Sundance 2022 Wrap-Up: Film Festival Movie Reviews
Written By LaKisa Renee
SUNDANCE 2022 WRAP-UP: MOVIE REVIEW
After nine days, 84 feature films, 59 short films, conversations and events - the Sundance Film Festival wrapped on January 30th, 2022. The festival which began on January 20th, 2022 is usually held at the Sundance Resort in Park City, Salt Lake City, Utah. Due to the recent COVID-19 Omicron outbreak, all in-person events were cancelled and the festival was made completely virtually for the second year in a row. Even though we could not attend in person, the festival did not disappoint. The festival showcased so many wonderful feature films, short films, indie films, documentaries and episodics. Every day was action-packed and included conversations featuring some of the most notable visionaries in independent film, new media, and culture at-large, including Regina Hall, Sterling K. Brown, Dakota Johnson, Leslie Mann, Keke Palmer, Evan Rachel Wood, Amy Poehler, Eva Longoria Bastón, Thandie Newton, Alan Cumming, Cooper Raiff, Amy Berg, Clarence "Coodie" Simmons, Jeremy O. Harris and more. Keke Palmer talked about the importance of telling different perspectives on slavery in America. Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown discussed their personal journeys with religion and making Honk for Jesus. Evan Rachel Wood and Director Amy Burg called for awareness to domestic violence through Phoenix Rising; while Dakota Johnson gushed about her co-star Vanessa Burghardt in Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth.
A new, unique experience added to the Sundance Film Festival virtually this year was The New Frontier Spaceship & The IDFA DocLab. The Spaceship — a digital experience that invites you to teleport your body and launch into outer space. In avatar form, you can reach beyond the boundaries of space and time to experience this year’s New Frontier lineup of thought-provoking projects, attend screenings, and gather for premiere parties and filmmaker receptions in real time. You could also teleport to a secret world where we could sing karaoke, ice skate, go out to eat, play in an arcade and more. I really enjoyed this feature especially with the festival being completely virtual. It gave you the chance to still feel like you were attending in person. It was also a great networking experience as everyone was able to chat with each other. I also had the opportunity to attend the Blackhouse Foundation Conversations during the festival. We The Culture, Meta’s Black Creator program, led by Michelle Mitchell, engaged in candid conversation with Ms. Tina Knowles-Lawson––star of the Facebook Watch Original show, Talks with Mama Tina and co-founder of the WACO Theater Center. A fireside chat with actress and producer Regina Hall about her many roles in front and behind the camera as an entertainment powerhouse and the future of diversifying Hollywood, moderated by the Brickson Diamond also took place. Quest Love was on hand to discuss the impact of Summer of Soul: A Necessary Story presented by Onyx Collective, Disney’s new content brand focused on artists of color. Panelists included director, drummer, DJ, producer, culinary entrepreneur, New York Times best-selling author, and member of The Roots – Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and discussion was moderated by Onyx Collective’s President Tara Duncan.
With so many films to choose from it was tough picking which ones to watch. After thoroughly going through each film Synopsis, I narrowed my choices down to these amazing films. AFTERSHOCK Directed by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee, Aftershock is a documentary film that examines the U.S. maternal mortality crisis through the lens of the lived experience. An alarmingly disproportionate number of Black women are failed every year by the U.S. maternal health system. Shamony Gibson and Amber Rose Isaac were vibrant, excited mothers-to-be whose deaths due to childbirth complications were preventable. Now, their partners and families are determined to sound a rallying cry around this chilling yet largely ignored crisis. Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee follow Gibson’s and Isaac’s bereaved partners, Omari Maynard and Bruce McIntyre, as they fight for justice and build communities of support, bonding especially with other surviving Black fathers. Their tragic, individual experiences are punctuated with condemning historical context, showing that gynecology has a long-standing history of exploiting and neglecting Black women in America. Aftershock brings an unsettling reality to the forefront while uplifting the families, activists, and birth workers who are striving to bring institutional change and legislative reform. Directors and Producers Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award: Impact for Change for their film Aftershock. LUCI & DESI
