Every year around this time, film critics, movie-lovers, artists and producers descend on Park City, Utah for the storied Sundance Film Festival. This year, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic made gathering in-person an impossibility (as it did in 2021 as well), but that hasn’t stopped the world’s biggest cinephiles from seeing some of the most exciting films on the horizon well before they turn up at multiplexes.
From Jan. 20-30, our film critics are scoping out the best, buzziest and most unexpected titles of the festival. Read on for our second dispatch from the fest, including our thoughts on a great John Boyega performance, a pandemic-fueled sci-fi flick, and two Karen Gillans for the price of one.
Call Jane: A new kind of abortion story
Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver appear in <i>Call Jane</i> by Phyllis Nagy, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Wilson Webb.
The premise: "Chicago, 1968. As a city and the nation are poised on the brink of violent political upheaval, suburban housewife Joy leads an ordinary life with her husband and daughter. When Joy’s pregnancy leads to a life-threatening condition, she must navigate a medical establishment unwilling to help. Her journey to find a solution to an impossible situation leads her to the "Janes," a clandestine organization of women who provide Joy with a safer alternative — and in the process, change her life."
Our critic’s take: Pop culture tends to put just one face on abortion stories: that of a teenager (or at most, a 20-something) with an unwanted pregnancy courtesy of a one-night stand or bad boyfriend. So it’s immediately refreshing that "Call Jane" puts a different abortion experience front and center. Joy Griffin (Elizabeth Banks) is a happily married suburban housewife and mother who’s looking forward to having a second child. But when she learns that pregnancy-related health complications give her a 50 percent survival rate, she doesn’t hesitate in her decision: She wants to end her pregnancy and ensure she can be around for her teenage daughter, her husband and herself. The trouble is, it’s 1968 and abortion is illegal in the majority of the United States.
Joy doesn’t let that deter her, however. And her confidence in her choice (and the film’s lack of melodrama around it) kickstarts a historical drama with all sorts of unexpected twists and turns — not least of all its unexpectedly breezy, comedic tone. Though "Call Jane" does, unfortunately, sort of go off the rails in its third act, it finds some unique verve along the way first. Joy’s quest eventually leads her to the Jane Collective, a real-life underground Chicago organization that helped women access safe abortions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And "Call Jane" springs to life when it’s delivering an accessible but still politically potent look at how the women-led activist group operated.
Unfortunately, the compelling Jane Collective stuff (which includes great supporting turns from Sigourney Weaver as the group’s no-nonsense leader and Cory Michael Smith as a squirrely doctor) battles for screentime with a less interesting subplot about Joy’s home life. "Call Jane" has a split focus that doesn’t serve either half of its story well, especially when there’s so much nuance about the real-life Jane Collective that gets underexplored here. Still, there’s something appreciably bold about what this movie is trying to do in telling a story of not just one abortion, but of abortion as a concept; of letting us see multiple abortion procedures play out in detail. Anchored by Banks’ carefully calibrated performance and plenty of elegantly understated long takes from director Phyllis Nagy (the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of "Carol"), "Call Jane" uses a light touch to make the abortion experience feel exactly like what it is: normal. [Caroline Siede]
WATCH FOR FREE ON TUBI: Phyllis Nagy’s Oscar-nominated screenplay for "Carol"
892: John Boyega leads a true story thriller
A still from <i>892</i> by Abi Damaris Corbin, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Chris Witt.
The premise: "Living in a cheap motel in Atlanta and separated from his wife and child, former U.S. Marine veteran Brian Easley is desperate. Driven to the brink by forces beyond his control, the soft-spoken, kind man decides to rob a bank and hold hostages with a bomb. As police, media, and family members descend on the bank and Brian, it becomes clear he’s not after money — he wants to tell his story and have what is rightfully his, even if it costs him his life."
Our critic’s take: Within the first 10 minutes of "892" a man walks into a bank and hands the teller a note comprised of four words: "I have a bomb." From there the film becomes a tense, mostly real-time thriller with a masterful central performance from "Star Wars" star John Boyega as a former Marine driven to the edge by a cruel, broken bureaucratic system. The trouble is, this is the real-life story of a man named Brian Brown-Easley who held two employees hostage at a Wells Fargo in 2017. And the film’s attempt to empathetically tell a true tale of desperation sometimes clumsily bumps up against its other big goal: being a conventional Hollywood thriller.
It’s not a totally unsuccessful mix. Strong supporting turns from Michael K. Williams (in his final film role) and especially Nicole Beharie as one of the hostages help bridge the gap between the film’s social relevance and its propulsive plotting. And it really can’t be overstated how much Boyega holds the film together in a role that strips him of his showman’s charisma and replaces it with a nervy, capricious, empathetic intelligence that’s counterbalanced by flashes of paranoia and frustration. But that’s not enough to offset frustrating cliches, from the emotionally manipulative phone calls Brian keeps making to his precociously angelic daughter to the one-note action movie archetypes who fill the newsrooms and police forces on the margins of this story.
