THR Critics' Chat: Female-Driven Filmmaking Gave Sundance 2018 a Jolt

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
From left: 'Leave No Trace,' 'The Tale,' and 'The Kindergarten Teacher.'

This year's edition struggled to measure up to last year's, but provided proof of the festival's commitment to diversity — with many of the strongest, most provocative movies directed by or revolving around women.

JON FROSCH: Hi, team! Now that we’ve emerged from the slush and sleep deprivation of Sundance, let’s get down to it. Last year, the festival unfolded in the shadow of Trump’s depressing inauguration but distracted us with a pretty dazzling array of films: Call Me by Your Name, Get Out, God’s Own Country, The Big Sick, Mudbound, Quest, Step, Marjorie Prime, Ingrid Goes West and the list goes on. A few of those went on to become some of the most widely praised works of the year — and, not that it’s a reliable metric of quality, major awards contenders. And while it’s always hard to generalize with Sundance — your assessment really depends on what you see; sometimes you strike gold, sometimes you strike out — the 2018 edition seemed to me not nearly as strong. Nothing I saw came even close to heavyweights like Call Me by Your Name or Manchester by the Sea the year before.

Of all the fests, this one is perhaps the most susceptible to deafening on-the-ground buzz — frequently in the form of feverish Twitter takes that may have more to do with a film’s topicality and timeliness than its quality (remember Birth of a Nation?). This year, critics seemed readier than ever to forgive or overlook certain movies’ shortcomings because of their political urgency, their ability to tap into the passion of movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. I’m thinking of bold and provocative but wildly uneven films like interracial buddy comedy Blindspotting; The Tale, an alternately powerful and clunky drama about a woman coming to grips with past sexual abuse; and Boots Riley’s initially ingenious, then increasingly labored race-and-corporate-greed-and-who-knows-WTF-else satire Sorry to Bother You. I’m not saying titles like these are undeserving of attention; films that start, or continue, necessary conversations should be seen, no matter their technical or artistic merits. But I do wonder how they’ll play outside the Park City bubble. [News came in Friday that The Tale was sold to HBO, which I think is a good fit; stretches of the film have a kind of expository procedural bluntness that’s better suited to the small screen than the big.]

That said, credit where it’s due — this is a festival that walks the walk when it comes to diversity both behind and in front of the camera. My two favorites this year were from women filmmakers making triumphant returns after long-ish absences: Leave No Trace, a drama directed by Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) — about a father and daughter living in the Pacific Northwest wilderness — that’s a model of unshowy emotion and intelligence; and Tamara Jenkins’ rich, rewarding, painful comedy Private Life, starring a peerless Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as a New York couple embroiled in an epic fertility struggle.

What about you? General impressions, highs, lows?

TODD MCCARTHY: I can only second your feeling, and that of many critics, that it was a relatively lackluster year. Unlike at other festivals, there are large pockets of support in every audience for every film at Sundance that cheer no matter what; you have to adjust to that. This year I felt that I could "read" the room a little better and separate out the automatic support factions from the more objective audiences, and I sensed that reactions were a bit more reserved. It's definitely true that there were no real breakthrough equivalents to the several that hit it out of the park last year, and the nature of the business for what can be called specialized films is in flux; some can now become hits on the order of Get Out and The Big Sick, but many are left by the wayside, probably more than before, due to the vast amount of provocative and original shows on TV. Is anyone going to devote an evening to going out and paying for Reed Morano’s failed sci-fi film I Think We’re Alone Now (screened in the U.S. dramatic competition this year) when they can watch an episode or two of Netflix’s brilliant Black Mirror at home?

