What we’ve watched: Sundance 2022 returns online, delivers crowd-pleasers sans crowd

Illustration of a computer on a desk featuring the Sundance 2022 Logo in front of a sunset.
Aishwarya Jayadeep/Senior Staff

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 his year’s Sundance Film Festival once again veered away from its usual Park City milieu of snowy days and shuttle buses. The admittedly disheartening shift to a virtual format was announced in early January as a response to health and safety concerns regarding COVID-19. While viewers may lament the loss of in-person experiences, the essence of Sundance — that is, the films themselves — remains as rich and exciting as ever.

Boiled down from 3,762 submissions to 82 selected titles, the Sundance program showcases a unique array of stories spanning genre and perspective. At The Daily Californian, arts editor Maya Thompson and arts reporters Vincent Tran and Megha Ganapathy have stepped up to explore this vast selection: Here is what they’ve watched.


“Emily The Criminal”

Grade: 4.0/5.0 

Scene from the movie Emily the Criminal

Courtesy: Sundance

“Emily The Criminal” features Aubrey Plaza as Emily, an ex-convict who finds herself struggling to get a stable, sufficient income. When she’s given an opportunity to make some extra money illegally, she finds herself slowly seduced into a dangerous world. 

Reminiscent of similar thrillers —  most notably “Uncut Gems” — “Emily The Criminal” is filled with tension as Emily jumps from one offense to the next. Her penchant for sticking her ground and speaking back to authority, even when she may not have the luxury to, is a great propeller for conflict. Plaza is thrilling and magnetic to watch in her role. 

The strength of “Emily The Criminal” lies in its commitment to the anxiety-inducing genre and its sympathy for the downtrodden and the victims of the justice system. Refreshingly, unlike other films in the same vein, this film features a female lead without much other difference, paving the way for centering women in film without being excessively sexualized or placed under a distinctly different gaze. 

— Megha Ganapathy

“The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future”

Grade: 3.5/5.0

Photo of a still from Cow

Courtesy: Sundance

Utilizing magical realism to spin a fable about the lasting damages mankind has inflicted upon its environment, director Francisca Alegria’s “The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future” is a potent, emotional cry for people to focus on reconciling the past with the present for the sake of a better future.

As the film opens, fish are dying from the toxic runoff poisoning the country’s rivers, their collective death cries summoning another being to the surface. Magdalena (Mía Maestro), a woman who previously died in the very same river some decades ago, rises from the waters to visit her family who has tried to move on in her absence. Her reemergence brings the members of her family, from her widowed husband (Alfredo Castro) to his daughter Cecilia (Leonor Varela), face-to-face with past guilt and generational trauma.

Alegria’s film conveys its headey themes largely through its meditative and striking visual style, and while its focus isn’t always consistently clear, the impact of the film’s pleas for compassion are deeply felt throughout.

— Vincent Tran

“Piggy”

Grade: 3.5/5.0

Scene from the movie Piggy

Courtesy: Sundance

“Piggy” is an arthouse horror that follows Sara (Laura Galán), a young girl who faces relentless bullying from her peers regarding her weight. The film expertly merges outlandish and graphic visual horror with the psychological pain of Sara’s bullying. As a villanous serial killer begins to terrorise the town, Sara finds herself in the thick of the action and is forced to reckon with her own morality and role in maintaining the town’s well-being. 

“Piggy” is most memorable when it explores the effects of bullying on Sara — her resentment and conflicting morality are visibly painful and believable. When Sara is forced to tell her parents about her struggles, they are unhelpful, causing her to spiral deeper into isolation. The reality of Sara’s mental state, combined with the surprising unpredictability of the film’s slasher elements, provide an interesting tone for “Piggy.” 

“Piggy” struggles a little bit with its runtime, devoting too much energy and time to meandering elements in the mystery that feel redundant. The arthouse elements of the film’s cinematography are an interesting choice — the square aspect ratio and pastel palette feel distinctive but only really stand out in certain scenes, particularly when setting up the town and its people.

 Megha Ganapathy

“Fresh”

Grade: 3.0/5.0

Photo of a still from Fresh

Courtesy: Sundance

In “Fresh,” Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is tired of the dating life. Her recent meet-ups from dating apps have not exactly been promising; a particularly awful date with a misogynistic cheapskate kicks off her night (and the film) with relatively low expectations. That is, until she runs into the awkwardly charming Steve (Sebastian Stan) in a grocery store meet-cute that kick-starts a potential relationship that seems to restore her faith in men.

