The Highs and Lows of Sundance 2022

The 2022 Sundance Film Festival concludes on Sunday, a ten-day, entirely remote event that saw the premiere of dozens of enlightening, vexing, or otherwise notable films. Below, our critics discuss the highlights of what they watched while in the virtual mountains.

Richard Lawson: I’ll say this for a festival I experienced on a Roku app at home: I certainly saw a lot more films than I would have had I been on the ground, limited by the simple physics of time and space and the compromises of a set schedule. Because this year’s selection was more bountiful than 2021’s peak-COVID edition, that meant I was able to traverse a lot of interesting territory, and could venture further down genre rabbit holes—specifically, horror—than I normally might have.

Would I have queued up to watch Australian director Goran Stolevski’s You Won’t Be Alone—about a vampire-witch wandering through rural Macedonia in the 1800s—in Park City? Honestly, probably not. Which would have been a grave error, as Stolevski’s film was the most entrancing thing I saw at the festival this year. It’s billed as a horror, but You Won’t Be Alone is really a meditative drama about the human condition. It concerns a semi-feral adolescent who, cursed by a witch, has the ability to shape-shift into other people and animals, provided she kills them first. So, sure, she’s murdering people and assuming their form, but that antiheroism leads the film into a fascinating, and touching, exploration of identity, gender, and the ways sex has governed so  much of human community ever since we staggered into existence.

Some naysayers have called the film a mere Terrence Malick rip-off, with its dreamy visuals and abundance of poetic voiceover. I see it as more of an homage to Malick’s work, or as a child born of its influence. And anyway, Malick doesn’t really make movies with You Won’t Be Alone’s genre trappings; his films rarely, if ever, have involved a character stuffing someone’s guts into a cavity in their chest in order to become them. (Maybe that happens in Days of Heaven; it’s been a while.)

The way Stolevski’s film swirls around its big questions of self and perception feels entirely its own. You Won’t Be Alone is a really impressive feature debut, creepy and poignant and surprisingly frank given all its lyricism. It’s a film of deep curiosity and empathy, drifting toward the profound while, yes, soaked in blood. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, which is why the negative Malick comparisons have irked me a little.

Elsewhere on the horror spectrum, I was taken by the sleek, flashy Fresh, from director Mimi Cave. A gnarly tale of a meet-cute gone terribly, terribly wrong, Fresh evokes Ex Machina and Promising Young Woman to an extent, but has a distinct wit and style. Daisy Edgar-Jones, whom Rooneyites will recognize from the television adaptation of Normal People, makes what is essentially her film debut as a lead, and deftly commands focus. Her sparring partner, Sebastian Stan, also acquits himself well as a seemingly great catch who is, it turns out, very much the opposite. There are moments in Fresh that are perhaps too on-the-nose about its hot-button topicality, but for the most part, Cave’s film—which will be on Hulu in March—is grinding entertainment, brutal but purposefully so.

All right, enough of my rambling. Cassie, what most resonated with you this year?

Cassie da Costa: I found myself absolutely overwhelmed by the volume of the festival in comparison to the limited time we’ve had to watch as much as possible. There’s plenty I’ve not seen, and my weak nerves had me avoiding horror, so I’m glad you forayed into genre this year! I’m still working up the courage for Master and You Won’t Be Alone. Usually, I like to let a film stew, but with one flowing directly into the next, there wasn’t much time to reconsider or revisit. That said, there were a few standouts.

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