Sundance Update: Friday, Feb. 1 | Buzz Blog

Sundance Update: Friday, Feb. 1

Honey Boy, Sweetheart, The Brink, One Child Nation and more.

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Noah Jupe in Honey Boy - SUNDANCE INSTITUTE
  • Sundance Institute
  • Noah Jupe in Honey Boy
Honey Boy (U.S. Dramatic) *
No point in mincing words: I found this enterprise distasteful—essentially a Daddie Dearest for the therapeutic society. Scripted by Shia LeBeouf, it tells two parallel stories involving Otis, a child-adult star very like LeBeouf. In the present tense, Lucas Hedges (back from the far superior Ben Is Back) plays Otis in rehab after multiple drinking-drug arrests, and mostly resisting therapists. In the past tense, he constantly flashes back to his time in a Los Angeles extended-stay motel with his abusive, alcoholic father. In these scenes, LeBeouf plays (essentially) his own father, which makes Honey Boy an exercise in score-settling, and made me feel like a dirty voyeur for watching. Every sequence in the flashback is some variation on “Otis tries to please daddy; daddy gets mad,” whether it's what he does on set, talking to mommy, interacting with other motel residents, or having a Big Brother program friend. The issue is not truth, exactly, but discretion and believability. If writing the script while in rehab—for whatever among what Hedges does in the opening montage is applicable—helped LeBeouf wrestle through problems he might have been having, great. That’s not a reason to make public his daddy issues about a specific man, subjecting the rest of us to them. (Victor Morton)

One Child Nation (U.S. Documentary) ****
A vital, organic synthesis of political expose, cultural inquiry, and personal journey, Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s devastating, multilayered look at China’s draconian one-child policy pieces together the methods and costs of the policy and associated human-rights abuses. Emerging from Wang’s reflections on her upbringing in the one-child era, the film is substantially a first-person account drawing on Wang’s memories, interviews with family members, former local officials, affected family members and others. There are also eye-opening images of the all-consuming propaganda campaign promoting total loyalty to the infallible party and its wise policy. The range of reactions is sobering, from a conflicted former village official emphasizing how hard it was to be an official in those days to a guilt-haunted midwife who works with infertile couples to try to atone for the forced sterilizations and abortions she performed. The pattern of abuses changes after 1992, with child traffickers scooping up abandoned babies and selling them to state-run orphanages to be fraudulently marketed to Western couples. In 85 minutes, not everything is covered, and while the film does highlight the strong cultural bias against girls—as well as belated official concern over an aging population without enough young people to care for them—the alarming preponderance of boys over girls is omitted. Still, in those 85 minutes there are no missteps or wasted moments. (Steven D. Greydanus)

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Sweetheart (Midnight) **1/2
It’s a damned shame when a filmmaker has a perfectly terrific premise on his hands, only to muck it up with a misguided sense of adding complexity. That premise, at least initially, finds a young woman named Jenn (Kiersey Clemons) washed up on a deserted island, apparently the only survivor of a boating accident, where she has to survive not only the absence of civilization, but the presence of a carnivorous beast that emerges from the sea nightly to feed. Thus begins something that plays out like Cast Away if Tom Hanks also had to run away from a monster, with Clemons doing great work as the resourceful heroine; she has a terrific moment where, in the midst of the horror, a slight smile plays around her lips with pride over solving a problem. And then comes a massive miscalculation by writer/director J.D. Dillard (Sleight), as a radical shift in Jenn’s situation results in awkward attempts to complicate her psychology, in addition to introducing plot threads that turn into a veritable armory of unfired Checkhovian guns. When Dillard aims for simple genre pleasures—like the shot introducing the creature, silhouetted against a dying flare—he nails it. Sometimes, it’s all about knowing when one more piece might cause a structure to topple. (Scott Renshaw)

Top End Wedding (Premieres) ***
To the welcome, growing ranks of romantic comedies that offer distinctive racial or cultural perspectives, kindly add this charmer from co-writer/star Miranda Tapsell, centering the experience of a biracial young woman confronting her indigenous Australian heritage. Tapsell plays Lauren Ford, a recently-promoted attorney in Adelaide, Australia who is given a narrow window of 10 days by her demanding boss (Kerry Fox) for her wedding to her fiancé, Ned (Gwilym Lee), back in her home in the north of Australia. One small catch: Lauren’s mum has abruptly left Lauren’s dad (Huw Higginson), with no sense of why or to where. Many of the story’s complications are forced in typical rom-com fashion—an unspoken secret will, of course, eventually throw a wrench into things—and the quest for Lauren’s mum occasionally gets a bit strained in its wackiness. But there’s also plenty of charm in the story and the performances, including a great running gag involving Lauren’s distraught dad listening to Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now.” Mostly, there’s an appealing willingness to tackle the complexities of understanding a cultural heritage from which you’ve been distanced, and how that distance complicates other relationships. Familiar genres get more interesting when seen through new eyes. (SR)