To rebound on Jon’s point about female filmmakers at this year’s fest, the most powerful and startling film I saw, the one I can't shake, was indeed directed by a woman, and a first-timer at that. However, it isn't uplifting, and I would add that were it directed by an American woman, it would have been considered too outre, anti-p.c. and even transgressively pornographic, for Sundance. The film is Holiday, a Danish gangster flick set and shot in Turkey, shown in the World Cinema dramatic competition, directed by Isabella Eklof and written by her and another woman, Johanne Algren. The leading character, Sascha, is a 20-something gangster's moll, and Eklof stages an absolutely shocking sequence of hardcore sex between her and the gangster involving intercourse, then oral sex, then a disgusting bit that is violent and forced and completely degrading by design. What makes the scene defensible and essential is that it’s the gangster's way of bringing her down to his level and, ultimately, making her a criminal like him; once you are defiled, you can become a defiler yourself, without remorse or morality. What I loved about it was that Eklof, by putting this character through the wringer, succeeded in creating a female version of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley. How far this film can go on the festival circuit and then into commercial release with that scene intact remains an open question; in the current political climate, there are bound to be those vehemently opposed to its showing.

LESLIE FELPERIN: I didn’t see Holiday, but I did see The Tale, another female-directed film about sexual abuse, which Jon mentioned above. I admired it, with qualifications. It was certainly the most zeitgeist-y film in the festival, even dubbed by Slate magazine “the perfect movie for our #MeToo moment.” Part of its impact lie in the way it explored women’s often fraught, denial-fueled relationship to the “victim” label — but it was also straight-up shocking to see a 13-year-old girl being coerced into having sex with an older man in wince-inducing scenes. (The actual sex scenes were filmed with a body double, but the cutaway shots to the victim’s pained face show 11-year-old actress Isabelle Nelisse, who plays the role the rest of the time.) The innovation of the film is the way it blurs lines between fiction and documentary; all the roles are played by actors, but director Jennifer Fox (played in the movie by a gutsy Laura Dern) described the story as "100 percent memoir," a re-creation of what happened to her when she was 13 and was manipulated into a sexual relationship with her track coach. A striking formal sleight of hand involved using one actor (Jessica Sarah Flaum), who looks like a 15-year-old, at first, only to have the casting “corrected” when Fox’s mother (played by Ellen Burstyn) shows her a picture of what she really looked like at age 13; the scenes are then rerun with younger actress Nelisse, confronting the audience with how much creepier it seems with a 13-year-old than a 15-year-old. I agree with Jon that the expository dialogue is clunky as hell, and the movie gets off to a very clumsy start. But the film’s formal trickiness reminded me in some ways of documentary Casting JonBenet, the standout of the fest for me last year.

Overall, I concur that the vibe on the street suggested a so-so Sundance. I did like the Midnight entry Assassination Nation, a teen exploitation flick for the Trump era where the four diverse young heroines are up against a town-turned-mob, whose evil sheriff calls them “very fine people” (echoing a Trumpian phase in the wake of Charlottesville). It was soaked in blood and pretty amoral, but a blast. 

Elsewhere, Amy Adrion’s Half the Picture, a talking-heads-driven exploration of why there are so few female directors in Hollywood, was full of smart women like Penelope Spheeris, Ava DuVernay, Mary Haron and Gina Prince-Bythewood being witty, wise and wound-up by the power imbalance in the industry. I chuckled at Transparent creator Jill Soloway suggesting, tongue only partly in cheek, that part of the problem is that film criticism is dominated by men, and proposing that all the guy critics on the trade publications be replaced by women. (Thanks for the support, Jill, although heaven knows I’d miss you guys.) Over to you, David.

DAVID ROONEY: I agree that Sundance last year yielded an exceptional crop, so it was always going to be a challenge for the 2018 lineup to measure up. (Though paradoxically, last year’s grand jury prize winner, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, a minor quirkfest, disappeared into the Netflix maw immediately after the festival.) But I did see a handful of beautifully crafted movies. 

As Jon noted, a significant amount of attention was generated by Sorry to Bother You in the dramatic competition, with some people calling it this year’s Get Out and piling on the (I think mostly unjustified) superlatives. The movie has a certain out-there audaciousness and an infectiously rollicking start, but falls apart and becomes a bludgeoning experience with an incoherent point of view. Todd mentioned that sharp television like Black Mirror gives audiences less incentive to settle for inferior sci-fi, and the same applies to films about the complexities of contemporary black identity when we have incisively observed shows like Insecure, Dear White People, Atlanta and even network entry Black-ish on TV. The comparison with the wickedly smart Get Out is a stretch.

