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From raw drama to foot trauma: the best of Sundance 2021 | Sundance 2021

There is an argument that suggests one of the main contributing factors to the atmosphere of giddy excitement at the Sundance film festival each year is the sheer unpleasantness of being there. It takes days – literally – to reach; the festival itself requires miles of interminable trudging through slush, giving discoveries an extra frisson of hard-won satisfaction. But the 2021 virtual Sundance disproves this theory: even without queues in sub-zero temperatures, it remains the buzziest of gatherings.

It helps that some of the films premiering arrived at the festival having already built up quite a head of steam on the awards circuit. One such picture is the electrifying Judas and the Black Messiah, which must be considered as a serious best picture contender. Shaka King’s sinuous, complex dual portrait of charismatic Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and of the man who betrayed him, FBI informant William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), is utterly gripping, even if King occasionally loses his grasp on the tangle of story threads. Both leads are superb, but it’s Kaluuya’s movie – he fleshes out Hampton with a sparking, quickfire charisma and a poet’s soul.

The Panthers make a cameo appearance elsewhere at Sundance: they provided security at the Harlem cultural festival, a series of outdoor concerts, featuring everyone from Stevie Wonder to Nina Simone to Sly and the Family Stone, which ran during the summer of 1969. The events were filmed, but the footage languished in a basement for 50 years, only now seeing the light of day. Directed by Ahmir Thompson (aka the Roots drummer and frontman of Questlove), Summer of Soul ( … or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is the purest of pleasures: a joyous eruption of funk, soul, gospel, jazz and glorious peacocking fashion choices. Through deft use of supporting archive material and perceptive interviews, Thompson has crafted a film that transcends nostalgia and positions the event at the heart of a key cultural moment. Another well-liked documentary, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, takes a markedly similar approach, albeit with more preschool kids and fun-fur monsters.

Sly Stone in Summer of Soul.
Sly Stone in Summer of Soul: ‘the purest of pleasures’. Photograph: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Mass Distraction Media.

Summer of Soul was one of the big winners of the festival, taking home both the grand jury prize and the audience prize for US documentary. The festival’s top prize haul went to the very Sundancey crowd-pleaser Coda, writer-director Sian Heder’s warm-hearted if formulaic remake of a French drama about the hearing daughter of deaf parents. Coda scooped four prizes, including the grand jury prize and the audience prize for a US drama. After a virtual bidding war, it also set a new Sundance record with a price tag in the region of $25m. The world cinema section was dominated by Hive, a Kosovan drama about a woman making a life for herself after her husband goes missing during the war, which was awarded three prizes: grand jury, audience and directing.

The inclusion of a couple of high-profile first features by actors turned directors always helps to create excitement in advance of a film festival, and this year’s came from Rebecca Hall and Robin Wright. Of these, it was Hall’s film, Passing, an accomplished if deferential adaptation of Nella Larsen’s novel, which was the most arresting. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, both outstanding, star as Irene and Clare, two African American former schoolfriends who are reunited by chance in 1920s Manhattan. While Irene lives in Harlem and is a pillar of the black community, Clare is now “passing” for white and is married to an outright racist. The use of black-and-white photography suggests a somewhat schematic approach, but in fact this is a nuanced and emotionally intelligent piece of film-making from Hall.

Emilia Jones in Coda.
Emilia Jones in the prize-winning Coda. Photograph: Seacia Pavao/AP

Wright stars in and directs Land, a story of survival in the wake of unimaginable tragedy. She plays Edee, a woman stripped by bereavement of the ability and inclination to be around other people. Edee starts a new life, off-grid, in a mountain shack in Wyoming, but struggles to survive until a local hunter comes to her assistance. Wright delivers a typically high-quality performance, a pointed reminder of how infrequently she gets cast in roles of decent size or depth. And the magnificent landscape of Alberta, Canada (doubling for the US), her co-star as well as her backdrop, lends the film a breathtaking, scene-stealing drama. But although it’s a solid enough picture, there’s a touch of triteness to the message, and clumsiness to the emotive final act.

Bereavement is also central to another widely praised first feature. Mass, written and directed by Fran Kranz, is a remarkably accomplished, stingingly raw drama dealing with the aftermath of a mass shooting at a school. Unfolding almost entirely in a room borrowed from a church, the film charts the charged conversation between the parents of a murdered child (Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton) and the parents of his killer (Ann Dowd, Reed Birney). The screenplay is a technical marvel, but it’s the bleeding, hurting, visceral performances that bring the film to life. It is, without doubt, the best film of the festival.

Elsewhere, other first features stood out. I was particularly impressed by Alex Camilleri’s Luzzu; set within Malta’s traditional fishing community, it’s a textured and authentic portrait of masculinity – and an entire way of life – under siege. And Pleasure, the first film from Swedish director Ninja Thyberg, is a candid and uncomfortable account of a young woman’s pursuit of a career in the US adult movie industry. Star Sofia Kappel delivers a fearlessly committed turn as wannabe porn superstar Bella Cherry, combining vulnerability with a veneer of ruthless ambition.

Reece Shearsmith in Ben Wheatley’s lockdown horror film In the Earth.
Reece Shearsmith in Ben Wheatley’s lockdown horror In the Earth. Photograph: AP

Sundance wouldn’t be Sundance without its midnight genre movie strand, and here Ben Wheatley delivered the standout picture – the lockdown horror In the Earth. After his recent foray into Sunday afternoon period fare with Rebecca, Wheatley is back on more familiar territory with a film that combines a pandemic with his trademark brand of lurid psychedelic paganism. Joel Fry plays a research scientist being guided on a two-day trek through forests to his new posting. But there are malevolent forces at work in the woods, which may or may not be an ancient spirit known as Parnag Fegg. Expect wig-out mayhem, gleeful, axe-based foot trauma and weaponised magic mushrooms – it’s a blast and I loved every messy minute.

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