Sundance 2020 Reviews: Day 7 | Buzz Blog

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Sundance 2020 Reviews: Day 7

Wander Darkly, Lost Girls, Horse Girl, The Social Dilemma, Dinner in America and more

Posted By on January 30, 2020, 9:30 AM

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click to enlarge Sienna Miller and Diego Luna in Wander Darkly
  • Sienna Miller and Diego Luna in Wander Darkly
Wander Darkly **1/2 [U.S. Dramatic]
There are times when you are watching a movie, and you can just smell it building to a Big Reveal that’s gonna irritate the hell out of you. Writer/director Tara Miele dodges the worst-case scenario, but still provides something that feels more interested in being a puzzle-box than in being emotionally potent. Adrienne (Sienna Miller) and Matteo (Diego Luna) are an unmarried Los Angeles couple with a new baby struggling to keep their relationship together. Then they’re both involved in a devastating car accident—from which Adrienne emerges in a disorienting state of not being sure if she’s alive or dead. The ensuing narrative shifts fluidly through time and space as Adrienne tries to process her situation through the history of her relationship with Matteo, so that it often feels like Miele’s attempt at Eternal Sunshine of the Traumatized Brain. Miller turns in a strong performance in a tricky role, since it’s not clear for most of the running time if she’s a living soul trying to re-embrace a complicated reality, or a dead soul trying to make peace with past mistakes. But, eventually, all must be revealed—and it’s disappointing to find it's the most obvious one, with the least interesting things to say about the messiness of loving someone. (Scott Renshaw)

Lost Girls *** [Premieres]

Here’s a very down-the-middle commercial thriller, but not the less effective for that and especially welcome on Day 7 of an artsy-fartsy film festival. It’s no Memories of Murder (the first masterpiece by Parasite director Bong Joon-ho, and also a film about a notorious unsolved murder), but that film was a policier that followed the cops. Lost Girls is in a slightly different vein: a cross between an outsider legal crusade and a victim-impact statement. The dynamo Amy Ryan dominates the film as the working-class single mother of a missing prostitute, Shannan, who has to force the authorities to take notice and eventually stumble across a serial murderer. We even see one of Ryan’s other daughters find a physical clue that the police didn’t. That hints at what this story is much more about: the family left behind. Indeed, the very title could refer not so much to Shannan and the other victims of the Long Island serial killer (all Craigslist prostitutes), but her two sisters (the elder one played by Thomasin MacKenzie) who get forgotten when everything becomes about their absent sibling. Their primary outlet becomes the case, and the members of the other victimized families who join in the crusade. (Victor J. Morton)

The Social Dilemma *** [Documentary Premieres]
We all know social media companies are constructing ever more refined models of our dispositions and behavior, trying to game our behavior and even our ideas—but we also tend to discount the effects on ourselves as intelligent, critically-thinking adults. Exactly how doomed are we? Documentarian Jeff Orlowski, relying largely on commentary from Silicon Valley expatriates and other experts—his star witness is Tristan Harris, a former Google “design ethicist”—builds a sledgehammer case for the destructive power of social media on individuals, communities and nations. Supplementing the talking heads are fictional vignettes set in a suburban household, with metaphorical asides depicting three personified algorithms representing the goals of driving engagement, growth and revenue. These dramatic sequences are a mixed bag, ranging from poignant (an insecure girl on Snapchat gets affirming responses to a selfie only after applying glamorizing filters, but a flip comment makes her self-conscious about her ears) to strained and underwhelming (a teenaged boy’s downward spiral culminates in getting himself and his concerned sister handcuffed at a protest rally—the humanity!). Less invented drama and a more integral approach to the positives of technology (an afterthought here) and positive prescriptions (sprinkled over the closing credits) might have elevated a very good film to a must-see. (Steven D. Greydanus)

click to enlarge Alison Brie in Horse Girl
  • Alison Brie in Horse Girl
Horse Girl ** [Premieres]
One of the best feelings at the movies is watching something that initially makes you think, “This is complete bullshit,” only to have it click into place as something that’s actually kind of profound. Here’s one that makes that profound click, only to pirouette back to bullshit. Alison Brie and director Jeff Baena co-wrote this story that casts Brie as Sarah, a mild-mannered craft store clerk whose bag of quirks overfloweth: She binge-watches a Supernatural-esque TV show, remains obsessed with the horse she once owned, sleepwalks, gets nosebleeds, etc. Then she becomes convinced that her strange dreams may be indications of—wait for it—alien abduction. There are some great individual moments, both visually and in the dialogue, sprinkled throughout the movie; one delightful exchange has someone growing increasingly frustrated that the person he’s talking to has no idea what a “baker’s dozen” actually means. And while Brie’s character initially feels like someone just kept spinning the Sundance Movie Wheel o’ Tics, there’s eventually a kind of heartbreaking component of a woman trying to deal with a family history of mental illness. It’s too bad Baena and Brie take that angle to its goofiest possible conclusion, as though we were suckers to hope for something emotionally cathartic. (SR)

