Sundance: Racial divisions, political upheaval and a gay love story take the spotlight

By the time the Sundance Film Festival came to a close Saturday night, it was clear that there had been no 2017 equivalent of “The Birth of a Nation” at the festival this year — no cinematic sensation that swooped in from nowhere to dominate the prizes, score the biggest acquisition deal and promise the industry a badly needed diversity makeover. (Happily, this year’s Academy Award nominations have spared us a three-quel to #OscarsSoWhite.)

If anything, a certain amount of caution could be detected on the part of distributors, journalists and even filmmakers, as though everyone in attendance were trying to avoid the trap of self-importance in a year when real-world matters — from President Trump’s inauguration and the women’s march to reports of a cyber attack on the festival — provided more than their fair share of off-screen drama.

Which is not to suggest that the films unveiled over 10 days in Park City, Utah, were somehow disappointing, or not up to the challenge of speaking to our politically fraught moment. Far from it. There were, as usual, movies about fractious racial divisions, including “Mudbound,” Dee Rees’ symphonic, superbly acted drama about two Mississippi families — one white, one black — struggling to survive in the shadow of World War II.

Less widely seen, although it won the audience award in the festival’s Next sidebar (devoted to innovative, low-budget work), was Justin Chon’s “Gook,” a raucous, bittersweet comedy set during the Los Angeles riots in April 1992. Shot in black-and-white, the movie both explores and sneakily subverts the fractious relations between Korean and African Americans during that tumultuous chapter.

Even apart from the confrontationally titled likes of “Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time,” many of the films on offer could scarcely help engaging directly with the election and its consequences, to a surprising and mostly heartening degree.

Few of us who filed into the first screening of “Beatriz at Dinner” — director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White’s elegant, squirm-inducing dark comedy about a Mexican-born masseuse (Salma Hayek) clashing with an obscenely wealthy real-estate mogul (John Lithgow) — expected to find ourselves face-to-face with the first cinematic allegory of the Trump era. What seems at first like a too-easy skewering of racial and class divisions soon veers into richly unsettling dramatic territory, anchored by perhaps the finest, most controlled performance of Hayek’s career.

If “Beatriz at Dinner” felt so eerily timely that it might well have gone into production on Nov. 9, a number of documentaries proved no less accommodating of extremely recent headlines. “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” a stirring follow-up to “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006) from directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, follows Al Gore on his latest rousing crusade against climate change, then builds to a forlorn postelection shot of the former vice president vanishing into an elevator in Trump Tower.

“Nobody Speak: Trials of a Free Press,” Brian Knappenberger’s account of the legal battle between Gawker and Hulk Hogan, and how the interference of billionaires like Peter Thiel might jeopardize the 1st Amendment going forward, received its first public screening on Tuesday, which gave the filmmakers just enough time to squeeze in footage from Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration. 

It was hard to watch Bryan Fogel’s entertaining Russian-doping Olympics exposé, “Icarus” — which drew the meaningfully titled “Orwell Award” from the U.S. documentary jury — without thinking about Vladimir Putin’s other alleged behind-the-scenes manipulations on a different international stage. Similarly, it was difficult to see Jonathan Olshefski’s deeply moving, years-in-the-making documentary “Quest,” about the everyday travails of a black family living in north Philadelphia, and not share his subjects’ indignation when they hear news of Trump’s birther conspiracy — a reminder of just how significant and symbolic a victory the Obama presidency remains for so many minorities in this country.

Meanwhile, over in the U.S. dramatic competition, the grand jury prize went to a violent dark comedy whose title, “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore,” seemed to capture the political mood. But this Netflix original production, skillfully written and directed by Macon Blair, wasn’t especially political — or maybe it was, given that it focuses on a woman (the terrific Melanie Lynskey) who slowly but surely seizes control of her life, reminding the people around her that every mean, mindless action has a consequence.

Blair’s movie was scarcely the only Sundance title about a woman, or group of women, rebelling against a repressive order. The highlight of the dramatic competition, for me, was “Novitiate,” a revealing portrait of life among aspiring nuns in a 1960s convent, which earned filmmaker Maggie Betts a breakthrough director prize from the jury. Splendidly acted by an almost all-female ensemble, the film features particularly standout performances by Margaret Qualley as a sensitive young postulant, and by Melissa Leo as the convent’s not-unsympathetic Gorgon of a Reverend Mother.

Another dramatic competition entry bolstered by an actress’ superb lead turn was “Roxanne Roxanne,” Michael Larnell’s rickety but heartfelt film about the straight-out-of-Queens hip-hop legend Roxanne Shanté (Chanté Adams, who won the jury’s breakthrough performance prize). “Roxanne Roxanne” would make a fine double bill with another competition title, “Patti Cake$,” Geremy Jasper’s exultant, energetic fiction about a young New Jersey rapper (the sensational Danielle Macdonald), which became one of the festival’s big hits and was acquired by Fox Searchlight Pictures for $10.5 million.

The theme of female empowerment extended to the World Cinema dramatic competition, where one of the standouts was Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross’ “My Happy Family,” a beautifully crafted drama about a middle-aged Georgian woman (Ia Shugliashvili, in a remarkable big-screen debut) who makes the simple, radical decision to find her own apartment after spending years under the same roof with her husband, children and parents.

Set to screen next in February at the Berlin Film Festival, “My Happy Family” was a reminder that not every excellent film emerges from a festival with an award under its belt. Many of them, like Michael Showalter’s terrific cross-cultural, cross-generational dramedy “The Big Sick,” starring and co-written by Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”), are not even awards-eligible at Sundance, where the competitions consist of mostly first- and second-time filmmakers. Nevertheless, “The Big Sick” got the prize it wanted: a $12-million acquisition by Amazon Studios, in one of the festival’s richest deals.

Also ineligible for Sundance awards — though its distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, is surely hoping for prizes later in the year — was “Call Me by Your Name,” Luca Guadagnino’s gay love story about the slowly growing attraction between a precocious 17-year-old (Timothée Chalamet) and his family’s academic houseguest (Armie Hammer). This was the best movie I saw at Sundance 2017, for its ravishing filmmaking as well as its piercing wisdom about the evanescence of first love. Its sun-drenched northern Italian setting couldn’t have been farther away from Park City, but “Call Me by Your Name” nonetheless captured the enduring spirit of Sundance: aesthetically bold, emotionally complex and, in ways that don’t immediately announce themselves, political to the bone.

justin.chang@latimes.com

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