Film Feature: 2016 Sundance Film Festival Spotlights #1

by Carrie Kahn on February 3, 2016


Marking its closing with its annual awards ceremony, the 2016 Sundance Film Festival ended this past Saturday evening; you can see all the winners here.

For the second year in a row, I braved the Park City cold, snow, and the ubiquitous Los Angeles UGG-wearing throngs to bring you spotlights of a fraction of the films that played the Fest. With nearly 200 offerings, the Fest featured way more than this reviewer could see. While I sadly missed the big winner and much lauded The Birth of a Nation (you’ll have to stay tuned to Spinning Platters later in the year for a full review upon its wide release), I nevertheless managed to knock out a respectable 18 films in five days. Many of these may receive distribution deals (if they haven’t already), so you can study up now with these capsule reviews, which use our trademark Sundance Viewing Priority Level (VPL) Guide:


VPL A = An absolute must-see. Monitor film and entertainment news sites religiously to see if this picture will be widely released, and then plan to be first in line to see it.

VPL B = If you’re in a movie mood and your first choice is sold out or not playing at your nearby theater, this picture is a wholly acceptable substitute. It’s not stellar, but it’s perfectly enjoyable, and it won’t be a waste of your time.

VPL C = If you need to escape a family argument, duck out of work to take a break, or fill a few hours on a long and lonely rainy day, there are probably worse ways to spend your time than seeing this picture, though not many. It’s flawed, and you’ll forget about it instantly, but it’s not totally dreadful, and it has at least one or two minor reasons to recommend it.

VPL D = Don’t even think about it. Avoid at all costs. Your time, money, and sanity are too valuable to waste on this dreck.

We’ll start our coverage with five feature films, and one documentary:

1.) Other People
(USA 2015, 97 min. Directed by Chris Kelly)

David (Jesse Plemons) shares a laugh with his mom (Molly Shannon).

As the saying goes, the best should be saved for last, but I’m so excited about this movie that I have to put it front and center. Writer/director Chris Kelly, a Saturday Night Live head writer, makes his feature film debut with this wry, lovely, and emotionally wrenching picture loosely based on his own life. Jesse Plemons is Kelly’s stand in here, playing David, a struggling writer who has returned from New York to his Sacramento home to help care for his cancer-stricken mother (Molly Shannon, in a stunning and devastating dramatic turn). Kelly’s film seamlessly blends the comic absurdity and aching sadness of grief and family conflict, real and perceived. The picture also portrays sibling bonds with such intelligence and startling accuracy that you’ll be reaching for the phone to call your brother or sister as soon as the film ends. With its unique mix of sardonic humor and brutal truth, Other People was deservedly nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, and it should be at the very top of your must-see list. VPL: A+

2.) Certain Women
(USA 2015, 107 min. Directed by Kelly Reichardt)

Michelle Williams is once again Kelly Reichardt’s muse.

Fans of filmmaker Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff; Wendy and Lucy; Old Joy) will love her new picture, which is a terrific showcase for not only her muse Michelle Williams, but also the very fine Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, and newcomer Lily Gladstone, a Native American actress who hopefully will find more work worthy of her talents. Reichardt’s film is based on short stories by Montana writer Maile Meloy, and, told in three loosely connected vignettes, the picture very much feels like literary stories come to life. Reichardt is a master of minimalist, visual storytelling, and her sparse style works well here, as she explores themes of disconnectedness and missed connections in Montana. More is left unsaid than said in these stories of three women who each, in their own way, face dismissive, casual sexism from men both seen and unseen in the respective tales. A virtual visual poem, Reichardt’s film will have you musing on the characters’ fates long after the credits role. VPL: A

3.) Tallulah
(USA 2015, 111 min. Directed by Sian Heder)

Tallulah (Ellen Page) makes a spur of the moment decision and faces serious ramifications.

