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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Abortion, Witches, and a Pop Star Who Torpedoed Her Career: Highlights of Sundance 2022

Goran Stolevski's You Won't Be Alone and Audrey Diwan's Happening shined at this year's virtual fest.

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Image: Focus Features/Sundance

For the second year in a row, the Sundance Film Festival offered its slate virtually, which made it extremely convenient to inhale a slew of upcoming movies in the comfort of one’s home.

This year’s festival saw Evan Rachel Wood detailing her allegations of abuse by her ex Marilyn Manson with a new specificity via a documentary that’s soon coming to HBO. Apple snapped up the comedy Cha Cha Real Smooth for $15 million. There was a rather pronounced emphasis on women filmmakers, and an ensuing large number of movies focused on abortion (Happening, The Janes, and Call Jane). Some of the most attention-grabbing selections this year were genre movies, specifically horror. My favorite thing I saw, You Won’t Be Alone, roughly belongs in that category, though it just as often defies categorization. A review of that and a few more highlights from this year’s fest are below.

You Won’t Be Alone

This movie is so special. Set in 19th century Macedonia, the fairy tale-cum-social philosophy concerns a young girl who, as a result of a witch’s curse, is raised in a cave and then claimed by the witch when she’s 16. She has the same power to shape-shift as her captorshe does this by stuffing the entrails of those she wants to become into a port in her chest. As she body-hops, she learns through socialization what it means to be a woman, a man, a young girl. The years she spent removed from society give her a blank slate for the adulthood she assumes, and a strange inner dialogue as she narrates her experiences. (Finally, a movie that dares to ask: “Me, am I devils?”) As she experiences life in different bodies, her existential musings become more profound, and the movie tracks her development via a structure similar to that of the novels The Color Purple by Alice Walker and Push by Sapphire.

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You Won’t Be Alone is Australian-Macedonian writer-director Goran Stolevski’s debut feature, and that he created something so stunning his first time out is its own kind of stunning. Think Orlando meets Malick meets Nell meets Kate Bush and you’re in the general vicinity. The elements of Stolevski’s potion are distinct, but the brew is all his own—to call this horror would be to sell it short, only because the movie shape-shifts from moments to moment, alongside its protagonist.

Master

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Image: Sundance/Amazon
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Mariama Diallo performs a deft balancing act in her first feature—her Black women characters navigate casually vile white people, racist legacy, and an old-fashioned haunting at the fictional New England university of Ancaster. New student Jasmine (Zoe Renee) has a moral purity of final-girl proportions, gracefully tolerating her mostly white classmates’ callous disrespect of her personal space and generosity, as well as their comparing her to Black pop stars whom she looks (or sounds) nothing like. She refuses to die a death of 1,000 microagressions, but there are supernatural forces beyond her. Meanwhile, Regina Hall, one of Master’s producers, plays Gail, a professor and the “master” of Jasmine’s dorm, while Liv (Amber Gray) is a professor up for tenure who seems to have it out for Jasmine. There’s a hell of a lot packed into a 90-minute movie, and Master only thrusts with greater force as it barrels to its end. There’s also a skip in its step and an off-kilter approach to climax and twist that might not work for everyone who’s craving straightforward horror, but kept me on my toes, nonetheless. It’s out March 18 on Prime, where you can see for yourself.

Piggy

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The first shot of writer-director Carlota Pereda’s Piggy is of a pig’s head being placed on a meat hook. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre-y flair and 4:3 aspect ratio—the box-like picture size that evokes retro “full frame” is experiencing something of a renaissance in filmmaking—thrusts us into the realm of VHS horror, the Piggy’s nastiness keep us there for a while. The movie is named after the pejorative name high schooler Sara (Laura Galán) is given by her classmates on account of their bigotry for her size. The way that a group of girls shouts at her for no apparent reason other than her appearance (though working in her odd family’s butcher shop isn’t doing much to help her appeal) is reminiscent of the kind of callous behavior you’d see stupid teens exhibiting in an ‘80s slasher. Sara goes from miserable to morally challenged when she sees a brooding creep kidnap her bullies. Should she tell authorities or be happy that the source of her pain has been eliminated? While the under-your-fingernails visceral meanness of the setup is riveting, Piggy’s externalized horror expires fast and early (unsurprisingly, Pereda adapted it from an earlier short). It turns into something more contemplative during the search for the missing girls. The turn it takes isn’t illogical, as it’s a sensitive movie even at its meanest, but I was hoping that its bite would hold.

