Film

Dispatch: Four Days In, Premieres at Sundance Film Festival Remain (Mostly) Strong

Sundance Film Festival’s slate of films was drastically pared down for this year’s virtual iteration, but it still feels like there’s no shortage of great films to discover on any given day. On the last full day of film premieres (starting Monday, only a film or two premieres each day, while the rest of the program remains available for catch-up viewing), several high-profile titles made their first appearance alongside new discoveries just as worthy of attention. Reviewing this latest round of films on the fourth day of the festival, Third Coast film critics check in on a horse-racing drama that gives a reliable character actor his chance to shine, a directorial debut from a supremely talented actress and more.

Jockey

Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Jockey (3.5 stars)

There no point in denying that Clifton Collins Jr. is one of the world’s finest and most reliable actors with seemingly no limit to his range or abilities, but it’s scarily rare that he gets to headline a film the way he does in writer/director Clint Bentley’s first feature Jockey. Collins plays past-his-prime racehorse jockey Jackson, still one of the most sought-after jockeys on the Phoenix circuit. That’s despite the serious health issues (he’s broken his back more than once) he’s been able to keep secret from his primary employer, Ruth (Molly Parker), who has just delivered Jackson a new horse that has the potential to take them to “the Derby.” Jackson’s doctors have told him his riding days are done, but this decidedly isolated man knows that if he’s done riding, he’s done living. Riding this new horse all the way to a championship might be Jackson’s way of making enough money to step away.

In the midst of this, an up-and-coming jockey named Gabriel (Moisés Arias) shows up, claiming to be his son but not asking for anything beyond getting to know Jackson a little better. At first, this new wrinkle in his life is more than Jackson can accept, but eventually he takes the young man under his wing, if not quite acknowledging his parentage. Still, the idea of having a son to carry on in his footsteps clearly appeals to him, and he begins to open up a few doors for Gabriel that should help set the young rider on the right path.

Shot at a real racetrack and using real jockeys as supporting players, Jockey offers what feels like a painfully authentic look at the collection of physically broken specimens that make up a typical locker room of these professional riders. There are scenes of a handful of jockeys sitting around comparing war wounds and surgery stories that might make you physically ache or possibly make your stomach churn. The way Bentley captures the reality of this world makes portions of it feel more like a documentary, and while there are a couple of races featured here, the film is more about all that leads up to the couple minutes of competition and what happens in the long aftermath, much of which involves a tremendous amount of drinking.

In a just world, Collins would be an easy awards contender for a role this nuanced and layered. While he plays the tough but kind character for most of the film, one of his best moments involves Jackson confronting Gabriel’s mother (Colleen Hartnett) about why she never told him he had a son. It’s a moment of pure vulnerability the likes of which is rarely seen on screen from such a raw masculine role, and he does not exit the sequence the same man he once was. Jockey combines unfiltered naturalism with a melancholy visual style (it feels like most of the film is shot at sunset, as if to underscore that Jackson’s career is at the darkest stage of his twilight years). This is a profoundly moving work and one of my favorites at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. (Steve Prokopy)

Land

Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Land

It’s rare that I wish a film were longer than it’s economic 84-minute run-time, but such is the case for Robin Wright’s directorial debut, Land. From a script by Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam, Wright stars as Edee, a woman in a deep state of grief who’s determined to fall off civilization’s grid entirely; within the first few moments of the film, she’s left Chicago with nothing but what she can fit in a U-Haul trailer and found herself in a rundown and neglected cabin in the mountains of Wyoming, outhouse and all. Through a few early flashbacks and her own visualizations while she’s getting settled at the cabin, we gather that she’s grieving a lost husband and son, tethered to this life only by a sister, Emma (Kim Dickens), who makes her promise she won’t hurt herself.

The mostly silent first act unfolds as Edee fights to get her footing in the brutal (but beautiful) wilderness; the cabin needs an exhausting deep clean and repairs, nothing will grow in the garden she’s planted, and when winter hits and she’s not ready with enough dry firewood, she seems to hit her breaking point, her already weak grip on some semblance of a life loosening entirely. Of course, if that first winter on the mountain did her in, there wouldn’t be much of a film to recommend, so it’s no spoiler to say that she survives, thanks to help from her closest neighbor, Miguel (Demián Bichir). Seeing smoke from her chimney one day while hunting and none the next, he smartly decides to check on the cabin only to discover a woman nearly dead of starvation, frostbite and grief. With the help of a local nurse (Edee refuses to go to the hospital in town for help), she slowly recovers her strength and decides not to give up on her plan to live on her own in the mountains after all. Miguel teaches her to hunt, she learns the right way to plant a garden and soon she’s created a quiet and calm, if isolated, new version of life for herself.

With Edee at its center, Land is about the cyclical nature of life, about the value in pushing through our darkest days in order to be around for the brighter ones that are surely on the other side. As a filmmaker, Wright creates a world around Edee that is as gorgeous as it is threatening, her decision to remove any and all ties to the outside world both liberating and daunting. Sweeping photography of the pine-covered mountains in every season creates a deep sense of connection to Edee’s surroundings as time passes and her wounds, physical and emotional, begin to heal. As the star of the film, Wright is heartbreaking when Edee is at her most broken and stirring in her strongest moments (the woman who could barely swing an axe is, after a bit of time and practice, slicing through firewood like butter). Where she’s let down, then, is with the script itself, a flimsy framework for a film with much more to offer than what’s on the page. That Edee more than once concludes a scene by saying the very thing the film just spent several minutes showing us (her plaintive “This isn’t working…” in the first act, for example) goes from forgivable to annoying by the third time it happens.

