The Princess (Ed Perkins)
On the morning of September 6th, 1997, many children turned on their TV anticipating Saturday morning cartoons only to feel a sick blend of confusion, disappointment and sad curiosity to learn they had been replaced for the day by a broadcast of the funeral procession for Diana, Princess of Wales. Kids were left wondering who she was, and what she had done to deserve so much time dedicated to her on TV, and The Princess is a documentary that answers all of their questions. While Pablo Larrain’s recent Oscar contender Spencer proposed a ‘what-if’ scenario that suggested the royal family’s high standards of living were what drove Princess Diana into a mental breakdown, director Ed Perkins’ documentary is an exploration of her life from just before her marriage to Prince Charles to her unfortunate death in 1997 told entirely through archival footage.
Unlike other films in this style such as Senna and Amy, which often felt like you were sitting in the room watching a montage along with interview subjects, The Princess feels like you’re sat down in front of a VHS tape and left to draw your own conclusions about Diana’s legacy as a woman, political figure and celebrity. Various news reports of Diana and her husband with various outlets are juxtaposed with b-roll of the titular princess evading paparazzi, conversing with commoners and traveling the world to paint a tragic but honest portrait of a fragile and humble woman thrust into the overwhelming spotlight when she didn’t want to be anywhere near it.
The film also does a solid job of criticizing the monarchy’s dedication to populism, news media’s fascination with sensationalism as well as society’s rabid obsessions with celebrities for their roles in Diana’s plight. There are a few places that aim to persuade more than most scenes that allow audiences to fill in the gaps themselves, and the film may not reveal anything new about Diana as a person that enthusiasts may already know, but those looking to comprehend the full gamut of Diana, Princess of Wales’ life after seeing Spencer will want to give this a look. 3.5/5
Resurrection (Andrew Semans)
Resurrection follows Margaret (Rebecca Hall), a woman who seemingly has her life put together with a career on the corporate side of healthcare, her daughter Abbie (Grace Kaufman) is about to go to college, and a lover in the form of her co-worker Peter (Michael Esper). But when a manipulative past lover named David Moore (Tim Roth) suddenly returns to her life, she starts to spiral into a mess of obsession, anxiety and flashbacks to trauma. And writer/director Andrew Semans depicts the psychological effects with true authenticity, from scenes that show Margaret repeatedly Google searching David’s name to find his location to hauntingly repeating things he had said in the past to herself in private moments, as well as frighteningly tragic confrontations when Margaret’s obsession with David affects her relationships with Abbie and Peter.
And every moment Rebecca Hall is on-screen is unsettling thanks to yet another tremendous outing in a career that’s been full of overlooked performances. Hall sells Margaret’s transition from high composure to utter derangement with a natural progression, controlling the obsessive tendencies of her character with a remarkably strong mental resolve. Hall also shines in moments of unnerving power, such as when Margaret confides the full extent of her past with David to a subordinate in an astonishing monologue, letting her emotions sneak out with a reserved touch as she recalls her traumatic memories.
The film does take turns for the graphic through implementing genre conventions that are surprising and unexpected to the point where they may turn off audiences, and the subject matter may be triggering for those who have been through a relationship as traumatic as Margaret’s. Those willing to give Resurrection a chance, however, will want to see it again and again to interpret for themselves whether all is well with Margaret, or if the events of Semans’ latest were fabrications from a mind ravaged by trauma and psychological abuse. 4.5/5
Something In The Dirt (dir: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead)
Do-it-yourself filmmaking masters Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead turned heads in 2017 with their low-budget but high-concept science fiction feature The Endless, and did it again in 2020 with Synchronic. Before the duo moves onto the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Moon Knight in late March, they made their Sundance debut with Something In The Dirt, a film with a premise crafted from isolation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic: Levi Danube (Benson) is an eternal screwup living in a dilapidated apartment in Los Angeles who meets his new neighbor John Daniels (Moorhead), a scooter charger living off divorce money. After the two get to know each other, they experience strange phenomena and strive to capture it on camera in hopes of making a fortune off the ensuing film.
