Yes, the Sundance Film Festival ended more than two weeks ago. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t still thinking about the films we saw during this year’s all-virtual event. In fact, we’re still writing about them, too. Here, a few more short takes on films that premiered in January and will be coming to screens big and small near you very soon.
When the 2022 Sundance Film Festival line-up was originally announced, only nine films were included in the US Documentary competition. About halfway through the festival, it was revealed that the tenth film, and this year’s secret screening, would be Navalny, a new documentary by Daniel Roher (Once Were Brothers). With intimate access to Russian activist and one-time presidential candidate Alexei Navalny, the film recounts one of the highest-profile assassination attempts in recent memory, one conceived of and executed by a government against its own citizen.
In August 2020, news broke around the world that a plane heading to Moscow from Siberia had to be rerouted for an emergency landing; a passenger was in distress and in need of urgent medical help. That passenger was Navalny, and soon it became clear that he’d been poisoned with an illegal chemical agent that typically results in a quick demise; as the documentary explores at one point, Navalny was a very lucky man that day. What unfolded in the days, weeks and now years since Navalny’s poisoning is the main thrust of the film, alongside a primer on his role in Russian politics, the way the Putin regime is threatened by him and what the future holds for a man whose only crime is dedication to his country and its well being.
Roher’s film is at turns enlightening and emotional, as in when he interviews Navalny directly and candidly about his life, work and legacy or follows him and his wife, Yulia, and their two teenage children in their daily lives. It is also alarming and downright hilarious, as in scenes where the depths of the Russian government’s involvement in the scheme are revealed (and the fumbling mishaps of the agents tasked with pulling it off). In all, it’s a damning portrait of an oppressive regime intent on keeping power centralized in the Kremlin told through the eyes of a man who is committed to breaking it up. Today, Navalny is in prison in Russia on trumped-up charges and as recently as this year, he and his associates were named to the country’s “terrorists and extremists” watchlist. His fight is far from over, but as Navalny the film makes clear, he is a man not only built for it, but dedicated to it, too. (Lisa Trifone)
Meet Me In The Bathroom
Inspired by Lizzy Goodman’s book of the same name, Meet Me in the Bathroom chronicles the burgeoning music scene happening in New York City in the earliest days of the 2000s. After a fully formed music scene existed in New York in the 1960s and again in the early 1980s, the city basically went silent as far as influential local bands were concerned. Thanks to a percolating group of bands playing the clubs and bars of the Lower East Side, suddenly a scene began to develop. That scene was led by The Strokes, a band who quickly became world famous thanks to their explosive live shows, and eventually included groups like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, TV on the Radio, LCD Soundsystem, The Moldy Peaches, The Rapture, and Liars, to name a few.
Directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace (Shut Up and Play the Hits), do an admirable job piecing together these fairly recent histories of each band, some of which were profoundly impacted by 9/11 and many of which seemed put off by their various record labels wanting to force them into the alternative mold that dominated radio and MTV at the time. The usual suspects of egos, drugs, and shifting loyalties all rear their ugly heads in many of these groups, threatening to undo the outsider charm that these musicians started with when they formed these bands as friends just wanting to play together.
The film even draws direct lines between the rise in popularity of these bands and the (some would say) unfortunate rise in popularity of Brooklyn itself into its current status as hipster central. There are new interviews with pretty much everyone who took part in this musical reemergence, and coupled with spectacular archival concert footage and interviews, Meet Me in the Bathroom is a celebratory, if perhaps premature, documentary told mostly from the perspective of those who lived through it—many of whom still are. (Steve Prokopy)
Am I OK?
As strange as it is to say that Dakota Johnson was featured in two high-profile Sundance titles this year, it may seem even stranger to say that both films are very good and that she excels in both Cha Cha Real Smooth and Am I OK?. The latter film is the directorial debut of married couple Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne (working from a screenplay by Lauren Pomerantz). In this honest and likable L.A. story, best friends since childhood Lucy (Johnson) and Jane (Sonoya Mizuno) make it clear that they are closer than any two people can be, even though Jane is in a very serious, lengthy relationship with Danny (Jermaine Fowler), who has just come to accept that Lucy is part of their day-to-day lives. (To be clear, I’m in no way down on Johnson. In fact, I think most of what’s she’s done outside of the 50 Shades films has ranged from admirable to great.)