What begins as a wonderful setup for a dark comedy about the pitfalls of modern romance refuses to give viewers a chance to fully get comfortable; it’s not until about 30-minutes in that the plot begins to remotely reveal what “Fresh” is actually about.

As far as spoilers go, it’s best to go into this movie blind — just be prepared to lose, or possibly satiate, your appetite.

Stylishly shot by cinematographer and frequent Ari Aster collaborator Pawel Pogorzelski, Mimi Cave’s directorial debut is a wicked bit of fun that consistently keeps the audience unsettled. The shock factor is dialed up to 10, and the sweet-turned-twisted chemistry between Edgar-Jones and Stan keeps the film’s tone shifting between thrilling and cheeky. Though its characters can sometimes feel like loosely sketched archetypes instead of fully realized people, Cave’s film is sure to shock and delight audiences in equal measure.

— Vincent Tran

“Brian and Charles”

Grade: 2.5/5.0

Photo of a still from Brian and Charles

Courtesy: Sundance

A lighthearted sci-fi comedy reminiscent of Taika Waititi’s style, Jim Archer’s “Brian and Charles” is a modest look at loneliness that lacks the power of other films of its kind. Expanded from Archer’s 2017 short of the same name, the film kicks things off like a “The Office”-style sitcom, following Brian (David Earl), a scrappy inventor who, with a little bit of luck, manages to build a seven-foot-tall robot companion out of a washing machine. 

The resulting creation, which takes a liking to the name Charles Petrescu (Chris Hayward), has an oddball personality — akin to the charm of Baby Groot — and hijinks ensue as he learns how to fit into everyday life and dreams of one day journeying to Honolulu. It’s twee business that eventually drops the mockumentary style in favor of a warm-hearted story of belonging that primarily relies on modest, quirky humor to sell its message. Depending on your taste for British comedy, mileage may vary.

While there’s something undeniably endearing in the film’s quirky father/son dynamic, ultimately, it’s hard not to feel that the overall charm of “Brian and Charles” is stretched awfully thin in sizing up from a short to the big screen.

— Vincent Tran

“Am I OK?”

Grade: 3.0/5.0

photo of two sleeping women

Courtesy: Sundance

This year’s Sundance darling is Dakota Johnson. In addition to elevating Cooper Raiff’s charming “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” Johnson also stars in the queer self-discovery film “Am I OK?” directed by married couple Stephanie Allynne and Tig Notaro. 

Sexual exploration and shades of gray are familiar terrains for Johnson. She plays Lucy, a young woman in her 30s who realizes her attraction to women just as her newly promoted best friend Jane (Sonoya Mizuno) is set to leave for London. Both stand on the precipice of change and are afraid to stick the landing.

The convergence of rom-com charm and dramatic self-exploration in “Am I OK?” is reminiscent of “The Worst Person in the World” and even “Cha Cha Real Smooth.” Allynne and Notaro’s film is delightfully lighthearted — a buddy comedy before it’s a rom-com — and the centrality of Lucy and Jane’s friendship is refreshing.

Yet, “Am I OK?” struggles to find its edge. The bluntness in both script and style feels frustratingly general, curbing the sense of relatability that the film is practically begging to elicit.

— Maya Thompson

“Girl Picture”

Grade: 3.0/5.0 

photo of women

Courtesy: Sundance

“Girl Picture” follows Mimmi (Aamu Milonoff) and Rönkkö (Eleonoora Kauhanen), two young girls working at a smoothie joint as they explore their sexuality and relationship dynamics. Where “Girl Picture” succeeds is its interest in the specificity of Mimmi’s and Rönkkö’s respective relationships. Rönkkö, desperate to act on and explore a world of sex and love, finds herself in a variety of awkward encounters with men. She is both keen and naive, listening to her friends’ advice each step of the way. Rönkkö’s arc is a raw learning curve, portraying a softer side to a young girl exploring her sexuality — one that is free of the deep, dark dangers of being sexually active but not free from the egos of men and their wounded masculinity. 

