2024 Sundance Film Festival - Day 6 Capsules | Buzz Blog

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

2024 Sundance Film Festival - Day 6 Capsules

Will & Harper, Between the Temples, As We Speak, Reinas, Desire Lines, Stress Positions

Posted By and on January 24, 2024, 7:55 AM

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Will & Harper **** [Premieres]
There have been—and will be—many documentaries about humanizing the transgender experience, the process of transitioning, and the way others respond to those things, but it’s hard to imagine any will be simultaneously as heartfelt and as wildly entertaining as this one. Our subjects are actor Will Ferrell and his longtime friend/one-time Saturday Night Live head writer Harper Steele, who decide to take a 16-day New York-to-California road trip in the wake of Steele’s coming out as a trans woman at the age of 61. In part, it’s meant as a way for inveterate traveler of byways and backroads Harper to visit places that might not feel as safe to her now, and to director Josh Greenbaum’s credit, the movie is always forthright about the way that the presence of a celebrity on this journey provides a bit of a buffer from reality, and people who wouldn’t want to be caught on camera committing a hate crime. That doesn’t mean Will & Harper pretends anti-trans sentiment isn’t out there—a barrage of social-media comments makes that quite clear—but it feels more interested in foregrounding people who are decent, curious and (at times) deeply regretful about past behavior, including Ferrell himself, who never becomes the “isn’t it great that he’s such an ally” main character. And on top of all of that, we’re taking this trip with two extremely funny people (and occasionally their other SNL alum friends), who provide some huge laughs to complement the moments of honesty. Here’s a warm, hilarious portrait of what a real friendship looks like.

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Between the Temples *** [U.S. Dramatic]
Director/co-writer Nathan Silver and co-writer C. Mason Wells mix a little quintessential Sundance quirk into their throwback New Hollywood vibe, resulting in a dramedy that’s enjoyable, awkward, and enjoyably awkward. Jason Schwartzman plays Benjamin Gottlieb, a cantor for an upstate New York synagogue who has lost his will to sing—and much of his will to live—after the death of his wife. While nursing his sorrows in a bar, he runs into Carla O’Connor (Carol Kane), his widowed childhood music teacher, who decides to re-embrace her Jewish heritage by preparing for the bat mitzvah she never had. Harold & Maude provides the most obvious touchstone, and Silver aims for an aesthetic that evokes grainy 1970s film stock and jagged editing rhythms that capture the chaos of Benjamin’s life. The narrative does get a little over-stuffed with business at times, as though the writers are looking for individually funny scenes—like a visit to a Catholic Church, or an ill-fated J-Date encounter—even if they don’t particularly serve the central relationship. Schwartzman and Kane do have a nice chemistry, though, building to a shabbat dinner where the overlapping dialogue and increasingly frantic pacing build to an impressive crescendo. Maybe it’s a little on the messy side, but then again, the kind of movies to which it’s paying homage were never about being neat and tidy.

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As We Speak **1/2 [U.S. Documentary]
It’s completely understandable that J.M. Harper’s documentary connects its primary subject—the attempts by the justice system to use rap lyrics against their creators in criminal cases, treating the content as “evidence” of wrongdoing—with America’s long history of criminalizing Blackness. Unfortunately, that mission creep is also just one example of the way Harper tends to sprawl in both subject matter and methodology. Primarily, As We Speak focuses on Bronx rapper Kemba as he travels from Atlanta to New Orleans to London, interviewing rap artists who have had their own experiences with having their words turned against them, while legal experts and journalists provide background context. There’s some solid material there, particularly when the film observes, American Fiction-style, that rap lyrics dealing with criminal activity are the kind that sell, providing an incentive for artists to deal with that kind of content whether it has any direct relation to their own lives or not. But there’s a lot of other stuff going on in the movie, from an introduction to the U.K.’s particularly robust surveillance culture, to a re-enactment of a scene from Romeo & Juliet to suggest that William Shakespeare might have come under suspicion of promoting gang activity. The threat to creative speech that comes from weaponizing fear of Black violence feels like a potent enough subject that it feels undercut by so many aesthetic and content diversions.

