This year’s Sundance Film Festival had no shortage of dealmaking, as Amazon spent over $41 million on some of the biggest crowdpleasers of the festival, while Netflix, A24, and Neon picked up a few notable titles as well. Nevertheless, Sundance’s 112 titles were filled with plenty of substantial offerings that have yet to score U.S. distribution. Here’s our usual plea to buyers to take a chance on these festival highlights, which deserve audiences well beyond Park City.
“Big Time Adolescence”
Much about Pete Davidson’s unique appeal, as “SNL” comedian and celebrity, has to do with his smirk: a slender half-moon with naughty connotations and an undercurrent of sadness. “Big Time Adolescence” provides the first indication of how that smile can tell a story. As the 22-year-old Zeke, the listless college dropout who becomes the rambunctious older-brother figure to 16-year-old Mo (Griffin Gluck), Davidson projects an outward confidence even as the movie makes it clear that his character is full of it. The strength of “Big Time Adolescence” stems from Mo waking up to the real intentions behind that smile. As coming-of-age stories about wayward teens go, writer-director Jason Orley’s debut is a sturdy, endearing portrait of youth in revolt that takes few surprising turns. But the two actors sell their dynamic well enough to inject the story with palpable authenticity despite the familiar premise, and anyone curious about Davidson’s acting abilities beyond his “SNL” appearances will find much to appreciate here. —EK
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Sundance’s U.S. Grand Jury Prize winner is a major achievement on several levels. Director Chinonye Chukwu, the first black woman to win the festival’s top prize, has crafted an absorbing and haunting look at the experiences of a prison warden (Alfre Woodard) in charge of men on death row. Woodard has never been better as the icy Bernadine Williams, a woman intent on carrying out her job with near-mechanical precision even as she begins to experience a moral crisis.
While the countdown begins for the execution of potentially innocent prisoner Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge, also first-rate), Bernadine struggles to reconcile her emotional turmoil with the demands of the job. Chukwu depicts this eerie world with harrowing execution details and a nuanced window into the bureaucracy of the prison process, but the movie builds to an astounding emotional climax that pierces the darkness as Bernadine’s internal strife finally breaks through. Woodard’s acting in these moments is a historic masterclass of nuanced expressions; she deserves an Oscar on the basis of these few minutes alone. On paper, the movie might sound like a difficult sell, but “Clemency” works so well at building moment-to-moment suspense — and provides such a terrific showcase for its star — that it deserves a release on par with its euphoric Sundance reception. —EK
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“Cold Case Hammarskjöld”
For better or worse, the last few years have seen a sizable influx of twist-dependent documentaries: Non-fiction odysseys that start as one thing and then — due to an ominous circumstance of some kind — suddenly veer in an unexpected new direction, these films tend to dig their own rabbit holes and then gain narrative traction from the gravity of plummeting down them. “Cold Case Hammarskjöld” is far and away the best and most shocking of these films, in part because it’s the only one in which the big “twist” (or slow, escalating series of twists) has genuine real-world implications that stretch beyond the story at hand. And that twist would be hard to spoil even if someone tried.
The premise is simple enough: Impish documentarian Mads Brügger, who’s like a mix between Michael Moore and Lars von Trier, investigates the rumored foul play behind the 1961 plane crash that killed United Nations secretary general, Dag Hammarskjöld. It’s no surprise that Brügger finds evidence of an assassination, but the answers he finds about who may have killed Hammarskjöld, and why they might have done it, are powerful enough to shake your understanding of recent global history. —DE
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“Before You Know It”
Hannah Pearl Utt and Jen Tullock have been honing their shared voice and vision for years now, first with Joey Ally’s amusing short “Partners,” then with their charming web series “Disengaged,” but Utt’s feature directorial debut, “Before You Know It” seems like the best distillation of the world they’re crafting on-screen. The co-writers also star alongside each other — and Judith Light and Mandy Patinkin, not too shabby — in the off-kilter family comedy, which is as much beholden to soap opera beats as it is to the ol’ New York City walk-and-talk.
For all its quirky trappings — and there are plenty, this is a film that takes place predominantly in a Manhattan family’s brownstone that sits atop their very own blackbox theater — Utt and Tullock root the film in real emotion, stellar acting, and a kicky sense of pace. They’re a pair of creators worth not just keeping an eye on, but snapping up right now, because there’s surely only more good stuff to come (and this first one? it’s good already). —KE
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“Give Me Liberty”
In the pantheon of movies set within the constraints of a single, hectic day — from “Dog Day Afternoon” to “Dazed and Confused” — “Give Me Liberty” earns points for cramming its plot with new twists every step of the way. The plight of young Russian-American Vic (newcomer Chris Galust) as he speeds around Milwaukee in a handicapped transport and juggles a series of setbacks, unfolds through tangled complications that collapse into chaos every few minutes. But even as that process grows exhausting across two packed hours, it’s a dizzying blast to watch Vic’s day fall apart again and again, as he struggles to mine meaning from the chaos.
