Female-Driven Filmmaking Gave Sundance 2018 a Jolt

The Hollywood Reporter Critics’ Conversation: Female-Driven
Filmmaking Gave Sundance 2018 a Jolt

by Jon Frosch , Todd McCarthy , Leslie Felperin , David Rooney THR

JON FROSCH: Hi, team! Now that we’ve emerged from the slush and sleep
deprivation of Sundance, let’s get down to it. Last year, the festival unfolded in the
shadow of Trump’s depressing inauguration but distracted us with a pretty dazzling
array of films: Call Me by Your Name, Get Out, God’s Own Country, The Big
Sick, Mudbound, Quest, Step, Marjorie Prime, Ingrid Goes West and the list goes on.
A few of those went on to become some of the most widely praised works of the year
— and, not that it’s a reliable metric of quality, major awards contenders. And while
it’s always hard to generalize with Sundance — your assessment really depends on
what you see; sometimes you strike gold, sometimes you strike out — the 2018
edition seemed to me not nearly as strong. Nothing I saw came even close to
heavyweights like Call Me by Your Name, or Manchester by the Sea the year before.
Of all the fests, this one is perhaps the most susceptible to deafening on-the-ground
buzz — most frequently in the form of feverish Twitter takes that may have more to
do with a film’s topicality and timeliness than its quality (remember Birth of a
Nation?). This year, critics seemed readier than ever to forgive or overlook certain
movies’ shortcomings because of their political urgency, their ability to tap into the
passion of movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. I’m thinking of bold and
provocative but wildly uneven films like interracial buddy comedy Blindspotting; The
Tale, an alternately powerful and clunky drama about a woman coming to grips with
past sexual abuse; and Boots Riley’s initially ingenious, then increasingly labored
race-and-corporate-greed-and-who-knows-WTF-else satire, Sorry to Bother You.
I’m not saying titles like these are undeserving of attention; films that start, or
continue, necessary conversations should be seen, no matter their technical or
artistic merits. But I do wonder how they’ll play outside the Park City bubble. [News
came in Friday that The Tale was sold to HBO, which I think is a good fit; stretches of
the film have a kind of expository procedural bluntness that’s better suited to the
small screen than the big.]
That said, credit where it’s due — this is a festival that walks the walk when it comes
to diversity both behind and in front of the camera. My two favorites this year were
from women filmmakers making triumphant returns after long-ish absences: Leave
No Trace, a drama directed by Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) — about a father and
daughter living in the Pacific Northwest wilderness — that’s a model of unshowy
emotion and intelligence; and Tamara Jenkins’ rich, rewarding, painful
comedy Private Life, starring a peerless Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as a New
York couple embroiled in an epic fertility struggle.
What about you? General impressions, highs, lows?
TODD MCCARTHY: I can only second your feeling, and that of many critics, that it
was a relatively lackluster year. Unlike at other festivals, there are large pockets of
support in every audience for every film at Sundance that cheer no matter what; you
have to adjust to that. This year I felt that I could “read” the room a little better and
separate out the automatic support factions from the more objective audiences, and I
sensed that reactions were a bit more reserved. It’s definitely true that there were no
real breakthrough equivalents to the several that hit it out of the park last year, and
the nature of the business for what can be called specialized films is in flux; some can
now become hits on the order of Get Out and The Big Sick, but many are left by the
wayside, probably more than before, due to the vast amount of provocative and
original shows on TV. Is anyone going to devote an evening to going out and paying

for Reed Morano’s failed sci-fi film I Think We’re Alone Now (screened in the U.S.
competition this year) when they can watch an episode or two of Netflix’s
brilliant Black Mirror at home?
To rebound on Jon’s point about female filmmakers at this year’s fest, the most
powerful and startling film I saw, the one I can’t shake, was indeed directed by a
woman, and a first-timer at that. However, it isn’t uplifting and I would say that were
it directed by an American woman, it would have been considered too outre, anti-p.c.
and even transgressively pornographic for Sundance. The film is Holiday, a Danish
gangster flick set and shot in Turkey, shown in the World Cinema dramatic
competition, directed by Isabella Eklof and written by her and another woman,
Johanne Algren. The leading character, Sascha, is a twentysomething gangster’s
moll, and Eklof stages an absolutely shocking sequence of hardcore sex between her
and the gangster involving intercourse, then oral sex, then a disgusting bit that is
violent and forced and completely degrading by design. What makes the scene
defensible and essential is that it’s the gangster’s way of bringing her down to his
level and, ultimately, making her a criminal like him; once you are defiled, you can
become a defiler yourself, without remorse or morality. What I loved about it was
that Eklof, by putting this character through the wringer, succeeded in creating a
female version of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley. How far this film can go on the
festival circuit and then into commercial release with that scene intact remains an
open question; in the current political climate, there are bound to be those
vehemently opposed to its showing.

