Sundance 2022 - Existential Dread

MINI REVIEW 2 /// Category 2: films that left me staring into space

SUNDANCEELLA THOMPSON

Ella Thompson

3/5/202212 min read

worst person in the world

Renate Reinsve in "The Worst Person in the World" (TBD)

The Worst Person in the World /// Verdens verste menneske (dir. Joachim Trier, Norway)

Ouah. This flowed. I just saw this again for the second time, and I think I gained a greater appreciation for it this time around. To me, this film is not only about discovering and learning about yourself, but it’s also a first class train ticket to an existential crisis. It stars Julie (Renate Reinsve) in 12 chapters plus a prologue and an epilogue as she jumps ship whenever the going gets tough and never makes a decision she’s 100% sure of. She switches from medicine to psychology to photography; she’s in a long term relationship with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), an older creator of underground cartoons, and then enters a relationship with the sweet Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) and feels unsure whether she ever wants to be a mother. As Aksel is on his unexpected deathbed, she admits to always knowing what she doesn’t like and doesn’t want but is never quite sure exactly of what she wants. She never feels sure - a universal truth.

It’s not necessarily a happy ending nor an open ending - it’s suggestive and it’s real. It’s hard to know what you want to do, and even if you like something you could end up in the middle of it and hate it. When she’s alone in the end after a series of relationships, just living, there’s an essence of satisfaction I felt. This isn’t really a fairytale ending for Julie, but a result of trial and error. She tried careers, she tried relationships, she tried running from a relationship, she almost tried a baby. Life is about trial and error - even if she seemed like an awful person sometimes, the feelings and urges she had in those situations would’ve been the same even without her leaving when it wasn’t rainbows and roses anymore. The shots of the sunrise and the sky during pinnacle personal moments for Julie were incredible - I think we sometimes all just need a new day. On a side note, I watched the Q&A after the screening and something cool is that during the scene where everyone is frozen in time while Julie runs across town to Eivind, locals saw what they were doing and ran out to join in and stand like mannequins. Good vibes.

navalny

Alexei Navalny in "Navalny" (soon HBO Max)

Navalny (dir. Daniel Roher, United States)

This hits particularly different today. I had vaguely heard of this situation in the news but had no clue of the insanity of the situation. It was super fucking good, and I think a necessary watch, especially at this current moment. Navalny is an actual legitimate opposition for president (with a wild personality), not one put in place by Putin. He was able to gain such a following because his entire platform is digital - he has widely followed social media accounts opposing Russian governmental action. You have to be a certain type of person to run against Putin on such a grand scale, as you could be killed before you even get off the ground. This documentary was already actively filming before Navalny was poisoned by Russian operatives with novichok and follows his recovery outside of Russia - how Navalny’s small team and an investigative journalist from Bellingcat were able to figure out how he was poisoned and who did it.

The revelation was nothing short of shocking - this small team essentially prank calls the different characters Bellingcat believes were in on the poisoning, and one untrained scientist spills all the beans. You have to see it to believe it; I swear my jaw was on the floor. They unveiled this critical information to the public while knowing that Navalny would still be planning to return to Russia. He’s been imprisoned before, so he must’ve assumed he’d be arrested upon arrival - but not in such dramatic fashion. Their plane was rerouted to a different airport because so many Russians showed up to celebrate his arrival, and he was arrested at border security. As of January, he’s been imprisoned for a year.

I think this is a crucial documentary. It’s hard to imagine right now how someone like Navalny would ever be able to dethrone Putin before they are killed or imprisoned, and with so many people having done Putin’s dirty work for years, it’s hard to think that things will change if they want to keep their wrongdoings hidden. We’ve entered another time of intense uncertainty, where the few at the top who hold all the power greatly devastate everyone else.

emergency

RJ Cyler, Donald Elise Watkins, and Sebastian Chacon in "Emergency" (TBD)

Emergency (dir. Carey Williams, United States)

Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award Winner for sure, this was a complex, fun, and honest ride from start to finish. I impulsively bought this ticket for Awards Weekend and was not disappointed. The pacing was superb, and the dialogue was incredibly strong. This film is about two best friends - Sean (RJ Cyler) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) - who are very much in a black minority at their very white university. They’re graduating soon, and since their first year have wanted to do the Frat Court Run - hitting every party at every fraternity on party weekend. At the same time, Kunle has been working on his thesis, which his acceptance into a prestigious graduate program is dependent upon (which he’s not told Sean anything about).