Amy Poehler’s documentary debut LUCY AND DESI chronicles the personal & professional lives of the iconic Hollywood pair Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez. It highlights the making of I LOVE LUCY, their groundbreaking innovations in studio productions, the ups and downs, the sisterhood of comedy and more. The documentary debuted to rave reviews and captivated audiences. I had the chance to interview Music Composer David Schwartz, who discussed scoring Lucy and Desi Documentary for Sundance 2022. The Emmy-nominated composer David has also scored Arrested Development, The Good Place, Northern Exposure, VEEP, Almost Family, Lady Dynamite and many more. HALLELUJAH Director/ Writer Victor Gabriel and Producer Duran Jones & Victor Gabriel made their Sundance debut with their short film Hallelujah. It tells the story of Chetty and Paper, two brothers who refuse to grow up. Due to unforeseen circumstances they are now in charge of their nephew Hallelujah(13), a strange book quoting black boy and their quiet niece Lila(7), who are left orphaned after their parents are murdered. Sitting in the backyard, supposedly watching their niece and nephew, the two brothers become so distracted they don’t notice when Hallelujah attempts suicide. What follows is a funny moving story about family, the people we have left behind, and the people who are still with us. I had the opportunity to interview both the writer and director for Sundance. We had a powerful, moving conversation about the inspiration behind the film, challenges they faced making it, mentally health, the Black Lives Matter Movement, future plans and more. The film really touched my heart as my family and I faced a similar situation a few years ago. I also shared that experience with them which they thanked me for doing. MASTER Directed by Mariama Diallo and starring Regina Hall, Master takes place at an elite New England university, built on the site of a Salem-era gallows hill, where 3 women strive to find their place. Gail Bishop (Regina Hall), just instated as “Master,” a dean of students, discovers what lies behind the school’s immaculate facade; first-year student Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) confronts a new home that is cold and unwelcoming; and literature professor Liv Beckman (Amber Gray) collides with colleagues who question her right to belong. Navigating politics and privilege, they encounter increasingly terrifying manifestations of the school’s haunted past and present. The film is very interesting with some surprising twists. It ends on a shocking note that will surprise audiences. JEEN-YUHS: A KANYE TRILOGY
One fateful night at Jermaine Dupri’s birthday party in 1998, Coodie, a Chicago public access TV host, first interviewed 21-year-old up-and-coming hip-hop producer Kanye West. Inspired by the film Hoop Dreams, Coodie started to document West’s life to see how far his dreams would take him. When West moved to New York City to land a record deal, Coodie followed with camera in hand. He recorded West for years, from the hustle of his budding producer days through his rise to global icon. You think you know Kanye West, but you really don’t. You can’t manufacture a project like jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy; it took decades of vision, commitment, prayers, and perspective to produce. It seems providential that Coodie & Chike should be the ones to make the definitive film about West’s career thus far, as they were the filmmakers who introduced him to the masses with their documentary music video for “Through the Wire.” This epic three-film documentary features hours of fly-on-the-wall footage and paints a sweeping portrait of one of pop culture’s most controversial figures. The festival presented part 1, entitled “Vision” of this documentary epic. I really enjoyed part 1 of the documentary, it shows Kanye's humble beginnings all the way up until he gets signed to Rocafella. It also highlighted his close relationship with his late mother Donda West. I learned so many things I never knew about Kayne and it really humanized him. I'm looking forward to the 2 remaining episodes which will debut soon on Netflix as a Trilogy with the first episode. HONK FOR JESUS Directed, Written & Produced by American Nigerian Twin Sisters Adamma & Adanne Ebo, their comedy/drama film “Honk For Jesus” stars Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown. It is produced by Oscar winner Daniel Kaluuya's production company 59%. As the proud first lady of a Southern Baptist megachurch, Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall) carries immense responsibility on her shoulders. Her church, Wander To Greater Paths, once served a congregation in the tens of thousands. After a scandal involving her husband, Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown), forced the church to close temporarily and Trinitie is struggling to manage the aftermath. Now Trinitie and Lee-Curtis must rebuild their congregation and reconcile their faith by all means necessary to make the biggest comeback ever seen. Filmmaking power duo the Ebo twins made their feature film debut in this adaptation of their previous short film of the same name. Partially shot in faux-documentary style, this lively satire on for-profit religion explores both the on-camera desperation in image rebranding and the hard truths that fester behind the scenes. The humor is big and biting in both writing