Sundance 2022 Day 5 capsules | Buzz Blog
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Sundance 2022 Day 5 capsules

Call Jane, The Janes, The Mission, Palm Trees and Power Lines, and more

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Call Jane ***
The Janes ***
It’s a bit of a bold move to program both a documentary and a fiction film about the same subject in the same festival—specifically, the Chicago-based group of women known pseudonymously as “The Janes” that helped women procure illegal abortions from 1968-1973—since it’s possible that you’ll prove one approach was much better than the other. In this case, it feels like they end up complementing one another.

Director Phyllis Nagy’s dramatization Call Jane casts Elizabeth Banks as Joy, a suburban Chicago housewife in 1968 who faces a life-threatening medical condition if she continues her pregnancy, and can’t get a medical board to approve an exception. She reaches out to the Janes for her own termination, then becomes involved with helping the group. Despite the serious subject matter—and a terrific extended sequence of Joy’s abortion that captures the terror of that moment with her literal white knuckles gripping her bed—Nagy also finds ways to be playful in her storytelling. A scene of Joy inspecting her own genitalia for the first time is set to Malvina Reynolds’ folk tune “What’s Going on Down There;” Joy’s practice for performing abortions by scraping out pumpkin seeds cuts quickly to dozens of pumpkin pies on the counter. Banks plays Joy's evolution, from moralist who judges  many of The Janes' clients to compassionate advocate, mostly with subtlety, though her experience inevitably gets tied into her rejection of "honey, why isn't my dinner ready" gender-role expectations. The third act is a bit of a mess, rushing through the abrupt transition of Joy’s husband (Chris Messina) from stalwart conservative to smiling ally, and relegating the 1972 Chicago police raid on the Janes to a brief mention. On the way there, however, it’s humanized version of a politicized story that manages to avoid getting high on its own righteousness.

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That aforementioned raid is definitely part of Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ documentary The Janes, making up nearly the entire final half hour. It’s a fitting wrap-up to the profile that precedes it, which features plenty of contemporary interviews with members of the organization sharing their stories of how they got involved as volunteers, many of them because of harrowing experiences with shady abortions for themselves or close friends. The very nature of the story inevitably involves a lot of archival footage, and there’s a lot of throat-clearing about the various other progressive movements of the late 1960s and how these women emerged from those other struggles, often with frustration at male counterculture leaders ignoring them. Some of the material ends up being repetitive after Call Jane, including the realization that their primary abortionist wasn’t actually a medical doctor, and the many individual interview subjects become kind of an indistinct blur relative to the dramatization’s one central aggregate figure. But Lessin and Pildes do include more interesting details about the impact of New York’s legalization of abortion in 1970 on the Janes’ “business model,” and of course the vivid details of that 1972 raid. Taken together, The Janes and Call Jane feel like just the right way to get the complete story: part that feels historical, and part that feels more individually personal.

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The Mission **
While the root word of “documentary” is “document,” you still need drama; otherwise, it’s the audio-visual equivalent of a book report or vacation footage. There’s nothing exactly wrong with The Mission, but there’s also nothing particularly right about it, either. The film follows four teenagers experiencing that rite of passage in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the mission trip, in this particular case to Finland. A couple of early scenes in Finland had me distrusting The Mission: One teen is asked whether the LDS church limits him as a teenager, and another dismissed as being born into that church. In both scenes, the film promptly cuts away. I’d be shocked if any church apologist couldn’t provide an answer to these fairly stock questions, but director Tania Anderson makes it seem like they can’t. The film gets better, and is a fair portrayal of these fresh-faced kids’ time in Finland, ranging from lessons in a very difficult language for Anglophones, to street-corner indifference, to a couple of triumphant baptisms. But little of it really meshes and flows, so it feels more like a vacation highlight reel than a movie. We see a Finn baptized, but not his conversion; we see a kid sent home due to panic attacks, but don’t actually see the panic attacks. At the end, a missionary says the trips “will change your life forever,” but I didn’t see any such changes. The teens at the end are very much as they were at the start. (VJM)

