It would be naive to think the production shutdowns persisting across Hollywood wouldn’t also affect the output of independent artists, and the 2021 Sundance lineup has borne that unfortunate reality out. This year’s virtual event remains an ambitious undertaking — one more in line with the festival’s adventurous, experimental roots than its current trend-setting, Oscar-baiting footprint — but there are fewer films, and yes, fewer series, too. In its fourth year featuring a section dedicated to serialized stories and indie TV pilots, Sundance 2021 has just four shows in its newly titled Indie Series lineup: “4 Feet High,” “Seeds of Deceit,” “These Days,” and “Would You Rather.” That’s exactly half the total in last year’s Indie Episodic program and in line with the 40 percent drop in overall festival offerings.
Other TV-friendly options are scattered throughout the festival’s 11 categories, including “Philly D.A.,” a docuseries on civil rights attorney Larry Krasner that’s set to debut on PBS, and “Weirdo Night,” a variety show pilot from L.A. cult artist Jibz Cameron’s alter ego, Dynasty Handbag (more on this one later). But, while one gets the sense that the festival’s intrepid programmers searched far and wide for appropriate, fully produced, and independent content, the surprising takeaway is how focused the Indie Series lineup remains. None of the four programs take on the same format. Each is distinct unto itself. Yet themes of intimacy and betrayal, bonds and loss, discovery and reinvention are prevalent in each, all of which should sound familiar to anyone tracking what’s in demand in the age of COVID: connection.
Inevitably, one series has to explicitly address the pandemic, and “These Days” takes up the challenge. Starring Marianne Rendón (“Imposters”) and featuring famous faces like William Jackson Harper, Amy Brenneman, and Denise Dowse, the half-hour pilot follows Mae, a professional dancer tied down and shut-in by the pandemic. Her restlessness leads to the inevitable destination of so many single thirty-somethings: online dating. But that, too, has been hindered by the global health crisis, as Mae learns the hard way when her first date suffers first from spotty wifi and then a dubious joke. Slamming her computer shut, Mae talks to artificially framed friends via video calls about feeling alone and uninspired, until she meets someone who reframes her thinking. Will (Harper) is charming and laid back, flirty but not aggressive, and the two form a bond soon undermined by a third-act twist.
Though “These Days” sets itself up to be a story about how Mae connects in our disconnected world, writer-director Adam Brooks takes us outside her apartment and into her dates’ less stylish studios, teasing storylines about tertiary characters already eliminated from Mae’s circle as well as those tied to her ongoing struggle. (There’s even an odd deviation about an unseen neighbor who may or may not be suffering abuse from her live-in boyfriend.) This broad focus is clearly meant to support a season’s worth of narrative, but the pilot already feels dated, overly reliant on early pandemic issues (this episode revolves around Manhattan’s 7 p.m. clap for essential workers) and uninspired in its earnest attempts to engage with isolation.
Relationship stories like “Would You Rather” and “4 Feet High” ignore the pandemic entirely, yet still fare better in providing the kind of complex intimacy audiences could use more of these days (and “These Days” could use more of itself). The former, a Parisian short-form series, follows two teenage best friends whose lifelong closeness is disrupted by an unexpected separation. Djeneba (Fanta Kebe) and Shaï (Shirel Nataf) no longer go to the same school, and even though we never see their new friends, new environments, and new influences, creators Lise Akoka and Romane Guéret make sure they’re felt in every scene, as the two stars’ warts-and-all friendship falls apart. At first, their devotion to one another is sweet and seemingly impermeable, but as they play game after game of Would You Rather with their two male friends (Zakaria Lazab and Mouctar Diawara), each joking choice turns more sharp-edged and serious. The group’s debates reveal shifting ideologies and allegiances. Soon, secrets clearly meant for one person are shared with the group and minor betrayals build to major divisions.
Natalia Roca / Courtesy of Sundance Institute
“Would You Rather” isn’t exactly a tragedy, but it is sneaky in its shift from a dialogue-driven comedy based on a goofy childhood game to a nuanced examination of what can drive people apart. (That the actors combined scripts and improv speaks to the show’s efficacy as a fly-on-the-wall documentary and carefully constructed study of adolescence.) “4 Feet High,” meanwhile, takes the opposite tact. What starts as a rebellious short-form series about Juana (Marisol Agostina Irigoyen), a 17-year-old wheelchair user escaping an over-coddling society through animated fantasy sequences, becomes a genial teen drama that effectively hits each choreographed story beat it sets up. Juana yearns to be taken seriously as a person, romantic partner, and vocal activist, so it should come as no surprise that opportunities to accomplish all three present themselves accordingly.
