Feelin’ Film is excited to be back in Park City, UT to cover the 2024 Sundance Film Festival! This page will serve as a running journal of sorts, where you can read my thoughts on the many films I see as the festival progresses. Full video and podcast reviews will follow in the weeks after the festival ends, so be sure you’re subscribed to the podcast and YouTube channel to be notified when those are published. – Aaron White
- Note: Reviews published in order of most recently seen on top.
YOUR MONSTER (dir. Caroline Judy)
Melissa Barrera and Tommy Dewey are absolutely terrific in this monster movie rom-com musical with just the right amount of blood and Broadway helping to tell a story of a mistreated woman regaining her pride and unleashing anger where it’s deserved. Minutes into the film, Laura is dumped by her stage director boyfriend while lying in a hospital bed with cancer because “he can’t handle it”, and that sets her on a path to massive depression and self-doubt. Enter the titular character, a Monster who has lived in her closet since childhood, who finally appears and through a growing relationship helps remind her of who she is and what she is worth. It’s a lovely, hilarious, and a little bit dark tale that will have you cheering.
POWER (dir. Hans Block and Yance Ford)
This is a heavy watch with non-stop depressing (and often repetitive) archival footage of our decades of escalating and unchecked history of police power. Great points were made through interviews with scholars, which provides a solid history lesson, and a ride-along section of the film with a current police officer offers a glimpse into the current state of life working inside a system that even some of those within can acknowledge needs massive reform. The director’s injection of himself as a narrator was distracting, however, and this left me feeling pretty hopeless that our situation will never change.
ETERNAL YOU (dir. Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck)
Artificial intelligence (AI) is a hot topic at the moment. The technology is swiftly evolving and under scrutiny from many industries (especially Hollywood) that wish to seek protection for their work. It can write, generate art, and in some cases even digitally replace existing human beings. However, despite numerous fictional stories showing the potential devastating effects of AI advancement, we just keep pressing forward.
ETERNAL YOU explores some of the current work by various startups in the area of AI being used to simulate a lost loved one so that a person can communicate with them after they are gone. Through interviews with end users and the developers themselves, as well as what feel like reenacted chat sessions between a user and the AI personality, a picture is painted of how this technology can be used by grieving humans to fill a void they are having a hard time adjusting to. This is no doubt a morally divisive idea and we hear from people who both justify putting the responsibility of use on consenting adults and those who feel this is an emotionally damaging practice for vulnerable humans seeking comfort who are essentially convincing themselves that this thing they know is fake is real in order to mask a lingering pain. One creator even seems intent on this being a stepping stone to humanity achieving a reality where it can escape death altogether. Chilling stuff.
The latter third or so of the film is devoted to following a company who creates avatars in VR and the story leads up to a mother being reunited with her deceased child. Whether seeing her emotional about this triggers a similar feeling in you or one of deep concern about her well-being will likely signal where you stand on this current AI practice. The documentary spends a fair amount of time on this one storyline, more than necessary, and overall is less interesting as a procedural of how AI is created and more effective as a great conversation starter about the implications of using it to cling to relationships from our past. Questions such as who owns the data provided to a company to create an AI likeness and how these simulations affect us in a similar way to religion are fascinating ones that a viewer is likely to find value in discussing with people close to them. Though fairly repetitive in its messaging, this film is bringing an important topic to the forefront and provoking debate about it in an unbiased manner. Worth seeking out and then reflecting on your reaction to it for sure!
BLACK BOX DIARIES (dir. Shiori Ito)
In 2015, subject and director Shiori Ito was a journalism intern in Japan when she was raped by Noriyuki Yamaguchi, the Washington Chief of Tokyo Broadcasting System and close friend of then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Her experience with the Japanese legal system left her in shock and disgust at how frequently victims of sexual assaults were ignored and how archaic Japan’s rape laws were. The “Black Box” of the film’s title refers to how often everything that happens in a sexual crime goes unseen, thus giving prosecutors an excuse to say that they’ll never know what really took place. It is also the title of Ito’s 2017 memoir documenting her personal investigation into her own case. This documentary serves as her diary of that process and essentially translates that experience into a visual medium.
What Ito faced required an enormous amount of courage, as she endured public character assassination and the potential loss of her career in trying to take on a government that is shown to quite clearly obstruct any potential investigation into her assault. One of Japan’s century-old laws dictated that lack of consent itself was not enough to prove rape and that there must be evidence of significant physical violence or threat, none of which Ito had as she was met with resistance and discouragement when initially trying to report the crime, despite being made by police officers to reenact the crime she reported with a life-size dummy. As she says early in the film, though, “People need to know about the horrors of rape, and how deeply it affects one’s life.” So she boldly went public with her story and set out to find proof to push a criminal case forward.
Over the course of the years her investigation takes, we see the pain a survivor such as herself and so many others must endure. The judgment and name-calling of naysayers and the attempts to dismiss or disrupt her fact-finding in order to preserve the good name of the guilty. Ito’s case eventually is shifted into a civil suit and becomes a landmark moment in Japan, helping to usher in new laws by shining a bright light on the inadequacy of current ones. A particular touching moment occurs when Ito meets with other victims who have felt encouraged enough to come forward. Seeing the group find comfort and communally processing a grief that only those who’ve experienced could ever understand is a powerful scene.
