drama students just to pay the rent. So while her latest theater project languishes, she turns back to an art form she gave up in her youth: crafting hip-hop rhymes. Blank takes aim at a dozen different targets for her punch lines, from her own creaky body, to being an object of desire to many younger characters, to the compromises she makes in her play about Harlem gentrification so that a white liberal audience can feel good about it. It's a sprawling sort of narrative—touching on Radha's relationships with a variety of characters including her agent/high school BFF (Peter Y. Kim) and the music producer laying down beats for her rhymes (Oswin Benjamin)—and its diversions occasionally feel meandering rather than entertaining or enlightening. But it's all anchored by Blank, who warrants praise for every facet of her multi-hyphenatedness, particularly as wonderfully appealing central character. (SR)

Boys State *** [U.S. Documentary] 
click to enlarge Steven Garza in Boys State
  • Steven Garza in Boys State

At the titular week-long American Legion camp, selected rising high-school seniors from around a state (Texas, here) build two parties and a government from the ground up, after having been assigned arbitrarily to the nonexistent Nationalist and Federalist parties. Having been an 18-year-old Texas boy at that same event 30-odd years ago (elected to the state House), I can say that co-directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (The Overnighters) capture well the event’s mix of tomfoolery and seriousness, political naïveté and sophistication, ideological conviction and trollery. The parallels with “real” adult politics grow organically from the serious players whom Moss and McBaine follow, and who act like adults because they have adult ambitions. Sail-trimming, opposition research, minoritarian overreach and last-minute “October surprises” all appear. And the main character, with whom Moss and McBaine want us to identify, turns out to be a gubernatorial candidate from Houston called Steven Garza, who is first seen wearing a Beto O’Rourke T-shirt—a sartorial choice that turns out to say a lot more than it seemed to. Boys State really plays to its intended audience, and will be a huge hit as its makers are extremely skilled at getting the feels they seek. Indeed, I sat next to two women who were being played like a piano throughout. (Victor J. Morton)

La Llorona **1/2 [Spotlight]
There’s a fine line between a would-be supernatural thriller that’s a slow burn, and one that never quite ignites. Writer/director Jayro Bustamente tells the story of a former leader in Guatemala’s military dictatorship, Gen. Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), whose conviction of human rights violations is overturned. Effectively trapped in the family compound by protestors, Enrique and his family—his wife Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic), daughter Natalia (Sabrina de la Hoz) and granddaughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado)—welcome a new housemaid, Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), who might have a mysterious past. Bustamente toys with the ghost story elements of his narrative, providing a few unsettling moments. But there’s never really any mystery about the revelations that will emerge by the conclusion, and it simply doesn’t provide much visceral impact to accompany its suggestion that unearthly means need to step in where human institutions fail at providing justice. Ultimately, it’s more compelling in considering the moral culpability of the women who stand by their (cruel and powerful) men, forcing them to reckon with how they’ve benefited off the suffering of others; read into that whatever contemporary parallels you will. (SR)

The Go-Go's *** [Documentary Premieres]
click to enlarge The Go-Go's
  • The Go-Go's

I thought I'd seen this VH1 Behind the Music episode, but director Allison Ellwood takes advantage of her access to the band to deliver something with more energy and wisdom. The archival material predictably takes us back to the late-70s Los Angeles punk scene, and the band's initial incarnation of Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Margot Olavarria and Elissa Bello, before a shift toward pop songcraft with the addition of guitarist Charlotte Caffey changed the band's trajectory towards stardom, once Kathy Valentine and Gina Schock replaced Olavarria and Bello. The participation of Olavarria, Bello and original band manager Ginger Canzoneri allows for a full picture of the path that led toward MTV celebrity and the first-ever number 1 record by an all-female band playing and writing their own songs, and the members open up thoughtfully about substance abuse issues, regrettable decisions and mental health struggles. But even when The Go-Go's starts to feel familiar in its rock-doc rhythms, it's just enjoyable spending time with these women opening up with nearly 40 years of hindsight and experience—particularly Schock and Wiedlin, whose honesty is frequently hilarious. It's the kind of movie that makes you think that, as cool as it might have been to hang out with these five women in their chart-topping heyday, they might be even cooler to hang out with now. (SR)

Bad Hair **1/2 [Midnight]
When the logline for writer/director Justin Simien's horror tale was released with the Sundance program announcement, I joked that it sounded like a feature-length version of the vintage Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” installment “Hell Toupee.” Simien had plenty more on his mind than that, but the ideas are often more interesting than the execution. Anna (Elle Lorraine) is an executive assistant at a BET-esque cable network circa 1989, but her chances at advancement in her field seem to be limited by her unwillingness to change her naturally kinky locks. The story builds a dense mythology, and indeed a lot of what Simien is dealing with here is the way colonizing and oppressing cultures erase the folklore and history of the people they oppress, on top of the particular way that Western cultural norms treat natural Black hair as undesirable. That's a lot of ground to cover, and while Bad Hair at times finds its footing as social satire, it's much more uneven as a horror film also trying to incorporate humor. There's a lot that's scary about the real world Simien shows us, and considerably less that's scary about his story's homicidal follicles. (SR)

Yalda, A Night for Forgiveness **1/2 [World Dramatic]
Yalda is the slickest Iranian movie I’ve ever seen, both its own polish and its presentation of a TV milieu as glossy as anything American or European. Indeed, it was all so slick, I’m uncertain how to take it. The plot centers on a woman, Maryam, sentenced to death for killing her husband, under circumstances that grow knottier as the movie wears on. She appears on a TV-variety show marking the Yalda holiday along with Mona, the daughter of her victim. Mona will decide whether to forgive the killer and accept a blood-money payment—which, under Iran’s Islamic-law codes, would lift the death sentence. Yalda also features some backstage plot twists worthy of a telenovela, and acted about as broadly. I don’t want to Christiansplain Islam, but I was uncertain whether to take this as something reasonably realistic, as subtle social satire or as outright farce. By “this,” I certainly don't mean God’s commandment to forgive, as Quranic as it is Biblical, or even the role said commandments might play in a penal code. But can “this” involve a public performance on a TV program with a chipper host, between song numbers, on a set that looks like Network's The Howard Beale Show? Or with the blood money being raised by the show’s sponsors, the amount dependent on the number of instant-message votes? (VJM)

Softie *** [World Documentary]
Sam Soko’s documentary at times feels dangerously close to the non-fiction version of those dramatized biopics where the significant other of the protagonist laments how he cares more about his socially-conscious cause than about his own family—but he always manages to dodge those pitfalls with thornier issues. The primary subject is Boniface Mwangi, a Kenyan one-time photojournalist turned political activist against the country’s history of deeply corrupt government, and his decision to run for the Kenyan parliament himself as a reformer. Much of the story focuses on how his campaign affects his wife, Njeri, and their three children, from his single-minded focus on his country to threats of violence from those who like the status quo just fine. And there is effective material there, emphasizing the way trying to change the world has deeply personal consequences. But it’s even more fascinating simply as a portrait of a profoundly broken system, one built on tribal factions emphasized in British colonial government, and where voters wait to be bribed by candidates before deciding where their loyalty lies. It’s hard not to get caught up in the seemingly lost cause of a would-be reformer whose potential constituents assume that anyone who’s not giving away free T-shirts is “not an honest candidate.” (SR)

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