Juana wants to have sex, just like her friends, and that the show becomes very much like many other teen sex sagas is A-OK. “4 Feet High” originated as a virtual reality project aimed at sharing a new perspective with viewers, and the series bills itself as YA-focused. That the episodes are as entertaining as any other in this year’s lineup is almost a bonus, as edification and inclusion are of the utmost priority, and the story keenly forges a unique affinity between Juana, her friends, and her audience. (Irigoyen is quite the talent, conveying quiet tenderness and sly charm in her lead role.) There’s even a VR experience available to Sundance attendees, who can see four additional episodes in the New Frontier section’s virtual space after watching these six short-form entries. It’s the first cross-platform series to premiere at the festival, and both mediums achieve the same goals: compassion, enlightenment, and, yes, connection.
Rounding out the official Indie Series program is its only documentary series, “Seeds of Deceit.” Director Miriam Guttmann expands her award-winning short film (of the same name) into a three-part saga covering not only the illicit actions of Dutch fertility doctor Jan Karbaat, who used his own semen to impregnate 65 uninformed patients in the 1980s, ’90s, and 2000s, but to hear from the mothers as well as their now-grown offspring. Even for those acquainted with Karbaat’s misdeeds, “Seeds of Deceit” is shocking in its candor. The second shot shows the man himself using a speculum on a naked woman, and graphic descriptions of his immoral and illegal actions range from overly rough medical procedures to outright physical assault. Guttmann wisely divides her story into three sections: Part 1 outlines how Karbaat was able to get away with his horrific practices, while Part 2 looks at how his offspring were affected by their unknown father. Part 3 delves into other donors who operated in Karbaat’s clinic, pretending to be ideal donors and fathering dozens (or more) children under false pretenses.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
The docuseries barely crosses two hours in total and could arguably be even more effective as an even shorter feature film, but given how overextended so many modern docuseries has become, the already swift storytelling works to the program’s advantage. Moreover, Guttmann finds important contrasts and commonalities among her similarly conned mothers and genetically linked children. Some are scarred by the doctor’s manipulative actions. Others remain appreciative of his efforts, arguing they wouldn’t have been able to have children without him (or, in the kids’ case, that they never would have existed). Later episodes emphasize the new relationships forged by the children who started talking, meeting, and even going out together after discovering their shared relation. But they also highlight families torn apart by the discovery, as “Seeds of Deceit” questions the very nature of family. Is it biological? Is it experiential? Is it something that can be decided, altered, or taken away? And what’s the value in knowing where you came from, especially if it’s based in a horrible, lives-altering lie?
“Seeds of Deceit” represents the rare Indie Series entry that’s ready for distribution as-is; any streamer or cable provider would be lucky to air such a complex study of relationships, both unwanted and desperately sought, scientific and felt. But if one series defines this year’s Sundance series offerings, it’s most likely “Weirdo Night.” Sought after by programmers after its online debut, the taped variety special is MC’d by Jibz Cameron as her performance art alter ego Dynasty Handbag. After starting the night with an extended dance routine and rambling monologue, she introduces various “acts,” including Patti Harrison with The Dildo Police (a band whose lead singer screams the refrain, “I’m not gay!” while her fellow musicians pretend-pound their laptops as if they were piano keyboards) and Blasia Discoteca (a drag performer who lip-syncs a medley of songs while slowly removing pieces of neon pink outerwear).
There are short films told through dream sequences, a Rodney Dangerfield spoof that satirizes misogynistic stand-up, and all of this extremely weird experimental theater plays to a crowd of… no one. This super-committed, super-niche spoof of the oft-terrible independent Los Angeles theatre scene is, of course, being recorded for an audience at home, but that doesn’t stop Cameron from using the empty chairs for added weirdness. Is anyone out there? Is anyone seeing this? For Sundance and the rest of the world, desperately seeking connection by whatever means necessary, the question is very much the same.
Sundance Indie Series programs are available to stream on-demand throughout the festival, through Wednesday, February 3.