What's Worth Watching at Sundance, Part One

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday January 26, 2022

What's Worth Watching at Sundance, Part One

This year's Sundance Film Festival runs through January 30th and has a host of events going on... but none of it is in-person — thanks, once again, to COVID.

Sundance 2022 may have been forced to go full virtual because of the Omicron outbreak, but that hasn't stopped it from being a terrifically impressive fest in terms of quality. There are so many cinematic riches that I have seen in just two and a half days of bingeing, it's rather ridiculous.

Sure, there have been a few disappointments, like Lena Dunham's headache-inducing, "Sharp Stick," but, for the most part, even the lackluster films are at least challenging and have something to say.

And there has been an embarrassment of riches when it comes to fabulous performances that should already be getting buzz, including Emma Thompson, by far the best actor of the fest so far for her impressive turn in "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande," followed by Sigourney Weaver in "Call Jane," Bill Nighy in "Living," and Dale Dickey in "A Love Song."

Here are some of the best and most impressive films so far:

'Call Jane'

It's Chicago, 1968, and Joy (Elizabeth Banks), a perfect suburban housewife, finds herself with a life-threatening pregnancy that the all-male hospital board refuse to terminate. This life-or-death situation leads her to discover the "Janes," an illegal hush-hush organization that provide safe abortions. Phyllis Nagy (screenwriter of "Carol") superbly directs "Call Jane" from a thoughtful, moving screenplay by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi. The film is rich with wonderful performances. Banks excels as someone who finds her purpose in life. Sigourney Weaver does fine work as the head of the "Janes." This is the kind of true supporting turn that rarely gets recognized but is vital to the film, and Weaver is a master at making it look easy, as in a brilliant scene where she manipulates the greedy doctor (played to perfection by Cory Michael Smith) into what she needs. "Call Jane" has that "CODA" sleeper feel.

'Nothing Compares'

I felt myself get increasingly sad and angry watching Kathryn Ferguson's doc "Nothing Compares." Sad —
knowing just how damaged Sinead O'Connor is because of circumstances beyond her control and that she is currently in so much pain because of her son's suicide. Angry — because of the idiotic attitudes in this world where we must attack people and banish them because they dare speak their mind, and that the media helps fuel this fire.

"Nothing Compares" is one of the most important documentaries made in years, and it serves as a timely reminder of the dangers of censorship, which is spreading more rapidly today than it was three decades ago when the universe turned against O'Connor. It was then, in a daring moment on "Saturday Night Live" in October, 1992, that she tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II in protest of his covering up the sexual abuse of minors. No one believed her, thinking that the Catholic Church would never do such things. Thirty years later, we know the truth. O'Connor is a hero and should be seen as such. Statues should be erected in her honor. More importantly, people should learn to listen — and shut the fuck up.

'Good Luck to You, Leo Grande'

"There are nuns out there with more sexual experience than I have."

Katy Brand has written a snappy, terrific two-hander about an insecure, retired teacher (Emma Thompson) with little sexual experience who hires a handsome young sex worker (Daryl McCormack) to educate her. Directed with warmth, affection, and a dash of the perverse by Sophie Hyde, "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande" is a delightful film about one woman's journey toward sexual empowerment. Thompson is a neurotic wonder. She delivers a tremendously layered performance. And it's nice to see the tables turned and a dude viewed as a sex object. McCormack handles it with aplomb. And the last moment with Thompson alone is simply beautiful.

'Fresh'

Mimi Cave's deliciously disgusting, witty, and warped "Fresh" begins as any contemporary movie might: With Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones of "Normal People") going on a lousy date. Ready to give up, she meets sexy Steve (Sebastian Stan of "I, Tonya") in the produce section of a supermarket. They have sex, and he seems too good to be true. Things get creepy, wacky, and wildly jaw-dropping from there. Suffice to say Stan's Steve gives Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho" a run for his over-the-top, sadistically insane money. Cave peppers her satiric thriller with lots of sick, sly comedy. The performances are terrific. Jonica "Jojo" T. Gibbs is a standout as Noa's wisecracking, bisexual bestie Millie. "Fresh" is not for the squeamish, but it is one hell of horror smorgasbord. In addition, it provides a fascinating metaphor for the meat market that women are forced to deal with when it comes to modern dating.

