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Sundance 2020 reviews: Day 1

Miss Americana, Crip Camp, Summertime, The Perfect Candidate and more

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Taylor Swift in Miss Americana
  • Taylor Swift in Miss Americana
Miss Americana *** [Documentary Premieres]
The literal first image in Lana Wilson's documentary about Taylor Swift is of Swift playing piano while a kitten scampers playfully across the keys. It's a somewhat ominous portent—hinting at carefully curated marketing tool for the singer/songwriter's “good girl” image—but Wilson ultimately takes viewers on a more complicated journey. The film tracks the full trajectory of Swift's professional career, from teenage country-music phenomenon to pop superstar to subject of Kanye West's focused ire, while addressing the personal events—notably her high-profile legal action against a man for groping her—that led her to become more vocal politically in 2018. Wilson gets plenty of behind-the-scenes access, much of it involving writing and/or recording sessions, and walks a fine line between conveying Swift's enthusiasm for finding an idea that works, and suggesting how grateful we should be for being in the presence of a great artist at work. Yet while there's a redundancy to the number of times we hear Swift talk about her need for approval—even from the Grammys—it's still fascinating observing as she and her family and professional advisers wrestle with what it will mean to her career if she speaks up on partisan issues, and what it will mean to her as a person if she doesn't. (Scott Renshaw)

Cuties ** [World Dramatic]
The “cuties” are a mean-girls clique in a French middle school that Senegalese immigrant Amy admires and eventually wins her way into. Their thing is dancing, and a big contest for which Amy devises a routine that includes group twerks, mouth gestures, ground humping and hip grinding. These girls are 11. Cuties attempts a tricky tonal act as being, in significant part, about girls oversexualizing themselves in response to the images and culture of social-media-fueled instant gratification. Director Maïmouna Doucouré indicates at several moments she knows the problem it poses of pandering to this movie’s viewer—an audience cutaway during the big dance-off, the reactions of initially fascinated schoolboys, and a funny scene involving a condom that shows these girls’ naivete. But whatever distance the film tries to have dissolves completely during the numbers themselves; the girls are clearly playing to her camera. There’s a couple of other potential good movies here—the familiar coming-of-age story is refracted through a traditional Muslim culture that emphasizes female modesty and allows polygamy. One great shot shows Amy’s mother learning her husband will bring a second wife to France. But the culture clash disappears too long in the film’s midsection, and the ending feels unresolved with a dip into magic realism that doesn’t quite work. (Victor J. Morton)

The Perfect Candidate
  • The Perfect Candidate
The Perfect Candidate *** [Spotlight] 
Haifaa Al Mansour returns to her native Saudi Arabia with a thematic companion piece to her girl-power feature debut Wadjda, with a woman doctor named Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani), from an unconventional family of entertainers and artists, running for a seat on the municipal council. Opening shots with Maryam in a niqab behind the wheel of a car provide a snapshot of a repressive patriarchal culture in tumultuous flux. Challenges at Maryam’s hospital job include male patients refusing treatment from a female doctor, and the often intractably muddy dirt road leading to the hospital. A bureaucratic snafu, complicated by Saudi laws forbidding women to travel without permission from a male guardian, leads to Maryam’s almost inadvertent political bid and increasingly assertive feminist consciousness, with very different responses from her two sisters. Paralleling and partly enabling Maryam’s journey, her father (Khalid Abdulraheem), an accomplished oud player, celebrates the Kingdom’s new acceptance of public music by touring with his band. The feel-good underdog story hits the expected beats with conviction, and, if a musician’s concerned remark about fundamentalist hostility to music—“We don’t want to upset anyone”—isn’t entirely out of keeping with the movie’s gently humorous approach, the film is still a welcome signpost toward a better future. (Steven D. Greydanus)

Crip Camp *** [U.S. Documentary]

A lesser-known story of Vietnam-era social activism gets a compelling airing in Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht's documentary. The name is a reference to Camp Jened, a Catskills summer camp launched in the 1950s to serve teens and young adults with disabilities, and a time when many of them were still being institutionalized, and definitely marginalized, by mainstream American society. Archival footage—some of it from the early 1970s home movies of LeBrecht, who was himself a camper—conveys the way the place provided a sense of social connection and respect for their personhood that the campers found in few other places. But more significantly, Crimp Camp shows how Jened became an incubator for a burgeoning 1970s disability civil-rights movement, with counselor Judy Heumann as one of the national leaders organizing events that demanded America not pretend they didn't exist. Newnham and LeBrecht are occasionally clunky in their filmmaking choices; for the love of God, nobody should ever, ever again use Buffalo Springfield's “For What It's Worth” as their, “Hey, we're in era of tumultuous social change!” needle-drop. But they do an effective job of shining a light on how sometimes it takes marginalized people knowing what it feels like to be treated as equal and deserving of a voice before they themselves believe no one has the right to deny it. (SR)

Summertime ** [NEXT]
Carlos López Estrada’s sophomore feature follow-up to  Sundance 2018's Blindspotting plays somewhat like a feature-length expansion of that film’s climactic scene (Daveed Diggs venting bottled-up rage and fear and humbling a white killer cop with an improvised freestyle rap takedown). One of the funniest scenes involves an African-American couple in counseling rhyming their grievances—a lyrical inversion of Marriage Story’s opening—with a counselor who ultimately sends them away with her book How to Rap Battle Your Demons. Constructed around the work of Los Angeles’s poetry-driven “Get Lit” youth literacy program, the film features Get Lit participants and volunteers singing, rapping and dancing their demons away around L.A. If the film is less inspirational than the program, that’s partly because what’s therapeutic to the student poet isn’t always inherently valuable to others, and partly because of López Estrada’s screenwriting choices in pursuit of a narrative setting—in essence, a jukebox-musical book—for such disparate compositions. Several early incidents are abrasive and off-putting, and, with the story drifting among so many unrelated characters, few acquire much depth. I understand why López Estrada was drawn to highlight the work of Get Lit; a nonfiction film might have been a better choice. (SDG)

The Painter and the Thief  **1/2 [World Documentary]

Artist Barbora Kysilkova has two of her paintings stolen and, while arrests are made quickly, the works can’t be found because one of the thieves, Karl-Bertil Nordland, is a junkie screw-up with no memory of what happened that night. So the painter goes to the trial, gets fascinated with the thief, comes to know him, and starts using him as a model. That covers the first 10 minutes of this affecting and occasionally powerful but undercooked and rushed account of several years of their relationship. The specters of House of Games or La Belle Noiseuse haunt the proceedings, but director Benjamin Ree (and frankly the two protagonists; the film often has the feel of a “My Life” series on somebody’s YouTube channel) tries to cover far too long a time period and thereby telescopes everything. Karl-Bertil leaves prison, moves in with a new girlfriend, starts working as a nurse and buys a Harley-Davidson in … maybe a minute of screen time. While The Painter and The Thief captures some remarkable “holy moments”—when Karl-Bertil sees Barbora’s first painting of him, for example—these self-conscious characters (especially Barbora) also tend to talk through the film’s character themes, engaging in on-camera self-analysis that feels like chewing with your mouth open. The story is remarkable; the film, not so much. (VJM)

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