I found much more confidence and a clear authorial voice in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Monsters and Men, a symphonic consideration of the ripple effects of a death in a black Brooklyn community caused by an NYPD officer’s use of excessive force during an arrest. It’s such a sober drama that it risks passing under the radar, but I think there’s real maturity in the daring three-act structure, each part with a different protagonist, and the seamlessness with which the writer-director weaves in elements ripped from the headlines. It’s also beautifully acted.

The same goes for Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher, in which the titular character (Maggie Gyllenhaal) develops a fixation on a young pupil she suspects may be a literary genius. At a time when there’s much discussion of the underrepresentation of women filmmakers and women characters, this was a prime example of the female gaze illuminating the psychological complexity of a dangerously single-minded female figure, shedding light on the encroaching emptiness in her life as the driving force behind her increasingly irrational choices. You can’t look away from Gyllenhaal’s understated intensity.

Beyond the competition, Joshua Marston’s Come Sunday was easily his best film since Sundance breakout Maria Full of Grace 14 years ago. I have to confess I read the synopsis — Pentecostal preacher has crisis of faith and loses his Oklahoma mega-church — and glazed over. But this is a fiercely smart, searching movie about faith that is fair-minded in its examination of a religious man and the beliefs that he unexpectedly begins chafing against. Chiwetel Ejiofor as real-life bishop Carlton Pearson gave probably the best performance I saw at Sundance this year. I think for those of us who tend to define the religious right by their political positions, this is an important movie that invites us to look at evangelicals as everyday people. It’s also just mesmerizing drama.

FROSCH: David, I’m with you on Gyllenhaal in The Kindergarten Teacher. I thought the movie was fine — softer-edged and less powerfully unsettling than the 2014 Israeli drama it’s a remake of — but she’s riveting from start to finish in a super-tricky role. It takes a an extremely smart, subtle actress to ground that character’s sneakily outlandish behavior in relatable human feelings and impulses — in this case, disappointment in how her life has turned out and a gnawing hunger for that elusive something more.

I also liked Monsters and Men, though maybe less than you did, David. I admired much about it, including the seamless fluidity of that three-act structure. But I found its restraint a touch too deliberate and its dramatic beats, as quiet as they are, ever so slightly on-the-nose. I felt similarly about another strong entry, Paul Dano’s elegant adaptation of the Richard Ford novel Wildlife. It’s an assured, lovingly crafted directorial debut, and Dano does a deft job harnessing the star power of Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan as the unhappy married couple at its center. But the whole thing felt slightly too harnessed to me, a bit too self-consciously controlled and cautious.

Wildlife did feature a superb breakout performance from a young actor I’d never seen: Ed Oxenbould, who makes his 14-year-old protagonist’s stoic decency both interesting and poignant, without ever pandering to the viewer’s emotions. Two other young discoveries were Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in Granik’s Leave No Trace — it’s the kind of low-key, note-perfect turn that blossoms in your memory — and the volcanically gifted Helena Howard in Josephine Decker’s latest experiment, Madeline’s Madeline. Playing an unstable teen actress, Howard yanks you right into her character’s fraying headspace, aided by Decker’s typically nerve-rattling interweaving of sound and image. After the Timothee Chalamet revelation last year, Sundance continues to be a platform for exciting new acting talent.

MCCARTHY: Speaking of promising discoveries, I found two films in the often venturesome Next sidebar formally quite interesting: Qasim Basir's purportedly (but I don't believe it) all-in-one-take Trump-election-night tale A Boy. A Girl. A Dream., which follows a sharp-looking black man and woman who have just met on an almost dreamlike nocturnal odyssey around Los Angeles; and the far more fully realized Search, in which debuting director Aneesh Chaganty pulls off a legitimately suspenseful and involving crime story exclusively told through what the main character can see on his computer screen.