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Palm Trees and Power Lines ***
At about the 50-minute mark of Palm Trees and Power Lines, I had mentally written a diatribe about pedophilia apologia, about the relationship between bored 17-year-old Lea (Lily McInerny) and kind-hearted 34-year-old Tom (Jonathan Tucker). The unfavorable comparisons to Licorice Pizza were ready, and the relevant details in my notes highlighted. That’s obviously not this review. I wouldn’t compare Jamie Dack to Martin Scorsese—her style is more the confused teen’s withholding reticence, rather than baroque and flourishing—but both directors understand that you cannot make a movie about collapse into sin without making the sin somewhat attractive and glamorizing mobsters, Wall Street brokers or, in this case, white-knight lovers. Of course it’s deck-stacking that Lea’s mother is unaware, that her friends are immature (she tells her bestie about Tom only on condition of “pinky swear”), that Tom understands her, that he doesn’t force himself on her. “You should be hanging out with people who are much more on your level” is his line, and what alienated teenager in as uninspiring an environment as this film’s wouldn’t fall for that? In retrospect, it was all obvious, but it didn’t feel that way to Lea. When a waitress sees the two together, and whispers an offer of help to Lea at getting out of this, she’s offended. Even at the end, Dack avoids simplistic moralizing; the last three minutes, after all, are like the actions of Lot’s wife. (VJM)

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God’s Country ***
Sundance 2022 has already offered another movie about a Black woman in academia and how that role is tied into larger-scale societal racism (Master); this one covers some of the same ground better, while also finding a few new frustrations. Thandiwe Newton plays Sandra Guidry, a professor in a small Mountain West university town who finds herself locked into an escalating battle of wills with two local hunters (Joris Jarsky and Jefferson White) who insist on using her remote property as access for hunting. Co-writer/director Julian Higgins gives Sandra a dense backstory—including her complicated relationship with her recently-deceased mother, and her pre-academic life in her native New Orleans—that certainly helps inform the way she responds to perceived disrespect and injustice. Newton instills her performance with roiling anger that tiptoes just along the edge of where we recognize her indignation and righteous, and wonder whether she’s tipping over the edge, while Higgins builds tension with the way he sometimes holds back on allowing us to see what Sandra does. This is also a narrative that ultimately tries to dig into multiple different angles on the way people in authority fail in their responsibilities, which makes it feel a bit over-stuffed, and the climactic single shot doesn’t entirely feel like it rounds out Sandra’s character arc. It’s a good thing that the rest of that arc provides so much meaty material. (SR)

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Dos Estaciones **1/2
“Slow cinema,” like any filmmaking approach, is neither inherently better not inherently worse than any other; it all depends on what you do with it. There’s a germ of potential in co-writer/director Juan Pablo González’s story of María García (Teresa Sánchez), the owner of a family tequila-bottling factory in Jalisco, Mexico, who faces a business steeped in debt and possibly on the edge of collapse when disease begins devastating the local agave crop. One subplot involves María’s hiring of a new assistant/bookkeeper (Rafaela Fuentes), and there’s an almost-too-down-low queer subtext to the furtive glances cast by the otherwise solitary María. And that’s only part of González’s almost stubborn determination to make his protagonist a distant and enigmatic figure, though there are hints at the kind of life María might have had in the brief digression to focus on María’s hairdresser (Tatín Vera). Many of González’s individual shots are lovely, including a rural fireworks tower, and a thunderstorm exploding from the blackness. You simply walk a very tricky line when you hold back on emotional connection, because if you ask an audience to be extremely patient with your pacing, you need to offer a payoff that’s going to resonate. (SR)

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Girl Picture **1/2
Some divided stories miss the mark because it’s always clear that something much more interesting is going on in one story than in the other. This Finnish drama from director Alli Haapasalo spends three successive Fridays in the company of two teenage best friends and co-workers at a mall smoothie restaurant: Rönkkö (Eleonoora Kauhanen), desperate to find a connection with a guy that resembles what she’s heard it should be like; and the edgier Mimmi (Aamu Milonoff), who begins a relationship with aspiring championship figure skater Emma (Linnea Leino). Haapsasalo directs with an intense focus on the performances, allowing a lot of space for discovering her heroines’ feelings simply by watching their faces as they react to the situations they’re in. But while the volatile romance between Mimmi and Emma moves through familiar territory and an underdeveloped sense of Emma’s complex relationship with her sport, there’s much more fascinating material in Rönkkö’s story, which effectively becomes one of the only movies I can recall about the coming-of-age of an asexual character. Kauhanen’s performance captures something uniquely unsteady about being forced to see the world through experiences you don’t really want to have; one of her flailing attempts at flirting is almost painful to watch. These two friends both face challenges entering their adulthood. It’s just that one of them would have made a great movie all on her own. (SR)

