Dispatch: Day One at an All Virtual (Again) Sundance Film Festival

With the Omicron variant of COVID-19 raging across the country, the organizers at this year’s Sundance Film Festival made the agonizing but important decision to cancel the in-person portion of the event. It’s an unfortunate turn of events for all the filmmakers looking forward to premiering their films “on the mountain,” as they say, but it’s ultimately for the best in order to keep everyone safe. And of course, that means this year’s festival is again available to audiences nationwide; anyone who wants to can snap up a ticket to virtual screenings and enjoy independent feature films and shorts, from dramas to documentaries and more, all from the comfort of home.

We’re attending too, and will be bringing near-daily dispatches of what our film critics Steve Prokopy and Lisa Trifone have seen—the good, the bad and the perplexing. Day One at the festival (what Sundance calls its opening day) featured a selection of titles from the festival’s official program, a few of which are highlighted below.

Sundance Film Festival runs through January 30; to explore the program and get tickets online here.

When You Finish Saving the World
Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

When You Finish Saving the World

Marking the writing and directing debut of actor Jesse Eisenberg, When You Finish Saving the World (based on an Audible book the filmmaker also wrote) tackles a variety of subjects in the context of a family drama laced with sometimes-uncomfortable humor. Julianne Moore plays Evelyn, who runs a home for abused women. She’s portrayed as a socially awkward but well-meaning person who seems to have trouble connecting with people as human beings, rather than entities in need of fixing. This is especially apparent in her relationship with her teenage son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard), who spends most of his free time composing and performing simple pop songs to a small legion of fans around the world via live-streams.

Evelyn watches other families around her enjoying each other’s company, while she, Ziggy, and her husband (a beleaguered Jay O. Sanders) struggle to make it through a single meal together without someone melting down. The family squabbles are mostly played for laughs, but there’s a sadness to them because they push these characters into storylines that only underscore just how disconnected they are from each other.

Evelyn signs a new woman (Eleonore Hendricks) and her 17-year-old son Kyle (Billy Bryk) into her shelter, and both the mother-son bond between them and the way Kyle seems to feel inherent empathy toward everyone he meets makes Evelyn try much too hard to steer his life in a direction he’d never considered—away from a post-high school career in auto repair and toward college, where he might use his gifts to become a social worker like her. Meanwhile, the perilously shallow Ziggy grows fond of classmate Lila (Alisha Boe), whose political activism makes him realize his music is too sugary, something he wants to change to impress her. There’s a scene in which Ziggy breaks down and asks his mom how to be more political, and she quickly realizes that he’s looking for shortcuts and bullet points rather than actually putting in the work, doing research and formulating his own opinions on world issues. The scene exemplifies their relationship and represents what works in this film and how Eisenberg isn’t afraid to call out his characters when they are being monumentally douchey.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t have many moments like this, and even when Ziggy begins to show signs of actual growth, he undercuts his own self improvement by continuing to care about how much in tips his music is making and how many followers like his more political music. Meanwhile, Evelyn’s stalkerish behavior toward Kyle (I’ve seen her feelings toward him described as a “son crush”) makes her look increasingly desperate and obsessive, and it’s not tough to predict where that storyline will take us.

I suppose the ultimate point of When You Finish Saving the World is that these separate tales will push mother and son back into each other’s lives, this time with fresh eyes with which to see each other, but nothing about the film really earns that resolution.

The truth is, I wasn’t much of a fan of spending time with Evelyn or Ziggy, and I’m certainly not convinced either learned any kind of lesson or improved in any way as a result of these failed endeavors to get closer to other people. There have certainly been terrific films about generational gaps that are so vast that they threaten to tear apart families, but this film doesn’t capture this in any substantial manner. The movie has a few insightful and biting lines of dialogue here and there, but ultimately these characters are so one-note in the way they’re written, I couldn’t find anything relatable to grab onto and get absorbed into the story. I don’t need to like a character to root for them, but I do need a way into their head and life in order to care, and that just doesn’t happen here. (Steve Prokopy)

Fire of Love
Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

Fire of Love

There is something about the reddish-orange hue of flowing lava, as it swallows up everything in its path, that just warms my heart. It’s as mesmerizing as it is terrifying, and I could stare at it for hours. So too could the internationally known subjects of director Sara Dosa’s documentary Fire of Love, Katia and Maurice Krafft, who met and fell in love decades ago thanks to their mutual admiration for the power and mysteries surrounding volcanoes. Together, they became the foremost vulcanologists thanks to their documentation (via photos and moving pictures), their fearlessness (as they walked about as close as any humans have ever gotten to the active portions of volcanoes), and their tireless research. Their ultimate goal was to save human life by being able to predict eruptions, but as they make clear, volcanoes are like lighting a fuse to a bomb without knowing exactly how long the fuse is.

