Amid soaring Covid-19 cases, Sundance made the decision to shutter its physical event in the mountains of Utah and make for the online hills. The infrastructure was already in place from last year and 2022 was supposed to be a hybrid event in any case, with some journalists and viewers logging in from afar.
The online pivot has resulted in a growth in Sundance’s reach and money followed. Apple TV+ paid a reported $15 million for Cooper Raiff’s coming of age comedy “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” while Sony Picture Classics bought Oliver Hermanus’ “Living” (a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru”) for around $5 million and Searchlight spent $7.5 million on the Emma Thompson-fronted sex-positive chamber piece “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.” On the documentary side, National Geographic cleaned up, buying “The Territory,” a profile of indigenous conservationists in the Brazilian Amazon, along with festival smash-hit “Fire of Love,” about married volcanologists, while Netflix swooped in on “Descendant,” Margaret Brown’s moving account of the search for the last slave ship to reach US shores by the descendants of those who were on board.
A look at four of the noteworthy Sundance Film Festival titles follows below.
You Won’t Be Alone
Goran Stolevski’s dazzling fable about a body-swapping witch in 19th century Macedonia has much to recommend it.
The writer-director’s accomplished debut feature transports us into an agrarian past of calloused tradition and deep-set suspicion, not all which are unfounded. Baby Nevena has been abducted by an evil spirit and raised away from the village. At 16 she becomes a witch and makes contact with the nearby community, only to accidentally kill a woman (Noomi Rapace, “Lamb,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”). Nevena then assumes her identity; it won’t be her last.
The screenplay uses the bones of folk horror to explore patriarchal structures, family and sacrifice, employing this ultimate outsider as a curious mirror to society. The film benefits from beautiful work by cinematographer Matthew Chuang, who captures the idyllic countryside with a sense of wonderment and dread, while an ethereal voiceover threads together the thoughts of this young woman in various guises, striving to find meaning and connection.
The film was picked up by Focus Features ahead of the festival and will be released in the US in April.
Cha Cha Real Smooth
Cooper Raiff’s second feature is further evidence that one of the smartest things you can do for your movie right now is cast Dakota Johnson in it.
Raiff, writing, directing and starring as listless 22-year-old Andrew, enters the orbit of Domino (Johnson). Andrew’s little brother is in class with Domino’s daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) and both find themselves on the bar and bat mitzvah circuit (Andrew first as a chaperone then a professional party coordinator). There’s more than a frisson between the two, but she’s engaged, though her fiancé is mostly absent.
Johnson brings an air of mystery to every performance, and Raiff harnesses that intractability. Domino seems sad and wise, Andrew sweet and puppy-doggish. What does Domino really want? If Andrew stopped projecting on to her, maybe he’d find out.
Raiff’s smart script pokes holes in both rom-coms and coming-of-age narratives, and dares to suggest that life may not be figured out in line with society’s milestones. A bar mitzvah or degree does not a grown-up make. Nor does time always provide emotional intelligence. Snark and self-conscious laughs cede the floor to something satisfyingly earnest, with Johnson on hand to offer some much-needed counsel.
Students Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins), Sean (RJ Cyler) and Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) are kicking off the night to end all nights, but hit a bump when they discover an intoxicated girl on their living room floor. So far so normal for this entry to the “one-last-wild-night-out” canon. Where it goes is anything but.
Director Carey Williams and writer KD Davila offer a welcome corrective to the subgenre. The reality is that prevailing narratives — from “Booksmart” and “Superbad” back to “American Graffiti” by way of “Dazed and Confused” — have been dominated by White faces. How authorities react to the characters’ hijinks and farcical misunderstandings in those films is inseparable from their racial profile. As Sean points out, the same latitude would not be afforded to two Black men and a Latino trying to help a White woman. “Anybody who’s darker than a brown paper bag should get the f— out of here,” he says at one point.
Williams and Davila deliver a subversive blow to a cosy formula. The film is abrasive in driving home its point, and by the end is a jangling bag of raw nerve endings that feels thoroughly warranted (kudos to Watkins who provides the emotional clout). As an example of how prejudice imprints itself on the next generation it’s effective, but as a deconstruction of the subgenre, even more so.
It’s a bold idea to remake a movie by Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, although it helps to have Nobel Prize-winner Kazuo Ishiguro on screenplay duties and a star of Bill Nighy’s calibre on board. Let’s not take credit away from director Oliver Hermanus (“Moffie”) however, who delivers this reworking of Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” (1952) with real elegance.
The story moves from Japan to post-war Britain, but the stiff suits and crippling bureaucracy remains the same. Nighy is Mr Williams, a dreadfully repressed widow who’s made an art of passing the buck as a middle manager at London’s council. When he receives a terminal diagnosis, Williams goes through a Scrooge-ian epiphany, with co-worker Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood) and a bohemian Tom Burke helping him get there.
Williams’ mindset — that the worst thing you could possibly do to someone is bother them with your feelings — speaks to one of the most destructive aspects of polite society. If that doesn’t chime with you, then mileage may vary. However, for those who can handle the buttoned-up atmosphere, there’s rich rewards in Nighy’s delicate character study. As a gentleman who never learned how to live, it’s deeply moving watching him take tentative steps with one eye on his impending doom. The veteran thesp has never been better.