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Reinas **1/2 [World Dramatic]
For all the individual moments in co-writer/director Klaudia Reynicke’s period-piece drama, there’s a point-of-view problem—in the sense that it never fully decides on one. The events take place in early-1990s Lima, Peru, where super-inflation and political upheaval have a woman named Elena (Jimena Lindo) deciding to emigrate to the United States with her two daughters, Aurora (Luana Vega) and Lucia (Abril Gjurnovic), just as the girls’ ne’er-do-well estranged father Carlos (Gonzalo Molina) decides to re-enter their lives. Plenty of the details in the script by Reynicke and Diego Vega Vidal provide a vivid sense of place—like the street-corner hustlers competing to exchange Peruvian currency for U.S. dollars—and of the way serial fabulist Carlos tries to manufacture a sense of himself as important. The challenge is latching on to a perspective from which to see the events unfold: Is it primarily about Aurora, a teenager who initially can’t imagine a fate worse than being separated from her friends? Is it about Carlos growing up enough to make his children an actual priority? Or maybe about Lucia as she tries to decide whether her loyalty is to her mother or to the older sister she idolizes? A series of late developments heightens the drama and tries to pull all of these threads together, but it’s hard to shake the sense that Reynicke wants to paint a broad portrait of how people responded to this time, but didn’t really have the time to fill in all the necessary details.

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Desire Lines **1/2 [NEXT]
One can respect Jules Rosskam for attempting something unconventional for a documentary structure, and still believe that the risk doesn’t pay off at all. In large part, this is a study of the history of transgender men identifying as gay, told through plenty of contemporary interviews as well as archival material focused on pioneering writer Lou Sullivan. But there’s also a framing sequence in which an Iranian-born transmasc researcher (Aden Hakimi) works at an archive of LGBTQ media, interacting primarily with one fellow transmasc employee (Theo Germaine)—and that material doesn’t work at all, with stilted performances, clumsy interstitial bits involving moving files on a computer desktop, and an unsuccessful attempt at turning the researcher into a kind of time traveler to experience 1980s gay life. It’s a shame, because the actual interviews are genuinely fascinating, capturing a spectrum of sexual and emotional experience—in fairly graphic detail, so buyer beware—as these men deal with the realities of being fetishized, of having complicated feelings about their female genitalia, finding a home in kink communities and more. Everything in Desire Lines that has to do with real people processing their lived experiences makes for rich and surprising piece of sociology; everything that has to do with fictional people interrupting those real people just gets in the way.

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Stress Positions **1/2 [U.S. Competition]
Stress Positions invites us into the post-COVID world through the eyes of Terry Goon, a man wrestling with social anxiety and a fear of contamination. Living in his ex-husband’s dilapidated Brooklyn brownstone, Terry seldom ventures out, and we follow his journey alongside his queer Moroccan-American model nephew, Bahlul, who becomes his housemate after an accident confines him to a full-leg cast. Directed by and featuring Theda Hammel, the film cleverly employs comedy to tackle the existential fear associated with the pandemic era. John Early’s portrayal of Terry is particularly praiseworthy, as he skillfully depicts the intricacies and subtleties of a character navigating his complex lifestyle and love life in this new reality. The film cleverly uses metaphors to illustrate the struggles millennials encounter in an ever-evolving world. Not one to shy away from satirizing millennial culture, Hammel uses humor and wit to underscore its inherent contradictions and dilemmas, including a pointed dialogue on their flawed understanding of the Middle East. Hammel’s depiction of anxiety—especially in scenes where Terry is surrounded by crowds of two or more (everyone’s eager to meet the model)—is eerily relatable, evoking our collective pandemic trauma. While the movie seemed a bit chaotic at times, making it difficult to follow the messaging, it counterbalances this with instances of light-heartedness, ensuring the narrative doesn’t become overly oppressive. (Aimee L. Cook)
Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

Bio:
Scott Renshaw has been a City Weekly staff member since 1999, including assuming the role of primary film critic in 2001 and Arts & Entertainment Editor in 2003. Scott has covered the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years, and provided coverage of local arts including theater, pop-culture conventions, comedy, literature,... more

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