Mimmi, meanwhile, finds herself in an intense relationship with Emma (Linnea Leino), an ice skater who has hit a mental block in her career. This relationship nicely counter’s Rönkkö’s story. It is deep, intense and all the two can think about.

The film brings the intensity of adolescence to the screen. When Rönkkö believes she’ll never be romantically or sexually successful, she means it — and the pain of her beliefs is visceral. When Mimmi gets wrapped up in her new relationship, the immediate romance feels unbelievably real. While the film struggles to wrap up all three of these characters equally and perhaps lends a little too much screen time to Mimmi’s and ice skater’s personal backstory, it tells the rest of its narratives incredibly well. 

Megha Ganapathy

“Jihad Rehab”

Grade: 4.5/5.0 

photo of a golf cart

Courtesy: Sundance

Director Meg Smaker’s “Jihad Rehab” is a thought-provoking, surprisingly intimate story about a small group of Yemeni residents at the Mohammed bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center in Saudi Arabia. All of these residents have been transferred from Guantanamo Bay, and some of them have been imprisoned for up to 15 years. In an attempt by the Saudi government to ensure these residents do not return to the ways of their previous lives, they must undergo a rehabilitation program to prepare them for the outside, “real” world.

Smaker has received criticism from human rights advocates regarding the safety of the documentary’s subjects; their public perception as “criminals” despite never standing trial; and about the perpetuation of harmful stereotyping of Muslims.

Despite facing controversy, the documentary begins with an incredible amount of hope. The residents take finance, art therapy and Islamic law classes, are taught about the importance of marriage and instructed on how to keep a wife content. Everyone on screen renders a soft optimism — many of the residents speak frankly about their lives, the terror of Guantanamo and their repentance and willingnness to get better.

However, as the documentary progresses, the story loses some of its initial buoyancy; logistical issues and systemic inequalities make the concept of rehabilitation, in any form, extremely difficult. And as some of the sheen is lost, it becomes more clear that this is entirely an experiment.

A magnificent, moving story, “Jihad Rehab” provides key insight into the very fundamentals of rehabilitation.

Megha Ganapathy

“Watcher”

Grade: 2.5/5.0

photo of a woman

Courtesy: Sundance

Chloe Okuno’s “Watcher,” a voyeuristic thriller that riffs on classics such as “Charade” and “Rear Window,” stumbles through genre tropes to deliver a shallower version of an otherwise solid suspense film.

When Julia (Maika Monroe of “It Follows”) and her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) relocate to Bucharest, Romania for his work, things are not as they seem. Alone and lost in translation, Julia believes that she’s become a target of stalking from a watchful neighbor in the building across the street. Alarmed by the increasing feeling of isolation as well as the news that “The Spider,” a local serial killer notorious for brutally slashing the throats of his primarily female victims, is on the loose, she begins to take matters into her own hands.

Monroe’s palpably fearful performance is wasted due to the predictable elements around her; shoddy plot conveniences and the flat supporting cast dull the entire experience, amounting to shaky setup partially redeemed by a finale that is thrilling albeit brief. The result is a movie with the opportunity to closely investigate the fear of surveillance and the unique power dynamics at play. The film, however, feels too scared to face them up close.

— Vincent Tran

“Palm Trees and Power Lines”

Grade: 3.0/5.0

photo of people

Courtesy: Sundance

There’s an uncomfortable numbing quality to “Palm Trees and Power Lines,” the feature debut of director Jamie Dack, expanded from her award-winning short of the same name. A slow and subtle story of a fraught relationship between a teenage girl and a stranger twice her age, Dack’s film takes a stark look at abuse and never turns away.

There’s a palpable emptiness in the air as the film introduces viewers to Lea (newcomer Lily McInerny) and her suburban life; she’s stuck in a seemingly endless loop of summer boredom, hanging out with self-obsessed teenage boys and living with her mostly distant single mother (Gretchen Mol), a decidedly undreamy “teenage dream” shot in muted colors and moving at an unhurried pace.

The rabbit hole that Lea falls down after becoming involved with the 34 year-old Tom — played with a cool, increasingly disturbing allure by Jonathan Tucker — feels like a slow burn, built upon red flags in a script that staunchly commits to realism instead of melodrama. It only makes things harder to swallow when Lea finds herself hollowed out as the film ends on a moment of quiet desperation, a subtle subversion to bookend the often predictable but nonetheless painfully honest story at hand.

