This Year's Sundance Hits Strike A Deeper Chord

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The parties still rage on Main St., but the films have felt informed with purpose.

Blustery gusts and hard-hitting films have made for a rugged Sundance so far. Between constant snow, and the committed Women’s Marchers who endured it to hear Jane Fonda speak, sobriety has been this year’s watchword. Of course, the parties still rage on Main St.—YouTube’s fiesta was Saturday’s hot ticket—but the films have felt informed with purpose, even more than usual at Sundance.

My first dose of hard, cold truth, however, was Stephen Maing’s riveting documentary Crime + Punishment about 12 black and Puerto Rican NYPD officers who filed suit against NYPD’s unofficial quota system that rattled minority communities, even after the NYPD claimed quotas were a thing of the past. The revelations made headlines back in 2016, but what the film elegantly captures is how much psychological pressure these beat cops endured to voice an uncomfortable truth.  In doing so, they took on the Goliath administration of perhaps America’s most celebrated police chief Bill Bratton whose stats-based approach has been credited with massive crime drops in Boston, LA, and New York. The police are often seen as a monolithic entity, but Maing smartly delineates the tensions inherent in being an officer of color: between loyalty to the fierce brotherhood of cops and compassion for the communities they grew up in. An inarguably necessary film, Crime + Punishment truly shines in its twelve portraits of the officers behind the suit, their lives, their struggles, and their ideals.


Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Of course, cineastes can’t live on social issues alone, and Sundance doesn’t want for glossy films with impeccably lit movie stars. Not surprisingly, Wash Westmoreland’s Colette, starring Keira Knightley as the infamously bisexual Belle Époque Parisian writer, was the first big acquisition of the festival. Artfully composed, Colette is the dictionary definition of a staid, costume drama—ironic considering how barrier breaking the author’s career was. Actresses taking on Sapphic roles has become par for the course these days; and Knightley does her duty, entwining with a cross-dressing female aristocrat while her husband Willy (Dominic West), under whose nom-de-plume Colette’s first work was published, wastes their fortunate. Unfortunately, for all the film’s many virtues, Knightley never quite taps into the fire that must have animated the real-life Colette to challenge society as bravely as she did.


Photo: Dusan Martinecek | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Far more intriguing to me was the weekend’s other lavish period piece with a protagonist of fluid sexual identity. Paul Rudd stars as real-life catcher Moe Berg in Ben Lewin’s The Catcher Was a Spy, an unusual hybrid that mixes a spy thriller, gay romance, and quantum physics to explore the deepest questions of life’s fundamental uncertainty. On the last legs of a major league career, Berg recruits himself into the OSS and is rewarded with a mission to kill Werner Heisenberg, the titan of physics who may be helping Hitler build on atomic bomb—or sabotaging it from the inside. How can we truly know a person or their intentions? It’s a delicate question well served by Lewin’s innate humanism. As such Catcher may frustrate those seeking a traditional war film and takes for granted its audience understands Heisenberg’s monumental stature. Nonetheless, Catcher will please those who relish ambiguity and yearn for a counterpoint to the cliché heroics of World War 2 films.

Maybe it’s fatigue from a year’s worth of social tension, but the two films that have resonated with me most these first couples days both succeed at delving into today’s storm of societal tumult and finding hints of silver linings: veteran Sebastian Silva’s Tyrel and first-time filmmaker Cathy Yan’s Dead Pigs.  A well-known and long-admired quantity at Sundance, Silva has demonstrated in films like Magic, Magic and Nasty Baby his unique talent for dissecting seemingly innocuous groups and exposing the intractable tensions beneath. His latest is another such gem with a deceptively simple premise. Jason Mitchell stars as Tyler, a young man who travels to Upstate New York for a cabin party the weekend of Trump’s inauguration and discovers he’s the only black person among a group of white “bros.” Silva’s never one to trade in stereotypes and Tyler’s friends are not in any way backcountry racists. But Silva exposes how even “well-meaning” fun can weigh heavily on the soul of someone who knows he’s seen as “other.” While Jordan Peele’s blockbuster Get Out used genre to explore similar terrain, Silva takes a more grounded approach—which in some ways gives Tyrel even more power despite its lack of story fireworks. And after all the tension is exploded, Silva leaves us with a note of hope that even in a world of inexorable differences, a bond of community and brotherhood may yet still be possible.


Photo: Frederico Cesca | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Unlike Silva, Dead Pigs is Cathy Yan’s first feature, but its remarkable acuity marks the debut of a formidable filmmaker. Evoking the warm, chaotic spirit of early Zhang Yimou works like The Story of Qiu Ju, Yan’s film follows the intertwined stories of four Shanghai natives and one Western expat as dead pigs suddenly appear floating on the Yangtze River. A Shanghai beauty salon owner refuses to sell her family home to a massive conglomerate despite the fact that her brother needs the money to pay off underworld thugs after his pigs die—all the while his son toils at a lowly restaurant job and falls in love with the coddled daughter of a wealthy businessman. The pigs turns out to be less a plot device than an objective correlative for the microscopic personal dramas beneath China’s vast, macroscopic changes; but what’s truly remarkable is that Yan’s graceful treatment of sensitive topics made its way past China’s censors. Afterwards, I asked Yan how she managed to tell a story about a woman standing resolutely in the way of “progress” without ruffling feathers. “A lot of people out here think of China as very political,” Yan replied, “and I really wanted to get behind the headlines and get to the people.” To her thinking, the underlying vision of China as a vibrant, dynamic society filled with conflicting cross-currents, a place eager to import Western ideas, yet one that prizes its own heritage, is universal. And it’s a welcome corrective to the talk of trade wars and global saber rattling that waterfalls through our newsfeeds every day. For all our current gloominess so far Sundance seems to be signaling the first few notes of hope as they break through all the chaos.