A snapshot of American indie cinema in 2018
We report back from Sundance London, where the Park City festival offshoot is attempting to address gender inequality in an age of Time’s Up and #MeToo
In the wake of Time’s Up and #MeToo, #WhatNext – which aims to address gender parity in the film industry – heralded the sixth edition of Sundance London (back, despite strikes and a picket line, for a third year at Picturehouse, which is still embroiled in a wage dispute with workers). This year, seven of the 12 films in the programme boast female directors, with the festival in pursuit of a cinematic landscape more representative of the general population. It’s an ambitious project, not least because the culture and canon of cinema has for so long been defined by men.
Far from just a lack of women directors, the language of cinema is overwhelmingly masculine. One consequence of such conditions is that women filmmakers sometimes replicate that language. Never Goin’ Back, the debut feature from Augustine Frizzell, for example, depicts a shallow friendship between two teenage girls and adopts a blatantly male, objectifying gaze, rendering the impact of having a woman as its director effectively empty.
For all the admirable endeavours of festivals like Cannes and Sundance, thus far the efforts to unravel so layered a problem as the growth of female-led and female-authored stories has not yielded fruitful results. The reason being that films directed by women are not – by virtue of being directed by women – necessarily guaranteed to be good films, nor are such films always disposed to deliver complex representations of womanhood. Hopefully, what’s next is to arrive at both quality and quantity, for the problem has never been that women don’t make good films but how to level the playing field so that audiences may access them.
Despite well-intentioned political animus, this year’s Sundance London offered many lacklustre features, from men and women alike. That said, the strongest films rate among some of the best of the year so far. The Skinny caught the vast majority of the line-up, so here’s an unranked top five of some of the most notable films in selection.
Dir. Jennifer Fox
Jennifer Fox investigates the childhood sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her 40-year-oldish running coach (Jason Ritter) and his accomplice, her beloved riding instructor (Elizabeth Debicki), in this deeply personal exploration of memory and trauma. In the film, Fox's mother (Ellen Burstyn) finds a romanticised account of the abuse that her daughter wrote as a teenager. Now 48 years old, and played by the always compelling Laura Dern, Fox must reconstruct the past she thought she knew, which the director visualises using some inspired stylistic choices.
When Dern's Fox first recalls herself at 13, she (played by Jessica Sarah Flaum) is confident and tall, able to pass for much older; but when she finds a picture of what she really looked like at that age, she becomes slight and shy, very much a child and played by a different actor (Isabelle Nélisse). Fox draws too from her documentarian background to devastating effect in moments where she ‘interviews’ the players in her tragedy, including her younger self, well-loved but not as looked after as she could be and desperate to be considered special.
But the film is not without its problems. The rape scenes (filmed with an adult body double) are disturbingly sexualised, which may have to do with the process of rebuilding (unreliable) memory, as Fox first remembers the affair as consensual. Ultimately these scenes beg the question: do audiences really need rape visualised in order to grasp the weight of its evil?
Dir. Paul Schrader
At first glance, Paul Schrader’s decidedly stark drama seems like a departure for the American Gigolo (1980) director, and at least aesthetically it is; but in fact, First Reformed restages many of the themes he has grappled with since he penned Taxi Driver (1976). Ethan Hawke plays Ernst Toller, the haunted, ailing, whiskey-guzzling pastor of First Reformed church. Chronicling his thoughts – his own personal book of revelations (while quoting the actual Book of Revelations) – in a journal he plans to keep for a year, Toller spends the film wrestling with his convictions and the bureaucracy that keeps his church, with a congregation of barely ten, afloat. If that premise sounds at all familiar, the film quickly whisks its viewers down one surprising path after another.