— Vincent Tran

“Every Day in Kaimuki”

Grade 4.5/5.0 

Photo of a still from Everyday

Courtesy: Sundance

“Every Day in Kaimuki” is lyrical, dreamy and wonderfully shot. The film follows 20-year-old Naz (Naz Kawakami), a charming DJ who has spent his entire life in Hawaii. Naz has everything — a great job as a local radio host, a tight-knit group of friends with whom he skateboards, a beautiful girlfriend who lives with him and a cat. When his girlfriend gets into a program in New York City, Naz spends his days planning his move away from a comfortable life.

Bolstered by an incredible soundtrack and long shots of Naz and his friends moving fluidly on their skateboards, “Every Day in Kaimuki” plays like a stylish music video — with substance. The film moves at a fitting, languid pace. Director Alika Tengan isn’t concerned with putting forth questions or provoking too much thought. Instead, viewers are presented with the joy of watching Naz go about his day. 

“Every Day in Kaimuki” is an unassuming, beautiful debut from director Alika Tengan. Naz’s overwhelming charm and self-assured coolness win the film, carrying viewers from one scene to the next. The film isn’t unintelligent — it deals with youth and its temporality, imbibing that lightness and unpredictability in every frame. 

— Megha Ganapathy

“The Worst Person in the World”

Grade: 3.5/5.0

Photo of a still from the Worst Person

Courtesy: Sundance

An intermittently dreamy story broken up into a prologue, 12 chapters and an epilogue, Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World” captures the restlessness of young adulthood with the fleeting pace of a romantic comedy. The film chronicles four transitional years in the life of Julie (Renate Reinsve), a medical student in Oslo who leaves behind her studies to pursue photography, and accounts for all the turbulence of her connections and relationships — personal, intimate and otherwise — along the way.

The third film in the Norwegian director’s unofficial coming-of-age “Oslo trilogy” is infused with the rapture of self-discovery and is fully realized by Reinsve’s phenomenal breakout performance. She authentically renders Julie as a woman impatiently searching for who she’s meant to be; she’s almost instantly likable despite the sporadic highs and turbulent lows that start and seemingly never stop from the film’s get-go.   

In the end, “The Worst Person in the World” feels its way through growing pains, occasionally taking off into the realm of the fantastic as Julie races against the passing of time toward a future she chooses as her own. Though it ends on a rather flat, overly tidy note, the path Trier’s wonderful odyssey of modern life travels through to get there is quite the rush.

— Vincent Tran

“Blood”

Grade: 2.0/5.0

Photo of a still from Blood

Courtesy: Sundance

The issue with director Bradley Rust Gray’s “Blood” is one of distance. Its depiction of the everyday interactions of Chloe (Carla Juri), a widow living in Japan who slowly learns to love again, often feels so obscured that its story fails to coalesce into anything concrete. 

While Chloe claims to not remember her dreams, she’s haunted by memories of life with her late husband (Gustaf Skarsgard), depicted through quietly intruding flashbacks that give the film a somber feel that occasionally blurs its main character’s reality. She finds comfort in daily life through her longtime friendship with Toshi (played with sincerity by Takashi Ueno), and their faint will-they-won’t-they romance helps to outline the contours of the story: one that is ultimately languid and patient to a fault. 

Overall, Gray’s screenplay is as stunted and emotionally disengaged as his central character. It almost makes a foray into the genre of slow cinema, but never quite commits to the direction. Though the film is gorgeously shot and the inclusion of nonprofessional actors brings a warmhearted authenticity to its portrayals of life in Japan, “Blood” starts to come into focus too late in its run time, waiting until the various boundaries of the world around its main characters begin to drop.

— Vincent Tran

“Nanny”

Grade 4.0/5.0

photo of a woman underwater

Courtesy: Sundance

“Nanny” is a chilling horror about Aisha, a Senegalese immigrant who works as a nanny for the child of a rich couple in Manhattan. A slow burn, the film brings out all the obstacles Aisha has to face  —  from not receiving full pay from her privileged, completely out-of-it employers to missing her son, Lamine (Jahleel Kamara), back home to attempting to date in a new country. Aisha is instantly likable, and she behaves incredibly with the child she has to look after. She is soft yet firm, funny and encouraging. The tenderness of Aisha’s interactions with the child and her innate kindness make the dark parts of “Nanny” feel deeper and more sinister than ever.  