Though Ito’s case itself is incredibly important and she herself a lovely human who both shows a stirring resilience and honest scars from what occurred to her, the film itself does suffer from being a bit too drawn out and lacks any real unique flourishes. It is bare bones investigative journalism most of the time, consisting of audio recordings being played back on screen and personal reflection helping to show the audience where she is mentally and emotionally at different points in the process. While that may not be appealing to everyone, the impact of Ito’s work is undeniable and a valuable complementary piece to her book or alternative for those who may prefer a more visual experience to strictly reading.
THELMA (dir. Josh Margolin)
Thelma is a 93-year old widowed grandma who doesn’t quite know how to organize or use email, takes accidental pictures when scrolling Instagram on her cell phone, forgets to put her hearing aids back in, and is resistant to her charming grandson’s plea that she wears a fall detection bracelet “just in case”. Oh, and she’s a big fan of Ethan Hunt, too! After a bit of setup introducing us to this lovely woman and establishing a sweet relationship between her and grandson Danny, disaster strikes and Thelma is targeted in a scam to extract $10,000 from her. Though it’s maybe a stretch to believe that she would fall for this pretty obvious scheme as it’s depicted, it nonetheless serves as a wonderful hook for sending elderly actress June Squibb on a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE style adventure full of humor and heart.
What follows is pure delight, a hilarious romp and even something that will tug at the heart strings a time or two. Thelma reconnects with Ben, played by Shaft himself – Richard Roundtree, a good friend in a nursing home who is also grieving the loss of his longtime partner and a character who exudes warmth and comfort. The two set off on his scooter on a mission across town to atone for her mistake, expose the scammer, and get her money back! Intermixed with the comedy and spy story tone (complete with a wonderful throwback detective serial score) are themes about dealing with anxiety and reckoning with how quickly things we take for granted can be gone. The supporting cast of Parker Posey, Clark Gregg, and Fred Hechinger (as Danny) are perfect complimentary pieces – the latter of which has his own struggles of being aimless, unmotivated, and chastised by his parents to overcome. But June Squibb is just absolutely wonderful and captivating as the determined senior star. I can’t believe that this is her first leading role in a 70-year career that includes an Oscar nomination but am grateful we all get to experience it now and treasure whatever she has left to bless us with in the world of storytelling.
GIRLS STATE (dir. Amanda McBaine and Jessie Moss)
McBaine and Moss are simply brilliant storytellers. They have a talent for capturing footage of the right people at the right time in order to tell the truth of an event in an exciting and entertaining way. In GIRLS STATE, they return to one of the titular state mock government programs to provide a fascinating look at young women with a desire to see their government include them and represent their politics. Watching the young women from varied backgrounds and belief systems come together under the banner of feminism, debate such meaningful topics to them as abortion and privacy rights, and question the inequality of their own experience to the one that a group boys in the same program are having on the very same campus is thoroughly engaging. One of my favorite things about this documentary is the delightful editing, which captures the kind of side eye looks and facial expressions people give while internally disagreeing with something. It made me chuckle more than a handful of times seeing how snarky these ladies could be. But in the end, the relationships and friendships built seem genuine and powerful. GIRLS STATE is a perfect companion piece to BOYS STATE, and well worth comparing, but also stands firmly on its own due to the unique, colorful, and inspiring personalities of these Missouri teens. The first must-watch doc of 2024 has arrived.
HOW TO HAVE SEX (dir. Molly Manning Walker)
HOW TO HAVE SEX may not make it obvious, but it’s so much more than just a party movie. Despite a propulsive, high-energy style of filmmaking with a blaring EDM score, Manning Walker’s story which follows three 16-year old British girls on a summer vacation full of partying, drinking, and on a mission to get laid in Greece, has a surprisingly strong and important message. The girls’ experience is all too relatable, from their poor choices to frequently over-indulge to the moments when they drop the facade of being older and show their age, this kind of debaucherous rite of passage is one many, many teenagers worldwide have partaken in. But this kind of unsupervised fun can be dangerous, too, and the film does a brilliant job of showing how subtly situations can go very wrong for young women and how critical it is to have friends that truly have your back with actions and not just words. As Tyra, Mia McKenna-Bru shoulders the most emotional and challenging arc of the three girls and gives an incredible performance that screams future star, and Manning Walker pulls no punches with her script, ending the film in a bold, realistic scenario that is heartbreaking, yet hopeful. Its final scene is powerful and one that I won’t soon forget. (Re-posted from earlier TIFF 2023 coverage.)
HIT MAN (dir. Richard Linklater)
Richard Linklater’s new untraditional rom-com about a philosophizing pretend contract killer is SO. MUCH. FUN. and also extremely smart and clever in its use of roleplay to examine the evolution of identity. Powell, who portrays real-life chameleon Gary Johnson, a local professor that would create different assassin personalities in order to meet with nab potential employers, shows that he is that dude, a real movie star. It’s the best he’s ever been and his chemistry with Adria Arjona (who gives a knockout performance as a client who wants to have her husband killed turned romantic interest) is pure fire. The snappy script (co-written by Linklater and Powell) balances comedy and high-minded ideas about whether or not we can change who we are perfectly, and the easy breezy pacing and pure charisma of the cast make spending time in this world a delightful joy. It’s not quite like anything the director has done before, but easily his best in quite some time, and one of the revelations to come out of the festival this year. (Re-posted from earlier TIFF 2023 coverage.)