Still, there are moments where co-writer/director Abi Damaris Corbin (working with screenwriter Kwame Kwei-Armah) deploys those action movie tropes for pointedly subversive aims. The most powerful images in "892" simply contrast the small-scale struggles of one veteran trying to get his VA disability check with the full military-style artillery that now seems to belong to every police force in America. For a country that will nickel-and-dime its most vulnerable citizens, the U.S. government sure seems to have no shortage of funds for the forces ostensibly designed to protect and serve. "892" sees that injustice plainly, even if it doesn’t always know how to render it effectively. [Caroline Siede]
WATCH ON TUBI: Nicole Beharie in the bingeworthy series "Sleepy Hollow"
Framing Agnes: Re-framing transness, but getting lost in conversation
Zachary Drucker appears in <i>Framing Agnes</i> by Chase Joynt, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Ava Benjamin Shorr.
The premise: "Agnes, the pioneering, pseudonymized transgender woman who participated in Harold Garfinkel’s gender health research at UCLA in the 1960s, has long stood as a figurehead of trans history. In this rigorous cinematic exercise that blends fiction and nonfiction, director Chase Joynt explores where and how her platform has become a pigeonhole. ""Framing Agnes" endeavors to widen the frame through which trans history is viewed — one that has remained too narrow to capture the multiplicity of experiences eclipsed by Agnes’s. Through a collaborative practice of reimagination, an impressive lineup of trans stars (Zackary Drucker, Angelica Ross, Jen Richards, Max Wolf Valerio, Silas Howard, and Stephen Ira) take on vividly rendered, impeccably vintage reenactments, bringing to life groundbreaking artifacts of trans health care."
Our critic’s take: Chase Joynt has long been interested in both reclaiming trans history and recontextualizing it within the lens of performance — his previous documentary, "No Ordinary Man," trod similar ground with actors getting into the head of trans jazz icon Billy Tipton. But in expanding his 2019 short into a feature length film, Joynt’s myriad frames for the life of Agnes and her fellow gender clinic participants begin to get more than a little muddled.
Most effective are the reenactments of the conversations Agnes and others have with UCLA sociologist Harold Garfinkel (the latter played by Joynt, the former by a gaggle of high-profile trans performers, including Jen Richards and Angelica Ross). Joynt filters these probing, insightful conversations through the lens of a Mike Wallace-like talk show, to great effect. But Joynt constantly dips us in and out of that framework: he jumps to conversations with the aforementioned actors and actresses about how their characters’ lives dovetail with their own experiences with gender presentation, while a subplot about a trans scholar (Jules Gill-Peterson) further sends the film down an intellectual cul-de-sacs. Joynt grasps at several different approaches at once, never quite landing on one.
But where the doc excels is in its broader context as a work of trans reclamation, an effort to understand a past that was rarely documented for fear of personal safety. It’s dense and messy and a little hard to follow, but hey, so is our constantly-growing understanding of queer and trans history. [Clint Worthington]
75 minutes. Documentary. Dir: Chase Joynt. Featuring: Zackary Drucker, Angelica Ross, Jen Richards, Max Wolf Valerio, Silas Howard, Stephen Ira.
Dual: Double the Karen Gillan in this deadpan dark comedy
Karen Gillan appears in <i>DUAL</i> by Riley Stearns, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
The premise: "Recently diagnosed with a rare and incurable disease, Sarah is unsure how to process the news. To help ease her friends’ and family’s impending loss, she is encouraged to participate in a simple futuristic cloning procedure called "Replacement," after which Sarah’s last days will be spent teaching the clone how to live on as Sarah once she’s gone. But while it takes only an hour for a clone to be made, things become significantly more challenging when that double is no longer wanted."
Our critic’s take: With his 2019 dark karate comedy "The Art of Self-Defense," writer/director Riley Stearns emerged as a filmmaker with a divisively distinctive voice. Like America’s answer to Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos ("The Favourite"), Stearns crafts drily arch worlds where the deadpan way his characters speak is meant to reflect something about the human condition. "The Art of Self-Defense" examined toxic masculinity by way of a deadly dojo. And Stearns’ new feature "Dual" is set in a near-future sci-fi world in which terminally ill patients are encouraged to make clones of themselves who can go on living in their place.
Though this "replacement" treatment is sold as a gift for grieving loved ones, Stearns is more interested in using the clone tech to explore the crushing mundanity of everyday life. Terminally ill Sara (Karen Gillan) doesn’t really seem to be living one. But when a clone steps in to replace her – and when her life-threatening illness turns out not to be so life threatening – she realizes she does want to fight for her right to exist after all.