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Tantura ***
Israel’s founding generation will not be with us much longer, as the talking heads in Tantura make clear by their mere presence. Whether IDF veterans, kibbutz residents or Arab survivors, this is a geriatric movie about the events of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and their memory while those memories are still alive. Or rather, this is a movie about one specific and highly-contested incident: the seizure by the Alexandroni Brigade of the Arab coastal village of Tantura. Teddy Katz, a 1990s student at the University of Haifa, wrote an interview-based thesis accusing the Brigade of massacring hundreds of civilians after taking over the village; all hell then broke loose in the Israeli public square. An ailing Katz was a historical consultant to director Alon Schwarz’s film, which largely recapitulates his charges, albeit by also interviewing soldiers and witnesses 20-odd years later still. Those gaps create some … incongruities. While it’s not The Act of Killing, some soldiers, especially in current interviews, hint at dark moments or ascribe brutality to others, while also saying various versions of “war is hell; we do what we must.” Schwarz’s sympathies are clear, but he does give everybody a fair hearing. There is both an Israeli professor flatly saying eyewitness testimony is folklore not history, and an old Palestinian woman frustratedly saying that of course she doesn’t remember some details—she was terrified and was trying to flee. (VJM)

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I Didn’t See You There ***
At the intersection of experimental cinema and personal-essay film lies Reid Davenport’s documentary, which explores both seeing through the eyes of a disabled person, and being a disabled person seen through others’ eyes. For much of the movie, we’re simply following along as Davenport—who has cerebral palsy, and frequently gets around by wheelchair—lets his camera capture the world from his POV. That’s a bit misleading, however, as Davenport’s camera is often left to focus on the sidewalk beneath his wheels, or the walls of buildings as he passes, creating a kind of hypnotic effect more than attempting a realistic “this is how things look from my seated eyeline.” At the same time, Davenport occasionally shares thoughts inspired by a circus tent going up in his Oakland neighborhood, leading to meditations on the nature of “freak shows” and the way able-bodied people deal with the disabled. It’s a less successful project at those moments—partly because it’s occasionally challenging for an untrained ear to understand Davenport’s speaking voice, and partly because it literalizes notions that he expresses more effectively through his filmmaking. In both everyday moments like checking a dating site and cleaning his glasses, to the sense of danger accompanying some sequences, to a scream of frustration over a blocked access ramp, it’s a fascinating exercise in rolling a mile in another man’s wheels, one that doesn’t need verbal underlining. (SR)

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Sirens **
It’s a nifty subject with immense potential: an all-female thrash metal band called Slave to Sirens based in Beirut, Lebanon, where cultural norms don’t exactly favor female non-conformity or thrash metal. Oh, and the two guitarists/co-founders—Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara—are both queer, albeit at least partially closeted, which doesn’t make matters any easier. Director Rita Baghdadi frames the band’s struggles against progressive protest movements in Lebanon, trying to make it clear that there may be support out there for their push against repressive policies of all kinds, including against LGBTQ people. But the majority of the drama in Sirens involves internecine band arguments, mostly arising from tensions between Lilas and Shery that definitely include the fact that they were once romantically involved. And that material simply isn’t interesting, especially not when you could have built an entire movie out of their participation in England’s Glastonbury music festival, where their audience borders on the “puppet show and Spinal Tap”-esque. Of course it’s challenging trying to find success in music under any circumstances, let alone when you’re performing in a niche genre and you’re women and you’re gay. Sirens simply feels like it gets distracted by too many peripheral notions; just because the filming of this movie included the devastating August 2020 explosion in Beirut doesn’t mean it has to be in this movie. (SR)