and performance, reaching lofty heights with Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown in lead roles. I spoke with the Twins in an interview and they spoke about their upbringing in the black church, which inspired the film. They also spoke about the challenges of making the film, what it was like working with the cast, their roles and what they are currently working on. EMERGENCY Directed by Carey Williams & written by K.D. Da’Vila, Emergency tells the story of Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and his best friend, Sean (RJ Cyler), who are both seniors in college about to embark on an epic night of Spring Break parties. Sean has the whole night planned out, including every party they will hit on their “legendary tour”. Kunle is down but mostly concerned with finishing up his mold experiment in his lab, as his acceptance to Princeton is hinging on the results. They return to their apartment to pre-game, but find that their roommate, Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), left the door open. Their plans are altered as they find a white girl passed out on the living room floor. Faced with the risks of calling the police under life-threatening optics, Kunle, Sean, and their Latino roommate, Carlos, must find a way to de-escalate the situation before it’s too late. I was able to join a Q&A with the cast & crew Emergency to ask them about racism and if they drew on person experience for their characters in the film. A few of the main actors responded with really deep experiences that they went through and how it contributed to their roles in the film Writer K.D. Da’Vila won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: U.S. Dramatic for Emergency. NOTHING COMPARES Directed by Belfast-born, award-winner Kathryn Ferguson, Nothing Compares narrates the life of Sinéad through the creative use of archival footage, as well as exclusive interviews. It challenges the image of O’Connor perpetuated by the media over the years. Since the beginning of her career, Sinéad O’Connor has used her powerful voice to challenge the narratives she was surrounded by while growing up in predominantly Roman Catholic Ireland. Despite her agency, depth, and perspective, O’Connor’s unflinching refusal to conform means that she has often been patronized and unfairly dismissed as an attention-seeking pop star. In this accomplished debut feature, Kathryn Ferguson navigates O’Connor’s rocky path to stardom with great clarity. The director makes a conscious choice to focus on the late 1980s and early 1990s, when O’Connor was establishing herself as an artist while fighting an onslaught of misogyny and prejudice in the male-dominated music industry and beyond. It’s an emotional portrayal of a thoughtful artist who has always cared about the bigger picture, and whose anti-establishment bravery and dedication to speaking truth to power would inspire generations to come. The film vindicates O'Connor and shows that she did not deserve all of the criticism that she received early in her career. A lot of things she spoke on and fought for came to fruition years later. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT COSBY During his nearly 50 years in show business, Bill Cosby became one of the most recognizable Black celebrities in America. With a career that included an astronomical rise on television in the mid-1960s; work in children’s programming and education; legendary stand-up performances and albums; and an epoch-defining hit sitcom, The Cosby Show, Cosby was a model of Black excellence for millions of Americans. But now, thanks to the brave and painful testimonies of dozens of women, we know there was a sinister reality to the man once extolled as “America’s Dad.” Over the course of four gripping episodes that feature the voices of people closely connected to Cosby’s life on screen and off, including several survivors. Director W. Kamau Bell digs into who Cosby was and what his work and actions say about America, then and now. We Need To Talk About Cosby is a powerful and timely reckoning destined to be widely discussed for how it urges audiences to reconsider not only what they know about Cosby but also about the culture that produced and celebrated him. Watching this film stirred so many emotions for me. I grew up watching and admiring everything Bill Cosby was involved with. Hearing the stories about him drugging women and sexually abusing them really disturbed me. The fact that he was telling us what he was doing all of these years through jokes was shocking. It was right in front of us the whole time and we were blind to it. It was a huge disappointment to me, the black community, and to the people who admired him. It has forever changed my opinion of him. ALICE In her debut feature, writer-director Krystin Ver Linden spins a modern liberation fable that is equal parts earthy Southern Gothic and soulful Blaxploitation. Alice (Keke Palmer) spends her days enslaved on a rural Georgia plantation restlessly yearning for freedom. After a violent clash with plantation owner Paul (Jonny Lee Miller), Alice flees through the neighboring woods and stumbles onto the unfamiliar sight of a