Before heading out to party they stop by their house, which they share with mega-smart Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) who offered a very sweet balance to the friend dynamic. They bicker inside the house but suddenly discover a white girl passed out drunk on the floor of their living room (Emma, played by Maddie Nichols). Carlos has been zooted upstairs and has no idea who this girl is either. They get into a disturbing but very real discussion - Kunle wants to give this girl medical aid and call the police because this girl’s life could be in danger; Sean wants to avoid getting their fingerprints on her and to secretly drop her back off at a frat, as they could get killed without question by the police; Carlos is siding with Sean.

The rest of the night in this film is a whirlwind - broken tail lights, attacks by frat boys, Emma running off into the woods, accidental alcohol, Emma’s older sister Maddie (Sabrina Carpenter) on a One Wheel, hidden phones, unlocked refrigerators. It’s sometimes lighthearted, sometimes funny despite the stress, and then becomes chilling. Sean has had some different life experiences compared to Kunle, who clearly faces some internal turmoil as the night goes on. This becomes most true nearing the end of the film: Emma becomes quite sick and it seems like she might actually die. Kunle initiates CPR in the backseat while Sean dips - he thinks this situation is too risky. This is followed by a very intense scene with the police chasing their car and we’re not sure whether or not Kunle will make it out alive compared to everyone else. It’s best to watch to truly experience what this film is saying.

This film is not just about the experience of being black in the US, it’s also about two best friends navigating the future of their friendship. This story is so strong because these characters are incredibly regular people worrying about regular things, but then a situation comes along that has nothing to do with them and it could quite literally get them killed. The structure is sound and this is the first time in a while I’ve seen a tonal switch come off effectively. Once Sean leaves the picture it becomes very scary very fast, and all the facts of the situation that we’ve come to understand no longer matter in the face of the police. The ending shot is poignant - Kunle was happy, but hearing police sirens outside, unrelated to them, causes him to freeze. This experience has forever altered him.

i didn't see you there

Reid Davenport in "I Didn't See You There" (TBD)

I Didn't See You There (dir. Reid Davenport, United States)

A film that purposefully keeps you frustrated. This is essentially entirely first person - giving VR vibes - so that the viewer can experience life how Davenport does in Oakland, but also in a way where Davenport himself does not have to be the featured character. We never see his face in this documentary. Davenport stated that he enjoys this format because he doesn't have to be the centerpoint of this piece which he emphasizes when the circus sets up down the street from him - the capitalization of the freakshow. The camera he uses is one that’s easy for him to operate but I believe also incognito to an extent - a lot of people don’t seem to notice the camera, and we get a firsthand experience of how people treat him based on his experience. This could be people asking him if he needs help even if he’s just rolling by and minding his business - perhaps well-intentioned, but in no way is this how you would treat someone without physical disability. There’s a point where he gets on a bus and the driver demands that he strap in his wheelchair in a way that he’s not been asked to before - treating Davenport in a frustrated and angry manner like Davenport must not be at the same cognitive level. It’s frustrating to watch, and I imagine a very cathartic creative process.

Projects that feature a disability of some sort don’t always provide much narrative control to the people they feature, so this was a very cool experience and worth the ticket. Part of what you see is how infrastructure is just not built to benefit people in wheelchairs, walking disabilities, or other impairments - this is a given. But then you follow him on trips through the airport and you consider the amount of times the news has covered wheelchair breakages occurring in airports. People that require their custom wheelchairs to sustain their quality of life, items that aren’t easily or quickly fixable, can’t fly without underlying nervousness and frustration. I would love to see more content like this film - a piece that’s a more personal biography rather than someone else telling the narrative. Davenport is also the founder of nonprofit Through My Lens that aims to do just that. He’s totally right to not put his face in the movie - his physical features or disability may have become the centerpoint of the piece rather than the experience of having those disabilities, just like “freakshows.” There is an overwhelming desire to simply be respected and treated normally.

cha cha real smooth

Dakota Johnson and Cooper Raiff in "Cha Cha Real Smooth" (soon Apple TV+)

Cha Cha Real Smooth (dir. Cooper Raiff, United States)