Allison Janney and Ellen Page are reunited here, nine years after they played step-mother and step-daughter, respectively, in Juno. In writer/director Sian Heder’s excellent new drama, the duo also form a mother/daughter bond of sorts. The picture actually could be considered the anti-Juno; instead of dealing with an adoption to a loving parent, though, here, Heder, who has honed her writing chops on Orange is the New Black, gives us a complicated story about a baby who may not be receiving the best care from her birth mother. When homeless drifter Tallulah (Page) impulsively takes a baby out of what she perceives as a dangerous situation, events quickly spiral out of control, as Tallulah unwittingly involves her boyfriend’s mother (Janney, superb). An unflinching look at motherhood and personal responsibility, Heder’s picture presents us with no clear villains or heroes, but instead gives us an utterly captivating, morally ambiguous story. By allowing us to see the shades of grey inherent in the human experience, Heder elicits our empathy and compassion for all her characters, as they, as we so often do, struggle to do what they feel is right. VPL: A

4.) Miles Ahead
(USA 2015, 100 min. Directed by Don Cheadle)

Don Cheadle as Miles Davis.

Don Cheadle pulls off an impressive trifecta here, writing, directing, and starring in this biopic of jazz legend Miles Davis. A fresh take on the musical biography, Cheadle’s film is actually part standard biopic, part caper film, and part buddy movie, thanks to Ewan McGregor’s role as Dave, an intrepid Rolling Stone reporter desperate for the story of Davis’s comeback album. Cheadle focuses on the five year period starting in 1975 during which Davis stopped playing, and, with flashbacks, lets us see possible reasons for this extended silence. A side plot about new recordings stolen from Davis’s house, and Davis and new buddy Dave’s quest to get these back, comprise a good part of the film, but the picture doesn’t devolve too much into farce, thanks largely to the more straightforward narrative about Davis’s marriage to his first wife and his battle with substance abuse. With a soundtrack featuring Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, the picture will appeal to jazz aficionados and neophytes alike, both of whom will enjoy this brief look at the often troubled, but always fascinating, singular American musician. VPL: A- (NOTE: Miles Ahead will open at a Landmark Theater in San Francisco on April 8th).

5.) As You Are
(USA 2016, 110 min. Directed by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte)

Amandla Stenberg, Charlie Heaton, and Owen Campbell play disaffected teens in early ’90s upstate New York.

Taking its title from Nirvana’s Nevermind hit “Come as You Are,” this coming of age film set in upstate New York in the early ‘90s is reminiscent of dozens of other period, rural teenage angst movies we’ve seen over the years. The first full-length feature from director/writer Miles Joris-Peyrafitte (who previously directed a documentary short) and writer Madison Harrison, the picture is saved from feeling totally derivative by fresh performances by its young cast. Owen Campbell, Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games), and especially Charlie Heaton, who brings a watchful, sensitive, River Phoenix quality to his role, play a trio of teens in a love triangle, with the boys struggling to come to terms with their sexuality in a small, closed-minded town. Using a True Detective style police interrogation as a framing device, the story unfolds somewhat predictably, and the ambiguous ending may leave viewers frustrated. And Gen X viewers might wince to see Mary Stuart Masterson, a teen angst movie alum herself, now playing not the disaffected teen, but the mother of one. How far we’ve come. VPL: B-

6.) Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper
(USA 2016, 108 min. Directed by Liz Garbus)

Wyatt Cooper, his wife Gloria Vanderbilt, and their two sons, Anderson and Carter Cooper.

“I don’t want there to be anything left unsaid between us,” Anderson Cooper says about his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, in this somewhat one-sided documentary that takes its name from that quote. Directed by the Oscar-nominated Liz Garbus (her previous picture, What Happened, Miss Simone?, is up for Best Documentary at this year’s awards), the film, the title of which misleadingly implies it might be about mother and son, is actually almost exclusively about Ms. Vanderbilt. Those looking for insight into Mr. Cooper’s life story will be sorely disappointed. While Ms. Vanderbilt’s life certainly has had its fair share of ups and downs (a bitter custody dispute when she was a child, four marriages, a son lost to suicide), much of her history has been told and retold in other books and films. The interesting dynamic between Mr. Cooper and his mother, as well as how his own life developed following the death of his beloved father, is never fully explored. Perhaps best suited to those who are intrigued by any sort of glimpse into the life of one of America’s wealthiest and most famous families, this documentary may be tedious for anyone who prefers more probing, in depth human interest stories. VPL: B-  (NOTE: Nothing Left Unsaid will premiere on HBO on April 9th).








Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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