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Sundance 2021: Days 1 & 2

We are in the thick of Sundance 2021 now and I have seven features to review from the first two days. The reason I put both of these days together is because the first day only had one film for me in CODA. Now, I have plenty to talk about and I want to share my love for them as this was a strong opening to the festival.

Without further ado, here are my seven film reviews.

CODA

Director: Sian Heder
Writer: Sian Heder
Starring: Emilia Jones, Eugenio Derbez, Marlee Matlin

Synopsis: As a CODA – Child of Deaf Adults – Ruby is the only hearing person in her deaf family. When the family’s fishing business is threatened, Ruby finds herself torn between pursuing her love of music and her fear of abandoning her parents.

What a premiere to start this film off with. What is so important about this film is the representation of the deaf community, and all of the actors who play the family members and are actually deaf. It’s brings a level of authenticity to the film and is so compelling to watch on screen.

Emilia Jones is absolutely wonderful here, completely charming and easy to fall in love with. Her character has an arc that can lean into some of the coming-of-age tropes but they make sense with the narrative, and the deaf aspect of the story puts a new twist on the situation.

There are certain sequences that are so beautifully done, particularly one concert sequence near the end of the film. There are some bold choices here and they work extremely well. Overall, this is a beautiful story and one that I would absolutely recommend.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Flee

Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Writer: Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Synopsis: Amin arrived as an unaccompanied minor in Denmark from Afghanistan. Today, at 36, he is a successful academic and is getting married to his long-time boyfriend. A secret he has been hiding for over 20 years threatens to ruin the life he has built for himself. For the first time he is sharing his story with his close friend.

Flee is a beautifully told story, and one that is deeply impactful. Whilst it can be easy to hear about refugee stories on the news, a real impact is made when one single person gels their own experience – especially at such a young age.

It took me a while to get used to the animation style of this film, but I instantly fell in love with the more experimental choices in animation, especially the shadow sequences. Once I became fully invested in the story, I also became fully invested in the animation.

It can be jarring knowing that this is a dark story about refugees and having it open with a cheesy 80s track. However, this light-hearted choice helps give an identity to our lead character and separates him and his achievements from the struggles he has to face. It is that constant reminder that he is human and has feelings and a personality that makes the situation tough, but essential to watch.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In the Same Breath

Director: Nanfu Wang

Synopsis: How did the Chinese government turn pandemic cover ups in Wuhan into a triumph for the Communist party?

In the Same Breath is a powerful documentary that takes a look at numerous aspects of the Coronavirus outbreak. Whilst other documentaries have shown the impact of the virus itself, that is not the main focus of this story.

It has become clear that at the start of the pandemic, China tried to push their own agenda and try to hide the severity of the virus. What is hard to watch is the true devastation of the virus in China, with full hospitals and many dying waiting outside for treatment. It is a wake-up call and one that several doctors and journalists tried to spread before the outbreak went across the world.

I do think the documentary sometimes struggles to balance the journalism aspect, the COVID-19 aspects and the political aspects, as it becomes unclear what the main message of the film is. However, the film starts and ends at the perfect moments and this is one of the few pandemic documentaries that feels concise and ends on a somewhat conclusive note. It is a strong piece of work and something that people should watch.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Homeroom

Director: Peter Nicks

Synopsis: Following the class of 2020 at Oakland High School in a year marked by seismic change, exploring the emotional world of teenagers coming of age against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world.

Admittedly, I was not that much of a fan of the opening half of this film. To me, it felt directionless. It makes sense why this is, as it is a story that needed time to develop and to see what issues would make an impact in the school. This also came from the lack of narration and interviews, only being told through footage in chronological order. I do wish that interviews were inserted throughout, as that would have helped warm to the students and fully grasp what narrative was heading towards.

However, all that is forgiven when we get to the second half of the film, in which the events of 2020 start to come into play. Whilst unplanned for this documentary, the events of COVID-19 have a major impact on the school district and how they ran, and it gave a layer to the film and a challenge for these students to face.

