No Escaping Politics at the Progressive Sundance Film Festival
In ordinary years, the focus at the Sundance Film Festival is often on the breakout movie, the essential title that everyone wants to see and insists that you need to see. This year, however, is not like most years, and with a new president in the White House, the festival itself — which opened the day before the inauguration and closes on Sunday — has inescapably become the biggest story here. Because, much as it does every year, this event provides an influential, highly visible platform for the kinds of progressive ideas and voices that have come under attack by President Trump.
Among the selections that screened in the festival’s early days was a movie about a Pakistani-American struggling with his identity (“The Big Sick”) and a period drama about race and the legacy of American slavery, directed by a black lesbian (“Mudbound”). And among the opening-night titles was “An Inconvenient Sequel,” a surprisingly hopeful follow-up to “An Inconvenient Truth,” about Al Gore’s continuing efforts to stop climate change and spread the word about what he calls “the sustainability revolution.” He may need to step up his efforts: The day after the premiere, all references to climate change were purged from the official White House website.
The Sundance Institute, which runs the festival, takes pride in its role as an instrument for independent artists and those often excluded from the mainstream. Diversity, its website announces, is one of “the core values driving the institute’s work.” At the opening news conference, Robert Redford, who established the institute in 1981 and is now 80, has repeatedly affirmed the festival’s commitment to diversity. At this year’s opening news conference, he also offered a kind of disclaimer: “We try to stay away from politics, per se. We stay focused on what are the stories being told by artists.” That may be the public party line, but much depends on how you define political cinema and that historically contested word “independence.”
Certainly, it can seem easier to see the politics in the documentaries at Sundance rather than those in some of the narrative fictions. Class and race intersect meaningfully in the wonderful documentary “Quest,” a decades-plus labor of love from Jonathan Olshefski, about a black Philadelphia family that looks at ordinary people enduring familiar and uncommon experiences, including violence. Much of the movie’s power arises from its insistence on how larger forces affect lives, an intersection of the personal and the political that also informs two devastating documentaries on Syria: Matthew Heineman’s “City of Ghosts” and Feras Fayyad’s “Last Men in Aleppo.”
There’s no ready-made definition of political film, which, unlike, say, pornography (“I know it when I see it,” the Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart memorably said), isn’t necessarily obvious. “All the President’s Men,” which gave Mr. Redford one of his most enduring roles, as Bob Woodward, is an openly and transparently political film because it concerns the journalistic investigation into the scandal that eventually brought down a president. “The Big Sick,” a tear-splashed comedy, isn’t likely to do anything but bring down whatever house it plays in, but it’s an inherently political work because it involves a Muslim American struggling with identity, family and love.
Directed by Michael Showalter, “The Big Sick ” relates an all-too-true reality-shifting chapter in the lives of its writers, the comic Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”), who was born in Pakistan, and his American girlfriend turned wife, Emily V. Gordon. Mr. Nanjiani plays himself (and very persuasively, too), while Zoe Kazan goes light and dark as Emily, whose good-natured heckling during one of Kumail’s stand-up routines leads to romance. Before tragedy thunders in, the story toggles between Kumail’s comedy career and his increasingly turbulent offstage life: He has feelings for Emily but also a sense of obligation to his Muslim parents, who want him to wed a Pakistani.
“The Big Sick” plays both its comedic and more dramatic incidents nice and easy, with modest and generous laughs folded into an audience-friendly package. (It was produced by Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel.) Kumail’s struggle can be viewed in terms of identity politics, but, like most mainstream work, the film resolutely leads with the personal rather than engaging in sloganeering or advancing an overtly political agenda. If there’s a system of oppression that Kumail grapples with, it is cultural tradition. Yet what makes “The Big Sick” an inarguably political movie is the representation of an immigrant who is singularly talented and just an average, confused American guy.
Identity and its discontents swirl through “Mudbound,” directed by Dee Rees, who was last at Sundance in 2011 with her coming-of-age story “Pariah.” Sweeping and thrillingly ambitious, this generational drama tells two parallel stories, those of a black family and of the white family that owns the land on which they all live, work and struggle. The excellent cast includes Carey Mulligan, whose character marries into the white family, led by a racist patriarch. The movie’s radicalness is that it gives equal time to each family — Mary J. Blige plays another mother — dynamically putting them into play to create a story told in black, white and deepest red.
“Mudbound” represents a huge increase in scale for Ms. Rees, who also directed “Bessie” for HBO. American female filmmakers don’t often get the chance to tell such large-canvas stories, especially ones that, like “Mudbound,” unwind over years and include war scenes, in this case on the front lines of World War II. At times, the multiplicity of voices crowds the movie, but in insisting on pluralism, rather than individualism, Ms. Rees manages to undermine the dominant great-man and not-so-great-man narrative. In “Mudbound,” there is no single heroic figure, either black or white, leading the story to its end, but rather deeply American heroic and desperate actions.
As is often the case at Sundance, the presence of multidimensional, difficult, sometimes flat-out unlikable women remains very welcome, especially given the larger mainstream picture (where male characters outnumber female). With his new movie, “Golden Exits,” Alex Ross Perry affirms that he’s both one of the most talented younger filmmakers working in American movies, and a great writer of roles for women. The story involves the effect, direct and indirect, that a young woman (Emily Browning) has on a group of friends and strangers, including two sets of sisters (Lily Rabe, Analeigh Tipton, Chloë Sevigny and a hilariously acerbic Mary-Louise Parker).
Salma Hayek is the star and radiant center of “Beatriz at Dinner,” Miguel Arteta’s scathing, at times scathingly funny comedy about a California neo-hippie — she works as a holistic healer and keeps pet goats — who inadvertently and catastrophically ends up mingling with the 1 percent (principally embodied with casual imperiousness by John Lithgow). Written by Mike White, the movie touches on some of the same themes that informed his film “Year of the Dog” and his regrettably canceled HBO series “Enlightened,” namely the comedy and sometimes tragedy of living and doing good in an often aggressively hostile, dangerous world.
Two stars are born in “Patti Cake$,” one of those rare crowd-pleasers that earn their love honestly. The first is the sensational Danielle Macdonald, who plays the second: the movie’s title character, also known as Patricia Dombrowski, a poor white New Jersey rapper who, with her tiny diverse posse (Cathy Moriarty, Siddharth Dhananjay and Mamoudou Athie), yearns to cross the bridge to fame and fortune. Written and directed by Geremy Jasper, the movie treads familiar aspirational ground: Patricia has dreams, pluck and obstacles (she’s routinely taunted because of her weight), but her outsider status isn’t fetishized or romanticized, and she’s divinely real.
That’s been the case for some of the most memorable titles this year and in years past. Over its decades-long history, Sundance has tried to find a balance between its desire to promote independent artists and the demands of the mainstream movie industry, which siphons off some of the festival’s more commercially exploitable talent. At times, the industry’s presence has overwhelmed Sundance, but in recent years, there’s been a sense that it has shaken somewhat free of that influence. And just in time, too, because if one thing this year’s edition makes clear, it’s that while this festival may officially try to stay away from politics, politics always finds its way to Sundance.
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