Director Kirill Mikhanovsky’s sophomore effort is a breathless dark comedy that takes occasional tragic and bittersweet detours as it maps out the soft-spoken Vic’s hectic world. Channeling the spirit of neorealism and Milos Forman’s early Czech New Wave films, Mikhanovsky has delivered a shrewd look at immigration and working-class struggles that deserves further critical acclaim and arthouse support, as it’s a terrific indication of a young career worthy of attention. —EK
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Jill (Jocelyn DeBoer) has it all. Like her neighbors in her perfectly color-coordinated neighborhood, she has a closet full of pastel sun dresses, hosts parties in her backyard, has a pool so clean you can drink its water, and, of course, wears braces — because everything is either perfect here or about to become perfect. Jill has so much she even gives up her baby to Lisa (Dawn Luebbe) as a neighborly gesture. And not for the weekend, it’s a permanent decision, though a seemingly casual one: that baby is a goodwill gift.
The world of “Greener Grass” that DeBoer and Luebbe, who directed the film together as well, have created, looks and feels a lot like ours, but certain key surface details are… off. The underlying truth of this placid suburban biome is exactly the same as in our world, though: our lives are controlled by often arbitrary but rigidly enforced codes of conduct and, more often than not, we judge ourselves by comparing ourselves to others. When Jill’s son turns his piano recital at a school talent show as an opportunity to just smash the keys and act out, Jill is mortified – embarrassment at a school talent show is the worst thing that could happen in her mind. Yet her friend Lisa is just as self-flagellating: why wasn’t her child as original and outside the box as Jill’s son? DeBoer and Luebbe’s vision is so strong you don’t just watch “Greener Grass,” you visit it. And weirdly, you may never want to leave. —CB
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Undocumented immigrants are detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on a regular basis, and their experiences could provide the foundation of a potent documentary, or a riveting social thriller. “The Infiltrators” endeavors to be both: Husband-and-wife co-directors Alex Rivera (“Sleep Dealer”) and Cristina Ibarra (“Las Marthas”) oscillates from real-life accounts of Dreamer activists going undercover in detention facilities to help reunite immigrants with their families, and fictional reenactments of the drama that unfolded inside.
At its best, the movie personalizes the undocumented struggle by transforming it into an unlikely blend of activism and suspense that makes a compelling case for the abolishment of ICE. Despite its experimental structure, the movie could find a healthy life with audiences keen on learning more about immigration issues and how activism can make a difference in this ongoing struggle. —EK
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Mexico City is a sprawling urban metropolis of nine million people, but it only has 45 official emergency ambulances to deal with its entire population’s needs. That alarming statistic sits at the center of Luke Lorentzen’s intimate verite documentary, which follows members of the Ochoa family as they track emergencies around the city and dash around trying to offer their services before the competition gets there first.
As they speed through traffic and contend with hospitals not always willing to pay for their services, the Ochoas emerge as fascinating embodiments of a country working overtime to correct its shortcomings and keep the lights on. This bracing U.S. competition documentary provides a personal window into the fast-paced mayhem of Mexico after dark. Lorentzen has crafted a real-life “Nightcrawler” with a heroic hook, putting Mexico’s healthcare crisis into a riveting context that could marketed as a thriller, and a wakeup call to audiences hooked by its filmmaking prowess. —EK
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“Mike Wallace is Here”
Avi Belkin’s propulsive and brilliantly edited documentary finds that Mike Wallace, perhaps the most feared and influential TV journalist (or “personality”) of the 20th century, lived his entire life in some kind of shame. First it was acne, then it was the frivolity of his early television work. Hounded by self-doubt, Wallace left show business on a mission to become a serious TV reporter, and in doing so ironically transformed the entire industry of TV reporting into show business.
Entirely assembled from archival interview footage, and therefore told through the medium that Wallace helped to define. Belkin’s film is is an important and compulsively watchable portrait made by someone who understands the brute power of broadcast media and the people who make it for all the world to see. But most of all, it’s a story about how the people who change the world are often just trying to change themselves. As we hear Kirk Douglas tell Wallace: “Most of the things I did wrong came out of my insecurities,” but Wallace — who was never going to conquer his insecurities — at least seemed determined to bend them into most of the things he did right. —DE
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