Dispatch: Sundance Film Festival Offers Warm Comedies, Moving Documentaries and More, Each Entertaining In Their Own Way
At the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, many of the movies feel like experiences one can't have anywhere else. From a documentary featuring a legendary Saturday Night Live friendship to a ruthless and intense drama starring Kristen Stewart, these selections all left an impression.
A Different Man
Outside of his stints within the world of Marvel movies, Sebastian Stan is a bit of a risk taker as an actor. And while I don’t know if Stan has a “type” as far as the roles he chooses, each new performance certainly seems to go against the type of the last. That's true nevermore so than his latest work, A Different Man, in which he plays Edward, a would-be actor with a condition that results in an extreme facial deformity that has understandably turned him into an severe introvert and crushes his limits as an artist and his social life in general. But then two things happen: first he meets a new next-door neighbor, Ingrid (Renate Reinsve), in his rundown apartment building; the two become friends, with her expressing her desire to become a playwright. Second, his doctor tells him that there’s an experimental drug in trials that could reduce the growths on his face to some degree. He enters the test, and miraculously, a person who looks a lot like Stan emerges. He’s so unrecognizable as his old self that no one realizes he’s Edward. In turn, he pretends to be someone else, thinking he’ll get a new start on life—which in some ways is what happens.
Of course, Edward’s personality is, in many ways, the same as it was and hasn’t quite caught up to his conventionally handsome looks. And then two more things happen: Ingrid writes her first play, which is basically the story of how she and Edward met and became friends, and a man Oswald (Adam Pearson, Under the Skin) arrives on the scene, with the exact condition that Edward had—only Oswald is outgoing, loved by all, and is also a solid actor, putting Edward in an awkward position in all parts of his life. Writer/director Aaron Schimberg (Chained for Life, which also starred Pearson) seems most interested in exploring the metaphor that changing the cover doesn’t change the substance of the book. But I also love how deep in the woods he gets in looking at the fluid nature of the small-scale New York theater scene, and how it can literally drive a tortured artist insane with obsession, especially over a part that was literally written for him. The film has elements of distracting magical realism sprinkled throughout, but it’s the material that is firmly based in reality that hits the hardest and makes the most resonant points about the perils of transforming oneself. — Steve Prokopy
The feature film debut from writer/director Titus Kaphar, best known as a visual artist with work on exhibit in museums around the world, Exhibiting Forgiveness is a deeply personal story of heartbreak, generational trauma and, as the title would suggest, the search for (and journey to) forgiveness. Heretofore mostly a supporting actor, André Holland (Moonlight, Passing) makes a well-deserved star turn as Tarrell, a sought-after painter who's just wowed the art world with his latest show and is in demand for new work. He lives a comfortable and stylish life with his beautiful (and equally talented) wife, Aisha (Andra Day) and their adorable young son, Jermaine (Daniel Berrier). Tarrell has plenty to paint about, but his work is set aside for the time being to return to his hometown and help his mother, Joyce (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), move out of his childhood home and into one closer to them.
Of course, it's the return home that opens old wounds when Tarrell's estranged father, La'Ron (John Earl Jelks), returns to the picture, an addict who'd long since abandoned his family but is apparently on the straight and narrow now. After much protestation, Tarrell agrees to meet with his father, and from there the film becomes a heart-wrenching journey as the two men confront each other and their own demons. Holland is an absolute revelation, an actor capable of much more depth and emotion than his previous roles have given him the opportunity to display. And Kaphar proves a capable filmmaker, crafting an immersive and emotional film that will have audiences calling estranged loved ones after the credits roll. Exhibiting Forgiveness expands beyond the father/son dynamic to navigate themes unique to the Black experience, as well; witnessing Tarrell navigate creating and sharing his art in a predominantly white world is a statement unto itself. If the film stumbles at all, it may be in that cynics will find it too earnest, wearing its heart too openly on its sleeve. Some of its most fraught moments verge into disingenuous territory, but the film never loses its affecting core. —Lisa Trifone
Love Lies Bleeding
Filmmaker Rose Glass got a bit shafted with her exquisite horror outing Saint Maud, which dissected religious fervor better than just about any other recent film yet was barely seen theatrically due to the pandemic. But what that film did for God-fearing people, her latest, Love Lies Bleeding, does for those obsessed with physical prowess and perfection. Set in the world of bodybuilding, the movie centers on the love story between gym manager Lou (Kristen Stewart) and a drifter/bodybuilder, Jackie (Katy O’Brian), whose hidden past and buried temper lead to heated arguments and criminal activity that seem to sum up both toxic relationships and the current state of the American dream. Love Lies Bleeding also takes on family drama, as Lou’s sister (Jena Malone), brother-in-law (a nasty turn for Dave Franco), and father (Ed Harris, even nastier as a local crime boss) all drift in and out of the couple’s life causing mayhem and resulting in extreme violence more often than not.
