Sundance likes to see itself as Not Hollywood. The magnificent Rocky Mountains are a perfect backdrop for an annual alternative to Big Hollywood. Small independent movies like Little Miss Sunshine and, more recently, Call Me By Your Name got to break out at the film festival in Park City, a picturesque town tucked way in the mountains east of Salt Lake City.
That self-perception of Sundance as the radical young sibling of the studio system may still exist. In reality Hollywood has long ago devoured and absorbed the festival. Witness the entertainment business collectively moving a short flight east in the middle of January; get on any flight from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City and you can overhear studio executives barking on their phones in business class. They’re going to party, make deals, pose for photos with the stars, and spend millions of dollars on the films they will “have” as they push them toward the next award season. You will also see A list “talent” in sunglasses and winter hats flying to the festival. Ethan Hawke and Chiwetel Ejiofor, big names with excellent films at Sundance, both flew in on the “Festival Express,” as the extra Delta flights are now called.
Sundance is really Hollywood’s rehearsal space for movies never shown before. Some of the best films of this year’s festival (it ended Sunday, January 28th) were played with deals and distributors already attached. That is not a bad thing. It means that two of the best movies I saw this year are sure to come your way, in the United States and hopefully abroad. The compact and moving Eighth Grade, about the life of an an eight-grade girl living with her single father, and the spectacular Gus Van Sant drama Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot starring Joaquin Phoenix, will be distributed and watched. Praise be to God.
Sundance offers a view of the margins of Hollywood – the attractive margins. Hollywood itself focuses on superheroes and slick productions like The Post, but the indie world of Sundance, though long ago appropriated by Hollywood, still offers the more interesting fare, the fare of the margins. Having seen more than a dozen on my visit, three jumped out for me. They prove that Not Hollywood is alive and well.
First, Blaze. It is a quiet, rambling, non-traditional musical biopic which will surely have you humming its beautiful songs for days. The film lovingly portrays the brilliance, poverty, alcoholism, and downfall of the country and blues artists Blaze Fowley. Few directors could pull off a two hour long “gonzo indie country western opera,” as Ethan Hawke calls it. But Hawke has done it. During interviews at Sundance he talked about the duct tape it took to make this film. As a metaphor it works: Fowley, dirt poor his entire life, is played with acting magic by musician Ben Dickey, and at some point his wardrobe as well as his guitar seem to be held up by copious amounts of duct tape. Of course, Hawke meant he had no money, no backers, not enough time. And yet he made something great with his longtime friend Dickey.
The sound of Blaze Foley, who was killed in 1989, has been adored and emulated by Lyle Lovett, Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams and other well-known Americana performers. It is about time for an admiring film about his life. The well-woven story in Blaze, using long musical numbers and funny flashbacks, shows us poverty and love, creativity and neglect, the power of self-hate and the power of music to overcome it. Hawke says he likes the word amateur: someone who makes or does something not for money but from love, because he can. But this movie is not the work of an amateur. Or: while he made this out of love, Hawke brings to the world an exceptional film for which Dickey has just won a special jury award for acting.
As the festival ended Blaze had not yet found a home. Come on, Netflix, grab this gem and share it widely.
Since the rather liberal Robert Redford founded it, Sundance has been overtly political. That is, tailored to the liberal left. I don’t like that. Most films shown are not activist in nature or even political, and half the potential viewing audience is not left-leaning. Moreover, why would Sundance allow fashion designer Kenneth Cole to advertise in weird semi-poetic clips shown before each screening? In those clips — signalling Cole’s politically correct altruism and hipster credentials — the Sundance film makers and audience are defined as “progressive.” This seems exclusionary. And incorrect. Non-progressives appreciate and show good films at Sundance, too, after all.
It’s fine to show RBG, a gushing documentary about the liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. For anyone with a daughter, mother, wife or significant female in her life it has to be an inspiring portrait of a tiny powerhouse of a thinker who helped shape American life in recent decades. And RBG is good, if completely one-sided.
But will there ever be room for a film such as Scalia: Portrait of a Man and Jurist? It’s a strong documentary (streaming on Amazon) about Ginsburg’s ideological nemesis and life-long friend Antonin Scalia. The late Scalia is an equally great subject; the story about his philosophy of the law is the perfect book end to that of Ginsburg. If exchanging ideas still matters, even among Sundance goers, then Scalia should be welcomed as much as RBG.
Don’t get me wrong; there is power in the message that film makers are encouraged to share here. Grand Jury Prize winner, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is, on its face, a straightforward story about a bi-sexual teenager being forced into a “gay conversion” camp, where she is supposed to leave her sins behind and become a good straight girl. Director Desiree Akhavan deserves kudos for telling this story clearly, without preaching. Of course, the film is political: it forces any thinking viewer to consider what on earth we are doing judging countless young queer people, thinking that they could be “healed.”
Gay marriage may be legal in America and several other countries, but when thousands of kids are still pushed into “re-education” camps and therapies, something is still wrong. Like Akhavan said after the premiere, this is ultimately a story about teenage homelessness. The young people portrayed are rejected by loved ones because they love and lust for the “wrong” gender. They end up alone and lost. So next time you see a teenager sleeping under a highway overpass, consider the possibility that a parent or other adult forced them into a “conversion” process. Seeing The Miseducation of Cameron Post will provide the tools to imagine it. It will also make you laugh and weep.
Speaking of which, I hope for a speedy purchase and release of Come Sunday. Haven’t we all been told to avoid religion and politics in polite company? Joshua Marston ignores this suggestion with abandon. His Come Sunday is a formidable deep dive into faith. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays conservative Pentecostal pastor Carlton Pearson, who falls from his faith steeped in hell and damnation after he learns about the Rwandan genocide in 1994. It’s a true story, which Marston tells with subtlety and respect for the church Pearson leaves and the new circle he discovers as he turns toward a more open-minded Christianity of love, forgiveness, and acceptance. Tolerance gradually replaces sin; not an easy journey for this man of God. Ejiofor plays him with such skill and courage, I completely forgot the actor was even there.
The film may be “too Christian” for most theater owners and “not Christian enough” for conservative movie goers in America’s south and heartland. But Netflix or Amazon could reach everyone else: those of us who love a good story well told, those who may have struggled with our own faith.
Hollywood remains self-obsessed; glaringly obsessed with sex scandals and box office numbers. But the gathering in Utah proves what Not Hollywood is capable of. Not all films shown at Sundance are great, of course. Private Life, about a middle-aged couple trying to conceive using IVF, should have been great, with Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn. Instead, it’s an hour too long, taking itself too seriously, bluntly offending those who have gone through the process, and filled with unforgivable clichés.
But most films here do make you think and feel. It’s a haven for progressives, true, but also for film lovers who shy away from identity politics. A good film appeals to all of us. Sundance makes the point again this year — despite itself, perhaps.