A Humanistic Movie About Porn, a Queer Refugee Story, and Other Gems From the Sundance Film Festival

As it sometimes goes in a pandemic, for this year’s Sundance Film Festival, something lost meant something gained. What was lost was obvious: The ability to be in Park City, Utah, in person; the parties; the vibe; the communal audience experience. What was gained was glorious: The ability to watch a highly curated selection of world-premiere movies from the comfort of one’s home, as the festival moved to its own temporary streaming platform. I watched about a dozen of Sundance movies from my bed this year and I loved it. No lines. No anxiety about proper scheduling. No walkout shame if I realized a movie wasn’t for me and decided to stop watching. I loved it.

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At its core, Sundance retained the metaphor-for-life nature of all festivals: the pressure to cram so much in (even easier to get more movies in when you don’t have to worry about any sort of traveling from theater to theater), the time constraints, the remorse you feel when you spend time on something that you don’t connect with when you could have selected something that you did, the very I-could-have-been-doing-that-instead-ness of it all. In some ways, in fact, this year’s Sundance program faced its toughest competition yet: The dozens of other things around the house that could occupy one’s time instead.

Happily, I found plenty that I thought deserved my attention. Below are some capsule reviews of movies that I loved or found otherwise notable. (Not included is Judas and the Black Messiah, which I watched via Warner Bros., and don’t consider part of my Sundance viewing. It’s great, though. Its director Shaka King is one of my favorite interviews that I’ve ever conducted and I love how masterfully he has assumed the role of director of an epic of such a scale after doing much smaller indies.)

Pleasure

Astonishingly audacious and astoundingly responsible, Pleasure is Swedish director Ninja Thyberg’s first feature, Pleasure. In a serendipitous (or is it shrewd?) move, first-time actor Sofia Kappel plays Bella Cherry, who arrives in California from Sweden to break into porn. Bella’s ambition is palpable, but her motivation is unclear and that’s by design—in a post-screening Q&A, Thyberg said she wanted to avoid the trap of effectively asking, “What’s wrong with her?,” regarding her character’s career choice. Bella repeatedly claims that she’s doing porn because she loves dick, which is at least plausible and fair enough. Pleasure is routinely explicit (I lost count of the number of erections onscreen) and frequently brutal—an indelible scene features her being degraded by two men on screen in a “rough” scene that ends in tears and her describing the situation as rape. The way that the men flip from abusive to sensitive when she asks for a break in filming is unnerving, and the way that Pleasure explains how a human being could put herself in such a situation is masterful. To progress in the industry, Bella is told, requires endurance and a willingness to engage in the extreme. The very act of humanity—arriving and departing the set—is necessarily missing from violent porn scenes as they are presented to their audience, and Pleasure is revelatory for contextualizing while refusing to psychoanalyze. Later Bella uses the coercive techniques she picks up on the set with a female co-star, her roomate Joy (Revika Anne Reustle, who is every bit as magnetic as Kappel, a total natural, and at times an explosive force of rage). Pleasure makes a subtle but undeniable point about patriarchy’s ripple effect and how power in capitalism almost certainly involves the subjugation of others. Thyberg said she filled her crew (both behind and in front of the camera) with veterans of the industry, and that she hopes Pleasure does well by people in porn. What she has created, though, is such a difficult, unflinching watch that Pleasure constitutes the toughest of tough love letters.

Flee

The most moving film I’ve seen since I can’t even remember when is Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary Flee. It tells the story of Amin, whose family left Afghanistan during the Mujahideen’s war with the Soviet Army. They fled to Russia, the only country that would grant them a tourist visa, and from there attempted to make it to Sweden, only to be thwarted and effectively imprisoned in Estonia. The animation allows Amin’s contemporary interview to flow into depictions of his past. The timeline compression is nearly psychedelic, as we leap from Amin’s life as a refugee to his present as an engaged gay man. For so much of Amin’s life, self-preservation meant identity-amputation—never having a real home meant that his family was the only thing that grounded him, and so he risked being effectively hollowed out by coming out. Having to obscure his biography became a motif in Amin’s life (the traffickers that eventually got him out of Afghanistan made it clear that he could never disclose his past or that his family was still alive). The very act of recounting his story is cathartic and revelatory: “Only now that I’m telling you about it do I realize how hard it’s been,” he admits to Rasmussen.

