Like many festivals covering entertainment, Sundance 2021 had to make do during a global pandemic. The Sundance Film Festival is my favorite entertainment event of the year, and I honestly wasn’t sure how they were going to handle it. But they pulled it off with a commitment to inclusion, in both press and opportunities for film fans to watch some of the most talked-about features of the year. Inclusion was seeped into every aspect of the festival, with over 50 percent of the projects directed by women. (Take that, Oscars and Golden Globes!)
Although shortened to just a week — which felt rushed at times, trying to get all the screenings in — Sundance 2021 accomplished a largely successful event under trying circumstances. Everything was virtual, which took a little out of the fun of rushing to midnight screenings or intimate talks with artists, but it was a positive celebration of diverse talent that was more than worthwhile.
Some of the films I screened during the festival will certainly rank among the best of the year. Last year, I saw the best film of the year there: The Father (which still hasn’t released due to the pandemic, but thankfully will be out March 12), starring Anthony Hopkins. This year retained the same level of quality.
Screening online from my home proved to be far more convenient in terms of getting more screenings in. Although I missed the excitement of watching films with a live audience, I was grateful to get the chance to watch more than I could squeeze in last year. Even if Sundance goes fully in-person again next year, I do hope they will incorporate some form of online viewing, at least for the secondary screenings. Overall, along with the Zoom talks and celebrations with the artists, I was left with an impression of awe over the festival’s ability to put on this caliber of an event virtually, and I was impressed with the depth of film making that was on display.
Of the screenings that I watched, these were my favorite.
One for the Road
It’s no wonder that Baz Poonpiriya’s One for the Road won the Creative Vision award at Sundance this year. The film is a masterpiece in storytelling, centered around the friendship between a ladies’ man, Boss, and his estranged friend, Aood, who has returned to Thailand.
Aood calls Boss with the news that he’s dying from cancer and recruits him in a goodbye drive to accomplish a bucket list. What astonished me most about the film was how it packed a whopping emotional punch in so many surprising ways. When I thought the time-jumping would lead to confusion, it actually paid off with an unexpected twist in the friendship of the two men.
The story of both friends was told with a simple honesty, without any overt emotion at all. The fascinating story spoke for itself, creating a far more potent impact. What starts out as Aood’s tragic story is flipped around by the end. I am not exaggerating when I say that I cried the entire time. What surprised me most was that Boss’ story moved me as much as Aood’s.
One for the Road is a gorgeous film that serves as a love letter to New York, as well as to Thailand. This was by far was my favorite film screened at Sundance this year.
Another powerhouse drama was an intimate, tense film that tackled two sets of parents dealing with a massive school shooting. On one end of the emotional spectrum were the parents of one of the victims: Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton), whose son died during the act of violence. They met with the parents of the shooter, Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd), as part of their therapy, in the basement office of a church chosen for the meeting. The entire film takes place in this simple setting, but the range of emotions are anything but as both sets of parents attempt to find closure for a harrowing crime that has continued to leave unhealed scars.
Acclaimed actor Fran Kranz penned the script and directed the film in a massively impressive debut. Mass was difficult to take in, considering the subject matter and the intimacy of the emotional turmoil. However, all four performances (Isaacs, Plimpton, Birney, Dowd) were honest and riveting.
Even among these powerhouse performances, it was Ann Dowd’s devastating turn as the shooter’s mother that just about broke me.
The Pink Cloud
Watching The Pink Cloud, I just couldn’t believe it was filmed before the global pandemic. After Giovana and Yago hook up after a party, a pink cloud appears over their city. Once it’s discovered that the cloud kills anyone it comes in contact with in just 10 seconds, it forces the planet into endless quarantine, with the danger of the mysterious pink cloud threatening anyone who ventures outside.
The strain of isolation permeates the world, seen mostly through the relationship of Giovana and Yago, as these two strangers come to terms with their extended relationship in a world governed by screen interactions. (At one point, Giovana has to give herself a dental cleaning as her dentist watches via a computer screen.)
Helmed by the very talented but also very young Brazilian director, Iuli Gerbase, the film served as an eerie mirror for our current climate. Female filmmakers such as Gerbase illustrate the type of riveting storytelling we miss out on when we ignore them.
I had mixed feelings about Knocking, a feature directed by Frida Kempff, a former Sundance winner from Sweden. Knocking is centered around Molly, who has just been released from a mental facility after dealing with a traumatic event that has left her emotionally unstable.
Molly’s narrative makes a statement about how female voices are unheard and how the mentally unwell are treated — especially women who are mentally unwell. It’s a compelling narrative, but the culminating abrupt revelation wasn’t 100-percent successful. However, Cecilia Milocco’s determined fearlessness as Molly stood out as not only the shining element of the film, but one of the best at Sundance. Milocco’s powerhouse performance as a woman who needs to be heard kept me glued to the screen.
Documentary filmmakers Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt follows three Texas teenage girls as they navigate adolescence during a summer. The candid way Hill and Bethencourt tell the girls’ stories as they confront the dark influences of youth culminated in both women earning the U.S. Documentary Jury Award for Emerging Filmmaker from Sundance.
In a land that proliferates with liquor, drugs, guns, and pressure for sex, the documentary focuses on the brutally honest viewpoint of the girls who are trying to navigate it all. Told through the eyes of Autumn, Brittney and Aaloni, their experience is illustrated in a powerful, redolent film that imbues their stories with respectful significance.
The Blazing World
I was so impressed by the number of projects penned and directed by women this year. Among them, Carlson Young, the young actress known for Scream: The TV Series, Key and Peele, and Emily in Paris, made her feature screenwriting debut.
The Blazing World is a twisted tale expanded into an innovative, visually stunning feature from her short of the same name that debuted at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Both a bold horror and fantasy, The Blazing World tells the story of a young college student who continues to be haunted by the memory of her twin sister’s drowning, which took place during one of her parents’ (Dermot Mulroney and Vanissa Shaw) many explosive arguments. The harrowing memory continues to haunt Margaret (Young), pushing her to the verge of possible suicide. As she returns to her childhood home, she spirals down an imaginative, darkly beautiful terrorscape, a coping mechanism to confront her demons.
The Blazing World evoked the influence of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks for me. It also threaded the motif of The Nutcracker throughout. Since I love both those culture phenoms, it hit the spot for me. The Blazing World evoked stunning imagery throughout and proved a bold feature debut for Carlson Young. Mulroney was also a standout in the film.
One of the highlights of Sundance is always the Shorts features, which offer an opportunity to see lots of upcoming talent. One of my favorites this year was the short video Doublespeak. The 10-minute video featured Angela Wong Carbone, who played a young woman who has to grapple with the aftermath of reporting sexual harassment in the workplace.
Directed and written by Hazel McKibbon, the short is framed as a beautifully devastating narrative that demonstrates the difficulty and isolation of reporting systemic abuse within a structure that pervasively is set up to protect the perpetrator. Clocking in at just 10 minutes, Doublespeak left a lasting image for me.
I was struck by the breadth of talent on display at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and grateful that it was not one of the events canceled. Even more impressive was the depth of talent from so many first-time female directors and screenwriters, making it abundantly clear that Hollywood has either been ignoring, dismissing, or refusing to provide deserving opportunities for all these talented women. Screening after screening the women at Sundance demonstrated the drive, vision, and talent that culminated in fantastic storytelling. I look forward to seeing more of their unique vision and diverse storytelling grace more and more screens and be as celebrated during awards season as they were at Sundance.
Make sure to check out the first part of our Sundance 2021 round-up by clicking the link above!