As an avid filmgoer and aspiring film journalist, I’ve always dreamed of attending the Sundance Film Festival. In the past, after factoring in being a full-time student, financial constraints and the festival’s location in Park City, Utah, the prospect of attending Sundance often felt more like a pipe dream than something achievable.
The virtual format of this year’s festival was my best shot at making my dream a reality. From Jan. 28 to Feb. 3, I had the distinct privilege of attending Sundance as an accredited member of the press. I watched film premieres, went to live Q&As with filmmakers and connected with critics across the globe.
The festival was everything I hoped it would be: the opportunity of a lifetime. Below, I chronicle my time at Sundance through three of the films I watched there.
Actress Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut “Passing” was one of my most anticipated films of the festival, due in large part to its two stars, cinematic powerhouses Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. After a hurried dinner, I positioned myself in front of my laptop and joined the film’s virtual premiere. Though I watched every movie at the festival with a notepad in hand to jot down my thoughts, my entry on “Passing” is mostly blank: I was so transfixed by the film, I didn’t want to look away for even a second.
Based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name, “Passing” tells the story of two childhood friends, Irene (Thompson) and Clare (Negga). Though both women are multiracial, Irene lives her life as a Black woman while Clare “passes” as white. After a chance encounter reunites them in adulthood, they fall headlong into each other’s worlds, encroaching into one another’s lives with a fervor motivated in equal parts by fascination, envy and obsession.
“Passing” is a film about many things, from race to class to identity. Though many filmmakers struggle to address even one of these broad themes properly, Hall deftly weaves them together, illustrating both how they intersect and diverge. For instance, despite their differing racial identities, both women lead comfortably middle-class lives, which mediate their experiences with racism. The movie also features crisp black-and-white cinematography and impeccably period-accurate 1920s production design, but Irene and Clare’s complicated relationship, portrayed with crackling intensity by Thompson and Negga, is the movie’s central draw. The tension present in their dynamic is palpable, creating an entrancing viewing experience. Just as these women are drawn into one another’s lives, so too are we drawn into theirs.
I came to Sundance with big names in mind, from “Passing” to “Judas and the Black Messiah.” I was so thrilled by the opportunity to engage with works of such note that “Together Together” was barely on my radar. After a busy day, I planned on skipping the film altogether, but a last-minute blend of insomnia, procrastination and curiosity made me change my mind, and I’m so glad I did. “Together Together” represents the promise of Sundance, the possibility of hidden gems lurking where you’d least expect them; it was the most pleasant surprise I could have asked for.
“Together Together” explores the relationship between a young woman, Anna (Patti Harrison), and Matt (Ed Helms), the middle-aged man for whom she becomes a surrogate. Though at first, Matt is an overbearing presence in Anna’s life, showing up to her workplace unannounced with special clogs and fertility tea, the two quickly form an intimate bond. It’s a simple premise, but after days of watching overambitious movies that couldn’t deliver on their potential, the film felt like a breath of fresh air.
The standouts of “Together Together” are its script and its stars. While the dialogue is charming and light, writer-director Nikole Beckwith also crafts meaningful, honest conversations about loneliness and relationships that come with an expiration date. As a character-driven film, the movie’s success is dependent on a natural back-and-forth between Anna and Matt, which Harrison and Helms communicate effortlessly with oddball chemistry that is nevertheless sweet and tender. At the film’s introduction, Beckwith explained that “Together Together” is meant to celebrate platonic love and the film’s rejection of any sort of romance is a joy to behold; after a joint counseling session, Anna asks Matt, “Do you want to hold hands and eat candy and continue not sleeping together?”
If “Together Together” was Sundance’s biggest surprise, “CODA” was by far its biggest letdown. I had heard buzz about the film ever since the outset of the festival, especially in light of its $25 million acquisition by Apple TV+, the most expensive sale in Sundance history. I finally watched the film on the last day of the festival, when it was re-screened as a sort of encore after winning four prizes at the previous night’s awards ceremony. I was so desperate to see what all the fuss was about that I started the film during a Zoom lecture, and as the movie unfolded, I’m sure the confusion on my face was evident to all my classmates — I simply didn’t get the hype.
“CODA” follows Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a child of deaf adults to whom the title’s acronym refers. As the only hearing member of her family, Ruby must balance being a high school student with helping her parents and brother on their fishing rig. When Ruby’s choir teacher encourages her to audition for the Berklee College of Music’s vocal performance program, she finds herself caught between her passion for music and a sense of familial duty.
If the film’s premise sounds cliche, that’s because it is. The movie unfolds, beat for beat, exactly how one would expect. That’s not to say it isn’t an enjoyable viewing experience: there is no shortage of humor or heartfelt moments, and the soundtrack is a delight. Still, the entertaining facets of the movie can be found in any decently-made coming-of-age film. The only truly unique aspect of “CODA” is its refreshing approach to the representation of disability. The film employs deaf actors to play Ruby’s mother (Marlee Matlin), father (Troy Kotsur) and brother (Daniel Durant). It does not gloss over the struggles the Rossis face as a deaf family in a world built for the hearing, especially with regards to their fishing business, but it also refuses to present their deafness as a flaw or a tragedy. That aside, there is nothing about the film that makes it stand out from all the other fish in the sea.
This article is the first of a two-part series covering the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Read the second article here.