Sundance 2022 - Veering into Unhinged

MINI REVIEW 1 /// Category 1: "out-there" concepts and executions

SUNDANCEELLA THOMPSON

Ella Thompson

2/7/20227 min read

honk for jesus. save your soul.

Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown in "Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul." (TBD)

Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. (dir. Adamma Ebo, United States)

I bought this ticket thinking this was a documentary but was pleasantly surprised that it’s a mockumentary/fiction mix. Trinity Childs (Regina Hall) and Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) are the first lady and pastor of a large Southern Baptist megachurch, which has funded their empire and style of life. Lee-Curtis, openly anti-gay in sermons and a vivacious public speaker, is suddenly caught in scandal after his homosexual acts and abuse come to life. For the most part the switching from mockumentary to fiction works - it becomes clear that Trinity is really the engine that keeps this train moving while Lee-Curtis is an unpredictable loose-canon.

The leads are excellent: Hall perfectly expresses Trinity’s turmoil in the face of a publically failing marriage and passive-aggressive conversations with former congregation-members combined with her family’s religious and financial belief that there will be no divorce; Brown made me nervous literally every time he was in the room with another man, the tension between deep passion for the performance he gives at church directly conflicting with his abusive actions and homosexual desires that conflict with his core beliefs. It’s the complex reality that Trinity has to ultimately decide if she will go down with this miserable ship or defy her religious beliefs and the close-knit community that knows all of her business - the underlying uneasiness that she is trapped. I think the third act is a little weaker and lets it down some, but I’m really in love with the premise and a good bit of the execution. I believe the director and her sister have a lot of work upcoming so I’m hopeful for it. US megachurch capitalism ftw.

Alan Cumming in "My Old School" (TBD)

My Old School (dir. Jono McLeod, United Kingdom)

This situation is b-i-z-a-r-r-e. Alan Cumming lip syncs the narration of the real “Brandon Lee”, a man in his 30s who, in the 1990s, disguised himself as a child to re-attend his high school in an attempt to re-apply to medical school in the UK. Once I figured out what this story was really about, I was fascinated and bewildered, and the intermittent use of animated reenactment to bolster the little legitimate photos/footage gave it a lot more personality. Most of the historical footage is from the news or just photos, so without the animated sequences it would likely be quite boring.

It’s more of a reunion film made by and for all the former students who went to school with “Brandon Lee” while he was disguised, but they’re an entertaining group of people and it’s certainly a situation worth documenting or recounting. I think it could’ve gotten off to a faster start and was maybe a little longer than it needed to be, but it’s definitely worth a watch with your fam. Super intriguing.

brian and charles

David Earl and Chris Hayward in "Brian and Charles" (TBD)

Brian and Charles (dir. Jim Archer, United Kingdom)

This was very cute. Chris Hayward plays a lonely, quirky, incredibly smart man named Brian in an obscure Welsh village who’s always tinkering around with tiny, often dud ideas - from weird snowshoes that trip him up to a flying machine that catches on fire to an inoperable robot. Funnily enough, he comes home to find the robot - named Charles - very much alive. They strike up a funny little friendship, but as Charles learns more and more he wants to go out and explore the world on his own.

The start of the film functions like a documentary, Brian endearingly explaining and demonstrating his experiments and everyday life to the camera crew. There’s even a point where the director talks to him. However, later in the film we totally forget that there was a documentary style in the first place, and I have to wonder if maybe Brian was totally imagining this to keep himself company. This comes as he becomes closer to his newfound girlfriend and Charles and less fearful of cruel neighbors - we get to slowly see Brian come out of his shell and learn to be less fearful of other people and the outside world. Cabbage was a paid actor in this film.

maika

Phu Truong and Diep Anh Chu in "Maika" (TBD)

Maika /// Cô Bé Đến Từ Hành Tinh Khác (dir. Ham Tran, Vietnam)

This very E.T. film, largely inspired by a 1970s Czechoslovakian television show, is honestly pretty fun. Hung (Phu Truong) is still devastated by his mother’s loss when he stumbles into crash-landed alien Maika (Diep Anh Chu). They become fast friends as Hung tries to help her recover a life-stone that will help her fix her ship damage and find her lost comrade. It’s a kid movie for sure and the amount of silly action and character acting were wildly entertaining and overshadowed parts that dragged or were a little too easy for me. The special effects for Maika’s powers and the evil tech-corp villain gave me big Spy Kids or Sharkboy and Lava Girl energy.