LESLIE FELPERIN: I didn’t see Holiday, but I did see The Tale, another female-
directed film about sexual abuse, which Jon mentioned above. I admired it, with

qualifications. It was certainly the most zeitgeist-y film in the festival, even dubbed
by Slate magazine “the perfect movie for our #MeToo moment.” Part of its impact lay
in the way it explored women’s often fraught, denial-fueled relationship to the
“victim” label — but it was also straight-up shocking to see a 13-year-old girl being
coerced into having sex with an older man in wince-inducing scenes. (The actual sex
scenes were filmed with a body double, but the cutaway shots to the victim’s pained
face show 11-year-old actress Isabelle Nelisse, who plays the role the rest of the time.)
The innovation of the film is the way it blurs lines between fiction and documentary;
all the roles are played by actors, but director Jennifer Fox (played in the movie by a
gutsy Laura Dern) described the story as “100 percent memoir,” a recreation of what
happened to her when she was 13 and was manipulated into a sexual relationship
with her track coach. A striking formal sleight of hand involved using one actor
(Sarah Jessica Flaum), who looks like a 15-year-old, at first, only to have the casting
“corrected” when Fox’s mother (played by Ellen Burstyn) shows her a picture of what
she really looked like at age 13; the scenes are then rerun with younger actress

Nelisse, confronting the audience with how much creepier it seems with a 13-year-
old than a 15-year-old. I agree with Jon that the expository dialogue is clunky as hell,

and the movie gets off to a very clumsy start. But the film’s formal trickiness
reminded me in some ways of documentary Casting JonBenet, the standout of the
fest for me last year.
Overall, I concur that the vibe on the street suggested a so-so Sundance. I did like the
Midnight entry Assassination Nation, a teen exploitation flick for the Trump era
where the four diverse young heroines are up against a town-turned-mob, whose evil
sheriff calls them “very fine people” (echoing a Trumpian phase in the wake of

Charlottesville). It was soaked in blood and pretty amoral, but a blast. Elsewhere,
Amy Adrion’s Half the Picture, a talking-heads-driven exploration of why there are
so few female directors in Hollywood, was full of smart women like Penelope
Spheeris, Ava DuVernay, Mary Haron and Gina Prince-Bythewood being witty, wise
and wound-up by the power imbalance in the industry. I chuckled
at Transparent creator Jill Soloway suggesting, tongue only partly in cheek, that part
of the problem is that film criticism is dominated by men, and proposing that all the
guy critics on the trade publications be replaced by women. (Thanks for the support,
Jill, although heaven knows I’d miss you guys.) Over to you, David.
DAVID ROONEY: I agree that Sundance last year yielded an exceptional crop, so it
was always going to be a challenge for the 2018 lineup to measure up. (Though
paradoxically, last year’s Grand Jury Prize winner, I Don’t Feel at Home in This
World Anymore, a minor quirkfest, disappeared into the Netflix maw immediately
after the festival.) But I did see a handful of beautifully crafted movies.
As Jon noted, a significant amount of attention was generated by Sorry to Bother
You in the Dramatic Competition, with some people calling it this year’s Get Out and

piling on the (I think mostly unjustified) superlatives. The movie has a certain out-
there audaciousness and an infectiously rollicking start, but falls apart and becomes

