The Sundance Film Festival wrapped last week, and even though it was entirely virtual this year, it turns out it still takes just as long to recover from long days of films, Q&As, (virtual) events and more. So though it’s a bit delayed, there’s still plenty to look back on and appreciate from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. The organization recently announced that their reach was nearly three times as large as any other festival, which makes sense—this year’s program was not constrained by tangibles like limited auditorium seating, nor was attendance limited only to those who could afford the travel, accommodations and other expenses that come with being in Park City in person.
On the final day of the film festival, films in competition were awarded with honors recognizing the best films in their various categories. Crowd pleasers seemed to win the day, as Day One selections CODA (directed by Sian Heder) and Summer of Soul (directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson) each nabbed top honors in U.S. Dramatic and Documentary programs, respectively. CODA, a coming-of-age drama about a hearing teenager in a deaf family, earned four total awards, including the Audience Award, Best Director and a Special Jury Award for an ensemble cast. Similarly, Summer of Soul was named the Audience Award winner for U.S. documentaries.
Meanwhile in foreign films, Hive, a Bosnian drama about a woman who creates a small business for the wives of men lost in the war, received the Best World Cinema dramatic award, while Flee, an animated documentary about a refugee telling his story for the first time, was named Best World Cinema documentary. CODA, Summer of Soul and Flee have all been snapped up by studios in the U.S., so expect to see these films on screen (either in theaters or at home) very soon.
As the festival wrapped up, a few additional titles caught our eye, worth a few words before we officially close the book on this year’s Sundance Film Festival and start to look forward to 2022.
Known primarily as an actor who pops up in a lot of Joss Whedon TV and film properties, Fran Kranz has now proven himself to be a surprisingly effective writer/director as well with his debut feature Mass, a four-person drama in which two couples get together in a small church meeting room to talk about an event that has altered and destroyed their lives forever. Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (the always great Ann Dowd) are the parents of a young man who was responsible for a mass school shooting that left many dead, including the son of Gail (Martha Plimpton) and Jay (Jason Isaacs). Their ultimate goal with this meeting is a frank and hopefully healing conversation, but the road to that destination is unclear and riddled with hazards.
It’s important to understand that Mass has no perceptible political agenda. It is not an anti-gun statement, although everyone seems to agree that the fact that no one in the government will move a finger to change gun laws in any way is appalling. The movie isn’t a statement about good or evil, and the parents of the shooter are in no way trying to defend what their boy did. They are as shocked and horrified as anyone, the difference being that everyone wants to blame them in some capacity for their son’s actions. Each in their own way, the parents attempt to find common ground, tell stories about their lost children, and make some sense of everything that’s happened, which is an impossible exercise. There are discussions of chemical predispositions to violence and behavior learned from too much time on the internet’s darker corners. They talk about whether there were true signs that things might go from bad to worse, the impact of bullying, and whether the shooter’s parents have the right to mourn in the same way all the other grieving parents do.
Sweet stories about these two boys are told, all underscoring the deep tragedy of the situation. The emotions are all over the place, but for the most part, the finger-pointing is kept to a minimum. And by the end, well, I don’t believe anyone is healed, but they seem at least to see a clear path to healing and maybe even forgiveness. Kranz’s direction is observational without being intrusive, and the resulting work, not surprisingly, sometimes feels like a filmed play but almost more claustrophobic. As good as every actor is, Plimpton was the real standout to me, as the one person of the four who is likely the least convinced in the beginning that this meeting is a good idea. But by the end, she is perhaps the most altered by it. Mass is a difficult and emotionally exhausting watch, but it’s also a rousing testament to those among us who seek to find meaning in even the worst moments of our lives. (Steve Prokopy)
My Name is Pauli Murray
One of the best parts of attending a film festival (and there are many) is finding yourself with a few unscheduled hours and no pressing plans: it’s that rare window to walk into a film entirely free of expectation and simply see what happens. I wasn’t sure a similar experience could be replicated when a film festival happens online, but as luck would have it I had just such an experience on one of the last days of screenings. I knew I wanted to fit in one more film for the day but wasn’t sure what to choose based on what was still available. For reasons still not all that clear to me, I ended up on My Name is Pauli Murray, ready to experience a film I knew absolutely nothing about and hope for the best. Fortunately for me, I’d stumbled onto one of Sundance’s hidden gems, the kind of film that gets brought up when you’re catching up with friends after a long day of screenings and they ask you what you saw and what you liked. It hasn’t received the attention of other biographical docs in this year’s program, and that’s an utter shame; the film, by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, is an enlightening and engaging affair from start to finish.
Pauli Murray was a poet, a lawyer, an ordained minister. She was an activist, a community member, an aunt. She was a non-binary person in a time when that descriptor hadn’t even been invented yet (I’m using she/her pronouns because those are what Pauli used publicly and what those who knew her used, though some in the documentary do use they/them). Pauli Murray was thinking critically about issues like civil rights, gender equality, income inequality and more long before they became part of a national conversation. “I lived long enough to see my lost causes be found,” Murray says at one point in this worthy tribute to a life well spent. And it’s true, particularly in the case of gender equality. The late (great) Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is interviewed about the impact of Murray’s work on her own legal arguments when she appeared before the Supreme Court as a lawyer with the ACLU. RBG acknowledges outright, and with appropriate gratitude, that she used Murray’s themes and thinking in forming her own case on the matter. It’s a stunning revelation for someone (like me!) who had never even heard Murray’s name before.
And this is where My Name is Pauli Murray becomes so special. Where any film that chronicles a noteworthy life is noble art, a historical record of those who came before us, the films about artists, actors, politicians and others whose stories are already so well known can often seem like fluff, yet another review of a legacy we already know inside and out. Here, then, is the opposite in that it’s a beautifully crafted film that brings Pauli Murray, a name far less well known but just as important, into the spotlight. And Cohen and West manage to do so in a way that forms a thoughtfully whole picture of Murray, someone who was as committed to her work as she was conflicted about her own identity. With grace and self-awareness, the filmmakers explore Murray’s ongoing exploration of her sexuality and her gender identity all in an effort to better understand who she really was. Through her own letters, both personal and professional (she became lifelong friends with none other than Eleanor Roosevelt after writing a letter to the First Lady), and in conversation with Murray’s great niece and others, a rather extensive and complex portrait comes together, that of a woman with much to accomplish externally and much to investigate internally.
Murray was someone who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of her fellow human beings, someone who was constantly fighting for what was right, standing up for those without a voice. She spent her life learning and growing and always aiming to give something back to the world around her; when she felt she’d exhausted her work as a lawyer, she rather late in life decided to become a minister, a puzzling choice to those who knew her at the time—how could a woman so driven by fact-based arguments and logic embrace something as intangible as faith? But in the grand scheme of her life, as presented in My Name is Pauli Murray, such a shift makes perfect sense, an understandable next step for a person so intent on finding the answers, wherever they may be. Murray’s name is nowhere near as familiar as so many others who worked equally as hard during the same timeframe. It is our great luck, then, that her life and legacy have now been recounted, preserved and, most importantly, honored in this moving, meaningful new film. (Lisa Trifone)
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