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Sundance Film Festival 2023: Day 5 Capsule Reviews

Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, Eileen, Theater Camp, A Still Small Voice and more

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Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie
Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie ***1/2
The fundamentally playful spirit of director Davis Guggenheim’s approach to profiling actor Michael J. Fox feels like a perfect match for the way the actor approaches his own life, trials and all. While in part it’s a full biographical profile of Fox’s journey from Canada to Hollywood stardom, it definitely focuses on the here-and-now consequences of his 1991 diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease, with scenes addressing his physical therapy regimen and the struggles he faces trying to record the book-on-tape version of his latest memoir. But it’s the way Guggenheim deals with the background material, employing a mix of dramatized re-creations and scenes from Fox’s movies to capture events—like the grueling pace of Fox’s schedule while simultaneously shooting Back to the Future and Family Ties episodes—with tremendous energy. It’s certainly true that Fox’s own perspectives add a lot to the story, particularly the fear involved in his post-diagnosis/pre-public statement years when he simultaneously feared for his own health and the future of his career. It helps a lot, though, for all of that stuff to be contained in a movie that’s flat-out fun to watch, one that never for a moment suggests feeling sorry for its subject. (SR)

Theater Camp - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Theater Camp
Theater Camp ***
The spirit of Christopher Guest’s semi-improvisational faux-documentaries lives again in this expanded version of a short film from the same creative team—including co-directors Nick Lieberman and Molly Gordon and their co-writers Noah Galvin and Ben Platt—with plenty of enthusiasm but not so many big laughs. At the upstate summer youth theater camp AdirondACTS, the regular gang of kid campers and their teachers (including Gordon, Platt and Galvin) gather in the shadow of the camp’s founder (Amy Sedaris) being in a coma, with her wannabe-social-media guru son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) trying to fend off foreclosure. When you build a premise that allows for plenty of episodic material, it’s a great blank canvas for jokes, and there are certainly plenty of solid ones built on the unique environment and the sense of both faculty and students feeling like outcasts; one of the best running gags involves a first-time camper boy whose obvious heterosexuality makes him a bit of an outsider. While the cast are all fully committed to the bit, though—particularly Gordon and Platt, playing best friends whose respective artistic goals come into conflict—the result is more often smiles than outright guffaws, and some set-ups that just don’t feel like they fully pay off. The big finale of the camp’s original musical production sends things out on a high note, leaving a pleasantly entertaining lark that wants just a touch more polish. (SR)

Eileen - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Eileen
Eileen *** [Premieres]
Film adaptations of books have to exist on their own merits, but it’s kind of fascinating the extent to which this one succeeds so well through some of the key things it changes, and stumbles largely in the ways it’s completely faithful. Set circa 1964 in a coastal Massachusetts town, it follows a young woman named Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie), whose sad life of caring for her alcoholic ex-cop father (Shea Whigham) and working at the local juvenile prison gets an unexpected spark with the arrival of Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), the glamorous new prison psychologist. The script (by the book’s author Otessa Moshfegh and Luke Goebel) abandons the novel’s framing device of being told by Eileen from a 50-year remove, which forces Eileen’s growing excitement—and unexpected attraction to Rebecca—to be conveyed through McKenzie’s physical performance. She’s 100 percent up to the task, with director William Oldroyd framing shots to that McKenzie’s facial expression captures everything from despair to elation to homicidal stirrings. The filmmakers do, however, stick to a plot structure that takes an abrupt third-act turn—and the rush towards resolving that return also hindered the book. Here, it allows for a stunningly good monologue by Marin Ireland, but an anti-climactic end to a psychological drama that’s less effective when it becomes a psychological thriller. (SR)

A Still Small Voice - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • A Still Small Voice
A Still Small Voice ***1/2
There are occasions when the fundamental filmmaking aesthetic behind a documentary feels like an almost perfect match for the material, and that’s what director Luke Lorentzen finds in this exploration of the challenging work of being a hospital chaplain. His focus is primarily on Margaret “Mati” Engel, a resident in the training program for chaplain’s at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, as well as on her direct supervisor, Rev. David Fleenor, through several weeks that also includes the COVID pandemic. That context—while only really emphasized on a few occasions, other than the omnipresence of people in masks—permeates the narrative, in the sense of understanding how thin everyone’s emotional resources are being stretched in a hospital environment. But the real power comes from Lorentzen’s decision to take a Frederick Wiseman-style approach to emphasizing long encounters between Mati and her clients/patients, rather than pushing to capture a lot of different examples. As a result, Lorentzen emphasizes the importance of a chaplain simply being present—fully invested in the moment at hand, listening deeply and trying to offer what the person in front of you needs right then. Other scenes address the challenges, both for Mati and David, of dealing with the stresses of their job, but in a way that makes what they do all the more subtly heroic. A Still Small Voice shows the work of people who are extremely good at doing an incredibly hard job, even as that job is so often not extremely good for them. (SR)

