Welcome to my first batch of Sundance coverage! This is my first Sundance, and while I have always known what makes a “Sundance movie,” it’s another thing entirely to watch them. My goal is to think about each film and not just move from one to the next, even if I wasn’t the biggest fan. Below you’ll find my reactions to the opening night film CODA, as well as some of the wackier offerings on day two. As we all know, festival brain is very real, and if I change my mind on some of these in a few months you have to promise to be nice to me. Check back soon as I keep working my way through this tremendous slate!
CODA (2021) dir. Siân Heder
Sundance opened with this lovely family drama focusing on the hearing daughter of a Deaf fisherman family, featuring Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin as the matriarch. I loved seeing Gloucester on screen, of course, but I was even more charmed by the performances. Though the story treads familiar ground, the actors (including lead Emilia Jones) find ways to spin this conflict into something new. We so rarely see Deaf families on screen, let alone as the focus of a film, that that aspect alone helps it stand out. The arguments can get pretty nasty, spoken and signed, but feel earned rather than arbitrary. Eugenio Derbez starts out as a tertiary Simpsons character, but manages to scale back when the plot gets going. CODA avoids doing gimmicky things with sound design, choosing to save a powerful moment of silence for when it matters most. (B)
Censor (2021) dir. Prano Bailey-Bond
A film censor goes to great lengths to protect people and herself in this tight psychological thriller. A send up of the “video nasty” moral panic (how British!), Censor is an engaging spin on censorship, lucky to have an excellent lead performance from Niamh Algar. Prano Bailey-Bond does great work with her first feature, taking you on a staticky ride into buried memories, terrible violence, and plain old madness. Early on, our lead Enid says her job is about “protecting people” and believing that “some things should be left to the imagination.” Censor shows we can’t lie to ourselves like that forever. Would make a lovely double feature with Knife + Heart! My only real nitpick? The VHS sequences could have looked grainier, or at least less digital. (B)
Cryptozoo (2021) dir. Dash Shaw
What if Jurassic Park was animated, surprisingly horny, and violent beyond a PG-13 rating? Cryptozoo answers this confidently with “It would be awesome.” The animation is like nothing I’ve ever witnessed – handmade, 2D yet 3D, colorful, solid, impressionistic, trippy, constantly moving – needs to be seen to be believed. This home for cryptids, run by an intrepid explorer voiced by Lake Bell, is full to the brim with mythological creatures big and small. Lauren Gray (Bell) believes she has to protect all cryptids, unaware that she may be doing more harm than good. The story is fairly basic – as I said, it is Jurassic Park – but that hardly matters when the animation is on a level rarely seen in feature length film. The third act is shocking in many ways, a swirl of carnage and destruction that would be impossible in live action. How do we make sure as many people see Cryptozoo as possible? Animation doesn’t just have to be what Disney throws at us annually. (B+)
John and the Hole (2021) dir. Pascual Sisto
The thing about Yorgos Lanthimos is that there is only one Yorgos Lanthimos. Slow, vague, and borderline nonsensical, John and the Hole does little to keep from feeling like a Dogtooth ripoff. Though I understood what Sisto was trying to do with a story about a boy so perplexed by adulthood that he drops his family in a hole in the woods, it just never comes together in a satisfying or engaging way. The tone does not settle until we are past the midsection, after I spent most of the film horrified at what was happening to this family. How realistic was this meant to be? Jennifer Ehle, Michael C. Hall, and Taissa Farmiga do a good job being covered in mud in a cold pit, but was that worth their time? The less said about the cutaways to the redheaded girl the better. However, I did love that the title card does not drop until about 35 minutes in. Respect. (D+)
Strawberry Mansion (2021) dir. Kentucker Audley & Albert Birney
Funny, strange, and clearly crafted with love, Strawberry Mansion is a low-fi creative delight. Directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney have designed a retro future with surprises around every corner. A government employee visits a free-spirited old woman to collect her long-overdue dream taxes, only to find himself wrapped up in her fantastical wonderland. He’ll need to put his job aside in order to find his way out of the mansion and uncover a deeper conspiracy. The film operates on fun dream logic, never getting too zany for zany’s sake. The practical effects are truly impressive, giving everything a handmade feel in the best way. More modern films should emulate Strawberry Mansion’s strategies and give us real, tactile sequences to enjoy. (A-)
Knocking (2021) dir. Frida Kempff
Though I’m always up for a horror film with a deceptively simple premise, I need the filmmaking to back it up. Knocking just does not have much on its mind other than frustration. There are some gimmicky moments where a shaky camera is attached to our lead, leaving one dizzier than engaged. With a 78-minute runtime I can’t be too mad, but there’s more that can be done with a claustrophobic tale like this. (C-)
Stay tuned for more reviews, plus my interview with the directors of Strawberry Mansion!