Beneath all its austerity lies a patently emotional film, fueled by something almost as feverish as the extremism it unpacks at its centre. But Schrader wisely leaves more questions than answers, giving equal depth to unearthing spirituality in the physical and temporal as the less heavenly embrace between religion and politics. Hawke turns in a masterful performance as Toller, and while given much less to do, Amanda Seyfried as a pregnant parishioner he bonds with provides an anchoring presence. Released in the UK 13 Jul by Picturehouse Entertainment
Leave No Trace
Dir. Debra Granik
Based on Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment, Debra Granik’s stirring drama Leave No Trace follows Army veteran Will (Ben Foster) raising his bright-eyed daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) – whose mother is never mentioned – in a massive public park. Isolated from technology and society – save for a group of veterans to whom Will sells opioid painkillers – their life seems in some ways idyllic, certainly filled with love, although punctuated by guerilla-style drills to practice staying out of sight. Unfortunately, their worst fears are realised when Tom is accidentally spotted by a hiker and the outside comes crashing in. Newly reintegrated, Will predictably has trouble adapting to even their small surrounding community, but people (not to mention animals and insects) easily take to the winsome Tom, even as she worries about starting school with other children.
Once again, Granik – eight years after her hard-hitting second feature Winter’s Bone – spins an exquisite, haunting tale of family and community. Threads, both symbolic and explicit, to do with the condition of America and its treatment of those at the margins, are there for those who wish to connect them, but in fact Leave No Trace possesses a much simpler ethos: sometimes people reward your faith in them. Foster is on excellent form, as ever, and McKenzie is a promising new talent, with an impressively gripping breakout performance. Released in the UK 28 Jun by Sony Pictures Releasing
Dir. Ari Aster
No genre may be so well-suited to articulate grief than horror, with its hauntings and proximity to death (see 2014’s The Babadook). This is the strength of Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary. In the wake of her mother’s death, Annie (Toni Collette) must reconcile her grief with their complicated relationship. This dynamic has obviously infected her relationships with her own children, son Peter (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), an eerie child who rivals the creepiest of horror film youths. Tragedy soon strikes the family again and despite the best efforts of her supportive husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), the family may never be the same again.
Hereditary boasts strong performances from its cast, particularly from Wolff – who makes for sympathetic prey – but the conclusion wastes its compelling foundation. Giving as little away as possible, Hereditary is an occult tale – with nods to predecessors Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Suspiria (1977) and even The Skeleton Key (2005) – and the occult has famously operated as a space (just look at the aforementioned films) for women to reclaim power in a world and overarching genre that would prefer to see them violated and mutilated. The film’s climax belies that tradition in favour of shock and ends up saying nothing especially coherent about the nature of grief. Released in the UK 15 Jun by Entertainment Film
Dir. Bo Burnham
The hidden gem of this year’s Sundance comes, perhaps surprisingly, from comedian Bo Burnham, whose exceptional feature film debut Eighth Grade easily emerged as the salve of a festival steeped in harrowing tales of grief, loneliness and trauma. That’s not to say Eighth Grade doesn’t possess its darker moments. The film follows shy, awkward Kayla (Elsie Fisher) through her last week of eighth grade, in her efforts to ensure that high school be a better experience. Armed, endearingly, with a list of goals to boost her confidence and make friends, she endeavours to “put [herself] out there” with amusing, sometimes devastating results.
Some aspects of adolescence never change, like the popular mean girl (Catherine Oliviere) and the vapid handsome jock (Tye Sheridan lookalike Luke Prael). The hugest development, of course, is technology, and Eighth Grade – the film and the era itself – are full of it. Kayla makes self-help YouTube videos in her bedroom and spends her nights sweeping obsessively through Instagram and Twitter. Eighth Grade cleverly negotiates what technology amplifies for young girls, aware earlier and with much higher stakes, that they are primarily to be looked at. And so it is Burnham’s film, of all the films at this year’s Sundance, that offers one of the most sensitive and honest portrayals of girlhood, trapped under the objectifying gaze and the consequences of living under such pervasive surveillance: anxiety, low self-esteem. It is when Kayla begins to look outside herself for the love that’s been there all along that she blossoms – clichéd perhaps, but no less lovable in this delight of a film.
Sundance London ran 30 May-2 Jun