This week, I was lucky enough to swing by the Sundance Film Festival: London, the mini sister festival to the grand showcase in Utah that marks the start of the year and sets up the indie film breakouts. The festival this year made a concerted effort to champion women in cinema, with a majority of the picks directed by women, panel discussions on the theme of #WhatsNext following the #MeToo scandal, and even screenings picked by the women film directors of films that shaped their career.
The festival roster managed to include the best of the best from the Utah listings, namely the horror standout Hereditary and the prize winner Miseducation of Cameron Post. In fact, I am confident that any top ten list of 2018 will include at least one or two of these movies. Plus, on a film nerd note, the festival selection reiterated the current prowess of A24 in indie filmmaking, as its logo preceded a number of knockout films at the packed-out weekend.
Here’s a recap of some of the film highlights from the busy week held up in dark, cosy rooms over at the West End's Picturehouse Central.
Hereditary: Amid the critical acclaim for this horror flick, I can assure you the huge hype is worthy. This is one of the best character-led films in years, a rare feat for the horror genre. It is a film that seems to have burned itself into my irises as the carefully-orchestrated suspense still lingers a week on. On the surface, the film has a conventional premise: a family which is struggling to deal with trauma begins to unravel in the face of bizarre and eerie incidents. However, in this directorial debut from Ari Aster, the brilliance comes from the meticulous craft of the horror lurking beneath the surface.
The film made a splash in Utah, becoming a stand-out in the midnight category as a film that not only exceeds its own genre expectations but as a character-driven drama narrative too. Annie (Toni Collette) works at home as a miniatures artist who painstakingly crafts her pieces; she lives with her husband (Gabriel Byrne) and two kids, a teenage son (Alex Wolff) and young daughter (Milly Shapiro). Here, the reasonable domestic calm of a family household is unhooked and unnerved bit by bit once Annie’s mother passes away, and strange forces start to take hold of the family’s placid existence.
The performances are outstanding – the contortions of Collette’s horror-stricken face alone deserve praise and the whole cast brings a soul that horror often need to break past their traditional audiences. This film exists in the realm of Rosemary’s Baby (a life unravelling) and Don’t Look Now (horror derived from trauma) and becomes a rare successful revamp of traditional horror staples that almost strangles the air. The first half of the film could pass as an honest and brutal look at family trauma, before the descending into esoteric dread that completely takes hold in the last thirty minutes, delivering a breathtaking tour-de-force. The film’s final act is so tightly-wound the audience will experience near-collective nervous exhaustion. One more note – you’ll never hear the click of a tongue without jumping.
Never Goin’ Back: From reviews I had seen, Never Goin’ Back, another directorial debut – this time from Augustine Frizzell, has largely been dismissed as another stoner-comedy with unlikeable protagonists – a perception that couldn’t be more wrong and strips this film of the nuance it deserves. To my pleasant surprise, this film carved out a solid story that goes above and beyond the stoner-comedy template into something much rarer (and deeply funny). Never Goin’ Back become one of my favourites of the festival, as the audience followed the trials and tribulations of best friends Angela and Jessie (Maia Mitchell and Camila Morrone) hell-bent on making it to the beach for a holiday, despite the very real obstacles of broken households, the ever-looming prospect of jail, and precarious, underpaid waitressing work. Part of the brilliance behind this film is the incredible chemistry between the two on-screen best friends, who laugh and suffer together, a teenage friendship that is simply a joy to watch. Another brilliant cast member is SNL’s Kyle Mooney, who delivers a brilliant scene-stealing performance as the desperate roommate who is the only one with a stable job.
The economic woes are genuine, and the threat of eviction is always a week away. In one set of scenes, Angela and Jessie spend time in juvie despite themselves being the victims of a robbery, and when they get out their water has been shut off. Not many templates of ‘raunchy stoner-comedy’ cinema tackle life in deprived, small town Texas, nor look too closely at working-class 17-year-olds girls trying to balance daily survival and teenage antics. But, Frizzell manages just this at the same time as fitting in enough toilet jokes and weed brownies. Frizzell, who based the project of semi-autobiographical events, never pokes fun at the horrible situation the main characters find themselves in – instead, she finds moment to create solidarity and kinship, such as the pair giving money to a homeless man despite their own financial insecurity. The film also becomes a cathartic experience, with the audience 100 percent behind the two girls who refuse to back down against authority and judgmental peers.
As the director put it: “It's much safer to make a comedy about financially secure people who you can feel okay with laughing at, and/or make sympathetic stories about those less fortunate. I wanted to try something different and it was tough. If you get too deep, it becomes melodramatic, skirts the issue entirely, and the characters become one-dimensional. It was hard and I think I succeeded in some areas and failed in others, but overall, I made the movie I set out to make.”