Benson and Moorhead’s acting is hit and miss, particularly through their often wooden line deliveries and moments where it’s evident that Moorhead is either improving a line or had forgotten his dialogue. But those are more than made up for by the duo’s talents as storytellers; the practical visual effects and clever lighting techniques are powerful and unsettling in their simplicity, and both John and Levi’s paranoia takes turns from hilarious to terrifying through tonal shifts that come at the turn of a dime, such as when the two men see a supernatural occurrence shortly after one of them asks how much money Netflix would purchase their film for.
How this moment would play in front of a festival crowd with executives in attendance is anyone’s guess, but this also adds a layer of meta-commentary to a narrative that’s open to a myriad of interpretations. Are John and Levi’s experiences really caused by electromagnetism, aliens, or the Pythagorean cult from ancient Greece, or are they just figments of imagination from two minds ravaged by psychosis? Audiences’ minds will be bent as well through the sparse use of mockumentary interviews, which cause the film to morph from a narrative to a documentary to the last known footage of two men corrupted by their paranoid obsessions, and then back again. In the end, Benson and Moorhead are two filmmakers that love what they do to the point where they dedicate their Sundance entry to making movies with friends, and while it may be sporadically messy in tone, Something In The Dirt is a cerebral and entertaining love letter to DIY filmmaking from two directors about to shoot the moon on their rise to studio filmmaking. 4/5
Happening (dir: Audrey Diwan)
Happening is a film that takes place in 1963 France, where gifted boarding school student Anne Duschene (Annamaria Vartolomei) is preparing for her exams to get into university until she suddenly gets pregnant. With abortion still illegal in this time period and her whole life ahead of her, Anne implores doctors she visits and her small circle of friends to help her in any way they can, and goes to measures that slowly but surely grow in horror as the film goes along. The film won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2021, and it was a well deserved honor because of confident, assured direction from Audrey Diwan, who after her second feature, has positioned herself as a filmmaker to watch going forward.
By choosing to shoot Happening in 4:3, Anne is trapped within her internal anxieties and external pressures to succeed, from moments where she visits her supportive parents to scenes that frame her in the foreground with a multitude of nude female bodies in her dormitory’s communal shower to communicate her insecurity about her body image. Vartolomei is tremendous in her turn as Anne as she conveys her anxiety visually in private moments of quiet uncertainty, while demanding assistance from her friends with feminine strength, and a natural and nuanced assertiveness.
Meanwhile, the camera follows Anne in handheld tracking shots that feel intimate and suffocating at the same time, and the reliance of diegetic, environmental sounds keeps the narrative grounded in realism. There are times when Anne’s journey becomes tough to watch, but those only reaffirm Happening as a gripping film that takes its subject matter to places it almost never goes in the medium of cinema, puts audiences in the shoes of a woman who refuses to give up her right to choose, and serves as a sobering look at our past and sadly, in some parts of the world, our immediate future. 4.5/5
Emily The Criminal (dir: John Patton Ford)
In Emily The Criminal, Aubrey Plaza stars as the titular Emily, who is saddled with an overwhelming amount of student loan debt, and has difficulty landing a full time job anywhere thanks to no college degree due to her inability to afford neither the tuition nor the legal fees for an assault charge on her criminal record. To make ends meet, she works part time as a delivery person for a catering company, where one of her co-workers puts her in contact with someone who will pay her $200 an hour for an unknown job. Emily soon learns the gig is a small cog of a massive fraud scheme led by its Lebanese head Youcef (Theo Rossi), who hires “dummy shoppers” to go into stores, and buy their merchandise with a credit card linked to a stolen account with the intent of reselling them. Emily accepts and excels almost immediately, but is waiting with hope for her lone friend Lucy (Megalyn Echikunwoke) to come through with a graphic designer position at her firm.
Since the end of Parks and Recreation in 2015, Aubrey Plaza has demonstrated incredible versatility and range in her choice of roles, whether it’s the absurdist comedy An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn, the remake of 80s horror classic Child’s Play or the dark comedy centered around social media addiction that was Ingrid Goes West. She continues her trajectory toward a status as a genre mainstay here with an intense performance that sees her fit like a glove into the psyche of a criminal, fighting back in moments of suspense with high energy and asking Youcef where they’re going with restrained ferocity. Meanwhile, her vulnerability comes through in moments between gigs where she wears chronic exhaustion on her facial expressions, as well as a cynicism through an interesting character quirk Plaza cleverly adds with her eyes.