highway, soon discovering that the year is actually 1973. Rescued on the roadside by a disillusioned Black activist named Frank (Common), Alice uncovers the lies that have kept her enslaved and the promise of Black liberation. Inspired by true accounts of Black Americans who were kept in peonage for more than 100 years after the end of slavery, Alice is an audacious mix of grim historical fact and exceptional fiction. Moving from a purgatorial plantation overgrown with Spanish moss to the lively landscape of urban Savannah, Ver Linden traces Alice’s breathless journey down the rabbit hole and into the turbulent wonderland of the post–Civil Rights South. I found the film to be very interesting and I loved that it wasn't the stereotypical movie about slavery. BRAINWASHED Brainwashed is located in the middle of the explosive new awareness about women’s oppressed status within Hollywood and beyond. Based on Nina Menkes's celebrated talk, "Sex And Power: The Visual Language Of Oppression," Brainwashed is a feature documentary. The film uses clips from A-list directors from 1940 through the present day to show how the visual grammar of cinema (the actual elements of shot design: camera angles, camera movement, lighting, blocking and framing) contribute to conditions such as discriminatory hiring practices, pay inequity, and the pervasive sexual harassment characterized in the film industry and culture. The film’s central character is Nina herself, giving her presentation, in combination with incisive interviews with film professionals, activists, as well as some of the performers featured in the film clips, expressing their feelings about their experiences. After watching the documentary, I can never watch movies the same again. My mind was blown by the over-sexualization and how often it was done. I joined the Brainwashed Q&A with the director and the discussion with women involved with the film. I was very moved by the whole conversation and the stories that the women shared, based upon my own experiences in the industry. 892 In her debut feature, Director Abi Damaris Corbin hauntingly blends together the dramatic tension of a hostage negotiation standoff with the intimate emotional world of one life derailed by bureaucracy and a lack of resources. Based on a true story, 892 showcases powerful performances by John Boyega, the late Michael K. Williams in his final screen role, and others who remind us of the social responsibility we have to our soldiers, colleagues, and families, and to strangers as well. Living in a cheap motel in Atlanta and separated from his wife and child, former U.S. Marine veteran Brian Easley is desperate. Driven to the brink by forces beyond his control, the soft-spoken, kind man decides to rob a bank and hold hostages with a bomb. As police, media, and family members descend on the bank and Brian, it becomes clear he’s not after money — he wants to tell his story and have what is rightfully his, even if it costs him his life. GOD’S COUNTRY An impressive feature debut for Director Julian Higgins. The film stars Sandra Thandiwe Newton as Sandra who is tired after years of trying (and failing) to please her recently deceased mother, while also navigating the challenging politics and power dynamics at the college where she teaches. She also encounters racism, sexism and toxic masculinity wherever she goes. But it’s a confrontation with two hunters trespassing on her property that ultimately tests Sandra’s self-restraint, pushing her grief and mounting anger to their limits. God’s Country examines one woman’s grieving process and determination to be taken seriously amid her refusal to surrender to the confines of society.
WINNERS OF SUNDANCE 2022 FILM FESTIVAL
At the conclusion of the festival, 26 jury prizes and six audience prizes were awarded recognizing global independent storytelling. Bold, intimate, and culture shifting stories prevailed across categories. Some of the many award-winners included Grand Jury Prize Winners The Exiles (U.S. Documentary), Nanny (U.S. Dramatic), Utama (World Cinema Dramatic), and All That Breathes (World Cinema Documentary). Audience Awards were presented to Navalny (U.S. Documentary), Cha Cha Real Smooth (U.S. Dramatic), Girl Picture (World Cinema Dramatic), The Territory (World Cinema Documentary), Framing Agnes (NEXT), with Navalny winning the Festival Favorite Award. A World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award: Excellence In Verité Filmmaking was presented to Midwives / Myanmar (Director: Snow Hnin Ei Hlaing, Producers: Bob Moore, Ulla Lehman, Mila Aung-Thwin, Snow Hnin Ei Hlaing). The complete list of winners can be found on the Sundance Film Festival website.
I truly enjoyed my first experience covering Sundance virtually for Cultured Focus Magazine. The festival was a huge success and I hope that in-person events will resume next year. Thank you to Sundance Film Festival Director Tabitha Jackson, the Festival’s Director of Programming Kim Yutani, Tammie Rosen of the communications team, the whole Sundance staff and all volunteers that made the festival possible! For more on Sundance 2022, visit: www.sundance.org Media images: Sundance