King Coal - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • King Coal
King Coal *** [NEXT]
Personal-essay films tends to be a risky proposition, full of the potential to be too close to the subject to see what is and isn’t working cinematically. Director Elaine McMillion Sheldon, however, manages to turn her closeness to the subject at hand—life in America’s Appalachian coal country—into a profile that’s lovely and respectful while still recognizing the problematic side of a life dominated by the extractive fossil-fuel industry. While some historical asides bubble through the story—about the history of the coal industry in the region, and the rise of unions—Sheldon keeps things mostly focused on the here and now, examining what life looks like in a place so inextricably linked to mining. And it’s a fascinating snapshot, capturing the many ways that southwest Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky indoctrinate their residents into a celebration of miners and the mining life: coal-focused school projects; retired miners visiting schoolchildren to describe their experiences; New Year’s Eve involving the drop of a huge lump of coal; runners in a race being showered with coal dust. There’s no attempt to nudge and snicker at this behavior, either; it’s simply a recognition that coal defines this region, and that there’s a constant need to uphold that self-definition. Sheldon gets a little too fascinated with following one particular adolescent West Virginia girl, likely as a stand-in for herself and for every “next generation” growing up in this place, but the beautiful cinematography (by Sheldon’s partner, Curren Sheldon) and deep respect for the subjects elevates its approach to often-stereotyped culture. (SR)

Girl - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Girl
Girl **1/2 [World Dramatic]
I have no idea whether writer/director Adura Onashile’s feature is one that was expanded from a short film; all I can say is that it certainly feels that way, and not in a way that suggests it should have been. It’s the story of single mother Grace (Déborah Lukumuena) and her tween daughter Ama (Le’Shantey Bonsu), African immigrants living in Glasgow, Scotland. Grace shelters and watches over Ama to a possibly unhealthy degree—almost certainly the result of a trauma that Onashile hints strongly at early on—and much of the conflict within the film involves Ama’s desire to experience more in life, from spying on neighbors through binoculars to finding a friendship with a schoolmate (Liana Turner). Plenty of Onashile’s filmmaking decisions prove savvy, including a sound design that emphasizes the noise from nearby flats, and a restrained way of evoking Grace’s past experiences. It all just feels thin from a narrative standpoint, with scenes that seem to repeat themselves in conveying Grace’s struggles dealing with teachers, social workers, literally everybody. It’s a tricky formula trying to balance the story of Grace’s PTSD with Ama’s desire not to be held back by her mother’s fears, but there’s clearly so much more material in Ama’s perspective that every time it returns to Grace, it feels like a slightly different way of saying the same thing over and over again. (SR)

Sorcery - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Sorcery
Sorcery (Brujería) ** [World Dramatic]
You can see the germ of the fascinating idea bubbling up in co-writer/director Christopher Murray’s drama; it’s too bad how much of that idea gets swallowed up by murky character dynamics. Set during the 19th century on the Chilean island of Chiloé, it opens with 13-year-old indigenous Huilliche girl Rosa (Valentina Véliz Caileo) witnessing the death of her father at the hand of her German settler employer (Sebastian Hülk), who believes Native witchcraft has caused the death of his sheep. Upon leaving the farm, Rosa finds shelter with Mateo (Daniel Antivilo), who becomes a sort of tutor to Rosa in the old magic. A secondary subplot involves the local mayor (Daniel Muñoz) trying to navigate the tricky politics of a colonial era, and it feels like there’s mountains of unexplored potential in his show trial to gain political favor. The bulk of the narrative, however, is theoretically about Rosa’s migration away from the Christian/European worldview she’s adopted back to the beliefs of her people, and the performance by Véliz Caileo is unfortunately far too opaque to allow an understanding of her emotional journey. Ditto for her relationship with Mateo as a surrogate father, which never really connects. Murray’s direction leans into the vibe that this is a kind of horror story, but he lacks the genre chops to make it viscerally satisfying, leaving something that waves vaguely at the evils of cultural colonialism without an effective payoff. (SR)