Fire of Love not only documents the Kraffts’ work. but shows how they became celebrities in their field, primarily because they were a handsome couple who were as playful as they were informative during their interviews and lectures. It didn’t hurt that their footage was unrivaled at the time, and even seeing some of it today, it takes your breath away with how it captures the scope and scale of volcanic destruction and power. The unsung hero of the movie is the dramatic, almost whispery, narration provided by filmmaker Miranda July, whose approach to her readings is both sultry and foreboding, as if she’s always reminding us that this couple died on the job in 1991 while staked out waiting for Japan’s Mount Unzon to erupt (which it did).

Taking some of its storytelling cues from French New Wave cinema (the couple were French), director Dosa never forgets that this couple was unique because they were truly in love, and the fact that they shared a common interest in this dangerous work only made them closer. They describe walking toward the mouth of a volcano at one point, her walking behind him because he was much larger than her, knowing that if he didn’t break through the ground where he walked, she wouldn’t either. He tended to wander around a site, likely looking for the best camera angles, while she frequently stopped to notice details about a location, and somehow these two distinct approaches to science served them as a pair.

That being said, Fire of Love is so visually stunning that you could turn the volume off completely and enjoy the film almost as much. But why would you want to miss this touching love story? In a way, you can see the way these exotic settings and mysterious explorations seduced this couple into a lifestyle that would ultimately kill them, but I believe even they would say that, considering their legacy, it was worth it. This is one of the most memorable documentaries I’ve see in quite some time. (Steve Prokopy)

The Princess
Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

The Princess

This August 31 will mark the 25th anniversary of the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales, a woman known around the world as the “People’s Princess,” who married into the British Royal Family and quickly became its most notable—or notorious—member. Countless films, books, articles (and even one very, very bad Broadway musical) have been made about her life, her family, her scandals and her struggles, enough that it would be reasonable to ask why, then, is there a need for another one? Oscar-nominated documentarian Ed Perkins (2019’s short doc Black Sheep; Tell Me Who I Am) makes a very good case that there is in The Princess, a comprehensive recounting of Diana’s very public life told entirely through contemporaneous news coverage and archival footage.

The film’s lack of talking heads positing endlessly about her life or cheesy re-enactments about events that really happened work mightily in its favor, instead leaving us to look back at it all exactly as it was—as we were—when it happened. There’s very little, if anything, in the course of its 106 minutes that is new to anyone who knows Diana’s story well. From the first footage of a 19-year-old blonde walking to her car on her way to work, being accosted by aggressive journalists asking about her budding relationship with the Prince, plenty of the footage Perkins (and editors Jinx Godfrey and Daniel Lapira) chooses is familiar, the interviews, photos and paparazzi snaps we’ve seen for years. But there’s just as much here that isn’t the same-old, same-old, like interview clips that start or end before the soundbite that made it to broadcast, glimpsing the Princess’s grimace or eye-roll that didn’t. Most affecting is the footage sourced from private citizens, including opening scenes filmed by British tourists tooling through Paris and, towards the end of the film, the choice of footage when news breaks of Di’s tragic death.

Perkins has no shortage of archival footage to choose from here; Diana was probably the most covered individual in the history of the modern media. So it’s smart how he chooses to zoom out from this tired vantage point and weave into the narrative a certain contextualization, one that reminds us of the world in which Diana existed and the frenzy that arose around her every move. The approach serves as a sort of cinematic mirror on ourselves, a reminder of how the public responded to the royal family’s every up and down, how we fed the media beast by buying up every tabloid and unauthorized biography. In this way, we become as much a main character in The Princess as Diana herself, a hard pill to swallow as from the very first frame we know exactly how this is all going to end.

I’m roughly the same age as Prince William (who, yes, was a major adolescent crush of mine…), so while I remember much of this real-life saga, I wasn’t there, for example, to see the news coverage of the spontaneous celebrations that sprung up outside Buckingham Palace when Charles announced his engagement to this doe-eyed young virgin (which, we learn in cringe-worthy voiceover from a broadcaster, her father and uncles confirmed to the palace). And this is perhaps the most worthy reason for a film like The Princess to exist: as Diana’s life fades further and further into the past, plenty of people won’t ever have known her at all. And though no single film can capture the complexities of the woman or the system within which she rebelled, this one does quite an impressive job of recounting so much of what she endured and experienced. (Lisa Trifone)

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Third Coast Review Staff

Posts with the Third Coast Review Staff byline are written by a combination of writers, credited by section within the article.

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