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In his Observer report on the 2001 Sundance film festival, the critic Dennis Lim wrote of “an infuriating yet impressive film” that combined “the underdog empathy of Wes Anderson with the bravura of Paul Thomas Anderson”. That film was Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, beginning its journey to cult hit in the snowy peaks of Park City, Utah. Attending for the first time, lightheaded from the altitude, I daydreamed about finding this year’s Donnie Darko, an oddity with star-making potential.
Unlike Cannes (too focused on auteurs) or Toronto (too caught up with awards potential), Sundance still feels elastic enough to accommodate genuine curios. One such this year is The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Written and directed by native San Franciscan Joe Talbot, it opens with friends Jimmie (Jimmie Fails, co-writer) and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), two eccentric African Americans skateboarding the steep, hilly streets of San Francisco while their rapidly gentrifying city floats by.
What begins as a hangout movie evolves into a stirring dissection of the fictions people perpetuate to survive as the boys end up squatting in an 18th-century mansion in a now white neighbourhood that may or may not have been built by Jimmie’s grandfather. The originality and scope of Talbot’s vision feels exciting; if Sundance is about talent-tracking, he’s surely one to watch.
It was a sweet moment when Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham, Bride & Prejudice) introduced the world premiere of her new film Blinded By the Light, a Mamma Mia-style musical featuring the music of Bruce Springsteen, by asking the audience to sing along to his 1980 hit Hungry Heart (they obliged). Based on journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir, the film takes place in Luton circa 1987 against a backdrop of National Front marches and mass unemployment. Its protagonist is 16 year-old British Pakistani Javed (newcomer Viveik Kalra), a gawky aspiring writer with overprotective parents who discovers an unlikely lifeline in Springsteen’s music (“No one wins unless everyone wins,” a message Chadha uses to explain the push-pull relationship between second-generation immigrants and their parents). The film cycles through the Boss’s hits, with Javed frequently quoting his lyrics in everyday conversation with no veneer of irony. It’s a big-hearted crowdpleaser that rollicks along at an irrepressibly giddy pace, but it’s earnest to a fault; those with a low tolerance for corniness will struggle, as I did, as the lyrics to Dancing in the Dark literally spin around Javed’s head, in the style of Microsoft Word Art, during a thunderstorm.
I was more taken with another British film, The Souvenir – an exquisitely judged excavation of and grainy homage to director Joanna Hogg’s film-school days in 1980s London and the toxic relationship she was in at the time. Hogg casts Honor Swinton-Byrne (daughter of Tilda) as Julie, a riff on herself: shy, embarrassed about her upper-middle-class upbringing and utterly seduced by brooding, posh Anthony (a chilling and sultry Tom Burke).
I was similarly impressed by Israeli-American director Alma Har’el’s tender feature-length fiction debut Honey Boy, in which Shia LaBeouf portrays a version of his own abusive father (with Lucas Hedges and Noah Jupe playing present-day and 12-year-old versions of himself respectively). The script, written by LaBeouf, is refreshingly direct, and at times, wrenchingly personal, anchored by vulnerable old-soul Jupe, who gives one of the most moving child performances I’ve seen in years.
Two documentaries also offered insights into the abuse of power: Ursula Macfarlane’s anticipated Harvey Weinstein film Untouchable, and Leaving Neverland (Dan Reed), a four-hour Channel 4 production about two men who were allegedly sexually abused by the superstar Michael Jackson as children. Both films harness the shattering power of testimony, giving space to survivors of sexual assault. “It’s the collateral damage – what it does to relationships,” says Hope Exiner d’Amore, who claims she was raped by Weinstein in the 1970s in Buffalo, New York. Macfarlane’s film is a glossily comprehensive recap that grants voice to some of the women who suffered at the grasping hands of the tyrannical Hollywood mogul, though it doesn’t elaborate much beyond the investigative reporting done by the New Yorker and the New York Times back in 2017. Details about Miramax, the production company Weinstein founded with his brother Bob, and its boom in the 1990s, contextualise some of the complicity from the coworkers who enabled him, but I suspect this is not the definitive telling of this story.
Leaving Neverland, on the other hand, whose premiere had extra security in anticipation of protesters (in fact, there were just two), feels like incontrovertible evidence of Jackson’s crimes. The film is built around the first-hand accounts of choreographer Wade Robson and former actor James Safechuck and their families. Part one tells of the grooming, seduction and abuse that began in the late 1980s when the boys were seven and 10 respectively, in shocking and graphic detail; part two focuses on the aftermath, including Jackson’s civil case in 1993 and criminal trial in 2005 and the psychological reasons why they publicly defended their abuser. The running time may seem excessive, and it’s a challenging watch, but the story and its context need space to breathe. The film is set to air as two episodes on Channel 4 and HBO in March.