Dinner in America ½* [U.S. Dramatic]

The friend sitting next to me during this screening said afterward he could sense the hate wafting off me within the first five minutes of this self-righteous piece of Suburbia Is Hell, maaaaan. Imagine Badlands or Bonnie and Clyde done basically as a deadpan-caricature comedy: Experienced outsider criminal male Simon teams up with slow female naïf Patty (albeit for lesser stuff than murder and bank robbery). What got my hostility up right away is the performances being given by the straights and squares who cross this delinquent (think Bender in The Breakfast Club, but without the charm or self-control) or this recessive mouse (think Allison in that movie, but even more recessive). These foils were completely over-the-top caricatures, allowing the film to engage in both comic cheating and intellectual deck-stacking. Todd Solondz would’ve looked at this movie and said, “You need to take it down a notch.” Dinner In America becomes less unbearable as it concentrates more on the budding romance between Simon and Patty—he’s secretly the anonymous lead singer of her favorite band. But this is an actual quote from late in the movie, aimed by Simon at his family for their behavior toward Patty: “Don’t talk to her like she’s some subhuman with that condescending fucking tone.” Physician, heal thyself! (VJM)

click to enlarge Acasa, My Home
  • Acasa, My Home
Acasa, My Home ***1/2 [World Documentary]
When a guide at Romania’s newly opened Vacaresti Nature Park in the Bucharest Delta explains to visitors how wild birds captured in the area and sold in cages often died, since “they aren’t meant for captivity; they’re meant to life free in nature,” it seems troublingly like a potential metaphor for the human subjects of Radu Ciorniciuc’s 86-minute fly-on-the-wall documentary debut feature. We meet the Enashes—father, mother and nine children—leading a seemingly idyllic, solitary existence in sprawling wetlands amid chickens, dogs and pigs, running wild and dodging social workers. They’ve lived this way for decades—but the title shot, a drone reveal displaying first the vastness of their wild surroundings before exposing their proximity to the sprawling urban landscape of Bucharest, clarifies the fragility of their situation. The story of rustic lifestyles threatened by encroaching modernity has been told often (e.g., last year’s Honeyland), but in some ways Acasa is closer in spirit to Leave No Trace, since the Enashe paterfamilias deliberately turned his back on society, a decision with complex implications for his offspring as they transition to life beyond Vacaresti. Ciorniciuc leaves us pondering the knottiness of this crisis: Their way of life was unsustainable, and in some ways debilitating, yet it was also beautiful, and there are no easy ways forward. (SDG)

Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen *** [Documentary Premieres]
Sam Feder’s study of the way transgender people have been portrayed in film and television evolves into considerably more than an academic overview, thanks largely to the acknowledgement that there’s no one way to interpret work that’s “problematic.” Present-day transgender entertainers and activists provide on-screen interviews talking about the rare places they saw themselves represented, and what those representations told them about the life they could expect for themselves. It’s not a pretty picture, not surprisingly, as examples pulled together emphasize fictional trans characters appearing mostly to be victims of violence, be hospitalized for “ironic” medical conditions, or inspiring people to vomit when they discover they’re dealing with a trans person. It’s also fascinating to hear interview subjects disagree about whether a given example was positive or negative, or note that sensationalizing talk shows like Jerry Springer actually gave trans people more of a voice. There are surprising omissions—no reference to Tales of the City’s Anna Madrigal, for example, or By Hook or By Crook—and perhaps a bit too much focus on producer Laverne Cox. But it’s ultimately a potent reminder of how pop-culture images of a group shape its self-perception, until they get a chance to tell their own stories. (SR)

Binti *** [Kids]

Bet you never thought the Dardenne brothers’ La Promesse could work as a children’s film, did you? That’s a bit reductive, obviously, but both films center on African immigrants in Belgium who fear deportation, and a white Belgian boy who comes to see them as family. Binti takes place in the social-media era, and takes its name from a young Congolese girl (a winning Bebel Tshiani Baloji) who has a popular social-media presence, thanks to her bubbling personality and directorial chops. The white boy named Elias has taken saving the okapi (a giraffe-like animal native to the former Belgian Congo) as a cause, to little success and clearly to fill an obvious void in his home life—the child of divorce whose father is in Brazil and whose mother is being courted by a man he doesn’t like. After a happenstance meeting as Binti and her father flee immigration cops, the kids contrive to match their parents. The film’s highlight is the video Binti makes to promote saving the okapis, which showcases her skills with Richard Lester editing and Robert Zemeckis green-screen. The ending is a little contrived, and the cops bring some harsh moments, but it’s exactly how this kind of kids fantasy should end. This ain’t the Dardenne brothers, after all. (VJM)

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