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Flee is a terrific case for the power of well-told personal narrative—the challenges of the refugee, the police-profiled, the closeted queer is explained without ambiguity. As a bonus, Flee features some incredible music cues—as he’s being trafficked to what he thinks is Sweden (but ends up being Denmark) alongside a guy that he has a clandestine crush on, Roxette’s “Joyride” plays (“Hello, you fool I love you/C’mon join the joyride,” goes the hook). Even better is a scene depicting his first visit to a gay club scored by one of the most poignant dance songs after crafted, Daft Punk’s “Veridis Quo.” Flee never hits a false note or wastes a moment.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

A case study in how Black history has been erased from mainstream conversations, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) contains a trove of live footage of beloved Black musicians like Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, and Sly Stone, which sat in a basement unseen for 50 years. It was all taken during the summer of 1969, during a weekly concert series in New York’s Mt. Morris Park called the Harlem Cultural Festival. Some 100 miles from Woodstock, a so-called “Black Woodstock” was taking place, and it’s only now that wider audiences will have access to this equally important musical revolution.

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First-time director Questlove hits it out of the park with a documentary that is so crammed with information it serves as a crash course in Black culture and life during the year in which it’s set. As interviewee Al Sharpton explains, “’69 was the pivotal year where the Negro died and Black was born.” The performances, professionally shot on the dime of festival sponsor Maxwell House, are organized like a record shop, into categories—we get a Motown section (featuring the Temptations’ David Ruffin and Gladys Knight and the Pips), a gospel section (featuring Clara Walker, the Edwin Hawks Singers, the Staples Singers and Mahalia Jackson), a psychedelic section, a Latinx section, and a Stevie Wonder section (summer of ’69 caught the performer between his early bubblegum hits and the innovation he’d ascend to during his ‘70s imperial phase). Along the way, we hear stories from the 5th Dimension about how much being received by a Black audience meant to them after being criticized for sounding “white” (“How do you color a sound?” asks singer Marilyn McCoo in a contemporary interview), and learn how the moon landing, which occurred as the festival was underway, was received by attendees (“I think it’s very important but I don’t think it’s more relevant than the Harlem Cultural Festival,” says one audience member in vintage news footage). Mavis Staples contends that getting to share a microphone with Mahalia Jackson remains her “greatest honor.” And to think that such a meeting of talents went unseen for so many decades, all because of the perception that no one wanted a movie about a Black music festival. It’s an amazing thing to behold when mere access to the past constitutes progress.

In the Earth

British director Ben Wheatley takes a crack at the burgeoning subgenre of quarantine horror (quarror? horrantine?) with a cinematic nightmare about being driven back to nature during a pandemic. In his introduction, Wheatley explained how In the Earth was conceived the first day of lockdown, written during quarantine, and then filmed over the summer of 2020. It concerns a researcher of mycorrhizae (that is, the symbiotic network of fungi and plant life) named Martin Lowery (Joel Fry), whose trip into a forest to collect data goes terribly wrong. Martin and his accompanying ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) get lost and are found by a clearly disturbed forest dweller and things only go downhill from there. You’ll be reminded of previous genre entries like The Blair Witch Project and Wolf Creek during the first half, and probably flabbergasted during the increasingly opaque second half—a strobing montage of menacing imagery and ideas about nature’s dominion over our lives. “Life is trying to make meaning where there isn’t any. It’s a psychological problem with humans. We want to make stories out of everything,” says one character. Fair enough! For all its high-mindedness, In the Earth is, after all, a horror movie that derives its biggest wallop of terror via a guy running through the woods, chasing people with an axe. That image is unpretentiously cognizant of this movie’s genre roots, though In the Earth never quite blooms into its own.