The main focus, however, is about the work that the students were doing throughout the year to defund the police. Being able to see the pieces come into play between the perception of the police in 2019 in contrast to 2020 not only helped show how the next generation plan to lead, but what impact they can make. Watching these events through the eyes of student activists is refreshing, and the final 30 minutes are what sells this film in the end.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I Was a Simple Man

Director: Christopher Makato Yogi
Starring: Steve Imawato, Constance Wu, Tim Chiou

Synopsis: A ghost story set in the pastoral countryside of the north shore of O‘ahu, Hawai‘i. Told in four chapters, it tells the story of an elderly man facing the end of his life, visited by the ghosts of his past.

The first disappointment of the festival for me sadly. I do want to start by highlighting the positive in the cinematography, which is absolutely stunning. This is brought to life by the production and the gorgeous setting of Hawaii. I won’t be shocked if this is the most beautiful film I see at the festival this year.

Sadly though, cinematography alone cannot keep me engaged with the story and the pacing is just too slow. There will be people that appreciate how slow it is and the tone of it, but it left me waiting for something to happen for the entire runtime. It became difficult to connect with the story, and one that is supposed to be haunting and impactful, when there are stretches of time with nothing to hold on to.

This is a story that has so much potential. The idea of exploring this culture that has connections with the dead is a fascinating idea, and the concept was introduced quite strongly in the first ten to fifteen minutes. It sadly falls apart after that as I slowly found myself distancing myself further, simply looking to appreciate the backdrops and Hawaii itself.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Pink Cloud

Director: Iuli Gerbase
Writer: Iuli Gerbase
Starring: Renata de Lélis, Eduardo Mendonça, Kaya Rodrigues

Synopsis: Giovana and Yago are strangers who share a spark after meeting at a party. When a deadly cloud mysteriously takes over their city, they are forced to seek shelter with only each other for company. As months pass and the planet settles into an extended quarantine, their world shrinks, and they are forced to come to terms with an accelerated timeline for their relationship.

Wow. What a film. It’s important to note that the opening credits for the film states that the film was written in 2017 and filmed in 2019. Iuli did a wonderful job making this story come to life and making the situation feel as real as we have experienced recently.

The visual effects are so well done and the colour palette is stunning, making this world so gorgeous to look at despite the clear dangers around it. I also love the production design of the house and how room has its own personality.

The characters are all so well written and all feel authentic. The journey they go on emotionally and the things they use to distract each other works so perfectly. The narrative is compelling, the situation feels more real now than ever and this is easily going to be one of the best films of Sundance 2021.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In the Earth

Director: Ben Wheatley
Writer: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Hayley Squires

Synopsis: As a deadly virus ravages the world, Dr. Martin Lowery embarks on a mission to reach test site ATU327A, a research hub deep in the Arboreal Forest. The arduous journey, guided by park scout Alma, is set back by a nighttime attack that leaves the two bruised and shoeless. When they run into Zach, a man living off the grid, they gratefully accept his help. Zach’s intentions aren’t exactly what they seem, however, and a path out of the forest and into safety quickly fades as the line between myth and science blurs.

This was definitely the jolt that I needed before going to sleep. I ended up having a lot of fun with In the Earth, something that I feel is necessary for a horror film like this. I appreciate that with this film written and filming during the pandemic, they included it into the script whilst also not making it a focus of the story. It helped ground the situation and make it feel even more real in today’s world.

This is a really clever horror film, using incredible visual effects to bring this world to life. You feel every bit of pain that our leading characters go through, and yet they don’t feel like dumb horror characters that deserved to be in the situation that they landed themselves in. They feel like real people and acted in the exact same way that I would have in that situation.

Ben Wheatley overall does a solid job at directing his screenplay, but I do feel like he does sometimes go overboard with the editing. Whilst a visual flare can add something to the film, the overwhelming amount of strobe lighting, heavy transitions, and visual blurs do distract from the main story – which is compelling within itself. Otherwise, this is such a good film and one I would recommend, if you are okay with horror and gore.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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