I want to pick up on Leslie's mention of Jill Soloway's remark about the absence of female film critics. I think Soloway's comment rather ignores the actually considerable, and sometimes remarkable, contributions of female critics today and in the past. Right now, the profession seems inordinately weighted toward men because the vast majority of geeks and fanboys online (and who populate the Rotten Tomatoes lineup) are male. But most of these people aren't hired; they just start writing and have gotten their stuff out there in the internet era. When I was growing up in Chicago, it was a four-newspaper town, and two of the four papers had women as film (and theater) critics. And not long after that, the two most powerful and influential film critics in New York (other than whoever was at The New York Times, where the power came by virtue of the position more than the individuals) were Pauline Kael and Judith Crist. The late ’60s and ’70s saw the emergence of such notable critics as Penelope Gilliatt, Janet Maslin, Molly Haskell, Renata Adler, Caryn James, Lisa Schwarzbaum, Carrie Rickey and others, and I'm only mentioning the best-known and relatively mainstream ones. Also, let’s not forget that the most famous and prestigious film magazine of those decades, Sight & Sound, was edited for 34 years by Penelope Houston.

The trades, which Soloway singles out, were without question more dominated by men for a longer period than more mainstream papers and magazines; this is attributable to the fact that they were largely published and edited by older men whose careers dated back to the 1940s and 1950s and who, regrettably, weren't particularly thinking about hiring women. But it’s been clear that quite a few of the very best critics in the history of film criticism have been women.

FELPERIN: I’m sure Soloway’s suggestion about making all trade critics female was intended to be provocative, and I quoted her in the same mischievous spirit. It would be remiss of me to not point out that, as a woman critic, I owe my own career in no small part to the support and encouragement of many male colleagues. That said, Todd, I think your rebuttal in some ways actually supports Soloway’s and other feminist critics’ point, one that goes to the very heart of the argument in Half the Picture. Historically, there was, if not complete parity, at the very least a strong and sizeable contingent of women film critics, some of them like Kael holding the most important positions in the field. As film became more and more dominant and powerful as both an art form and an industry, though, men started to take control, and the same slow and insidious process spread to film’s ancillary industries, like the journalism that covered it — until we got to the point where men make up about 73 percent of the “top critics” on Rotten Tomatoes, according to a recent study. That’s a better proportion than directors, and a much better representation than in most of the technical below-the-line fields, but still we’re very far from parity.

It all comes back, as so many arguments do these days, to whether quotas and affirmative action-type approaches are an effective tool to combat this disparity. I heard whispers from some on the ground that this year the programmers at Sundance felt it was particularly important to give extra weight to female filmmakers and woman-centric stories in the lineup, a move I applaud personally even if the quality of such films was inconsistent. All the big festivals have been “trying” to redress the gender imbalance over the last few years, but the pressure is particularly acute now in the wake of #MeToo and Time's Up. If you think of festivals as universities, Sundance is the U.C. Berkeley of gender-positive programming: an almost firebrand institution that wants to position itself on the vanguard of progressivism. 

ROONEY: One film that in many ways exemplified Sundance's progressivism was the small but captivating Next entry We the Animals, which has been drawing comparisons to Malick and Moonlight. While you can see echoes of the early scenes in The Tree of Life, I think director Jeremiah Zagar has his own voice that honors the prose roots of the material and filters them through an impressionistic canvas. The movie is dreamy and lyrical but also quite disarmingly frank in the way it addresses preteen queer awakening. 

And, speaking of female-driven Sundance films this year, I can’t end this conversation without singling out Ari Aster’s debut Hereditary in the Midnight section, led by the always wonderful Toni Collette in her best role in years. This fest has been instrumental in the discovery of some truly memorable and original horror in recent years, like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook or Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow, or even David Lowery’s exercise in haunted existentialism, A Ghost Story, last year (not to mention Get Out). Hereditary sits comfortably among that group and may stand a chance of going far commercially because of the degree to which it also functions as a domestic drama about family breakdown. It kept me glued for two hours of unrelenting slow-burn tension building toward a climax of operatic Grand Guignol — and that’s thanks in large part to Collette. She's the diesel-fueled engine of a rock-solid ensemble. Then of course there's also the amazing Ann Dowd adding another memorable monster to her growing gallery of uniquely scary ladies. Dowd's remarkable midcareer ascent in film and TV in the past few years is a real statement of female empowerment — and in its own way a corrective to years of marginalization of women in an industry more inclined to have them conform to cookie-cutter "types." With five films at the fest this year, she might just be the new Queen of Sundance.