Sundance can be a tricky topic to dance around with many caveats and point-of-references. It’s a festival filled with FOMO-diagnosed levels of wanting to see the hottest film of the week. Tickets sell out fast for individuals not planning on divulging a wad of cash on the packaged deal letting them see anything and everything. Darlings such as Cha Cha Real Smooth and Fresh have been burning Twitter up with their youthful innocence that may or may not turn into something much sinister by the end of their runtime.
Sundance is a time where independent, small-budget films and filmmakers get to be seen by film-head audiences and studios mining the rubble for content to put on their streaming services, or for the lucky few, the big screen. Modern horror auteur classics like Get Out and Hereditary had their paths carved after gushing support from Sundance crowds. With the festival experience being moved completely online in 2022, it gave nationwide audiences the ability to check out the new array of films and sift through the endless possibilities of the next Call Me By Your Name or Whiplash.
This was what I was hoping to get out of my first experience with Sundance. I wasn’t planning on going big and seeing dozens of independent films (mostly because I was on a strict budget of seeing three films…. until I just had to add a fourth), but I wanted to see a little bit of everything. Two films at the festival were 2021 releases that I had etched into my schedule from the very start: The Worst Person in the World and After Yang.
2021 Film Screenings
The Worst Person in the World was being heralded as the international Frances Ha or Lady Bird – a film soaked in articulated vibrance but grounded in the main character’s wandering for self-purpose. That wasn’t entirely what I left the film emotionally connecting to as nothing in this film felt or was being portrayed as cute. As blunt and cliché as this may seem, life is hard. Relationships and friendships are really, really hard. This film gets that sentiment so universally well.
Joachim Trier’s vision is particularly powerful in a few scenes (I’m thinking the meet-cute between Julie and Elvind, and the glorious freeze-frame moment), but there isn’t quite enough in-between those moments to warrant rewatch after rewatch. It diverges from typical coming-of-age stories in that Julie rises from the ashes of deeper, more visceral pain. It pulls at your heart, but not so much your heartstrings.
The other film I was dying to get my hands on at some point this festival was After Yang. Kogonada did it again. As a film student, Columbus was a touching moment in the sea of old slow burns and arthouse international pictures that I had to watch on a weekly basis. When I read Kogonada was following up his architecturally tender and soft 2017 release with a SCI-FI FILM, yeah, I needed that pumped into my veins immediately.
Now, when I say After Yang is a sci-fi film, don’t get the wrong idea. There aren’t imperial forces threatening existence as we know it or aliens crash-landing on the surface of our planet. After Yang, much like Columbus, deals with our personal connections with people we care about, even if we don’t show it well. It’s a drowning experience – let the film wash over you with its gorgeous, photographic framing and soft conviction. In a way, whether it’s a sci-fi film or not, it’s the perfect pairing with Columbus.
Some viewers may not get the spiritually fulfilling experience that After Yang is getting the reputation of delivering, but there’s enough on the bone to enjoy. The performances are extremely subtle and pulled back (Colin Farrell is the obvious pick here. If he pulls off Penguin in March, talk about RANGE. In an interview after the showing, he talked on and on about the individuals involved in bringing this film together. He really tones that down in the film itself in an affective way) and the film’s color palette is vibrant and beautiful.
2022 Film Screenings
The two brand new showings of Sundance that I got the chance to screen were Master and Watcher. Both were billed as late-night horror/thriller features. Master deals with systemic racial tension at one of the nation’s top universities. Watcher is a neo-noir, paranoia-stricken thriller.
Master had the makings to be something really great. A dorm’s headmaster and a first-year student are both thrown into the loop of a centuries-old legend of a Salem witch hanging. The supernatural elements of the tale that eventually bleed into the film itself don’t work nearly as well as the factual, discreet horrors of blatant racism and sexism on a college campus.
The grand finale of Master doesn’t quite fit the rest of its tone, but it picks its spots for soul-crushing anger and awe. It’s a perfectly decent entry into the subgenre of race in horror films, but it doesn’t move the needle all that much.
Easily my biggest find of Sundance, and the early part of 2022 in general so far, has to be Watcher. Headlined by It Follow’s Maika Monroe, Watcher is a genre exercise turned into an enthralling serial killer, cat-and-mouse hit. Chloe Okuno douses this film in a color palette that felt so Fincher-y with its deep blues and greens. Monroe’s Julia was an easy character to get behind and Burn Gorman’s was equally sadistic and terrifying.
Some may find Watcher to be generic in its plot, because, again, it’s a clear genre exercise, but I dug it. It’s a film I hope gets picked up by either a streaming service or a distribution company that lets me see it in a theater soon.
That wraps up my first Sundance experience. Who knows what could happen next year? We all thought COVID would be over by now and it would be in person this year, but maybe it’ll be virtual again in 2023. I hope parts of it remain virtual. Being able to see some of these new releases without paying the premium to get to Utah is convenient. Hell, maybe I’ll have the stability to see it in person next year. Regardless, here’s my ranking of the four films I checked out:
- 1. Watcher
2. After Yang
3. The Worst Person in the World