There’s a solid 45 minutes of great bone-dry social satire in the middle of "Dual," as Stearns fleshes out the absurd bureaucracy of his near-future world, which hinges on a mix of legal detachment and bloodsport. Gillan is excellent in her dual roles, as is Aaron Paul as the combat trainer Sara hires to help her prepare for a duel (get it?) to the death with her clone (standard operating procedure in cases like these). But a too-slow start and an anticlimactic ending muddle the effort a bit. "Dual" feels like it would’ve been better as a short film than a feature. Even at a brisk 95 minutes, the intriguing ideas at its center aren’t quite enough to sustain Stearns’ unique tonal tightrope walk to the end. [Caroline Siede]
WATCH FOR FREE ON TUBI: Riley Stearns’ debut feature "Faults"
Something in the Dirt: Go down a riveting conspiracy theory rabbit-hole
Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson appear in <i>Something in the Dirt</i> by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Aaron Moo
The premise: "Levi has snagged a no-lease apartment sight unseen in the Hollywood Hills to crash at while he ties up loose ends for his exodus from Los Angeles. He quickly strikes up a rapport with his new neighbor John, swapping stories like old friends under the glowing, smoke-filled skies of the city. One day, Levi and John witness something impossible in one of their apartments. Terrified at first, they soon realize that this could change their lives and give them a purpose. With dollar signs in their eyes, these two random dudes will attempt to prove the supernatural."
Our critic’s take: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are masters of DIY filmmaking. As the duo proved with "Resolution," "Spring" and "The Endless," they’ve got more than a little knack for intelligent and original low-budget chillers that benefit from organic, impeccable special effects. For their latest project, the pair took advantage of the isolation resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic to craft a wily, darkly comic tale about creative collaboration and the ineffable electricity of life in Los Angeles.
In some respects, "Dirt" feels like their previous works: on-the-fly films about fractured male bonds that are complicated by the intrusion of the Lovecraftian. There are also some meta-textual links to the rest of their filmography (squint closely, and you may find connections to "The Endless" here and there). But their focus is more personal and specific, highly attuned to the eccentricities of LA life that they know so well — from the Santa Ana Winds to coyote sightings to the strange history of Laurel Canyon (where the filmmakers reside and pulled together this project on the fly).
It’s also Benson and Moorhead’s most overtly comedic film, turning their characters’ search for the supernatural into a "Disaster Artist"-like take of two misfits coming together and clashing over their disparate personalities and artistic sensibilities. (It’s not long before "Something in the Dirt" adopts a pseudo-mockumentary format, complete with interviews with some of the six editors they’d hire and fire before the project’s completion.)
Benson and Moorhead map out a host of twists and turns across these two hours: drug addiction, public urination, numerology, the list goes on. But that helter-skelter approach is part of the charm — after all, it’s a movie about two losers who fall down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, losing themselves in delusions of grandeur and a creative project that might just swallow them whole. Is there a better encapsulation of how many of us have spent our COVID lockdowns: desperate for connection and purpose, for something to do, and following that need wherever it leads us? [Clint Worthington]
WATCH ON TUBI: Romantic horror flick "Spring" from directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead
WATCH ON TUBI: Horror thriller "Resolution"
About the writer: Allison Shoemaker is a Chicago-based pop-culture critic and journalist. She is the author of "How TV Can Make You Smarter," and a member of the Television Critics Association and the Chicago Film Critics Association. She is also a producer and co-host for the Podlander Presents network of podcasts. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @allisonshoe. Allison is a Tomatometer-approved Top Critic on Rotten Tomatoes.
About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and TV critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she lovingly dissects the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her ongoing column When Romance Met Comedy at The A.V. Club. She also co-hosts the movie podcast, Role Calling, and shares her pop culture opinions on Twitter (@carolinesiede).
About the writer: Clint Worthington is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, and a Senior Writer at Consequence. You can find his other work at Vulture, Nerdist, RogerEbert.com, and elsewhere.
Build your own film festival with these award-winning titles, streaming (for free!) on Tubi
Schindler’s List (1993): Liam Neeson leads Steven Spielberg’s harrowing account of the Holocaust and the heroic man who saved more than a thousand lives. "Schindler’s List" won three Golden Globes and seven Oscars, and is often held up as one of the greatest films ever made. Rated R. 195 minutes. Dir: Steven Spielberg. Also featuring: Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes.
Lion (2016): Dev Patel transformed his career (and his public image) with this critically acclaimed true story of a young Indian-Australian man who becomes determined to find his lost birth family. With four Golden Globe nominations, six Oscar nods and two BAFTA wins, it’s a cross-cultural story that resonated around the world. Rated PG-13. 118 minutes. Dir: Garth Davis. Also featuring: Sunny Pawar, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, Priyanka Bose, David Wenham.
Lilies of the Field (1963): The great Sidney Poitier made history when he won a well-deserved Oscar for this comedic drama, an adaptation of William Edmund Barrett’s 1962 novel "The Lilies of the Field." When Homer (Poitier), an itinerant worker with long-dormant dreams of becoming an architect, saw a group of German nuns attempting to build a fence on a ramshackle Arizona farm, he probably didn’t expect to wind up taking on a massive construction project — but thanks to the intrepid Mother Maria (Lilia Skala), he’s persuaded to stay and help with a number of small jobs, then some medium-sized jobs, and then a whole church-sized job. It’s a charming film anchored by Poitier’s warm presence and thoughtful performance, a turn that will appeal to believers and non-believers alike. Rated TV-PG. 94 minutes. Dir: Ralph Nelson. Featuring: Sidney Poitier, Stanley Adams, Lilia Skala.
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