Notes from Sundance’s Class of 2019
Let us break it down for you.
Let us break it down for you.
Text: Greg Krelenstein
The 2019 Sundance Film Festival welcomed in a whole new slate of films that we’ll be talking about for the rest of the year. Coming at this crucial point where conversations of Black Panther, Roma, and A Star Is Born could make you hit the snooze button, leave it to Park City’s annual gathering of film fans, journalists, producers, and sales agents to reawaken the passion for independent cinema year after year.
This year’s festival seemed to have an agenda reflective of the current cultural landscape showcasing a strong selection of diverse voices with a few straight crowd pleasers as well as one very long controversial documentary about Michael Jackson that stole most of the year’s headlines. Leaving Neverland, a four hour film about the sexual abuse allegations against the late King of Pop, caused protests and outcry from the family that this production is another attempt to exploit the legacy of the pop icon. The film will air later this Spring on HBO. While the other films didn’t generate quite as much noise, my favorite ones were personal stories that will cause quite a stir in their own right making this year's festival feel like one of the freshest in years and generated some big sales, guaranteeing audiences the chance to judge for themselves.
The Try Sexual Generation
For the kids in the club redefining sexuality, gender, and everything in between, they can reference Adam, This Is Not Berlin, and Now Apocalypse. Adam, starring newcomer Nicholas Alexander, tells the story of a cisgender male teen impersonating a trans male with the hopes of winning over the affections of a lesbian woman, played by Bobbi Salvör Menuez, who doesn’t know his secret. Taking place in the LGBTQ scene of 90s New York, the film has the charm of past Sundance hits like Party Girl (which made Parker Posey a star) and Trick (which legitimized 90210’s Tori Spelling.)
This is Not Berlin takes place in the Mexico City New Wave underground scene of the mid-80s, and follows the journey of an androgynous 17-year-old boy navigating an exciting new art scene and his own difficult family dynamics. This coming of age drama comes off like a punk rock Roma and captures the energy of this subculture perfectly.
Gregg Araki’s Now Apocalypse is not a film, but a new series airing on STARZ and features his usual brand combination of angsty teens (led by Avan Jogia) who are obsessed with sex, aliens, drugs, and shoegaze. Araki wisely chose sexpert writer Karley Sciortino to collaborate on the writing and producing and gives the episodes a version of Araki 2.0, injecting his singular day-glo landscape with the dating rituals of the current LA scene. It felt as though the festival programmers had been studying fashion magazine spreads when picking up some of these very progressive queer nation genre films that have potential to break through to the mainstream.
The Source Material
Native Son is a stunningly visual and visceral debut film from artist Rashid Johnson that updates the book on which it's based upon to a seemingly modern Chicago and its rich surrounding suburbs. Ashton Sanders of Moonlight holds the screen in every scene and delivers a true breakout performance as the anti hero Bigger. With his dyed green hair, graffiti painted leather jacket, and spiked necklace, he’s a character that rings truly unique on screen. The film also boasts some strong supporting performances from Margaret Qualley, Nick Robinson, and another suffering turn from If Beale Street Could Talk star Kiki Layne. By the time the film gets to the final act, the heartbreak of the actions taken by the characters reveal that the themes of identity, race, and politics from the novel in the 40’s resonate just as strong today. An accomplished first time film debut from Johnson combined with Saunder’s memorable performance makes Native Son worthy of intense debate and conversation when it hits HBO later this year.
The Trainwreck Effect
Amy Schumer’s brand of comedy and interpretation of the modern cosmopolitan trainwreck could be felt in several of the films including Audience Award Winner Brittany Runs A Marathon, Big Time Adolescence, and Animals. Brittany… stars festival Jillian Bell, a former SNL writer and scene stealer of films such as 21 Jump Street, is a heart warming film about a young woman who, after being diagnosed as unhealthy and making poor life choices, decides to get into shape and train for the New York Marathon. Bell delivers a breakthrough performance based on a real life woman who somehow escapes cliche to feel like a truly empowering story.
Another SNL alum, Pete Davidson, perfectly pulls off the dramatic notes of this role as an overgrown teenager who can’t fully over get his high school prime in Big Time Adolescence. He befriends the 16-year-old brother of his ex girlfriend and the film juxtaposes Davidson’s growing pains with the ones of a genuine young adult played by newcomer Griffin Gluck.
Animals, based on the novel from 2014 by Emma Jane Unsworth, is about the dynamic of two best friends played brilliantly by Alia Shawkat and Holliday Grainger approaching their thirties and questioning whether it’s time that the party’s over. Grainger’s character meets her fiancée midway through the film and causes a rift between the two girls as booze and drugs have no place in the more mature version of adulthood the film contrasts with the messy behavior and late nights. Unlike the Schumer films, there’s no pat ending for any of these films - the characters are honest and relatable and offer no apologizes for a life led on their own terms.
Best of The Rest
Garnering big sales and standing ovations from the audience, Blinded by the Light, directed by Gurinder Chadha, is a musical about a British-Pakistani teenager, set in a working collar town across the tracks in England in the mid-80, who finds salvation in the music of Bruce Springsteen.
Sweetheart from the Blumhouse team is a sharp horror take on Tom Hanks’ Cast Away, a largely silent film following a young woman (Kiersey Clemons) who washes ashore on a desert island shipwrecked and alone. Paradise Hills, starring Emma Roberts, is a wacky future campy tale about a group of young women (a great ensemble cast featuring Dumplin’s Danielle MacDonald, Awkwafina and Milla Jovovich) shipped off to a island for a finishing school that is part beauty spa and part conversion sci-fi experiment. The Souvenir, directed by Joanna Hogg, is a test of endurance for the audience. It’s a slowly but beautifully paced story based on the directors own experiences about becoming an emerging filmmaker in the 80’s and falling in love with a drug addict boyfriend. The film marks the real debut of Honor Swinton in her first leading role (The Mother Swinton has a cameo as her mother in the film) and the film already has talks of a sequel starring Robert Pattinson.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, starring Zac Efron, marks the first time he’s found himself an adult role that doesn't play to his charm and looks. His casting is the real salvation of the film which is essentially a dramatization of the excellent documentary on Netflix by the same director, Joe Berlinger. And finally, Halston saves itself by being a standard doc on the rise and fall of the celebrated designer. There is an eerie narration and scenes with Halston’s clothing by Tavi Gevinson and interviews with his famous friends, including the one most associated with his legacy, Liza Minnelli. Liza isn’t there to spill any tea but remains respectful of her friend who foreshadowed the cult of celebrity designers that now populate the industry.