Edee’s relationship with Miguel is warm and authentic; indeed, the film is at its strongest during their time together, two solitary souls with genuine (and apparently platonic) chemistry. But here the film’s script fails its characters again as it rushes into a third act reveal about Miguel (and ultimately about Edee herself) that, while it suffices as a device to bring Edee down off the mountain, feels like a manufactured plot point that never gets the space it deserves. Ultimately, Land is a more than capable vehicle for the supremely talented Robin Wright to bring a story to the screen with her own vision realized in front of and behind the camera. As a rumination on processing grief and finding one’s way back to life, the film is mostly successful at being something interesting and thoughtful; a bit more time spent at the beginning and end of the story to really build out the experience would’ve put it over the top. (Lisa Trifone)

Together Together

Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Together Together

Taking a fairly straightforward premise and attaching just enough variety to its central elements to make it feel “unique” can often backfire. Think gender swapping key roles or inverted chronologies. Then there’s the charming Together Together, written and directed by Nikole Beckwith (Stockholm, Pennsylvania), that does just this and more than manages to both entertain and maintain its integrity as a story for grown-ups dealing with grown-up things. Ed Helms (“The Office,” The Hangover) stars as Matt, a 40-something successful app developer who hasn’t found someone to settle down with but very much wants to be a father. So he interviews women who could be potential surrogates for the child he intends to have on his own, ultimately selecting Anna (a delightful Patti Harrison, A Simple Favor), a 26-year-old barista who technically qualifies under Matt’s request that the surrogate have previously had children: she had a baby as a teen she ultimately gave up for adoption.

Cleverly broken up into “trimester” sections, Together Together follows Matt and Anna from insemination on as they navigate this very extraordinary new phase of their lives and the odd “relationship” they now find themselves in with each other. Infused with a lighthearted sense of humor about the whole thing, Beckwith never loses sight of the fact that she’s turned convention on its head just enough to make things interesting. Even in 2021, a single, straight man (who, for all intents and purposes seems to be quite a catch), choosing to become a single parent through surrogacy is an anomaly, and Together Together enjoys exploring that novelty in both goofy and thoughtful ways. Matt and Anna may be at very different stages in their lives, but each brings with them a healthy appreciation for (or at least awareness of) boundaries, and watching them navigate the edges of what the other is comfortable with (and how that evolves over time as their fondness for the other grows) is truly a treat. Matt wants to be the textbook involved father, there to feel the baby kick and keep a watchful eye over Anna’s growing belly; for Anna, this is a transaction, a fat paycheck and not too much of an intrusion on her life (and body) that will help get her listless life back on track.

In the end, Beckwith manages to avoid the potential traps in “quirky” set-ups in favor of something much more sincere; when Matt decides to throw himself a baby shower and Anna agrees to attend (with the baby, of course), the film smartly sidesteps any slapstick in a scene primed for it. Instead, we’re allowed to glimpse the complicated emotions that get stirred up when you’re pregnant with a baby you won’t parent attending a shower for the man who will while his friends and family see you as little more than a vessel. Yeah, it’s complicated. Helms and Harrison are an odd-couple match who work together like a dream; his familiar charm finds a worthy match in Harrison’s bright but grounded self-confidence and wit. Supporting characters from the couples therapist Matt insists they see together (Tig Notaro) to the efficient and wise ultrasound technician (Sufe Bradshaw) and Anna’s droll but surprisingly astute coworker (Julio Torres) build out a small but mighty ensemble that sees Matt and Anna through to the film’s inevitable final scenes in the delivery room. Together Together is that rare example of an original film that manages to do exceedingly well exactly what it sets out to do: provide an enjoyable diversion for a couple of hours that’s both populated with likable, endearing characters in a story that’s both amusing and earnest. (Lisa Trifone)

Violation

Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Violation

Madeleine Sims-Fewer has created a fascinating first feature in Violation, which she directed, co-wrote (with Dusty Mancinelli), and stars in as Miriam who, along with her husband Caleb (Obi Abili), is invited to spend a weekend at a lakefront cabin with her sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and Greta’s husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe). Miriam seems at odds with just about everyone. She confesses to Greta that she and her husband haven’t had sex in about a year; and even the sisterly relationship has seen better days. At best, Miriam tolerates Dylan, which leads to its own set of troubles as the weekend goes on.

Violation is told in a broken timeline that saves the true nature of some of these conflicts for just the precise moment for maximum effect. We find out that Dylan is about the only person Miriam can open up to, which leads to a drunken evening with the two talking late and Miriam waking up with Dylan on top of her, him believing this encounter is consensual in his hazed-out mind. Although the incident goes without fully being dealt with that weekend, Miriam devises another meeting with Dylan, allowing him to think another liaison is on tap. But what she has in store for him is far from pleasant. Her plan is extreme, righteous and plays out as a cautionary tale to anyone who engages in the type of predatory behavior that seems to rely on familiarity and the belief that no one will believe Miriam—possibly not even Miriam herself. Dylan walks her through the night in question, making her wonder if there’s a difference between saying “Don’t. Stop.” and “Don’t stop.”

But perhaps Miriam is not so easily convinced, and soon the film takes an unexpected relentless turn that reveals a pent-up outrage that is so focused in its brutality that the film becomes difficult to witness at times, as all acts of violence should be. Sims-Fewer has to play all variations of Miriam, who is put through an emotional spin cycle that is powerful and revealing. The entire experience feels both deeply personal and hopelessly universal, and it’s the filmmaker’s ability to capture both that not only allows me to recommend this movie but also grow increasingly eager to see what she has next. Violation will be available on Shudder March 25. (Steve Prokopy)

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