The film starts to unsettle as Aisha sees projections and finds herself removed from the real world, slipping into an underwater nightmare. The incorporation of African folklore and mythology adds a deep, supernatural quality to Aisha’s nightmares.

“Nanny” works because Aisha’s real world struggles are as visceral and painful as the visions that visit her. The complexities of paid domestic labor are amplified —  as Aisha lovingly raises someone else’s child, she feels pain at her separation from her own. While the supernatural aspects of the film are well crafted and intelligently applied, the film succeeds due to its nuanced insight into what it really means to work in someone’s house as an othered family member. 

— Megha Ganapathy

“Utama”

Grade: 3.0/5.0

photo of a landscape

Courtesy: Sundance

Alejandro Loayza Grisi is not in a rush. His debut feature film “Utama” moves with dignity and maturity, an elegantly unhurriedportrait of life in the Bolivian highlands. Grisi tells the story of an elderly Quechua couple, husband Virginio (José Calcina) and wife Sisa (Luisa Quispe). They are creatures of habit and caretakers of pink-streaked llamas. Virginio and Sisa treasure stability and routine like a prize — a relic passed down from strong and persistent generations.

The world, however, is changing and the consequences of climate change have left the highlands out to dry (literally). The unusually long drought in their hometown also brings the arrival of their grandson Clever, a “brat” played by Santos Choque. Clever and his grandparents frequently butt heads, but the younger man’s presence propels the film’s central question: Should the couple leave or endure?

Grisi’s background in still photography shines through the picturesque landscapes of “Utama.” The images are epic in scale and depth, dazzling with light blues and soft browns. While the ending leaves an aftertaste as bitter as soil, the people in “Utama” understand the land and give it character, revere it even as it estranges them.

— Maya Thompson

“Fire of Love”

Grade: 4.5/5.0

Photo of a still from Fire of Love

Courtesy: Sundance

“Fire of Love” pulses with an ache. Directed by Sara Dosa, the documentary carries an Icarian sadness as it traces the lives of married volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. The film privileges aesthetics and love envelops the story. In more than just name, the film unearths the sincere feeling of adoration which washes over the shots, the people, their relationship and their shared love for red volcanoes.

 From the beginning, “Fire of Love” lets viewers know that the couple do not make it out of this adventure alive. Yet, the film isn’t drearily tragic, and the sense of playfulness adopted for much of the exposition makes unexpected death an easy fate to forget. Dosa displays recordings taken by the Kraffts themselves, parsing through hours of volcano footage and boiling it down to exquisite, adoring shots of magma and snippets of personality. 

“Fire of Love” does not wave away the smoke that would transform these fairly opaque figures into open, accessible characters. In their red hats and matching rosy cheeks, Katia and Maurice endear. The seasoned scientists exude a childlike wonder as they explore the natural world. Despite its fatalist destination, the narrative of “Fire of Love” conveys the planet’s scale and magnificence, inspiring viewers rather than devastating them.

— Maya Thompson

“Free Chol Soo Lee”

Grade: 3.0/5.0

Photo of a still from Free

Courtesy: Sundance

The year is 1973. An unsuspecting 20-year-old Korean American immigrant named Chol Soo Lee is arrested and placed on death row on charges involving the ongoing gangland murders in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Throughout the next decade, Lee’s wrongful conviction would spark a defense fund and a prisoners’ rights movement powered by pan-Asian solidarity; the resulting Free Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee brought the city’s Asian communities together to protest in the name of racial injustice.

“Free Chol Soo Lee,” the documentary from filmmakers Eugene Yi and Julie Ha, recounts the story of the eponymous movement, ultimately evolving into an affecting portrait of the unlikely figurehead and his increasingly complicated struggle to exist after spending 10 years behind bars.

While fairly conventional in its approach, there’s an immersive quality to the documentary thanks to a wealth of materials including handwritten notes from the late Lee, narrated with great sensitivity by ex-convict and prisoner’s advocate Sebastian Yoon, as well as an extensive roster of interviewees with firsthand experiences with Lee and the movement he helped inspire. 