First Reformed: Any Paul Schrader film brings up an inevitable Taxi Driver comparison, but for once this rings true. However, in place of the hardened Robert De Niro, Ethan Hawke takes the lead role as Father Toller, a priest in crisis, spiralling from illness, alcoholism, and a loss of faith. Hawke delivers a career-best performance as the solitary priest asked to counsel the husband of a concerned pregnant wife (Amanda Seyfried). The husband, a radical environmentalist, is plagued by paranoia and sets in motion the rest of the film when he asks Toller “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?”. While Toller brushes this off at the time, the question plants a seed of doubt that quickly becomes all-consuming. Beset by a difficult past and a distressing future, Toller desperately tries to redeem humanity for its ills. Austere films that tackle faith often get wrapped up in pretension. But, Hawke and Schrader manage to drill into specific concerns of a world in crisis and dread, and turn this into a rare considered look at spirituality, a brave attempt to ask questions, and a haunting portrayal of modern faith.
American Animals (SURPRISE FILM): This was a unique cinema experience, the surprise film festival screening, where the audience only know the film they bought tickets for seconds before the lights dimmed and the screen rolled. Even then, I did not know much about the plot of the American Animals, nor any reviews or press coverage. The latest film from Bart Layton, who previously brought us The Imposter, is another interesting film experiment that blurs the line between documentary and drama. Although the film centres on an audacious art heist as its topic, the real intrigue revolves less on the actual robbery and more on the unique set of characters planning it – four young men living privileged lives with promising futures. Determined to live a life beyond the ordinary and make a mark (something that lands home among contemporary audiences) the best bits of the film try to pick apart the motivations which led to the robbery. At the times, the film intersects the film characters (played brilliantly by Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters) with their real-life counterparts. While this provides necessary insight, at times this sudden switch jars with the flow of the film. The experiment is interesting in the questions that emerge – such as, how the young men would have been treated for their daring exploits had they not been affluent, white men without a need for the actual heist reward. Fortunately, Layton tries his best to swerve away from sympathizing with the young men’s exploits, creating a remarkable film test, but one that ultimately doesn’t go as far as it should.
Leave No Trace: This is Debra Granik’s latest feature, following on from her award-winning Winter’s Bone (which catapulted Jennifer Lawrence into stardom), and resembles her last film by exploring another difficult family bond that takes place in the remote wilderness. Also like Winter’s Bone, Granik manages to find a breakout young star. Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) live an almost-self-sufficient and tight-knit existence on the fringes of society, mainly in US national parks. The turmoil from the constant upheaval in this pair’s life gradually takes its toll over the course of the film. Will, a former military vet, suffers from a paranoid restlessness which sees the pair reject offers from even the most kind-hearted strangers, whereas Tom yearns for somewhere to call home. Granik shows a side of the world not often glimpsed, and does so by extolling the compassion of those often forgotten by society. Although some parts of the narrative can meander and repeat, Granik beautifully conveys the ups and downs of the father and daughter relationship, which ultimately treads along a caustic and dangerous life.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post: Introducing her latest film, Desiree Akhavan observed that there were no queer John Hughes films when she was growing up, a point which led her to adapt Emily Danforth’s autobiographical memoir. The resulting film is a directorial triumph for Akhavan, whose name is one to remember after the breakout success of Appropriate Behaviour. This latest film quickly became a fan favourite in Utah, winning the US Grand Jury Prize.
While most teen coming-of-age films end with prom, Akhavan takes it as a starting point. When teenager Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz) is caught making out with another girl during prom, she is shipped off to a Christian gay conversion camp who diagnose her with a case of the ominous sounding SSA (same-sex attraction). Just as queer solidarity extols through history, Cameron manages to survive against the hostile world she finds herself trapped in by striking up friendships with two of camp’s outcast members, Jane (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck) – also the only two camp members of colour; Jane having grown up in a commune and Adam self-identifying as Two-spirit. While Cameron battles the dubious methods aimed at ‘de-gaying’ her, she quietly builds up a community of her own with the other teenagers who have also been discarded from their own families at a time of intense identity anxiety.
As Cameron tells someone in the film: “How is programming people to hate themselves not emotional abuse?”Akhavan’s film is at times simplistic, but does enough to create a well-rounded story, equal parts funny and tragic, with some hilarious one-liners. Although similar to the set-up of But I’m A Cheerleader, Akhavan chooses a more modest, toned down exploration. John Gallager Jr. gives on the film’s best supporting performances as a camp leader Rick whose own existence as a ‘new straight man’ gives the God’s Promise (the name of the camp) its role model. He becomes the film’s most tragic figure over the course of the film, after he is held up as end-result of what the teenagers will achieve if they follow the camp’s teachings. The plot takes place solely throughout the characters’ journeys at the camp, and the ending resembles the infamous ambiguity of The Graduate, leaving the audience knowing that despite the teenagers’ resilience, a difficult road lies ahead for them.