But when the British-born Jane is given the opportunity to open up a London office for her company—putting a country and ocean between the friends—the news rattles Lucy to her core. At around this same time, Lucy comes to realize that none of her online dates and setups with men are working out well because she’s gay—something she doesn’t fully realize until her co-worker, Brittany (Kiersey Clemons), starts giving her strong romantic vibes, making Lucy feel things she’s never felt with a man. Jane is determined to help usher in Lucy’s first lesbian experience before she leaves, if only because Lucy is so timid and uncertain about the process of dating, let alone having sex, with a woman.
Am I OK? could have been a lazy rom-com about Lucy’s awkward lesbian dates, but the film centers more on the female friendship that serves as the backbone of every major life change in Jane and Lucy’s lives. The film is undeniably a love story, but not the kind we’re used to in more female-centered movies, and that makes it relatable and refreshing, in addition to funny. Oddly enough, the more the film goes for the easy jokes, the less funny it becomes (casting Sean Hayes as Jane’s inept boss does the film no favors, and even Notaro’s turns as a hammock guru results in one of the movie’s weakest sequences). But when the filmmakers simply let the chemistry-rich friendship shine through, all seems right in the world.
Of the two Johnson films at Sundance this year, this is the slighter of the two, but only by a fraction. In both films, she plays women who are seemingly vulnerable because of their chosen (perhaps not preferred) relationships, but there’s something about Lucy that gives us hope she’ll triumph over her self-esteem issues. As much as Am I OK? feels like a very specific story for this one friendship, there is something universal about the approach. Even when the friends disagree and stop talking for a time, there’s a sense that they know each other well enough that things will course correct as soon as cooler heads prevail. This is a perfect example of a fun Sundance title that has a great deal of potential in the real world. (Steve Prokopy)
Writer/director Bradley Rust Gray paints a gentle, fragile love story in blood, one that doesn’t feel like any love story I’ve ever seen before. Photographer Chloe (Carla Juri) journeys back to Japan for work while still deeply experiencing the loss of her husband. She’s met by an old friend of her husband, Toshi (Takashi Ueno), and the two tour both favorite and new haunts where they went on previous visits. It’s clear that Toshi is slowly falling in love with Chloe, and even though his English is decent, he has trouble expressing how much he feels for her. Interestingly, the walls that might exist between two people who don’t speak the same language is a key component of blood, in a way I’ve rarely seen expressed before on film.
But the film is also about exploring unknown places, seeking hidden beauty, evidence of classic love, and examples of emotional pain. Chloe wants to somehow capture these things in her work while also seeking ways to experience them in the process. She’s not against falling in love again, but she initially sees that doing so with Toshi seems like too easy a connection since he and her husband were so close. She resists the temptation while also enjoying his company. The filmmaker and his co-writer So Yong Kim (the pair made 2016’s Lovesong, directed by Kim) have created a poetic work that is as much about the elements that go into the creative process as it is about how complicated love can be, even when it’s with someone you really like. The film goes in surprising and impactful directions, and I had a tough time shaking the lasting impact of its gorgeous execution. (Steve Prokopy)
Winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: U.S. Dramatic at Sundance, director Carey Williams (R#J) and writer K.D. Dávila’s Emergency tells the story of college best friends Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler), who are near the end of their senior year and planning an epic night out partying to celebrate. The journey they plot out involves stops at all of the college’s fraternity houses, making them the school’s first Black students to complete this legendary tour. But when they stop by their place, in part to pick up their third roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), they find a passed-out white girl (Maddie Nichols) on their living room floor. Knowing full well how this situation would look to police, they decide to load the girl into their car and drive her back to the party they think she came from, thus beginning a different type of epic night out than they’d planned.
On the surface, Emergency looks like a comedy, with outrageous goings on at the various themed parties and the visual gag of this girl slowly waking up during the course of the night and trying to make sense of her situation. Understandably, that sends her into various states of panic before she realizes these guys are trying to help her and get her back to her sister (Sabrina Carpenter), who is also looking for her.
Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the tone of the film shifts from wacky and humorous to something more serious. The guys (especially Sean) are genuinely, understandably afraid of running into the police with this girl in their car, even at the point where she might need medical attention. The film goes from being a story about a wild night out at college to the story of young Black men getting caught in the middle of a no-win situation that might actually put their lives in serious danger. And once that becomes the clear message, what happens next seems almost tragically inevitable. The performances are as dynamic as the writing, as they both manage to make the outrageous seem painfully believable in an instant. Cyler (recently killing it in The Harder They Fall) and Watkins do a tremendous job selling this established friendship, even as the differences in their upbringing almost succeed in dividing them. Expect laughter, tension and perhaps even tears before all is said and done. (Steve Prokopy)
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