Sundance 2021: El Planeta, Pleasure, Judas and the Black Messiah — noteworthy films from the festival
To wrap up our annual Sundance coverage, we've picked out our five favourite narrative features that were in the spotlight at the prestigious film festival this year.
With the jury winners announced, Sundance 2021 concluded on Wednesday after a week of minimum sleep, maximum cinema. This time around, it was an entirely virtual affair, one of the collateral benefits of a world under lockdown. Despite a low-key line-up with no big-name directors, you don't really need to readjust your expectations at Sundance. As always, the festival delivered on its reputation of breeding indie film’s most unexpected standouts. Even with a scaled down slate of 72 features (down from last year's 118), its focus on diversity and representation didn't take a hit. Nearly half of them were directed by women, 43% by BIPOC and 15% by LGBTQ+ filmmakers.
To wrap up our annual Sundance coverage, we've picked out our five favourite narrative features (a similar curation of our favourite documentaries will follow soon). Pending distribution, some will premiere before the end of the year, and some may not arrive until next year. Hopefully, they will all make a stop in India at some point as they continue to work the film-festival circuit.
The Spanish comedy from Amalia Ulman offers a unique window into the mind and soul of the New York-based conceptual artist. El Planeta tells the story of a debt-ridden mother-daughter duo who engage in petty crimes to avoid eviction in the coastal city of Gijón. Following the death of her father, Leonor (Ulman) is forced to cut short her fashionista aspirations and move back home. With no unemployment benefits to rely upon, she must look for new sources of income. In the opening scene, she even considers hustling but eventually decides against it ("It's not worth sucking a dick for the price of a book.”) Her mother, María (played by Amalia’s own mother Ale Ulman), spends her waking hours casting freezer spells on her enemies and detractors. She writes their names on pieces of paper and pops them in the freezer, as if to ice them out of their lives. In the thoughtful depiction of these daily rituals are more revealing implications about the hardships of working in a gig economy. Though her focus might be narrow, the scrutiny is thorough. Ulman's carefree directorial approach allows for a sense of improvisational fluidity that renders the mother-daughter's demeanour and conversations natural and relatable. El Planeta is also a eulogy, mourning a city in economic decline. Dressing up this eulogy in the threads of an episodic comedy, Ulman gave us one of Sundance 2021's most assured directorial debuts, the kind that promises bigger and better things.
Ninja Thyberg was another breakthrough talent from this year's Sundance. The Swedish filmmaker's debut is a full-frontal provocation that demystifies pornography. Through the eyes of a young Swedish woman trying to break into the industry in Los Angeles, Thyberg shines an uncomfortable spotlight on its inner workings. Even if the movie is set in the porn industry and not Hollywood, Jessica is like any other aspiring actor who arrives in LA to become a star. Calling herself Bella Cherry, she quickly rises up the ranks by hiring an agent and attending parties with the power brokers. Only, her bubble is burst when she finds she must embrace a lot more pain than pleasure to make it to the top. What starts off as a harrowing peek into the industry turns into a damning portrayal of the cycle of abuse. Sofia Kappel gives us a riveting portrait of Bella's disintegration from the inside out before she builds herself up again. If you ever wonder why people have overlooked porn's #MeToo stories, Bella's ordeals offer a clear answer. The fact that these women work in the adult film industry doesn’t mean they lose the right to consent. A key to understanding consent in pornography comes in a study in contrasts illustrated in two shoots. On a BDSM shoot led by a woman director, it is important to note how Bella not only feels comfortable but respected by the crew. This is in stark contrast to a rough sex shoot led by a man, who politely coaxes her into the most brutal, dehumanising situations despite her plea to stop multiple times into the scene. This despite boundaries and safe words being established on set, and Bella clearly declaring her dos and don'ts to her agent. It makes you question just how much, if at all, the women are ever in control in pornography. Pleasure is thus a chastening examination of an industry that needs a reckoning.
The World to Come
Lesbian period romances are having a moment. We had the genre-defining Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Then, Ammonite. Now, Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby play neighbours-turned-lovers in Mona Fastvold's adaptation of the Jim Shepard short story, The World to Come. In between their wifely duties and their shared loneliness, Abigail (Waterson) and Tallie (Kirby) get to know each other, and fall in love in mid-19th century America. Threatening their happy ending is Tallie’s abusive husband (Christopher Abbott) and the constraints of the era. Waterson's Abigail sways between desire and doubt, inflamed by the warm and decisive presence of Kirby's Tallie. The two stars try to match each other's luminous intensity, and their chemistry keeps the film's heart — and our own — racing. Fastvold creates an atmosphere that feeds on the alienation that besets even strong, intelligent women, especially when trapped in "holy matrimony" without any support system or social contact outside of it.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Shaka King offers a powerful yet intimate look at a man trying to start a revolution and a community under siege in 1960s America. Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), then chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, brought together all the oppressed communities — from Black to Puerto Rican to White Southerners — in Chicago to cooperate with one another to enforce systemic social change. That put him in the crosshairs of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, who deemed him and his organisation as a terrorist threat. So, they brought in a car thief named Bill O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) and offered him an ultimatum: go to prison or infiltrate the Black Panthers. He chose the latter, rose up the ranks of the organisation, and eventually fed FBI the necessary intel to orchestrate Hampton's political assassination. Wanting to inspire and entertain, King manages to reconcile both those ambitions in the movie. Kaluuya serves an affectionate and affecting portrait of a beloved icon. Stanfield has a far more difficult job at hand, but he breathes humanity into a man not loved by many. Hampton was all but 21 when he was fatally shot in 1969. His untimely death cannot be looked upon as far removed from the number of Black Americans killed by law enforcement in recent years. The collaborative revolution he started continues to this day.
Sian Heder's film, which won the audience and jury prizes in the US Dramatic Competition categories, is an infectiously hopeful story that will leave you grinning from ear-to-ear. Ruby Rossi is a high-schooler born into a deaf family, who run a local fishing business off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Being the only hearing member in the family, Ruby acts as an intermediary for them with buyers and other townsfolk. In a comical exchange, she awkwardly relays the doctor's advice to her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) not to have sex for two weeks to redress their jock itch. Her greatest passion is singing, which is the one thing she can't share with her family. When her music teacher (Eugenio Derbez) discovers her talent, he encourages her to apply at Berklee. This leaves her with a difficult choice: go to college or stay home and save the failing family business. The story beats of responsibilities vs dreams in the transition from teens to adulthood are pretty boilerplate. But Heder never overplays her hand with ill-judged sentimental excess. The whole thing is executed with such warmth you won't be able to resist its charm. Key to it is the chemistry between Durant and Matlin, who work off each other quite beautifully but can also be sweetly funny in their own right. The film should also serve as a nice calling card for Emilia Jones. Expect to see her in more films in the near future. CODA is a reminder of how feel-good movies — when done well — can lay us bare, save us and cleanse our wayward hearts.
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