Sundance Film Festival 2024 roundup | Film Reviews | Salt Lake City Weekly

Sundance Film Festival 2024 roundup 

Catching the buzz of watching great movies together, in person

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Will and Harper - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Will and Harper

Beyond the movies themselves, the Sundance Film Festival is a vibe—and for the first time in four years, that vibe felt something like it did pre-COVID. While Sundance was back in person for 2023 (one I didn't attend in person for medical reasons), the fact that nearly the entire program was still available online made it feel less urgent to be on the ground in Park City. The result, those who were there last year attest, felt somewhat depleted of energy without the sense that in order to be where the Next Big Thing might emerge, you had to be there.

I Saw the TV Glow - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • I Saw the TV Glow

In 2024, though, you could feel the buzz—and it was a festival full of movies that deserved the buzz. As is often the case at the festival, certain thematic trends became evident, and issues of gender identity fueled many of Sundance 2024's best entries. At the top of the list was Will & Harper, a documentary buddy-road-trip offering in which actor Will Ferrell takes a cross-country drive with his old friend/former Saturday Night Live head writer Harper Steele, who came out as a trans woman in her 60s. In addition to being a lovely portrait of what it looks like to be a true supportive ally, it was outrageously funny, making it clear that one of the best ways to deliver an important message is to douse it with laughs. The subject of transness emerged more metaphorically in Jane Schoenbrun's unsettling psychological thriller I Saw the TV Glow, which turned the portrait of two troubled youths and their attachment to a cheesy supernatural television show into a recognition of how people can attach themselves to media representations that make them feel seen.

In the Summers - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • In the Summers

Another heartening festival through-line came in the form of stories about queer youth where the primary conflict didn't come in the form of antagonistic parents. Good One dealt with a 17-year-old girl (Lily Collias) who happens to be gay on a camping trip with her divorced father (James Le Gros), but the story—and the wonderful central performance by Collias—focused on more complex matters than a dad uncomfortable with his daughter's queerness. Ditto for the light-hearted fantasy comedy My Old Ass, where a Canadian soon-to-be-college student (Maisy Stella) receives advice from a 20-years-older version of herself (Aubrey Plaza); the protagonist's eagerness to leave her hometown blessedly has little to do with being ostracized for being into girls. Even the Grand Jury Prize winner in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, In the Summers, showcased a conflicted relationship between two kids on their annual visits to the New Mexico home of their father over the years—and the fact that one of those kids transitions to male over the course of its running time is treated as almost incidental to the tensions between them.

We also got plenty of looks at the impact of the virtual/digital world on our lives, albeit in some wildly different ways. A couple of documentaries—Eternal You and Love Machina—both addressed the prospect of transcending death through preserving consciousness digitally, wrestling with both the practicality and the ethics of such efforts. But there was also Love Me, the science-fiction/rom-com hybrid set centuries after the apocalyptic end of humanity, in which a data-gathering buoy achieves self-awareness (in the voice of Kristen Stewart) and begins a relationship with a satellite (Steven Yuen), with an impression of human love patterned after an influencer's YouTube videos; it provided a savvy allegory for the versions of ourselves we create for online interaction, and how they can interfere with real connection. On the flipside is the Norwegian documentary Ibelin, a fascinating and emotional portrait of a severely handicapped youth whose online persona in World of Warcraft opens up an opportunity for connections he couldn't experience in the real world.

And really, finding emotional storytelling in unexpected places has always marked some of the best, most interesting and (at times) weirdest Sundance movies over the years—like, for example, exploring the subject of loneliness and habitat-loss through the grunting demi-human protagonists of the Zellner brothers' Sasquatch Sunset. Once you get past the bodily-function humor, you see a story about what it means to have people to share experiences with. And maybe that even provides a metaphor for a film festival once again buzzing with people who all want to share the experience of watching great movies together.

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About The Author

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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