The Sundance Film Festival is always a barometer of the times to some degree, with often-topical indie films alternating with documentaries about the hot-button issues of the day. But there’s something particularly timely about this year’s Sundance, which has made a point of embracing diversity and in its first four days has showcased a slate of films that constitute its own (non-delayed) State of the Union address.
Screening at a festival that gave 63 percent of its press credentials to underrepresented groups and booked nearly half its slate with female directors, the films that have gotten the most buzz at this year’s festival almost all have a significant amount of contemporary resonance.
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Other highlights over the first weekend include “Native Son,” a searing and timely adaptation of Richard Wright’s acclaimed novel, and “The Last Man in San Francisco,” Joe Talbot’s very different take on race and class. And the landscape of this year’s films is one of dramatic inclusion, with stories ranging from a Chinese-American woman in conflict with her family’s culture (“The Farewell”) to a story about a Pakistani teen in Britain who finds his voice by listening to Bruce Springsteen (“Blinded by the Light”). (And those aren’t even in the World Cinema sections of the festival.)
There’s also a coming-of-age story with a transgender twist in “Adam,” taking one of the classic Sundance styles in a new direction, a feminist twist on dystopian science fiction in “I Am Mother,” and a revenge story that detours into a searing examination of the subjugation of women and indigenous peoples in “The Nightingale.”
And then there are the documentaries, with highlights in the first weekend including “Knock Down the House,” about insurgent political candidacies epitomized by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez; “The Inventor,” about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes and the “fake it till you make it” culture of Silicon Valley; “Untouchable,” about Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual misconduct and “Where’s My Roy Cohn?,” a doc so timely that one of its talking heads, Cohn protégé Roger Stone, was arrested the day of the premiere.
That’s the tip of the iceberg, and it’s hardly new to Sundance. But when you add up this year’s offerings, in many ways they amount to a portrait of a fractured country, and a prescription for change and healing.
In addition, the festival highlighted an unusually rich slate of music docs, including “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” and “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool,” along with “Ask Dr. Ruth” and “Halston,” and some films that have gotten lots of attention without fitting too snugly into this narrative (the Michael Jackson documentary “Leaving Neverland” and the Ted Bundy biopic “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”).
On the whole, the docs have been stronger than the narrative films, but that’s par for the course at Sundance. And together, the docs and narratives add up to a comprehensive look not only at the state of independent film but the state of the union itself.