A snapshot of American indie cinema in 2019

We report back from Sundance London 2019, where a selection from America's biggest indie film festival crossed the Atlantic to greet Brits for the first time

Feature by Thomas Atkinson | 05 Jun 2019
  • A snapshot of American indie cinema in 2019

Fish out of water were all the rage at this year’s Sundance London Film Festival, a condensed, distilled shot of indie cinema featuring films handpicked from the parent event in Park City, Utah. Across a long weekend, a baker’s dozen of films played at the Picturehouse Central, with several featuring expatriates in territory they found difficult to navigate. Whether it be Sam Adewunmi’s Femi, uprooted from his idyllic Lancashire life to the streets of London in Shola Amoo’s The Last Tree, or Emma Thompson’s ageing late-night host in an ocean of talentless younger men in Nisha Ganatra’s Late Night, identity crisis was the order of the day.

And yet, the selection was otherwise rather broad. Fluffy comedies sat alongside gruelling revenge thrillers, space documentaries, stirring family dramas and one disaster almost certainly destined for the Netflix landfill (Corporate Animals). Across five big-hitters, The Skinny takes a snapshot of a snapshot, selecting and reviewing the indie movies that audiences will be hearing much more from in the coming months.

The Farewell

Dir. Lulu Wang

We begin with Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a runaway pick for best film at the festival. Based on Wang’s own experiences, it follows Chinese-born American Billi (a measured Awkwafina) returning to China for a wedding, which turns out to be an excuse for the family to spend time with Billi’s dying grandmother, Nai Nai. The catch is that Nai Nai is unaware of her lung cancer diagnosis: as per some Chinese families’ traditions, her offspring have kept it from her so she may peacefully live out her final months.

The concept is an easy screwball bullseye for Wang to hit, but the best comic moments are affectionate rather than farcical. This is a true story, after all, and an expression of heartbreak on Wang’s part. The fact that Nai Nai is the most vibrant, richly drawn character in the film tells all. As Wang elegantly expresses with purposefully unspectacular direction that just lets the performances (all beautifully specific) simply be, Nai Nai is Billi’s – and thus Wang’s – last true connection to China. It’s not so much that Nai Nai may be gone soon that pains Billi, but the thought that she might be unable to say goodbye.

Apollo 11

Dir. Todd Douglas Miller

A rocket’s bulbous ignition cloud billows towards the edge of a magnificent wide shot, signalling the culmination of Apollo 11’s invigorating first act and the start of the crew’s trip to the moon. In the lead-up to lift-off, director Todd Douglas Miller shows off his procurement skills with a blend of official NASA footage, news reel spare parts, and, in his deftest trick, a selection of home video and news shots taken from areas where civilians were watching the take-off – in glorious, sunny ‘60s colour. Getting to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of 1969 is the film’s deepest pleasure.

Once Armstrong and co. are on their way to the moon, Miller’s in-world storytelling – no interviews or talking heads, no voiceover, and little onscreen text – has the presence and forward-march pacing of fiction. That can occasionally be a deflating flaw: playing the film as though it’s happening here and now means we get to spend about as much time on the details as they did, which is not a whole lot. But it’s also often mightily impressive.

Released 28 Jun by Dogwoof

The Nightingale

Dir. Jennifer Kent

Jennifer Kent’s new film, and follow-up to The Babadook, is bad. Aisling Franciosi stars as Clare, an Irish woman in 19th-century Tasmania (the colonial era) trekking across the outback with an Aboriginal guide, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), to avenge her husband and infant’s murders and her own rape, all at the hands of hoary English soldiers. The film unambiguously wants to threaten and punish you – its cheap overreliance on poorly rationalised sexual violence can tell me that much. Even so, Kent’s rushed editing holds it back, shrinking the space that the film needs to exhale.

But it’s not for that reason that I found the film profoundly stupid: it was in its shallow understanding of intersectional colonial politics. It’s not unfair for Kent to compare Clare, an Irish woman uniquely oppressed by the English military, to Billy. Just as he finds himself driven out of his territory by invaders, Clare’s body is violated (repeatedly, exploitatively) by the very same. But Kent makes the mistake of approximating them when it starts getting too complicated. Instead of wrestling with those complexities, she either forgets or ignores that Clare’s roots make her, in some sense, a coloniser as well. A better, more perceptive movie would know that.

Hail Satan?

Dir. Penny Lane

If we take Hail Satan?, Penny Lane’s entertaining documentary on The Satanic Temple, as an extension of the Temple itself (Lane herself is now a member), it’s clear that this is a work more interested in discussing its own philosophy than any other kind. The film ably dispels the notion that the Temple worships Satan as a metaphysical being; rather, they embrace him as a concept of rebellion, in this case against the pervasive church-state conjoined by the Evangelical right in the United States – a strangely relatable cause.

But, as understandable as it is to mock American Christian conservatism as silly, there are points where I wondered if Lane didn’t know that, from the outside, The Satanic Temple can seem a little silly too. There’s little grappling with the question of how the Temple, an organisation that satirises organised religion, can hope to symbolically function if it is also a form of organised religion. Those contradictions are rarely explored, and nor is the idea that The Satanic Temple is merely one extreme on a spectrum with the Christian right on the other end. It ultimately seems like The Satanic Temple, while potentially a positive political force, is also a monument to structured contrarianism.

Released 23 Aug by Dogwoof

Late Night

Dir. Nisha Ganatra

Emma Thompson’s skill as an actor is such that miscasting her is near-impossible. Even so, there’s something particularly impressive about how Late Night, an otherwise excessively frothy, sentimental latte of a movie, uses her star power. Only she could play the role of an older stateswoman of late night talk shows harnessing the power of autonomy for the sake of comedy. The stakes for Thompson’s Katherine Newbury have never been higher, with her show on the rocks and ratings steadily declining, until Mindy Kaling’s chirpy Molly, a new writer on the show’s staff, attempts to help.

Kaling is also on screenplay duty, though neither role is fulfilled with much zeal. As the film often reminds us, the world of late night television can be cutthroat. It's a pity her writing didn't reflect that; instead, it sweetens literally everything. Frankly, the film would have been far stronger if it followed its own advice: take risks. When Molly fights hard to get Katherine to tackle taboo topics on the show, it feels a little rich for a film whose best jokes – the uncomfortable ones – come pretty rarely. It’s not satire, but it almost certainly should be: a satire would run with Katherine’s high standards for talk show hosting and recognise that “great” television, the shallow pleasure and instant gratification to which Katherine eventually succumbs, can mean something entirely different to “good” television. 

Released 7 Jun by Entertainment One

Sundance London ran from 30 May-2 Jun