Last One Down the Mountain: Belated Thoughts on the Sundance Film Festival

Even virtually, the 2024 fest felt revitalized

Clockwise: Thelma, Love Me, Good One, Girls Will Be Girls, A Real Pain (all photos courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

Uh-oh.

Film reviews are already coming in from Berlin, which is the next major film festival on the international circuit after Sundance in late January. Following that, SXSW kicks off in another few weeks. And shiftless writer that I am, I have yet to file my Sundance reviews. With this reality check kicking my sloth to the curb, I hereby present some capsule reviews of some of the films I viewed during Sundance.

In its 40th year, the the Sundance Film Festival 2024 had the distinct feel of an institution that succeeded in shaking off some of its bygone fairy dust while also revitalizing its vaunted mojo. Like most film festivals, Sundance needed to recover from the full body blows delivered by the COVID years and the new Wild West of theatrical film distribution and the mishmash of digital platforms and streaming. Sundance hit the slopes in Utah on Jan. 18 with a trimmer program lineup and a new director, Eugene Hernandez (founder and former editor-in-chief of IndieWire and former director of the New York Film Festival), in place. During the COVID years, film festivals everywhere nimbly scrambled to figure out how to incorporate online screenings into their line-ups. Now that the fear of sitting in auditoriums with other people has subsided, Sundance reorganized in 2024 to include a digital screening track as a planned addition to the in-person festival. The online offerings were only available during the last five days of the festival and not all the films could be screened in the manner. Primarily available for home viewing were narrative and documentary films in the U.S. and World competition categories. Below are some brief takes on films I was able to watch in my living room without having to clamber aboard a shuttle bus amid the ice and cold while also balancing a laptop, clunky boots and parka, important tickets that I must not lose, too many gloves and used tissues, and unfamiliar room keys. My dues got paid up long ago.

Thelma

In June Squibb’s long acting career, it’s taken this little indie written and directed by first-timer Josh Margolin to turn the well-known character actress into a bona fide leading lady. Best recognized for her late-career roles in About Schmidt and Nebraska (for which she received a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination), Squibb stars in Thelma as the title character, a 93-year-old woman who takes justice into her own hands after she loses $10,000 in a phone scam targeting the elderly. Outwitting her family (Fred Hechinger, Parker Posey, and Clark Gregg), Thelma seeks out her husband’s old pal (Richard Roundtree in his final role) in his retirement home and they escape on his mobility scooter and hunt down the criminals who bilked Thelma. Malcolm McDowell also makes a supporting appearance in this delightfully against-the-grain caper in which titanium hips are put to the test.

Love Me

“I haven’t seen you in a billion years!” You will think back to this film the next time you hear someone say that. An oddball narrative by the writing and screenwriting team of Sam and Andy Zuchero, Love Me stars Kristen Stewart and Steven Yuen as a buoy and a satellite. Even weirder than their individual character descriptions is their love story, which spans billions of millennia. Alternately mystifying, amusing, and philosophical, the film (which includes animation) tracks the couple’s meetings, attractions, separations, reunions, doubts, hesitancies, loneliness, and bliss. The shape of their love story sketches recognizably modern-day concerns and futuristic possibilities. Sometimes with disconnected voices, sometimes in the flesh, and sometimes as objects in the seeming void of sea and sky, these two grapple with love eternal. A few bumps in the road regarding the film’s narrative clarity are apparent but Love Me is something to be felt rather than analyzed closely. Love everlasting can be that way.

Good One

Good One will forever be remembered by me as the first time I encountered the sensitive young actress Lily Collias. Her talent made enough of an impression that I will seek out every film Collias makes after Good One, her sophomore feature effort. Come to think of it, the film is so rewarding that I will also begin following the career of its writer/director India Donaldson, who debuts as a feature filmmaker with Good One. Collias stars as 17-year-old Sam, who is on a camping trip in the Catskills with her father and his best friend (James Le Gros and Danny McCarthy). It takes place during her last summer home before leaving for college. No big events happen; the story exists in the quiet spaces in between the action and the things that are vocalized. The men are having something of a guys’ weekend while Sam focuses on the camping trip. As part of a threesome, father and daughter both see and experience each other differently than on past excursions. Through patient observation rather than idle conversation, Good One ushers the teenager from childhood to adulthood.