The Elephant Queen (Kids) ***
Husband and wife wildlife filmmakers Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone’s accomplished family elephant adventure sits somewhere between pure nature documentary and the wildlife fiction of, say, Chimpanzee or Arctic Tale, with raw wildlife imagery edited into wholly fictional narratives. Impressively varied footage shot over four years is conflated into a narrative spanning less than a year, with an elephant matriarch called Athena leading her herd from their home territory to a spring-fed oasis and back. Yet Athena is no composite character, but a particular elephant matriarch, and the broad outlines of the narrative—finely read by Chiwetel Ejiofor—follow a real eight-month journey. Young viewers aren’t overly sheltered from harsh realities, as when little Mimi’s mother’s milk runs dry prematurely on the long trip to the oasis, and Mimi dies en route. There’s some tough going, but also quite a bit of humor, often linked to the “neighbors,” creatures like foam frogs and terrapins on the fringes of the elephant ecosystem. (Arch echoes of Animals Are Beautiful People crop up: A flying dung beetle is scored to Flight of the Valkyries and even chopper blades; later, a beetle battle is accompanied by slapstick sound effects.) Still, anthropomorphism is generally kept to reasonable levels, and the total effect conveys real respect for nature. A closing title packs a punch with a postscript involving poachers and a call to action; viewers wanting more activist consciousness will be disappointed. (SDG)

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The Brink (Documentary Premieres) ***
At least director Alison Klayman is doing something different from what Errol Morris did in his Steve Bannon documentary American Dharma (which even makes a brief supporting appearance here). While Morris conducted an extended one-on-one interview with Donald Trump’s former campaign chief, and gussied his film up visually with old movie sets and clips—the better to unpack and explore Bannon’s self-mythology—Klayman mostly uses old-school cinema-verité. She only commenst three or so times from behind the camera as she follows Bannon on his post-White House career—recruiting candidates for the U.S. midterms, touring Europe to bring together its populist right-wing parties, and then campaigning in those midterms. Those who found Morris’s movie a sop to Satan will have the same complaint with The Brink; Bannon mostly comes across as a personable mensch (which makes the opening scene, of Bannon on Auschwitz, up the authorial POV) with a sense of humor and self-irony, while being a jerk to failing underlings. But the environment tells the story. It’s a build to … (spoiler alert) … a rebuke to Bannon’s efforts, which Klayman emphasizes in various ways without jumping before the camera. And one of the exceptions is the best scene—a crackling, contentious interview with a Guardian journalist about anti-Semitism and the colorful cast of characters we’d just seen Bannon gather. (VM)

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (Documentary Premieres) **1/2
“Great artist” documentaries are … well, they are what they are, usually. They’re thorough, respectful and rise above the din strictly by virtue of how much “well, I never knew that” they manage to deliver. Director Stanley Nelson goes cradle-to-grave on the legendary jazz musician, chronicling his precocious talents from East St. Louis to Juilliard, and laying out a career full of innovations and re-inventions. In fact, the film’s subtitle seems a bit misleading, in that Nelson doesn’t emphasize Davis’ cool, but rather his uniquely instinctual approach to creating music and re-creating himself. Along the way we get all of the key life mileposts, both professional and personal, and there’s no attempt to hide Davis’ well-documented history of substance abuse and domestic violence. Cal Lumbly narrates Davis’ own words from his autobiography with a perfect impersonation of the musician’s insinuating rasp, adding additional character to the talking-head commentary by many of his friends and collaborators. You still get stuff like the rapid-fire “highlights of the year” montages that accompany shifts in time period, and the inevitable challenge of having people explain in words why a groundbreaking artist in a non-verbal field was so unique. There’s great music, some interesting insights and a filmmaker who mostly gets out of the way of his subject. (SR)

Abe (Kids) **1/2
Now this is what I call high-concept: 12-year-old Abe (he prefers that to Avram or Ibrahim) has a Jewish mother and Palestinian father and has been raised secular in Brooklyn, while extended families want him to commit to either Judaism or Islam. He takes refuge in cooking, especially fusion cooking because that joins disparate cuisines (metaphor alert!). Abe becomes fascinated with Brazilian fusion chef Chico, ducking out to his kitchen from a cooking camp designed for kids too young to use knives. You could see a Karate Kid-type mentor film, especially when Chico doesn’t let Abe do anything for a week but take out the garbage and clean the pans. Abe is lively and smart, e.g., showing how much of his chef identity is expressed online, but while I realize it’s pitched to tweens and younger, it still feels superficial (especially about religion). A divorce changes nothing obvious; Abe goes to someone else’s bar mitzvah to learn about Jewish customs but is fasting for Ramadan, a scene with huge comic possibilities that don’t get exploited. I was very impressed by the late sequence of Abe preparing a fusion Thanksgiving dinner, and I even misted up a bit when it looked like the film might not be headed to the aforementioned “(metaphor alert!)” Alas, a head fake. (VM)

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