Can you believe a story about a bar mitzvah party runner that’s fallen in love with an older woman and her daughter found me at the right time and unexpectedly gutted me in its final moments? This film, starring its director as Andrew, is about a recent college grad who feels directionless and dispassionate about the future. His girlfriend broke up with him to go work in Spain, so he thinks that his goal should be to go there, but it’s clear she’s not looking for him to do that when she posts a picture with her new partner. She has lofty goals, he doesn’t have any. Andrew is working at a fastfood joint while living at home with his mother, step-father, and younger brother. In the middle of these growing pains, Andrew decides to become a bar mitzvah party starter where he keeps running into Dakota Johnson - Domino - and her daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt, who was dope in this), who has autism. He house-sits Lola sometimes and they become super attached to one another. He falls super hard super quick, and even though he’s a sweet guy and she feels for him, she ends up drawing a clear line between them. Even Domino’s often-away husband realizes Andrew is very into her, but he’s very empathetic to him about it and says “it’s going to be okay” - he realizes Andrew is just an overly-compassionate, lost kid seeking something to follow.

When I first saw the pictures advertising this film at Sundance I wasn’t super interested because I had the assumption that this was an “older woman gets with much younger man and they have sex”’ situation. But it honestly wasn’t like that at all. She tells him at one of their last encounters that they’re in different stages of life, he needs to live out his 20s and experience things and make mistakes. This is a crucial point in this film. His directions in life have been totally dependent on what his next significant other chooses, so while much of this film is him doing everything he can to help Domino and Lola just so he can be around them, it becomes clear that this path can only lead to a dead end for him. The third act of this film really hit me, starting of course with the MOST epic scene - a fist fight at a bar mitzvah that is perfectly timed and edited to the beats of the Cha Cha Slide. School bullies are messing with Lola and Andrew’s little brother defends her, and a bunch of random people get accidentally punched.

And then I got punched in the gut- because he has a chat with his mom about how he doesn’t really know what he wants to do and that the future is scary. We even get to see him get his first job that he’s passionate about - he gets to help and hang out with kids and be a good role-model. I could relate to the themes of growing pains and “what’s next” in this film, and this has a lot of tender moments that actually made it pretty sweet. I’m glad that it turned around the expectation that I initially had. Andrew has to take his life into his own hands, not just follow others around him, and that’s exactly what the end of college is about.

piggy

Laura Galán in "Piggy" (TBD)

Piggy (dir. Carlota Pereda, Spain)

Good lord TT. For starters, RIP Reba from Elite, you played an asshole so well in this. I’m not usually much of a body horror kind of person, and I’ve not experienced much of the horror genre, but I bought the ticket for this because I’ve liked a lot of the TV coming out of Spain recently. This film is about an overweight teenager named Sara (Laura Galán) who’s extensively harassed by the mean girls in her village - one of which is her former best friend. One day at the pool the lead bully tries to drown her with the pool net - I felt like I was choking with her. The bullies steal her clothes and bag and she’s left to wander home naked and afraid. However, after passing a white truck she has to pause – her former bestie is banging on the bloodied back window and asking her for help. The driver offers her her clothes and bag as a nonverbal agreement for her silence.

She chooses to say nothing (they torment her, they deserve it) but she’s worried she’ll be found out for hiding information by the police. This film hits a graphic high point after she’s been taken by this man to a slaughterhouse where the two bullies left living are bound and hanging from hooks like slabs of meat. They realize she never told anyone they were missing. In a vivid, brutal end, Sara ends up killing the man with his own weapon while viciously biting into his neck. She frees the girls and leaves on her own.

I don’t have a lot of experience with horror, but I thought that this was very compelling; however, it feels like movies like this are hard to end in a very satisfying way. I’m not totally sure what all this did for me and I can’t really say what I would do differently, but I had a good time. This was a very well designed character - the lead actress put on a great performance, you could really feel how being so petrified and ostracized impacted the mentality of the character and the physical eating habits of the character. This is a great set-up and premise that tests complex moral boundaries, and I’m honestly not sure I could make a better choice than her in that situation. The open ending of Sara, drenched in blood and riding home on the back of a motorcycle, fuels a sense of dread. Maybe she killed the killer, maybe she freed the girls she kidnapped, maybe she’ll get off scot-free. But the killer is the one person who really seemed to like (obsess over) her, and now that’s gone - I can’t help but feel like her life might continue to spiral away.