As the Sundance Film Festival 2021 came to a close, the first order of business was handing out awards and saluting films and talent that stood out. American made docs and features were in the mix. Check out these reviews of some of the most noteworthy. Many will be in theaters near you soon or streaming on your TV sets shortly.
CODA is an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults and is also the premise of this touching ‘fam/com/dram.’ Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing person in her Gloucester, Mass., family. Her non-hearing Dad (Troy Kotsur), a fisherman, and her brother (Daniel Durant) depend on her. Without Ruby, the deaf men aren’t allowed to legally operate a fishing boat. When she decides to join her high school choir, her family, including her mom (Marlee Matlin), feels abandoned and there’s strife. This doesn’t have the deep drama prevalent in Sound of Metal or Children of a Lesser God, but it’s enjoyable. When writer/director Siân Heder’s (Tallulah) script explores the daily challenges and accomplishments of a deaf family, it thrives. When it ventures into broad comedy, not so much. Fans of the TV show Glee will love to hear the students sing and watch teen romance bloom. When the screen goes silent to emphasize deaf people’s experience, the film finds its proper depth. A likable crowd-pleaser that happily champions the cultural, social and linguistic traits of the Deaf community.
Seasoned film fans respect Clifton Collins, Jr. the penultimate character actor. He stands out in an ensemble (Star Trek) is the consummate co-star (Honey Boy), has conquered TV (Ballers) and his filmography goes way back (Dead Presidents). Given the chance to lead a cast, he has taken home the Sundance 2021 U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award: Best Actor. His showcase is a small earnest film about an aging jockey named Jackson who’s been battered by time, wants to ride the next new fast horse but is hampered by physical ailments. Director/writer Clint Bentley gives Collins a stage, and the master actor delivers a textured, melancholic performance that is a career highlight. The thin narrative is heavy on atmospheric touches and non-verbal scenes, light on viable emotional family drama. Still, Collins impresses with his insight into a man facing his decline. Nice supporting performances by Molly Parker and especially Moisés Arias as a rival jockey and possible relation. Filming (cinematographer Aldolpho Veloso) at a live racetrack with real people in some roles ups the reality quotient. This revealing look at an enigmatic sports profession gives Collins a chance to shine—and he is brilliant.
This is such a cagey, engrossing way to start a story. Circle around the central plot. Start in a suburban church with supporting characters spewing small talk. Introduce a mediator (Michelle N. Carter) who walks away. Put two couples in one room, after a tragedy, which will only be revealed in bits and pieces. It’s enough to make audiences’ eyes stay glued to the screen. The writing and directorial debut of actor-turned-filmmaker Fran Kranz couldn’t be more auspicious. A tragic event has happened. The parents of the perpetrator, Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd), and the victim, Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton), face off across a table. Sparks fly, emotions boil over, loathing is confirmed. All struggle for ways to end the incessant PTSD that comes from surviving the nightmare of a school murder. Figuring out what happened is an engrossing group activity for viewers. The taunt, tense screenplay is so tight it could be the foundation for a Tony Award-winning Broadway play. Four excellent actors give the performances of their lives as desperate, weary characters saying things that should never have to be said. Linda divulges this secret about her son: “The love we had was true, but I raised a murderer.”
Val (Jerrod Carmichael) and his old buddy Kevin (Christopher Abbott) are eager to end their miserable twenty-something lives here they are, guns drawn in each other’s faces—cocked, locked and ready, standing behind a strip club at 10:30 am. Kev, recently broken out from a mental institution by Val, has had death-fulfillment tendencies dating back years, largely due to trauma: “I’ve been doing doctors since I was in foster care.” This film, which feigns manic satire but doesn’t achieve it, stumbles out of the gate and never recovers. For some reason Carmichael, a comic actor, has decided to mark his directing debut with a misguided script by Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch. This story never shows real compassion for people who contemplate taking their lives, if that was its mission. And since suicide is not a joke, that makes this project’s purpose questionable. What’s on view lacks a well thought-out progression, insightful performances, astute directing, memorable cinematography or precise editing. Carmichael was a sardonic, smooth-talking and hilarious prick on TV’s The Carmichael Show. That was his wheelhouse. Not this.
Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It (**1/2)
Viva Rita! She’s an EGOT who deserves every award she’s won. With this endearing bio portrait by director Mariem Pérez Riera audiences discover the person behind the big smile. After Rita Hayworth and before Jennifer Lopez, Moreno was the Latina ‘it’ girl. The doc traces her humble roots back to Humacao, Puerto Rico, on to migrating to New York City and then Hollywood. Moreno leaves behind her a trail of artistic successes (West Side Story), tormenting lovers (Marlon Brando), lecherous studio execs (Louise B. Mayer) and civil rights demonstrations (March on Washington). Her cred as an activist, humorist and trailblazer is verified by admirers and colleagues: Gloria Estefan, Morgan Freeman, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Mitzi Gaynor. Riera’s approach to this memoir is pretty traditional, never innovative. Cinematographer Pedro Juan López points the camera, editors Kevin Klauber and Riera piece together interviews, movie clips and award acceptance speeches. Rita Moreno’s glow, as she reveals secrets, speaks her truths and revels in her glory, elevates this very standard bio/doc.
Together Together (***)
Surrogacy can be a minefield. So much so that legal contracts are drawn up to guarantee both parties fulfill their obligations. That’s the case in this thoroughly beguiling and intimate story about an older app designer named Matt (Ed Helms, The Hangover and The Office) who hires Anna (Patti Harrison, TV’s Search Party), an aimless 26-year-old coffee shop clerk, to be his gestational surrogate. Nikole Beckwith writes and directs this very modern tale, which has an insipid start but becomes increasingly compelling and loving right up until its cathartic ending. Don’t try to stay on the sidelines. The story, characters and their journeys will pull you in. The controlling wannabe father gets less off-putting. The nonchalant for-hire mom becomes more forceful and endearing. Their platonic but deep relationship is completely disarming. Helms mines the charm in his character. Harrison, a dead ringer for a tall Salma Hayek, is sweet. Adult viewers should expect to be under the spell of this fetching dramedy for 80 of its 90 minutes.
Wild Indian (***)
So few films chronicle the Native American experience that potential audiences may wish those that are produced are positive and uplifting. In his feature film debut, writer/director Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr. doesn’t let those expectations confine his storytelling. Instead, his cautionary tale about child abuse and its aftermath resonates in a different way.
As a kid Makwa (Phoenix Wilson) was beaten by his dad and found refuge hanging with his cousin Ted-O (Julian Gopal). Then one day, Makwa did the unthinkable: homicide. Their paths diverged after that. As an adult, Makwa (Michael Greyeyes) changes his name to Michael, has moved to a big city and is a successful exec with a wife and kid. No one knows his history, until adult Ted-O (Chaske Spencer), freshly out of prison, tatted up and trying to make amends, locates and confronts him. Michael: “How did you find me?” Ted-O: “Not that hard. I asked around for the fakest f–king Indian I’ve ever seen.”
Corbine, Jr.’s heavy tale warns that cruelty just breeds cruelty and victims. Michael is a ruthless sociopath with a blonde trophy wife (Kate Bosworth). Ted-O is self-destructive collateral damage. If viewers believe in karma, Wild Indian is a real tough sell. Hence the shortcomings of Corbine’s script. It’s bleak. On the other hand, his direction is as solid as the cinematography (Eli Born), editing (Ed Yonaitis) and costumes (Matthew Hixenbaugh and Nikki Pelley). Greyeyes interpretation of Michael is eerie. Spencer adds a lot of depth to Ted-O’s grief. A shockingly intense, disturbing character study from a promising and talented filmmaker.
For more information about the Sundance Film Festival, visit <www.sundance.org/festivals/sundance-film-festival/about>.
For a complete list of SFF award-winners, visit <www.sundance.org/blogs/news/2021-sundance-film-festival-awards-announced>.
(Visit NNPA News Wire film critic Dwight Brown at <DwightBrownInk.com> and <BlackPressUSA.com>.)