Girls Will Be Girls

At an elite boarding school in the Himalayas, teenager Mira (Preeti Panigrahi) is appointed the first female head prefect at the school. One of a number of coming-of-age films at Sundance this year, Girls Will Be Girls benefits from its Indian cultural specificity. Not only does Mira tread inquisitively but cautiously through the confusion of her sexual awakening, the teen also finds herself caught between the contradictions of following her desires and the obligations of her newly appointed role as the school monitor. Add hypocrisy, the immaturity of her own mother, and the sexual double standards rife within the school, and Mira’s natural curiosity is stifled at every turn, yet is never squelched. Mira clearly belongs to the new generation of Hindu women who will grow up enjoying both orgasms and algorithms.

Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat

I’ve always been intrigued by the details surrounding the 1961 assassination of Patrice Lamumba, the PanAfrica activist and prime minister of the Belgian Congo, and the involvement of jazz musicians such as Louie Armstrong, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, and many others as goodwill ambassadors on African and North American soil. So this documentary by Johan Grimonprez grabbed my immediate curiosity. Even though the film is replete with enlightening facts and news clips, the collage-like presentation makes the material seem more out-of-grasp than cohesive. The documentary’s two-and-a-half-hour length doesn’t help matters any and when viewed in one sitting, Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat becomes a near-endless bombardment of factoids that defy cohesion and identifiable thesis. Grimonprez throws all his research material up on the screen but none of it lasts long enough to stick. The filmmaker needs to shape the material with a more authorial voice.

Gaucho Gaucho

Filmed in stunning black and white, Gaucho Gaucho presents a rare and intimate look at the dwindling gaucho culture in Argentina. Offering no voiceover commentary or supplemental material about these South American cowboys, the documentary allows the imagery and sounds to speak for themselves. Beautiful, evocative tracking shots of men, horses, dogs, condors, and a dedicated young woman named Guada, who is called to this line of work despite few in her orbit understanding her impulse, are accompanied by an almost operatic score. The effect is something like a tone poem, and the black-and-white cinematography adds to the feeling of witnessing a fading culture. Co-directors Gregory Kershaw and Michael Dweck excel at capturing the souls of subcultures. Gaucho Gaucho is an exemplary follow-up to their previous film The Truffle Hunters, a fascinatingly immersive study of the old-school Italian hunters and their dogs that work the forests daily.

Between the Temples

What’s not to love about a comedy about Jewish identity and modern angst that stars Jason Schwartzman and Carol Kane? He plays Ben, a cantor who has fallen into a deeply depressive funk, while she co-stars as Carla, Ben’s former grammar-school music teacher who decides to take lessons from him to prepare for her belated bat mitzvah. Throw in Robert Smigel (Triumph the Insult Comic Dog) as the congregation’s rabbi (who practices his golf swing using a shofar as a cup) and Triangle of Sadness’s Dolly De Leon as Ben’s Jewish mother to round out the cast, and you have a winning comedic recipe. Directed by and co-written (with C. Mason Wells) by Nathan Silver, Between the Temples bears narrative parallels to the Seventies dark horse Harold and Maude yet manages to make its own mark due to the geniality of its stars.

A Real Pain

A Real Pain came into Sundance as one of the event’s more high-profile offerings. The film is a two-hander starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin and is written and directed by Eisenberg. The actors play cousins who join a Holocaust tour of Poland in order to honor their grandmother. Eisenberg and Culkin are beautifully matched as the dyspeptic yet loving relatives, although Culkin, in all honesty, steals the movie in the moodier role. Eisenberg, however, proves himself a triple threat as a writer, director, and actor. The Sundance jurors agreed, awarding the film the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Sundance Film Festival 2024, Thelma, Love Me, Good One, Girls Will Be Girls, Soundtrack to a Coup d'Etat, Gaucho Gaucho, Between the Temples, A Real Pain

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