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Highlights From the 2021 Sundance Film Festival

From Ben Wheatley’s return to Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, to a documentary that ponders the very existence of reality

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When I covered the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, I wrote about how surreal it was to attend a remote event in the city where I lived: to be on home turf, but at a distance. For this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the strangeness didn’t register. Maybe that’s because, having never actually been to Park City, Utah, I had no nostalgic memories of snowy streets and artisanal dive bars to draw on. Or maybe it’s because at this point, engaging with new and relevant movies exclusively via laptop simply feels like the way of the world.

Historically, Sundance has served as a bridge between prestige-cinema season and the perceived big-studio dumping ground of early spring, and also as a critical and industrial launching pad for independent features and nonfiction films. More than any other North American film festival, Sundance’s name serves as a shorthand for a particular kind of indie movie—buzzy, edgy, potentially accessible to a mainstream audience—and yet for all the undeniable titles that have passed through its program over the years (from Sex, Lies and Videotape and The Blair Witch Project to Boyhood and Get Out), it’s also an environment where hype rules supreme. Arty misfires come with the territory. Exhibit A: this year’s John and the Hole, an enervating austere psychological thriller in the Michael Haneke mold centered on a teenage tennis prodigy who drugs his family and deposits them in a concrete bunker for reasons unknown, least of all to him. The distanced, master-shot direction by Pascual Sisto drips with significance, while the script, by Birdman Oscar winner Nicolás Giacobone, wears its pretensions on its sleeve.

I didn’t see this year’s Grand Jury Prize selection, CODA, a coming-of-age drama about a teenage girl who is the only hearing person in her deaf family. The movie sold to Apple for $25 million before sweeping through the festival’s award ceremony; word is that it’s a big, broad, emotional crowd-pleaser. CODA’s dominance was surprising considering the presence of several higher-profile contenders, including Shaka King’s powerful Black Panther docudrama Judas and the Black Messiah—a likely Oscar magnet featuring powerful performances by Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya—and Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut Passing, which skillfully adapts Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name into a poised and polished period piece.

Passing is the story of a fraught reunion between old high school classmates. Irene (Tessa Thompson) is a Black woman living in Harlem with her husband and children. One afternoon, she unexpectedly runs into Clare (Ruth Negga), who fell out of touch after decamping to Chicago, where she has been passing for white. (Hall presents as white but comes from a mixed-race background.)

Beyond Clare’s racial masquerade, which is complicated by the information that her handsome, shitty husband (played by handsome, shitty husband specialist Alexander Skarsgard) is a raging bigot—Passing’s title also refers to fleeting sensations of time lost and regained as the protagonists rekindle their past intimacy. Irene is an intelligent, confident, self-possessed woman, and yet she can’t wrap her head around Clare’s actions, which seem to exist at some intersection of survival instinct and self-effacement; gradually, her feelings shade into envy and resentment. Aided by shimmery monochrome black-and-white cinematography that seems to illuminate people and objects from within, Thompson makes Irene’s ambivalence translucent, while Negga projects a similar enigmatic fascination as Cate Blanchett in Carol—a movie that Hall has likely seen and studied. As a piece of filmmaking, Passing is thoughtful, literate, controlled, though also occasionally too on the nose. It’s the sort of movie in which every conversation, no matter the context, keeps circling and underlining the same ideas. Passing is atmospheric, but it doesn’t really breathe.

The movie is yet to be picked up by a distributor, but it’s only a matter of time: In a recent Los Angeles Times article, Ryan Faughnder explains how a festival that was once lorded over by old-school distributors like Miramax—which literally built its brand off of thrifty Sundance hits like Reservoir Dogs and Clerks—has become a competitive digital battleground dominated by streaming services. “Studios normally would be able to use the prospect of a robust theatrical release as a bargaining chip with filmmakers when bidding against Netflix, Amazon Studios, Apple TV+, and HBO Max,” he writes, “[but] not this year.” [Editor’s note: On Wednesday night, Netflix was nearing a $16 million deal to acquire Passing.]