'Speak No Evil'

While vacationing in Tuscany, a Danish family befriends a Dutch family and are then invited to their home for a weekend. They accept, and things go to hell from there. In the press notes, director Christian Tafdrup says he hopes "Speak No Evil" becomes, "both funny and terrifying." It certainly is the latter. The film is about people's inability to act — to simply say no, or leave, or punch a face when one should. It's about people's need to somehow behave in a proper manner, even if it means putting loved ones in peril. No film has disturbed me so much, or stayed with me so long, since maybe "Funny Games." I'm guessing this will be one of the most talked about films, and rightly so. It's intelligent, thought-provoking cinema — and a nightmare to sit through! Days later, it's still haunting me...

'Dual'

Unlike "Swan Song," another recent cloning film, Riley Stearns' "Dual" takes on the subject matter in a much more provocative, satiric manner, and the results are giddily rewarding. Sarah (a perfectly deadpan Karen Gillan) discovers she has a fatal disease, so she decides that "replacement" is the way to go — cloning herself so her loved ones won't miss her. But when the original Sarah goes into remission, her clone refuses to be "decommissioned," so the two Sarahs must fight a dual to the death. Stearns' futuristic world is bold, stylized, clever, sometimes silly, and always transfixing. Aaron Paul rocks a supporting role. Unlike many sci-fi films that begin with audacious ideas but fail to sustain them, "Dual," manages to explore the many layers of its identity-centric premise.

'Cha Cha Real Smooth'

I didn't think that Cooper Raiff's "Shithouse" was all that. So, I was incredibly surprised by the joy I felt watching his sophomore effort, "Cha Cha Real Smooth" (another lousy title), a wholly endearing comedy about a 22-year-old (Raiff) trying to figure out his place in the world and in NJ. Raiff finds his footing wearing all three hats (writer-director-actor). His gregarious Andrew is a gem. Dakota Johnson continues to dive deep into damaged characters, with fascinating results. And young newcomers Vanessa Burghardt and Evan Assante excel in their roles. This movie has indie written all over it. And it made me smile a lot!

'A Love Song'

Dale Dickey is an indie wonder who pops up in the unlikeliest of films ("Winter's Bone," "Southern Baptist Sissies," "Hell or High Water"). In "A Love Song," she finally has a "Nomadland"-like showcase as Faye, an enigmatic bird-loving woman camping at a lakeside who is waiting for Lito (Wes Studi), a guy from her past she has not seen since 10th grade. She catches her own lobsters and coffees with the nice lesbian couple in the lot nearby until he finally arrives, and a brief love story unfolds. Max Walker-Silverman takes his time with this stirring film, and smartly allows his camera to linger on Dickey's extraordinary face. I loved the peppered elements of dark comedy, most of which involved a quartet of cowhand brothers and a younger sister. I'd love a film that featured that family exclusively. This film is Dickey's, and she is magnificent.

'Klondike'

"Klondike" is set on the Russian/Ukrainian border when Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in the disputed region of Donbas in July of 2014, and 298 passengers and crew perished. But that is just background in writer-director Maryna Er Gorbach's riveting black comedy-drama. Instead, she focuses on the personal story of a fed-up pregnant wife, Irka (Oxana Cherkashyna), her politically confused husband (Sergey Shadrin), and her pro-Ukranian, nationalist brother (Oleg Scherbina). When their house is "accidentally" blown to smithereens by anti-Ukranian rebels, all hell breaks loose and the film builds to an intense and harrowing finale. In Russian and Ukranian, with English subtitles.

'Living'

Oliver Hermanus ("Moffie") has remade Akira Kurosawa's classic "Ikiru," a film I shamefully have never seen (cue the cinephile groans), so I can't fault the director for hubris. What I can report is that the film is a somber and sweet portrait of an ordinary, rather dull old man, living in post-WWII Britain who is diagnosed with an incurable disease, trying to find a joy to life and discovering it via a young woman — no, not in that way — and a small project. Bill Nighy delivers a lovely and heartbreaking performance, and Aimee Lou Wood ("Sex Education") is enchanting.

Frank J. Avella is a film journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep and a Member of the New York Film Critics Online. Frank is a recipient of the International Writers Residency in Assisi, Italy, a Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, and a NJ State Arts Council Fellowship. His short film, FIG JAM, has shown in Festivals worldwide (figjamfilm.com) and won awards. His screenplays (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW) have also won numerous awards in 16 countries. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute