Worried About the Health of Cinema? Sundance Has Good News for You.

There was a time not so long ago when the Sundance Film Festival was in danger of being overwhelmed by swag, hype and other extra-cinematic preoccupations. One year, if I remember right, there were stickers all over its Park City, Utah, home reminding those of us in attendance to “focus on films” rather than parties, celebrity sightings, industry buzz and tabloid gossip.

That isn’t much of a problem now. For the second year in a row, Sundance isn’t in Park City at all. Instead of traipsing up and down Main Street or piling into shuttle buses, the audience is exactly where it has been for most of the past two years: at home, in front of a screen, scrolling through a menu in search of something to watch.

There’s a lot of film — scores of features and dozens of shorts, running through next weekend — and not so much festival. I’m not going to argue that this is a good thing. But I will say that from the vantage point of my armchair, this Sundance has so far shown a special kind of vitality. At a time when many of us are worried about the health of movies, it offers proof of life.

The kinds of films long associated with Sundance — adventurous, youthful, socially aware — face particular difficulties at the moment. Covid has imposed new burdens on filmmaking. Streaming has upended the already fragile ecology of independent distribution. And a bored, moody, stressed-out public may not know what it wants. I’m not sure I do. Do I want to be challenged or comforted? Am I looking for movies that reflect the miserable realities of contemporary life or movies that conjure alternative realities? Is it weirder if people are wearing masks onscreen, or if they aren’t?

Classic Sundance

Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore in “When You Finish Saving the World,” directed by Jesse Eisenberg.Credit…Beth Garrabrant, via Sundance Institute

Maybe the best thing about Sundance is that I don’t have to choose. As of this writing, I’ve seen 21 movies, which stubbornly refuse to add up to a picture of the State of Independent Cinema. Some of them are holdovers from Before, carrying the aura of 2018 and 2019 into the present. Others seem to come from a Sundance that exists outside of time, a place where diffident young people bittersweetly come of age, where lonely souls forge tentative connections against a harsh American landscape, where quirkiness, awkward sex and cheeky genre play are as common as family dysfunction and melancholy soundtrack music.

Which is to say: I have seen Lena Dunham’s new feature, “Sharp Stick,” about an unworldly 26-year-old virgin named Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) who lives with her T.M.I. mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and TikTok-ambitious sister (Taylour Paige) and who has an affair with a cool dad (Jon Bernthal). I have also seen Jesse Eisenberg’s directing debut, “When You Finish Saving the World,” in which an Indiana teenager (Finn Wolfhard) struggles with romance, creative ambition and his do-gooder mother (Julianne Moore). I have seen Max Walker-Silverman’s “A Love Song,” with two lonely people (Dale Dickey and Wes Studi) forging a tentative connection in a desolate and beautiful part of Colorado. And Cooper Raiff’s “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” whose post-college protagonist, played by the director, moves back home and meets a sad mom (Dakota Johnson).

I liked all of them, with reservations that need not concern us here. Spread throughout various sections of the festival (Premieres, Next, U.S. Dramatic Competition), they offered glimmers of Classic Sundance, evidence that American independent film is either sticking to its guns or stuck in a rut. Luckily that isn’t the only or even the dominant flavor in the festival these days.

Varieties of Documentary Experience

“Free Chol Soo Lee,” directed by Eugene Yi and Julie Ha, looks at the plight of a Korean immigrant wrongly convicted of murder.Credit…Grant Din, via Sundance Institute

Documentaries are always, for me, the heart of this festival. Nonfiction film has its own styles and subgenres. Some of the strongest offerings this year follow familiar templates, interweaving news clips, interviews and present-tense narrative to shed light on urgent issues or excavate hidden histories. Eugene Yi and Julie Ha’s “Free Chol Soo Lee,” about a Korean immigrant in San Francisco wrongly convicted of a 1973 murder, is one example — a story of injustice and activism that turns into a meditation on the price an individual can pay for becoming a cause célèbre.

“Navalny,” directed by Daniel Roher, is the portrait of a political celebrity, the Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, who is shown instructing the film crew to tell his story “like a thriller.” Ending with Navalny’s dramatic arrest in Moscow a year ago, the movie certainly has a suspenseful, stranger-than-fiction feeling, enhanced by its subject’s dashing, humorous charisma. At the same time, it has the nervous, present-tense pace of a news broadcast.

Sometimes the real news is old news, and the most dazzling films are made of images that have been languishing in the ether or the archive. Four of my Sundance favorites so far this year are found-footage documentaries, movies largely or entirely assembled out of images harvested a long time ago. This isn’t a new phenomenon — last year’s Sundance standout, “Summer of Soul,” was almost entirely made of found footage — but it may have a special allure in a screen-saturated culture that is at once obsessed with and puzzled by history.

“Riotsville, USA,” directed by Sierra Pettengill, looks at the response to the urban uprisings of the 1960s.Credit…National Archives and Records Administration, via Sundance Institute

“Riotsville, USA,” directed by Sierra Pettengill from a script by the critic and writer Tobi Haslett, is a pointed lesson in the non-pastness of the past. Using public television broadcasts and law-enforcement training films, Pettengill delves into the official response to the urban uprisings of the mid- and late ’60s, zeroing in on the report of the commission appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to assess the causes of the violence and propose solutions. People dressed and talked differently then, and smoked on television, but the great, troubling achievement of the movie is to show how little our civic arguments about racism, policing, poverty and politics have changed in more than 50 years.

Sometimes, though, the past haunts the present by staying out of reach. Sara Dosa’s “Fire of Love” tells the story of Katia and Maurice Krafft, a French couple who devoted their lives to studying the world’s volcanoes. They are characters in the film, and also collaborators, since the most striking scenes — violent eruptions and eerily serene lava flows — were captured by their cameras until their deaths in 1991.

Bianca Stigter’s “Three Minutes: A Lengthening” examines a scrap of amateur film taken in a Polish town in 1938 — a tourist’s moving snapshot of Jewish citizens waving, mugging and going about their daily lives. Almost all of them died in the Holocaust, and the movie doesn’t so much restore a sense of what came before as document the absolute rupture between before and after.

‘Get Out’ Is Still In

Keke Palmer in a scene from “Alice,” directed by Krystin Ver Linden.Credit…Kyle Kaplan, via Sundance Institute

Five years after Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” premiered in Park City, its influence is unavoidable. Some of the most interesting movies about racism are horror movies, and vice versa. Mariama Diallo’s “Master” is a campus drama set at an exclusive New England college that clings to old traditions and new forms of hypocrisy and bad faith. Evoking the Puritan-Gothic overtones of “The Scarlet Letter” and (less explicitly) the map of modern microaggressions in Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen,” Diallo follows the parallel stories of two Black women, a student (Zoe Renee) and a professor (Regina Hall), in hostile surroundings.

Like “Get Out,” “Master” finds scares — and satire — in the benevolence and moral vanity of white liberals. Nikyatu Jusu’s “Nanny” takes a similar tack, subjecting its protagonist, Aisha (Anna Diop), an immigrant from Senegal living in New York, to torments that may be supernatural, psychological or some combination of the two. What’s certain is that they are made more acute by her position in the household of a wealthy, well-meaning and seriously (and maybe also conventionally) messed-up white family.

It almost comes as a relief that the white villains in “Alice,” Krystin Ver Linden’s clever mash-up of plantation drama and blaxploitation revenge picture, aren’t hypocritical, just hateful, and that the nuances of the heroine’s state of mind are less important than her righteous rage. These movies, which deploy tried-and-true genre tropes with various degrees of success, rest finally on the skill and conviction of their lead performers. The stories may not be entirely persuasive, but Hall, Diop and Keke Palmer, who plays Alice, can’t be doubted.

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