a bludgeoning experience with an incoherent point of view. Todd mentioned that
sharp television like Black Mirror gives audiences less incentive to settle for inferior
sci-fi, and the same applies to films about the complexities of contemporary black
identity when we have incisively observed shows like Insecure, Dear White
People, Atlanta and even network entry Black-ish on TV. The comparison with the
wickedly smart Get Out is a stretch.
I found much more confidence and a clear authorial voice in Reinaldo Marcus
Green’s Monsters and Men, a symphonic consideration of the ripple effects of a
death in a black Brooklyn community caused by an NYPD officer’s use of excessive
force during an arrest. It’s such a sober drama that it risks passing under the radar,
but I think there’s real maturity in the daring three-act structure, each part with a
different protagonist, and the seamlessness with which the writer-director weaves in
elements ripped from the headlines. It’s also beautifully acted.
The same goes for Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher, in which the titular
character (Maggie Gyllenhaal) develops a fixation on a young pupil she suspects may
be a literary genius. At a time when there’s much discussion of the
underrepresentation of women filmmakers and women characters, this was a prime
example of the female gaze illuminating the psychological complexity of a
dangerously single-minded female figure, shedding light on the encroaching
emptiness in her life as the driving force behind her increasingly irrational choices.
You can’t look away from Gyllenhaal’s understated intensity.
Beyond the competition, Joshua Marston’s Come Sunday was easily his best film
since Sundance breakout Maria Full of Grace 14 years ago. I have to confess I read

the synopsis — Pentecostal preacher has crisis of faith and loses his Oklahoma mega-
church — and glazed over. But this is a fiercely smart, searching movie about faith

that is fair-minded in its examination of a religious man and the beliefs that he
unexpectedly begins chafing against. Chiwetel Ejiofor as real-life bishop Carlton
Pearson gave probably the best performance I saw at Sundance this year. I think for

those of us who tend to define the religious right by their political positions, this is an
important movie that invites us to look at evangelicals as everyday people. It’s also
just mesmerizing drama.
FROSCH: David, I’m with you on Gyllenhaal in The Kindergarten Teacher. I
thought the movie was fine — softer-edged and less powerfully unsettling than the
2014 Israeli drama it’s a remake of — but she’s riveting from start to finish in a
super-tricky role. It takes a an extremely smart, subtle actress to ground that
character’s sneakily outlandish behavior in relatable human feelings and impulses —
in this case, disappointment in how her life has turned out and a gnawing hunger for
that elusive something more.
I also liked Monsters and Men, though maybe less than you did, David. I admired
much about it, including the seamless fluidity of that three-act structure. But I found
its restraint a touch too deliberate and its dramatic beats, as quiet as they are, ever so
slightly on-the-nose. I felt similarly about another strong entry, Paul Dano’s elegant
adaptation of the Richard Ford novel Wildlife. It’s an assured, lovingly crafted
directorial debut, and Dano does a deft job harnessing the star power of Jake
Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan as the unhappy married couple at its center. But the
whole thing felt slightly too harnessed to me, a bit too self-consciously controlled and
Wildlife did feature a superb breakout performance from a young actor I’d never
seen: Ed Oxenbould, who makes his 14-year-old protagonist’s stoic decency both
interesting and poignant, without ever pandering to the viewer’s emotions. Two
other young discoveries were Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in Granik’s Leave No
Trace — it’s the kind of low-key, note-perfect turn that blossoms in your memory —
and the volcanically gifted Helena Howard in Josephine Decker’s latest
experiment, Madeline’s Madeline. Playing an unstable teen actress, Howard yanks

you right into her character’s fraying headspace, aided by Decker’s typically nerve-
rattling interweaving of sound and image. After the Timothee Chalamet revelation

last year, Sundance continues to be a platform for exciting new acting talent.
MCCARTHY: Speaking of promising discoveries, I found two films in the often
venturesome Next sidebar formally quite interesting: Qasim Basir’s purportedly (but
I don’t believe it) all-in-one-take Trump-election-night tale A Boy. A Girl. A Dream.,
which follows a sharp-looking black man and woman who have just met on an almost
dreamlike nocturnal odyssey around Los Angeles; and the far more fully
realized Search, in which debuting director Aneesh Chaganty pulls off a legitimately
suspenseful and involving crime story exclusively told through what the main
character can see on his computer screen.
I want to pick up on Leslie’s mention of Jill Soloway’s remark about the absence of
female film critics. I think Soloway’s comment rather ignores the actually
considerable, and sometimes remarkable, contributions of female critics today and in
the past. Right now, the profession seems inordinately weighted toward men because
the vast majority of geeks and fanboys online (and who populate the Rotten
Tomatoes lineup) are male. But most of these people aren’t hired; they just start
writing and have gotten their stuff out there in the internet era. When I was growing
up in Chicago, it was a four-newspaper town, and two of the four papers had women
as film (and theater) critics. And not long after that, the two most powerful and

