Critic’s Notebook: At Sundance, Films Filled With Fury, Propelled by Outsiders


One of the things Sundance has long made clear is that there is no single, easily definable festival. There are tendencies, trends, schools and occasionally — as with the sui generis freak-out “Sorry to Bother You” — a jolt from the blue. Directed by the musician Boots Riley, making his exuberant feature debut, this freewheeling social satire tracks the increasingly surreal adventures of a telemarketer (Lakeith Stanfield), whose life takes an outlandish, dangerous turn when he chooses success over solidarity, a development with stinging political resonance. Often guffaw-out-loud funny, the movie pretty much slips into something of a mess but remains a must-see.


Lakeith Stanfield in the freak-out “Sorry to Bother You.” Credit Sundance Institute

In “Monsters and Men,” Reinaldo Marcus Green follows three Brooklyn men — a young father, a cop and a college-bound athlete — whose lives are upended when a local is shot to death by the police. With a strong cast that includes a very good John David Washington (a son of Denzel Washington), Mr. Green movingly affirms the radical humanity of these very dissimilar characters, who remain sensitively, insistently individualized. The only character who enjoys the same in Sebastián Silva’s uneasy drama “Tyrel” is the title protagonist (the excellent Jason Mitchell), whose weekend with friends takes on anxious, not especially persuasive racial overtones.

The tumult of both #MeToo and Black Lives Matter reverberated throughout the festival much as it has throughout the industry, which remains ridden by multiple crises: the sustained absence of racial and ethnic diversity in the mainstream studios; the future of the theatrical experience; and the worrisome state of foreign-language distribution. It’s difficult to know how all this affected this year’s Sundance and whether screenings were genuinely less crowded than last year or only felt like it. Certainly after a week, plenty of movies had been picked up for distribution.

These woes may help explain why the festival had been widely and rather a little too conclusively declared a disappointment before it was even over (it ends Sunday). It depends on what you’re looking for. Most of the nearly 30 movies I crammed into seven days were good and some were very good, which is a better-than-average festival ratio. If we are lucky, you’ll be reading more about and even seeing movies like “Skate Kitchen,” from Crystal Moselle (“The Wolfpack”), a dreamy female friendship movie about teenage girl skateboarders in New York, which would work on a double bill with the affecting documentary “Minding the Gap,” directed by Bing Liu, who follows a troika of skateboarders into manhood in Rockford, Ill.

This year nothing popped like, say, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in 2012. Last year, “Get Out” played here about a month before it opened, becoming one of a number of titles — “Mudbound,” “The Big Sick” and “Call Me by Your Name” — that made the 2017 edition a standout. All went on to wider critical and relative commercial success. And in contrast to most Sundance movies, they have enjoyed a substantial post-festival life, scooping up awards and Oscar nominations. In other words, each of these titles fulfilled a certain expectation of what a Sundance movie is, a judgment that often values mainstream success above all else.

Sundance’s own success can set it up for future disappointment, perhaps especially for those looking to turn selections into ongoing stories that can be played throughout the next awards season. Yet Sundance has always had its up and down years, its hits and its misses. And, as Mr. Weinstein swaggered through Sundance and the big studios hired male directors off the festival, Sundance advocated for women. In 2000, women filmmakers made up 40 percent of the dramatic competition features and a fair share of those in the Premiere sections. That year Mary Harron was here (“American Psycho”) as was Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball”) and Karyn Kusama (“Girlfight”).

Sundance is where I saw my first film by Lynne Ramsay, one of many female directors who have shown work here, including Nancy Savoca, Alison Maclean, Catherine Hardwicke, Leslie Harris, Kayo Hatta, Dee Rees, Jill Soloway and Ava DuVernay, who became the first black woman to win the director’s award for drama here in 2012 for “Middle of Nowhere,” a lyrical tale of love and liberation. Ms. DuVernay’s next movie is “A Wrinkle in Time,” a big-budget Disney movie that will always retain a connection to Sundance, which has consistently made room for women in an industry that has consistently refused to do the same. The barriers still remain in place, but as one after another woman expressed here in noisy and modest ways, change is here.

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