Happening

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Image: IFC Films/FilmNation/Sundance
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Audrey Diwan’s Happening, not to be confused with the 2008 M. Night Shyamalan movie The Happening about killer wind, is one of several movies about abortion that played this year’s Sundance. They couldn’t come at a more urgent time. I’m not sure if Sundance’s presumably liberal audience will be swayed by something so adamantly pro-choice as Happening (it’s likely preaching to the choir), but I wish every single person who considers themselves on the fence about abortion could see this movie. Protagonist Anne is a university student of literature in France in 1963, who gets pregnant or, as she puts it, “The illness that strikes only women and turns them into housewives.” The movie traces her attempt to secure an abortion in a time and place where that was dangerous and, for many women, simply impossible. (“The law is unsparing,” a doctor tells her.) And yet, she persists—social shunning, creepy men, and dodgy medical treatments, be damned. The lengths she must go to for the sake of her future (“I want to continue my studies—it’s essential for me,” she explains) become increasingly horrifying and operate as not just a walk through history, but a potential vision of the future, should those prevail who care more about an abstract concept of life than women’s actual lives and their ability to choose what they get to do with them. Don’t mistake this movie’s clarity for simplicity—it’s rigorous both in its depiction and philosophy. As Anne explains: “I’d like a child one day. But not instead of a life.”

Nothing Compares

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Sinead O’Connor deserves the kind of opportunity for reassessment that Kathryn Ferguson affords in her documentary on the singer-songwriter-activist, Nothing Compares—and then some. As entertaining and righteous as it is, Nothing Compares is a little too simplistic in its narrative, particularly its takeaway that O’Connor’s outspokenness, performed at the height and ultimate expense of her success as a musician in the early ‘90s, galvanized generations to come. O’Connor was often right and willing to use her platform fearlessly for her causes (she famously ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II on SNL, rallied for women’s reproductive rights, and boycotted the 1991 Grammys because of the awards show’s investment in commercialism), but she remains a special case of a celebrity willing to die the hill of her livelihood. She broke the mold and it’s yet to reset. Ferguson glosses over the more harrowing examples of abuse that O’Connor lists in her ferociously written 2021 memoir Rememberings, a much more nuanced and complicated look back on O’Connor’s contributions. She can tell you herself just how raw a deal she got, thank you very much! Still, Nothing Compares is a sturdy assembly of archival footage and interviews that shows O’Connor’s equal aptitude for being a star and lightning rod.

Sharp Stick

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When I saw the barrage of vitriol roll in for Lena Dunham’s second movie, her first since 2010's Tiny Furniture, I almost wanted to defend it. (It currently holds a dismal 42 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.) I don’t think this is a great movie, but Dunham tends to inspire undo ire for someone who writes specifically and often has a very clear purpose for her artistic provocations. (Her other provocations, like those on social media, often seem like bids for nothing more than securing more attention, which I don’t think helps warm people to her art.) Look, I don’t think Sharp Stick is good, but “heinous” is a pretty ridiculous way to describe something that’s mostly just...there. Its biggest problem is that its 26-year-old principal character, Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), is so unrealistically naive that following her along on her sexual awakening and the insights it provokes is incredibly tedious. Dunham has created a simple character whose ultimate lesson about sex is also very simple (it goes like: chemistry and connection are key!). Dunham has stuff to say, but it’s all been said, and she’s nonetheless enunciating like a kindergarten teacher. It feels like a regression.

But whatever. Part of the point is the ensemble, which includes Dunham (naturally), Taylour Paige, Jon Bernthal, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. So, at least they’re all here. I didn’t find any of it particularly funny, but whatever.

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Around its premiere, a story broke that Sarah Jo was originally intended to be on the spectrum—while the ensuing portrayal would have been nevertheless insulting, at least one could understand that Dunham was going for something beyond off-brand Miranda July by creating a character with such pronounced quirkiness. But then, reps denied the claims of Amy Gravino, who writes about sexuality and autism and said on Twitter that she’d been approached to consult on the script. According to an intricate Variety story, Froseth took it upon herself to reach out to Gravino, and in fact “Sarah Jo was never written nor imagined as a neurodivergent woman,” according to a spokesperson for the film. Gravino said in her initial Twitter thread that she had been “ghosted” by production after having been approached to consult.

Part of the powers that be’s statement reads: “As relevant as [Gravino’s] work is to understanding the many paths to embracing sexuality, we declined to pursue a further conversation so close to the onset of filming because clarifying that Sarah Jo’s experience of the world was written to reflect Lena’s life experience (which happens to be as a neurotypical woman) was essential to Lena’s vision.”

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You know what this is? A fucking mess. Gravino says that the character is clearly coded as autistic; spokespeople say nay. Once again, Lena Dunham steps in shit. It’s kind of her medium at this point.