From a practical standpoint, the 2017 Sundance Film Festival was a pileup of headaches: The box office got hacked, a power outage forced the cancellation of several screenings, and a massive blizzard wouldn’t stop dumping snow on Main Street. It all took place under the menacing shadow of the presidential inauguration, which no amount of valiant marching could undo.
However, an assessment of the U.S. Sundance narratives throughout this year’s program reveal one of its best in years. Many of the highlights from the 2017 lineup set the stage for a set of new American movies focused on the challenges of unification — and, more specifically, how they stem from family bonds tested by clashing values. Some of the more prominent titles provide a barometer for American society’s greatest anxieties, as well as what it might take chart a path forward.
Sundance’s biggest sale struck a particularly topical note. In “The Big Sick,” screenwriter and star Kumail Nanjiani eloquently dramatizes his experiences as a Pakistani-American attempting to bond with his estranged white girlfriend’s parents after she abruptly goes into a coma. At first, their awkward exchanges suggest they’ll never find common ground, not only because Nanjiani’s traditionalist parents want him to marry his own kind but also because he has a pointed ability to make light of the biases around him. (“We lost 19 of our best guys,” he jokes in response to a racially loaded question about 9/11.) With time, however, Nanjiani bonds with the couple out of necessity — they’re basically stuck together while his girlfriend fights for her life — and “The Big Sick” shows the extent to which Nanjiani worked out his place in this unlikely dynamic through a process of ongoing communication. By running his mouth, sometimes with hilarious results, he gets to deeper truths.
The same could be said for the young star of “Patti Cake$,” played with ferocious energy by Danielle Macdonald, as she copes with problems surrounding her alcoholic mother (Bridget Everett) and harbors dreams of becoming a rap star. Set against the drab backdrop of inner-city Jersey, the movie derives its crowdpleasing qualities from a handful of mic-dropping moments when Patti raps her way through challenging situations, funneling her frustrations into the poetry of eloquent beats. As with “The Big Sick,” Patti’s best weapon against her circumstances is her keen use of language.
Everyone’s struggling to find the right words in “Landline,” the mature family drama that marks the followup to “Obvious Child” from director Gillian Robespierre. Jenny Slate is once again the centerpiece of this perceptive ensemble piece, set in the decidedly analog days of 1995 and focused on multiple generations of hardships. Slate’s goofy character Dana deals with a boring marriage to Ben (Jay Duplass), forging an affair in a desperate bid for something fresh, while her younger sister Ali (remarkable newcomer Abby Quinn) deals with issues of her own.
The siblings also uncover their parents’ longstanding relationship troubles, including the affair that their father (John Turturro) has carried on while their mother (Edie Falco) grows frustrated on the sidelines. “Landline” doesn’t have the subversive energy of “Obvious Child,” which generated much of its appeal from its sensitive handling of the lead character’s decision to have an abortion. However, Robespierre constructs a sophisticated look at how the sins of one generation’s problems with intimacy barrel down on the next, and why the only way for them to resolve their issues is by talking them through.
All three of these movies landed major distribution deals at the festival — big spender Amazon took “The Big Sick” and “Landline,” while “Patti Cake$” wound up at Fox Searchlight — implying that these buyers see mainstream potential in their stories. And indeed, all three capture the key frustrations of being lost in personal troubles in an indifferent world, as well as what it takes to find solace in companionship. In a country plagued by severe partisanship, they stand out as beacons of hope.
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These conceits percolate throughout the program in lower-profile titles as well, including Marianna Palka’s outrageous suburban satire “Bitch” (in which the director-star plays a woman who takes on the characteristics of a dog) and the tender “Menashe,” wherein a Hasidic widower fights to regain control of his young son’s life. Both movies focus on the anger of a carefully structured family life collapsing under the weight of individual choices piling up.
Dee Rees’ “Mudbound,” meanwhile, transports that same theme to the much broader canvas of the postwar south, following two Mississippi families — one black, the other white — living uneasily side by side on a farmland plot. Rees’ elegant big-screen epic feels markedly contemporary in its exploration of racial biases, in addition to the prospects of overcoming them through the human connections shared by two men from either side of the land who find connection in discussing their wartime experiences.
While ostensibly a tragedy, “Mudbound” nevertheless finds a semblance of hope in a hopeless world, with the idea that the simple attempt to communicate can constitute an act of rebellion. Racism remains a thorny problem woven into the DNA of American society, but “Mudbound” pushes for conversations about the processes necessary to overcome it.
Which brings us to “Get Out.” This spry Blumhouse effort snuck into Sundance’s midnight section with a secret screening after the first weekend and brought a riotous satiric bite to the jubilant Library theater crowd. The first directing effort from “Key & Peele” star Jordan Peele is a wry, low-budget horror-comedy about brainwashed black people kept in captivity by wealthy white folks. (You read that right.)
Perfectly suited for the low-budget B-movie sensibilities of producer Blumhouse (best known for “The Purge” series), “Get Out” manages to use its absurd premise to comment on clandestine racism and provides a totally satisfying form of escapism in which the black male strikes back against a world threatened by his individuality. It’s first movie of the year destined to make boatloads of cash that truly deserves it.
In the wake of the election, much has been said about the need for progressives to reach across the aisle and engage with others who don’t share their perspectives. But the riveting climax of “Get Out,” which pits demented white people against black heroes, asserts that getting out of the bubble doesn’t mean getting chummy with hate.
Though it sits on a completely different wavelength, David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” also deals with the feeling of being alienated by an oppressive existence. The movie finds Casey Affleck wearing a sheet over his head as a phantom haunting the lonely household occupied by his widow (Rooney Mara) in addition to the many different kinds of people who inhabit it after her departure. In its quiet, lyrical approach, Lowery’s inventive drama explores the process of waking up to the world’s indifference to personal issues, and how the unending march of time can be at once a beautiful and meaningful thing.
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“A Ghost Story” shares its DNA with Michael Almereyda’s gorgeous chamber piece “Marjorie Prime,” a heady burst of minimalist sci-fi in which an aging woman (the legendary Lois Smith) converses with the hologram of her late husband (Jon Hamm) to learn about her life as she recedes into a senile state. Her daughter (Gina Davis) hovers outside this relationship, skeptical of its nature, while her own husband (Tim Robbins) tries to find a way for everyone — man and machine alike — to get along. Almereyda uses a brilliantly suggestive backdrop, as much of the drama unfolds in the confines of a living room and the yawning beach landscape glimpsed in the background.
Time rushes by, but the movie never loses its intimacy, as well as its powerful focus on how to embrace the ceaseless forces of change. As Smith puts it, consoling her melancholic relatives: “The future will be here soon enough. We might as well be friendly with it.” Voicing a sentiment that will come in handy during these troubled times, she speaks for all of us.