With this in mind, a couple of the most interesting films at Sundance lean into the paradigm shift, with aesthetics ideally suited to a “virtual” festival and ideas that plug and play directly into a quarantine zeitgeist. The first of these is Rodney Ascher’s A Glitch in the Matrix, which completes a beguiling trilogy of essay films that examine the relationship between pop culture and mass psychology. In Room 237 (about obsessive fans of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining) and The Nightmare (about sufferers of sleep paralysis), Ascher plumbed internet message boards in search of interview subjects willing to relay their deeply subjective experiences of terror, confusion, and catharsis, whether in front of a movie screen or under the covers; in both films, the goal was not to prove an objective truth—i.e., that The Shining is a movie of hidden messages or that night terrors are actually visitations from extra-dimensional beings—but to explore the juncture between perception and reality.

This theme of “seeing is believing” gets taken to an extreme and inverted in A Glitch in the Matrix. It poses the questions: What does it take to make somebody think that everything around them—including the sky over their heads and the ground beneath their feet—is just an illusion? Officially, the film is an analysis of “simulation theory,” a branch of pseudoscience that posits that we’re all inhabiting some advanced digital construct. What it gets at, though, is at once more plausible and more unsettling: The question of why these ideas hold such potential, promise, and power for those who self-identify as being Extremely Online—which, these days, is pretty much everybody.

“We are living in a computer-simulated reality,” author Philip K. Dick told a skeptical crowd in Metz, France, in 1977. Footage of that infamous lecture, as well as clips from movies adapted from or inspired by Dick’s literary corpus—Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly, Total Recall, and The Matrix—serve as the connective tissue in Ascher’s typically witty assembly. A Glitch in the Matrix features a synaptically quick editing scheme that mostly eschews images of “the real”; instead, it integrates Google Earth views, Minecraft Twitch streams, and other online ephemera (and plenty of screenshots of tweets by Elon Musk) into a dense and disorienting audiovisual weave. The filmmaker’s choice to have his interviewees appear on-screen as a series of CGI avatars (furries, aliens, and warriors) is playful but also pointed, suggesting a contradictory desire to immerse fully in a virtual realm while skeptically mapping its edges. As a case for the potential fakeness of all things, A Glitch in the Matrix’s combination of sober hypotheticals and Reddit-thread theorizing is less than convincing. As a study of the social, technological, and cultural conditions that have bred a generation of desultory, apocalyptic American solipsism—and the nihilistic consequences of wannabe Neos believing they are the One—the film exerts a chill, clinical fascination.

The documentary pairs beautifully with Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, an inventive and melancholy meta-horror movie about a young woman in danger of disappearing down an online rabbit hole—a millennial variation on Alice in Wonderland informed by some of the same lurking discomfort as Lewis Carroll’s classic. Teenage Casey (Anna Cobb) lives in a drab rural town and spends most of her time making YouTube videos, alternating between halting bedroom confessionals and walking tours of the woods beyond her house; the paltry view counts indicate that nobody is really watching. Her only regular follower is the mysterious “JLB,” who contacts her via cryptic missives and offers to be her chaperone through a notorious, urban-legendary RPG called the World’s Fair, whose players—most of whom are wayward young adults like Casey—are tasked with recording themselves performing a series of body-horror-themed “challenges,” initiating themselves into a community of true believers.