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The Blazing World

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Carlson Young’s directorial debut (in which she also stars), The Blazing World, reminded me, above all else, of 1986's Labyrinth. It’s of the same sort of fantasy-quest genre (of which Alice in Wonderland and Wizard of Oz obviously belong) made on the (relative) cheap so as to feel like something that would have aired incessantly on HBO in the late 80s. I mean this as a compliment—despite the tonal unease and deliberate ambiguity of the film’s reality, The Blazing World felt like home to me. Young stars as Margaret, who as a young adult is still grieving the childhood death of her twin sister. It’s causing strain on her that goes beyond the existential and into the cosmic—“Is it possible for someone to be trapped in another dimension?,” she asks a YouTube guru at one point. After a harrowing visit with her endlessly feuding parents (played by Vinessa Shaw and Dermot Mulroney, who drunkenly sings along to the Stone Roses’ “I Wanna Be Adored” in one scene), there’s nowhere else for her to go than down the rabbit hole, where a ghoulish Udo Kier, doing a bone-straight performance that scans as high camp, guides her to finding inner peace. Some scenes hit better than others, but what Young does with some fog machines and intense lighting makes me salivate for a film in which she gets to play with a real budget. It shouldn’t be long now.

Passing

Actor Rebecca Hall takes the swing of swings for her directorial debut, an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing. Framed in a 4:3 box, presented in black and white, and written and acted in a straight-spined formality that harkens back to early Hollywood, the movie is a stylistic knockout. The story, which concerns two reunited friends, Reenie (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), is extremely thoughtful (if perhaps frustratingly inconclusive) about the masks we wear in public. “Who’s satisfied being anything?,” Clare asks early on. She’s a Black woman who passes as white so convincingly that not even her own husband is aware of her background. He is, in fact, an open racist, and an early scene in the movie in which this is revealed and Reenie must play along, laughing at a racist slur while also pretending that she is white so as not to blow up her friend’s spot, is ferocious in its confrontation of the practical implications of such deceptive living. Nothing else in the movie packs quite the punch, as Passing settles into a prolonged, highly mannered, philosophical fizzling out until a deliciously ambiguous climax. The movie’s execution doesn’t quite match its ambition in the way that, say, Far From Heaven did, which means Passing is attempting its own sort of doomed cinematic passing. I’m pretty sure that’s not intentional, but at least it works on a meta-level.

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CODA

Sian Heder’s CODA (that’s short for child of deaf adults), about a teen named Ruby (Emilia Jones) who’s caught between her singing ambitions and her responsibility to her family (they run a fishing business and she’s the only one among them who isn’t deaf), is this year’s big success story. It won a slew of Sundance Awards and sold to Apple for $25 million, breaking the festival’s previous records. This is heartening, as it places disability front and center (still too much of a rarity in mainstream entertainment), and, to some degree, understandable as it is a funny and winsome movie that has Most Likely to Sleeper written all over it. CODA contains several good jokes involving Ruby’s interpreting/misdirection of sign language between her family (among them, Marlee Matlin plays her mom) and the larger hearing population. It is also extremely contrived. The story is not very different than the Lauryn Hill subplot in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit and (whispers) Hill has a much better voice than Jones. It’s hard to root for a character to leave the family that depends on her and attend school at Berklee when her voice is merely nice. That’s to say nothing of the rather convenient turns the plot takes without ever looking back, and a bland, time-consuming romance that blooms with Ruby’s duet partner in chorus (in case you want to see two white kids iron the soul out of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By,” CODA has you covered). In exchange for your suspension of disbelief, CODA gives you something warm and fuzzy, something that is nice enough as long as you keep your brain on sleep mode. Its immediate enormous success could be upheld as a sign of how much of its edge Sundance has lost—good thing there’s maverick work like Pleasure and Flee to remind us how much it has retained.

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.

DISCUSSION

DudleySpellington
DudleySpellington

I love Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. It’s a let down that a project they are both in isn’t better realized.