While it’s generally a very comedic-action film, when it comes time for Maika to return to her planet we’re accosted by a tear-jerking montage of Hung and his mother and father before she passed away - ultimately reminding us of the underlying themes of loss and seclusion. This is a silly and touching tribute to the director’s mother, and I think the kids in my family would enjoy.

alice

Keke Palmer and Common in "Alice" (TBD)

Alice (dir. Krystin Ver Linden, United States)

Oh god.

This was…a mess. I want to start by saying that Keke Palmer and Common gave it their all with what they had and I’m hoping to see Palmer in more soon, but there’s nothing they can do to fix this script. The premise is that enslaved woman Alice (KeKe Palmer) lives on a Georgia plantation, but after fleeing somehow stumbles onto a highway, ultimately learning that the year is 1973 and that she’s been lied to this whole time. Interesting premise, interesting cast, but ultimately lacking depth. The first third of the film is spent on a plantation - which didn’t add much and feels very unnecessary. Jonny Lee Miller plays the plantation owner Paul, but he is a British dude irl that CANNOT do a rural Georgia accent.

There’s a pretty long montage of Alice reading every event that’s happened to black people in the United States and watching a movie for a couple seconds (cool montage, but here serves as filler). Despite how briefly she’s been aware that she’s been lied to her whole life, she’s completely liberated and aware of all her rights and the operations of this new world - no traumatic past to be found. The third act is probably less than fifteen minutes long. Alice comes out in a very 1970s look and a full afro – looking bomb – and then she and Frank (Common) find the hidden plantation, light everything on fire, call the fire department, tie Paul up, find that Alice’s supposedly dead husband is inexplicably not dead, happily ever after.

This is a very unbalanced film that might’ve been better served as a mini-series. There’s way too little and way too much all at the same time. It ends rushed yet we spent a huge chunk of time on a plantation. The quick discarding of her trauma in what feels like a matter of days makes this character feel unmotivated - the screenwriter caught up in the world rather than the protagonist.

**This is apparently based on true events -- in the Deep South people were enslaved, not knowing they were free, even into the 1970s. Maybe even now? Holy shit. Even less reason for the first third of this film to be a plantation film.

framing agnes

Zackary Drucker in "Framing Agnes" (TBD)

Framing Agnes (dir. Chase Joynt, United States)

I’m very uncertain about my feelings on the execution of this documentary. This is authored by a large group of trans creators and researchers and is centered around Harold Garfinkel’s gender health research at UCLA in the 1960s. A participant called Agnes was the best-known participator in these studies, but the hope of this documentary seems to be about bringing other transcripted stories in this research to life - transness is not some sort of wildly new experience. I learned a lot of interesting things - such as how many of the participants in this research were a part of a huge trans network of people who were aware of each other and supported each other - and I would love to be able to read more of what was found and how more trans people feel about it.

However, I think the structure of this film was not for me. Joynt and co. read pieces of these transcripts in the form of an old-timey talk show - Joynt the host, many trans actors playing each of the trans people in the research. This is interesting but also confusing; much of this film is filled with personal anecdotes from all the actors and researchers, and it’s sometimes hard to tell when they’re acting out the transcript or just talking about their own lives. I don’t have much familiarity with this research and sometimes I felt I was lacking context to what was being discussed or couldn’t tell if it was something they’d already mentioned in passing - and this could also be from a personal lack in knowledge of much of trans history. I felt a little frustrated that I couldn’t really understand what was happening some of the time but maybe that’s okay, since this film gave a lot of trans actors and collaborators a space to talk about their own personal experiences that this research did or didn’t connect with. It’s certainly made me want to learn much more about the subject.