If the setup for We’re All Going to the World’s Fair suggests an updated variation on the viral metaphysics of Japanese horror—Ring uploaded to r/nosleep—the follow-through goes in a different direction. There are jump-scares here (including one real doozy), but they’re safely contained in the Creepypasta-inspired videos that Casey records herself scrolling through in an insomniac trance. The tension is located in the spectacle of a lonely, impressionable girl mesmerizing herself deeper into isolation and dependence, both on her computer and the disembodied Svengali who keeps asking her to make videos to show him that she’s “OK” (which she does in ways that imply otherwise). The power dynamics between the two characters as they exchange private messages on Skype are frighteningly plausible for a parable of cyber-predation, but Schoenbrun keeps strategically widening her movie’s point of view so that it transcends a simple cautionary tale. Eventually, we move beyond Casey’s webcam lens and into the home of a self-styled cipher with his own demons and coping mechanisms. Like all of the best scary movies, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair stares back at the audience: In a sad, nagging, inescapable way, it makes us feel seen.

The heroine of British writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut thriller, Censor, spends her waking hours gazing into the abyss of X-rated VHS cassettes: She’s part of a team tasked with excising the grisliest bits of so-called “video nasties” in Thatcher-era Britain, the last line of defense between a community of torture-pornographers and an easily scandalized populace. Systematically poring over cheap, gory movies with titles like Deranged has left Enid (Niamh Algar) largely desensitized to their contents (and unsympathetic to the fan base that considers her an enemy agent), but there are cracks in her dispassionate facade: A tense dinner with her parents dredges up memories of a long-ago family tragedy that can’t simply be snipped out of her subconscious. When Enid encounters a movie whose most vicious set piece dovetails with these traumatic memories, she enters into her own private Twilight Zone episode.

If it were a Serling-esque 30 minutes, Censor might have been a clever little freak-out; as is, it’s overdrawn. There’s a lot to admire in Bailey-Bond’s filmmaking and conceptual approach, with its embedded satire of moralistic hysteria over horror movies. But for a film dealing with the raw, transgressive pleasures of horror cinema—that comes drenched in torrents of gore—it’s all a bit tidy and tame.

Censor is adorned at its midpoint by a cameo by Michael Smiley, the wonderful Northern Irish actor best known for working with Ben Wheatley, whose own Sundance entry, In the Earth, has been hailed as a return to form. Or, at least, a return to formalism: After the tepid Gothic pastiche of last year’s Rebecca remake (by far the director’s least enjoyable movie), Wheatley has dug deeper and conjured up some of the same sound and fury as in his 2013 cult favorite, A Field in England, to which In the Earth serves as a sort of spiritual sequel. Call it A Forest in England. Descending into the deep, dark woods on a vaguely defined research mission, tight-lipped scientist Martin (Joel Fry) and intrepid park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) are menaced by an eccentric hermit (the brilliant Reece Shearsmith) before stumbling out of his clutches and into some larger, possibly apocalyptic event—think a folk-horror Close Encounters of the Third Kind and you’re almost there.

Wheatley’s greatest strength always has been his ability to stretch and warp tone, and In the Earth keeps spiking wildly between sci-fi, torture porn, environmental anxiety, and old-school mysticism. The film was written and shot during the pandemic, and its pent-up restlessness feels like a byproduct of being made under lockdown conditions. This is mostly a good thing: It lacks the narrative compression (and genuine visionary terror) of Wheatley’s masterpiece Kill List, but In the Earth is ornery, unruly, and supremely confident, playing recklessly (and intelligently) with conventions. Wheatley continually finds ways to have things happen slightly differently—or sooner, or later—than even seasoned genre audiences would expect; around the halfway point, just when it seems like the movie has shown its hand, the director unleashes a sudden, pounding, ferocious stroboscopic freak-out that threatens to tear things apart entirely. If and when In the Earth ever plays in theaters, the sonic and visual assault will be enough to drive some viewers screaming for the exits. Wheatley would hopefully consider this to be a compliment. Whether there’s a coherent point in In the Earth is both debatable and irrelevant, but if there is one, it would seem to be about the need for communication and connection by any means necessary. In the end, for all its brutality, Wheatley’s film is hopeful about the possibility of getting a message out into the world, a fine metaphor for a moment when filmgoing feels less like a destination than a matter of finding the right wavelength.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.