Although audiences won’t be brought much closer to understanding the inner workings of the film’s central subject, “Free Chol Soo Lee” works best as a bittersweet, empathetic tribute to not only a life thrown into the perils of the criminal justice system but also the community activism that gave him a second chance.

— Vincent Tran

“Living”

Grade: 3.5/5.0

Photo of a still from Living

Courtesy: Sundance

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is no deterrent to filmmaker Oliver Hermanus. Hermanus’s new film “Living” premiered at Sundance — an adaptation of the legendary Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film “Ikiru.” Kurosawa’s film is often hailed as a masterpiece, so there was justifiable trepidation about adapting the film in the English language and setting it in 1950s Britain. Luckily, Hermanus enlists Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro to write the screenplay and Bill Nighy to star as bureaucrat Mr. Williams, who reconsiders the way to live life after learning he has a terminal illness.

“Living” revives the themes of its predecessors, exploring hollow bureaucracy and life’s ephemerality. Yet, Ishiguro gives the script room to breathe, to be subtle. The actors use these respites to imbue originality and refresh the familiar story. Nighty, in particular, shines as he captains the film with a stern countenance, and Williams thrives in his resemblance to Ishiguro’s typical literary protagonist, such as Stevens in “The Remains of the Day.” Despite his power in the office, Williams is someone to be passed over — poised, cool and aloof. 

Yet, when death comes knocking, Nighty decides to change and is helped by his kind-hearted coworkers Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood) and Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp). It’s not as trite (or blithely Dickensian) as it sounds, largely due to Hermanus’ sleek style and the glittering collaboration between Ishiguro’s words and the actors who deliver them.

— Maya Thompson

“Dual”

Grade: 3.5/5.0

Photo of a still from Dual

Courtesy: Sundance

“Dual,” the latest feature from Riley Stearns (“The Art of Self-Defense”), delivers the director’s signature deadpan writing, but applies it to a “Black Mirror”-esque sci-fi concept. Set in a future where the terminally ill are given the opportunity to commission clones to live out their lives in their stead, the film puts its protagonist, Sarah (Karen Gillan), in a wickedly absurd predicament when she discovers she’s in remission and her double has filed for autonomy, having already begun to take over her life. The pragmatic solution? One year of combat training and a government-sanctioned fight to the death.

It’s jarring but also hilarious how little the film relies on sci-fi elements, using its premise merely to set up the absurdity of its humor. Rather, the greatest asset of “Dual” is Gillan, who delivers a one-two knockout punch as different versions of herself and finds on-screen gold in a dynamite pairing with supporting actor Aaron Paul. Behind the stone-cold wooden demeanor of Sarah and her double, the heart of Gillan’s performance is laced with the anxieties of her character’s identity crisis, which bleeds into the bleakness of the film’s comedy at just the right moments.

Overall, Stearns’ creation, appropriately stuffed with jokes drier than unseasoned chicken, is likely to wring out some of the most unexpected laughs of the year. Coincidentally, the film serves as the perfectly twisted, vaguely identical companion to Apple TV+’s “Swan Song,” only if it was directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. According to this critic, that’s high praise.

— Vincent Tran

“Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power”

Grade: 2.0/5.0 

Photo of a still from Brainwashed

Courtesy: Sundance

Nina Menkes, director of “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” and professor, presents a documentary about the legacy of cinema and its highly gendered nature. “Brainwashed” attempts to center its analysis around an onstage presentation delivered by Menkes. Menkes, armed with a slide presentation and a clicker, references scenes in popular film to dissect the various ways in which the “male gaze” penetrates the cinematic frame. This TED-Talk-esque presentation lends a rigid, essay-style quality of analysis to the film, making it feel more like a powerful YouTube critique than a documentary film. 

The film also weaves in interviews with multiple female directors and theorists, most notably Laura Mulvey. Mulvey’s inclusion, while impressive, feels more like a nod to the birth of the “male gaze” as a concept, rather than an attempt to delve deep into a primary source of gender and film theory. This trend of superficial analysis continues with other interviewees and themes in “Brainwashed,” as Menkes approaches them briefly only to hop on and do the same with the next idea. 

“Brainwashed” succeeds at provoking outrage at the subtle ways in which women have been unfairly portrayed on film for decades but its lack of a clear thesis, both analytically and stylistically, and unbalanced argument render it as a confused documentary that prioritizes breadth of argument over depth. 