There’s a romance subplot between Emily and Youcef that feels forced and aside from solid handheld work, there’s nothing much going on that’s interesting as far as a visual style, but that also lends a hand to making the events of John Patton Ford’s debut feature look like events one would see late at night while passing a seedy apartment complex or on late night local news. It’s also worth noting that the film’s script does a solid job of focusing on the struggles of living in the gig economy in a giant city, and dealing with the harsh reality that the demands of capitalism are never enough to live comfortably in a market where costs of living are rising everywhere, as well as the hardships that come with the lingering cloud of student loan debt. Young people everywhere can relate to that right now, and that’s why audiences should seek out the tense and taut thriller that is Emily The Criminal. 3.5/5
Cha Cha Real Smooth (dir: Cooper Raiff)
After debuting in 2020 with the college-based comedy S#!%house, multi-hyphenate Cooper Raiff premiered his newest narrative Cha Cha Real Smooth to overwhelming acclaim that earned the film the well-deserved Audience Award in the U.S. Dramatic competition. In his sophomore effort, Raiff plays Andrew, an early-twenties male fresh out of college living with his demanding stepfather Greg (Brad Garrett), mother Lisa (Leslie Mann) and younger brother David (Evan Assante) while working in fast food with the intent of making enough money to visit his girlfriend who’s studying abroad in Barcelona.
But after encouraging guests to start dancing at a bat mitzvah of one of David’s classmates, Andrew starts a side hustle as a “party starter” for bar/bat mitzvahs and other various gatherings. It’s at one of these parties where Andrew comes to meet Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic teenage daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), and goes on to become a fixture in Lola’s life while possibly finding a romantic connection with Domino in the process, despite her engagement to Joseph (Raúl Castillo).
Raiff’s latest is almost too wholesome for its own good in the sense that there’s no real stakes in the film for audiences to feel until around the halfway point, and a case could be made to call the film self-indulgent considering how many times Andrew receives praise over the course of its 108-minute runtime. However, the film is too well-meaning and selfless for this critic to consider giving it that label, and it doesn’t go to incredible lengths to move audiences to the point of feeling cloying.
Cha Cha Real Smooth feels true to life in its depiction of humanity through quiet instances when Domino spills her guts to Andrew about her life with Joseph and Lola, in addition to scenes that see Andrew confiding in Lisa about his struggles to find love, but she also discloses secret moments of her own, describing to her son what her bipolar disorder and depression feel like in vivid detail. These moments in particular speak volumes about Andrew’s relationship with his mother with a nuanced, but powerful tenderness that will have viewers reflecting on their own maternal bonds.
Raiff also succeeds in writing dialogue-centered humor around the relatable struggles of finding work post-college, such as an early conversation Andrew has with a customer, as well as in intimate, private situations that haven’t otherwise been portrayed on screen to this point, like an instance that sees Andrew helping Domino out when she seemingly needs a tampon. The actors also give well-rounded performances across the board, delivering their lines in a casual cadence, only breaking down in the film’s most emotional turns through a use of subtlety with incredible restraint.
Raiff has great chemistry with both Johnson and Mann, but it’s ultimately Burghardt who steals the show through earnestly portraying Lola’s and her own autism with honesty, from moments that see her alone shaking her hands when her emotions are overstimulated to conversations with Andrew where she uses an uneven vocabulary, but responds to Andrew in a straightforward cadence not unlike others on her side of the autism spectrum. Make no mistake about it, Cha Cha Real Smooth is a victory for disabled audiences looking for representation on-screen, a poignant story about finding love where Andrew and everyone around him comes of age, a celebration of mothers and how their empathy shapes boys into good men. 4/5
Final Rankings of My Sundance Haul (from worst to best):
12. Speak No Evil
10. La Guerra Civil
8. Emily The Criminal
6. Something In The Dirt
5. Cha Cha Real Smooth
2. After Yang