This year’s Sundance Film Festival was expected to hit some topical notes and in that regard, the documentary competition did not disappoint. This year’s section dealt with some of the most contentious international issues of our times.”City of Ghosts,” Matthew Heineman’s powerful followup to the Oscar-nominated “Cartel Land,” deals with the courageous investigative journalists of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, who have risked their lives to smuggle out footage of the war crimes being committed on Syrians by ISIS. Jeff Orlowski’s “Chasing Coral” exposed the impact of climate change on coral reefs, while “ICARUS” tackled Russia’s doping scandal.
“Quest,” the understated vérité effort from Jonathan Olshefski, was especially relevant. The film follows an African American family in Philadelphia over the course of a decade. Starting with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, “Quest” climaxes with the arrival of Donald Trump. As the family watches Trump on television, asking black audiences “What do you have to lose?”, one member of the household sighs. “You don’t know how we live,” she says.
That fundamental disconnect between powerful leaders and a struggling citizenry wasn’t at the forefront of the films that won the grand jury prizes, but it percolated beneath their surfaces. The Sundance awards, which took place in the midst of nationwide protests against a Trump-approved ban on Muslim countries, ultimately focused more on powerful attitudes than ways in which they might be applied to the current political climate.
In “Dina,” the moving sophomore effort from Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini, the directors follow the quiet life of 48-year-old Dina Buno, a woman who has Asberger’s Syndrome and attempts to rediscover romance after a traumatic experience in her developing relationship with a man named Scott, who has intimacy issues of his own.
“While it does raises a number of uncomfortable questions regarding the lens through which the ‘neurotypical’ world looks at people on the spectrum, ‘Dina’ confronts such delicate topics head-on, wrestling with those bugs until they become features ,” wrote IndieWire’s David Ehrlich in his review.
Perhaps just as notably, the movie presents an apolitical view of the world that’s attuned to the value of a balanced society open to a range of personalities and backgrounds. While Dina’s problems ostracize her from the world at large, she finds a way forward in a community steeped in kindness and acceptance. It’s a timeless sentiment, but one that stands as particularly constructive at a moment when the cultural landscape is more fragmented than ever before.
“Dina” hints at a subtle form of feminist resistance distinguishable from the marches that stretched across the country on Sundance’s first weekend. In the one scene in which Dina and Scott acknowledge the political climate, Dina says she hopes Hillary Clinton will win the presidency. “I’m not really into politics at all,” she says, “but I think it’s a woman’s world now, and Hillary Clinton should be a good candidate.”
If only. But there’s something refreshingly personal about the rousing emotions stirred up by “Dina,” a movie that has less to do with who leads the country than with the resilience of the people stuck within its confines.
A similar kind of personal rebellion exists at the center of “I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.”, the directorial debut of actor Macon Blair (“Blue Ruin”). Blair’s stylish black comedy features a playfully anarchic turn by Melanie Lynskey as Ruth, a lonely single woman dealing with the fallout after her house gets robbed. Joining forces with her eccentric neighbor (Elijah Wood), she launches a comically violent path to recover her missing possessions that finds her unexpectedly at the center of an ill-conceived robbery.
Blair populates his outrageous farce with idiosyncratic characters who act as though they’re the stars of their own heroic epics. The two-bit criminals who face down with Lynskey and Wood wouldn’t seem out of place in a “Pulp Fiction” vignette, and yet Ruth’s own sense of determination to correct her rather unremarkable situation by getting her stuff back imbues the movie with an underlying sense of purpose. As Ehrlich wrote in his review: “One look between these platonic avengers — their friendship forged by frustration — and it’s clear that while the world may be fucked, it’s ours to make of it what we will.”
When she finally faces down with one of the goons responsible for her situation, he asks her what she hopes to get out of the confrontation, and she’s at a loss for words. It’s a telling moment: How do you explain to a morally bankrupt person that they’re in the wrong? Their exchange is at once hilarious and, as an allegory for the lack of interest in ethical guidelines afflicting the American government at the moment, essentially tragic.
Both movies position the problems of our times on a human level often absent from the cluttered media landscape. Neither Dina nor Ruth excel at verbalizing their problems, but they take decisive action to fix them.
Sometimes, words are not enough. These Sundance winners present an alternative in people taking action to improve their immediate surroundings. They focus on the commitments of underprivileged Americans to keep living their lives, pushing beyond their immediate boundaries to find some modicum of hope. They aren’t politicized narratives, but by transcending the limitations of the political landscape to strike a note of perseverance, they offer some modicum of hope for our troubled times.