— Megha Ganapathy

“Marte Um (Mars One)”

Grade: 4.0/5.0

Scene from movie "Marte Um (Mars One)" at Sundance

Courtesy: Sundance

Gabriel Martins’ “Marte Um (Mars One)” takes the time to be gentle, to dream. In his second feature, the filmmaker orbits around the four Martins, a low-middle-class family adjusting to the election of right-wing Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. Despite the national upheaval, the film’s shots are patient, suffused with soft shadows and warm glows. Even in its tensest trials, love inches forward, and it takes the forms of fresh romance, earned forgiveness and rebuilt trust. 

“Marte Um” gives each character their own arc and interior — when their stories bleed together, however, it’s an act of enrichment rather than compression. The family’s hopeful spirit demands collective reliance, eliciting episodes of vulnerability known only to family. Their relationships are cross-stitched like an empathetic Punnett square, and some of the most quietly profound moments are those between younger brother Deivinho (Cícero Lucas) and his older sister Eunice (Camilla Damião). Their relationship endears because “Marte Um” exalts the dreamer, insisting that caring for one another not only ensures our survival but also allows optimism to brighten our lives.

— Maya Thompson

“The Exiles”

Grade: 3.0/5.0

photo of a woman

Courtesy: Sundance

Christine Choy is a supernova. Perhaps, however, the sun is a more apt metaphor for the seasoned filmmaker and New York University professor, as she radiates from the center of Ben Klein and Violet Columbus’ documentary “The Exiles.” The film explores past and present, looking at footage from 1989 that Choy captured for a project about the student leaders of the Tiananmen Square protests. “The Exiles” attempts to tie up the loose ends of Choy’s project, exploring the present lives of the student leaders after they fled China.

“The Exiles” feels like the kind of documentary where the subjects steer the ship. This feature allows personalities to shimmer. The titular “exiles,” the leaders of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, deliver endlessly engrossing personal and political insights that keep the film moving.

The focus on personality, however, keeps nuance at a distance. Instead of diving deeper, the film takes its subjects’ word, which keeps answers frustratingly vague. Choy, for instance, commands attention, her brazen wit used like a weapon and her cigarette like an appendage; she says she stopped working on the 1989 project because she “ran out of money.” And that’s that.

“The Exiles” insists the struggle of the Tiananmen Square protests remains urgent and unresolved, as this moment in history is expunged from Chinese history books. While bringing attention to an ongoing conflict, “The Exiles” leaves enough stones unturned to desire something deeper.

— Maya Thompson

“When You Finish Saving the World”

Grade: 3.5/5.0

photo of characters

Courtesy: Sundance

In his directorial debut, Jesse Eisenberg chronicles a tale of two narcissists. Mother Evelyn Katz (Julianne Moore) and son Ziggy Katz (Finn Wolfhard) thunder within the same room, and the friction of ego crackles in every conversation. Evelyn, high-and-mighty, runs a shelter for survivors of domestic violence while Ziggy, a high schooler, performs original songs on a successful livestream account — a sort of TikTok analogue. With wholly disparate values, Evelyn and Ziggy share a family resemblance only in their pride: Each believes they represent a necessary source of good while the other is wasting their time.

They’re both insufferable. 

 The script is clever in the way Eisenberg is clever, all hard edges and dry idiosyncrasies. In its far too sparse funny moments, the film elicits a wry, knowing smile instead of a fully-bellied guffaw. With her pinched face and pursed lips, Moore nails the self-serving liberal feminist, the kind of person who proudly works in service but judges everyone else unkindly. Wolfhard is almost too good at playing the cringe-inducing white boy on TikTok who takes his slice of fame too seriously. Because they’re brilliant, they are impossible to watch. 

“When You Finish Saving the World” opts for specificity rather than relatability, and while the film could stand to soften a few of its blunt edges, the family drama debut heralds Eisenberg’s promising career behind the camera.

— Maya Thompson

The Sundance Film Festival runs from Jan. 20 to Jan. 30, 2022. Check back on this page for daily updates and the latest reviews of this year’s lineup.

Maya Thompson is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].
Contact Vincent Tran at
[email protected].
Contact Megha Ganapathy at [email protected].