For only her second film, Glass (who co-wrote the film with Weronika Tofilska) directs with such gusto and confidence, you can’t help but be impressed. Lou starts out as the tough, unapproachable character but quickly turns into the sympathetic one as Jackie gets lost in her own mind, made all the more chaotic by steady doses of illegal hormones and the desire to make it to a bodybuilding competition in Las Vegas. All the while, Lou’s criminal past (working with her father) and present (covering up a few of Jackie’s wrongdoings) begin to catch up to her, leading to a hedonistic, explosive climax that takes no prisoners and will leave audiences breathless. Loves Lies Bleeding makes me exponentially more excited (and a little scared) to see what Glass has lined up next for us unsuspecting viewers. —Steve Prokopy
Ninety-three-year-old June Squibb has been acting for decades, but it's only with Thelma, the wry and wonderful elderly action comedy written and directed by Josh Margolin, that she gets her leading role. And what a choice adventure it is! Inspired by his own grandmother and their unique relationship, Margolin's script follows the titular precocious and fiercely independent nonagenarian through one incredible day after she realizes she's been scammed out of thousands of dollars by an unsolicited phone call pretending to be her beloved grandson, Danny (Fred Hechinger), in danger following an accident. Thelma lives alone in a sprawling, Spanish mission-style condo in southern California that she once shared with her late husband; it's a relic of a time when she was more active, social and engaged in a life full of friends and loved ones. But there's some spark in the ol' gal yet, even as her grandson and his parents, Thelma's daughter Gail (Parker Posey) and son-in-law Alan (Clark Gregg), wish she'd slow down a bit.
Thelma gets it into her head that she can track down the scammers who stole her money, so with the reluctant help of longtime friend Ben (Richard Roundtree), who is comfortably adjusting to life in a senior living home, she sets off on a scooter on a mission across L.A. What follows is as funny as it is heartwarming, absolutely nothing offensive whatsoever in Margolin's broad and unthreatening comedy. That may be a drawback for some, but it also signals a film that knows what it is: a harmless, crowd-pleasing and entertaining good time. The cast is clearly having a ball, Squibb top among them; watch for a side-splitting "action" scene where Thelma has to navigate an antique lamp store like it's an underground bunker from Mission Impossible, tucking and rolling with the best of 'em (if the best of them are in their nineties and don't want to break a hip).
Margolin clearly had a warm and meaningful connecting with his grandmother, and it shows in Thelma. This small family is as neurotic and dysfunctional as any, and the added layers of Danny's struggle to launch and his parents' obsessive pestering and coddling help to highlight just how imperative it feels to Thelma that she do this on her own terms. Thelma may not go down in cinematic history like action stars Jack Ryan, Jason Bourne or Ethan Hunt, but she delivers one great adventure nevertheless. —Lisa Trifone
Will & Harper
One of the more moving experiences at Sundance this year was the documentary Will & Harper, about the three-decades-long working relationship and friendship between Will Ferrell and former SNL writer Harper Steele, who recently came out as a trans woman. The two cook up a plan to drive across the country together—from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles (with a slight detour to New York City)—in Harper’s Jeep and do some of the things Harper used to enjoy doing pre-transition, such as go to dive bars, greasy spoons and any number of backwoods, off-the-beaten-path activities that weren’t always safe under the best of circumstances. But the drive is also a chance for the two to see if their friendship has changed as a result of Harper’s transition and will give the pair a chance to reconnect emotionally and even comedically.
As an experiential journey, the film is a mixed bag, only because I don't think it accurately mirrors what it might be like for a less famous trans person to do these things without having Will Ferrell right next to you most of the time (the film acknowledges this, and Harper even goes into a scary redneck bar alone at one point, with Ferrell on speed-dial in case things get dicey). That being said, most of the places they visit result in surprisingly positive experiences (the exception being a Texas steakhouse, naturally, and an Indiana Pacers game, where they are forced to meet the notoriously anti-trans Gov. Eric Holcomb). The bad ones are balanced out by visits to see a few former SNL cast members, who fully embrace Harper’s new life chapter and authentic self.
Above all else, the film is funny, and often at Ferrell’s expense, because he doesn’t always know what he should or shouldn’t ask about Harper’s relatively new life; Harper gives him full permission to ask anything, but he wants to be respectful and often ends up getting hilariously uncomfortable. Director Josh Greenbaum (Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, Strays) does a beautiful job capturing the trip without getting in the way of the intimacy, charm, and unexpectedly moving moments of this genuine, never-ending friendship. —Steve Prokopy
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