Herstory in the Making | Film Reviews | Salt Lake City Weekly

Herstory in the Making 

Sundance 2018 became a place for women to shine as storytellers and protagonists.

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  • Sundance Institute

Harvey Weinstein wasn't at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Then again, in a manner of speaking, he was everywhere.

Once a ubiquitous presence at the festival—where his tirades and wheeling and dealing were as legendary as his sexual offenses have now become infamous—the former studio executive instead was part of the long-ignored, now unavoidable conversation about how women have been held back by predatory men from opportunities for success in general, and in film in particular. The festival's programming over the years has long been a platform for under-represented voices, but this year, perhaps more than usual, people seemed ready to listen.

In that context, it was almost inevitable that Jennifer Fox's The Tale would become a central part of Sundance 2018. Based on the filmmaker's own experience, it cast Laura Dern as Fox, investigating her own past after her mother discovers a story young Jennifer wrote as a middle-school student, suggesting that the youthful "relationship" she recalled as consensual took place when she was 13 years old, with a much older predator (Jason Ritter) who was her running coach. It's almost unfair to reduce Fox's film to its torn-from-the-headlines premise, since she employs fascinating storytelling devices—like recasting the "young Jennifer" from a confident teenager to a timid adolescent—that turn The Tale into a harrowing exploration of what survivors often have to do to their own memories in order to keep going.

As it turns out, virtually every one of this year's best festival films was directed by a woman, telling stories so widely varied that there was no way to pigeon-hole them. In Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin Phoenix is a freelance investigator who gets in over his head after attempting to track down the runaway daughter of a politician, in a vigilante thriller that turned upside down every notion about how you're supposed to shoot this kind of action yarn. Debra Granik somehow went eight years between making Jennifer Lawrence a movie star in Winter's Bone and her next fiction feature, but Leave No Trace freely adapted the Peter Rock novel My Abandonment—about a widowed veteran (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter (stellar newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) trying to live off the grid—into an emotionally devastating story about the need for community. The experimental whirlwind of Josephine Decker's Madeline's Madeline explored the mind of a New York teenager struggling with mental health issues (Helena Howard), and the way art can be alternately therapeutic and exploitative when dealing with such pain. Sara Colangelo fashioned the English-language adaptation of the Israeli psychological drama The Kindergarten Teacher into something uniquely American, with Maggie Gyllenhaal superb as a woman who discovers that one of her 5-year-old students might be a poetry prodigy, and becomes determined to protect his gifts. And documentary filmmaker Crystal Moselle showed a terrific kinetic sensibility following a lonely Long Island teen (Rachelle Vinberg) as she discovers a posse of fellow female skateboarders in her fiction feature debut Skate Kitchen.

Even when the creative force behind the camera wasn't female, the onscreen stories allowed female protagonists to shine. Toni Collette went gloriously over-the-top as a grief-stricken mother in the horror standout Hereditary, with first-time feature writer/director Ari Aster showing a magnificent sense for creating unease through camera placement, lighting, and even something as simple as a glottal tongue-cluck. Comedian Bo Burnham showed a compassion as writer/director evident nowhere in his standup material in the dark comedy-drama Eighth Grade, showcasing young Elsie Fisher as an awkward middle-schooler coming of age in the social-media-saturated world where your popularity is forever measured in likes and shares.

And that was only when the traditionally under-represented voices were white and female. African-American filmmakers like Boots Riley (Sorry to Bother You) and Qasim Basir (A Boy. A Girl. A Dream.), as well as Chilean director Sebastián Silva (Tyrel) and Mexican-born Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting), dug into the anxieties of black Americans at this political moment in ways that were sometimes darkly satirical, sometimes heartbreaking. Bisexual Iranian-American Desiree Akhavan explored the world of Christian "pray the gay away" programs in the Grand Jury Prize winner The Miseducation of Cameron Post, while the thriller Search—by director Aneesh Chaganty—cast the all-American family dealing with a missing child as one that happened to be Korean-American.

There was also a curious theme that ran through several festival films: In Search, Eighth Grade, Leave No Trace and the crowd-pleasing comedy-drama Hearts Beat Loud, the central relationship was between a single father and his teenage daughter. Given the flukes of movie production, it was of course purely coincidental. But maybe it also speaks to a world into which men are watching girls emerge, and hoping it's one in which they won't just survive, but thrive.

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