influential film critics in New York (other than whoever was at The New York Times,
where the power came by virtue of the position more than the individuals) were
Pauline Kael and Judith Crist. The late ’60s and ’70s saw the emergence of such
notable critics as Penelope Gilliatt, Janet Maslin, Molly Haskell, Renata Adler, Caryn
James, Lisa Schwarzbaum, Carrie Rickey and others, and I’m only mentioning the
best-known and relatively mainstream ones. Also, let’s not forget that the most
famous and prestigious film magazine of those decades, Sight & Sound, was edited
for 34 years by Penelope Houston.
The trades, which Soloway singles out, were without question more dominated by
men for a longer period than more mainstream papers and magazines; this is
attributable to the fact that they were largely published and edited by older men
whose careers dated back to the 1940s and 1950s and who, regrettably, weren’t
particularly thinking about hiring women. But it’s been clear that quite a few of the
very best critics in the history of film criticism have been women.
FELPERIN: I’m sure Soloway’s suggestion about making all trade critics female was
intended to be provocative, and I quoted her in the same mischievous spirit. It would
be remiss of me to not point out that, as a woman critic, I owe my own career in no
small part to the support and encouragement of many male colleagues. That said,
Todd, I think your rebuttal in some ways actually supports Soloway’s and other
feminist critics’ point, one that goes to the very heart of the argument in Half the
Picture. Historically, there was, if not complete parity, at the very least a strong and
sizeable contingent of women film critics, some of them like Kael holding the most
important positions in the field. As film became more and more dominant and
powerful as both an art form and an industry, though, men started to take control,
and the same slow and insidious process spread to film’s ancillary industries, like the
journalism that covered it — until we got to the point where men make up about 73%
of the “top critics” on Rotten Tomatoes, according to a recent study. That’s a better
proportion than directors, and a much better representation than in most of the
technical below-the-line fields, but still we’re very far from parity.
It all comes back, as so many arguments do these days, to whether quotas and
affirmative action-type approaches are an effective tool to combat this disparity. I
heard whispers from some on the ground that this year the programmers at
Sundance felt it was particularly important to give extra weight to female filmmakers
and woman-centric stories in the line-up, a move I applaud personally even if the
quality of such films was inconsistent. All the big festivals have been “trying” to
redress the gender imbalance over the last few years, but the pressure is particularly
acute now in the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp. If you think of festivals as
universities, Sundance is the U.C. Berkeley of gender-positive programming: an
almost firebrand institution that wants to position itself on the vanguard of
ROONEY: One film that in many ways exemplified Sundance’s progressivism was
the small but captivating Next entry We the Animals, which has been drawing
comparisons to Malick and Moonlight. While you can see echoes of the early scenes
in The Tree of Life, I think director Jeremiah Zagar has his own voice that honors the
prose roots of the material and filters them through an impressionistic canvas. The
movie is dreamy and lyrical but also quite disarmingly frank in the way it addresses
preteen queer awakening.

And, speaking of female-driven Sundance films this year, I can’t end this
conversation without singling out Ari Aster’s debut Hereditary in the Midnight
section, led by the always wonderful Toni Collette in her best role in years. This fest
has been instrumental in the discovery of some truly memorable and original horror
in recent years, like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook or Babak Anvari’s Under the
Shadow, or even David Lowery’s exercise in haunted existentialism, A Ghost Story,
last year (not to mention Get Out). Hereditary sits comfortably among that group
and may stand a chance of going far commercially because of the degree to which it
also functions as a domestic drama about family breakdown. It kept me glued for two
hours of unrelenting slow-burn tension building toward a climax of operatic Grand
Guignol — and that’s thanks in large part to Collette. She’s the diesel-fueled engine of
a rock-solid ensemble. Then of course there’s also the amazing Ann Dowd adding
another memorable monster to her growing gallery of uniquely scary ladies. Dowd’s
remarkable mid-career ascent in film and TV in the past few years is a real statement
of female empowerment — and in its own way a corrective to years of
marginalization of women in an industry more inclined to have them conform to
cookie-cutter “types.” With five films at the fest this year, she might just be the new
Queen of Sundance.

Hollywood Rerporter 27 January 2018

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