Political thrillers The Report (Scott Z Burns) and Official Secrets (Gavin Hood) set out to redress injustices carried out by institutions rather than individuals, both beginning against the backdrop of George W Bush’s administration. The former is an enraging true story that zips along in spite of Burns’s dense script, telling of the “torture report” commissioned by the US Senate in 2009 to investigate the brutal “enhanced interrogation techniques”’ used by the CIA on as many as 119 detainees suspected of terrorism. Adam Driver stars as staffer Dan Jones, who spent five thankless years compiling the report under the supervision of senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), only for its publication to be repeatedly thwarted.
The Report is journalistic; the wry, stylish Official Secrets is about journalism itself, centring on a story broken by this newspaper. In 2004, Observer reporter Martin Bright (played here by Matt Smith) published a memo leaked by 28-year-old British GCHQ translator Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley, suitably staid) revealing that the US’s National Security Agency had asked the UK to collect intelligence about UN security council members that could be used to pressure them into mandating the Iraq war. Gun confessed to the leak and was charged. Here, she and her story are treated with sombre respect, but the film comes alive in the newsroom scenes, played with a tongue-in-cheek edge.
Animals (Sophie Hyde) and Native Son (Rashid Johnson) took their inspiration from novels rather than reportage. In the rambunctious, darkly hilarious Animals, writer Emma Jane Unsworth adapts her own bestselling novel, transplanting its setting from Manchester to Dublin and casting Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat as inseparable, permanently hungover best friends edging into their 30s. “Tragedy plus time equals comedy!” opines Shawkat’s Tyler; think the sharp, brittle millennial observations of novelist Sally Rooney meets the bawdy, female anarchy of Věra Chytilová’s Daisies.
Native Son, starring Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders, is a fascinating, jagged, feature debut from visual artist Johnson. It reimagines Richard Wright’s Chicago-set 1940 novel about a young black man who lands a job as a driver for an affluent white family. While the setting is updated, the plot, to its credit, remains mostly unchanged, though Sanders’s laconic, slinking presence suggests icy inner rage rather than the roiling fury that characterises protagonist Bigger Thomas on the page.
Last year’s festival saw the premieres of breakout hits such as Eighth Grade, Sorry to Bother You and Leave No Trace. My guess is that, of the films I saw, people will be enthusing about Native Son and Honey Boy in the months to come. My secret wish, however, is for the fabulous The Souvenir to become Joanna Hogg’s crossover hit – though a mysterious surge of walkouts at my screening suggests there’s work to do.
The best of Sundance 2019
Best film Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy.
Worst film Justin Chon’s Ms Purple. The storytelling is all over the place in the Gook director’s latest.
Best performance Noah Jupe as a young Shia LaBeouf in Honey Boy had me bawling my eyes out.
Worst performance Pop star FKA twigs as a sex worker who happens to be Jupe/LaBeouf’s neighbour, on the other hand, made me want to tear my eyes out.
Director to watch Joe Talbot (The Last Black Man in San Francisco).
Best comeback It’s been six years since Joanna Hogg’s last film, Exhibition, but with The Souvenir the director returns in style.
Best screenplay Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals is even funnier than the novel it’s based on.
Best short Garrett Bradley’s beautiful, brain-exploding America, which played as part of the New Frontier shorts programme, is a radical overview of black cinema, a corrective to cultural amnesia and the most original film I saw all festival.
Record sale Mindy Kaling’s Late Night, starring Emma Thompson, was talk of the town when it sold US rights to Amazon for £10m ($13m) after its premiere – the biggest ever domestic sale at the festival.
Funniest faux pas Holliday Grainger’s Laura spilling a glass of wine on a baby’s head in Animals.
Best soundtrack The Souvenir, for its understated 80s soundtrack, and, begrudgingly, Blinded by the Light’s jukebox of Bruce Springsteen hits.
Most awkward newsroom moment in Official Secrets When a subeditor runs Martin Bright’s article through spellcheck, she corrects US spellings to UK English, accidentally discrediting the memo the paper ended up printing – enough to send a shiver down any writer’s spine.
This article was amended on 4 February 2018 to clarify that Late Night was the festival’s biggest domestic sale.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Souvenirs, secrets and Springsteen: the best of Sundance 2019 | Film