thewitch.0

Due to time constraints, I cannot fully review all of the films I saw at the Sundance Film Festival this year. I can, however, provide quick takes. I liked almost all of the films I saw at Sundance (minus Slow West, which I covered before), so it’s an impressive slate below. I will post full reviews when the films are released in theaters this year, or near the end of the year if they are not:

I Am Michael: A morally unsound film surrounding a homosexual (James Franco) shunning his past life in favor of a religious awakening that wipes clean his “unnatural” sins. Franco’s performance is committed and impressive, adding to a repertoire filled with daring roles exploring sexuality. The religious component, though, feels occasionally muddled and unsure of its message, particularly in the third act. The final scene is powerful and shows considerable promise for director Justin Kelly. Grade: ★★ (out of 5)

Brooklyn: Saoirse Ronan’s great performance as a 1950s Irish immigrant striving for a better life in the titular New York city falls into conventional romantic tropes that hinder the film’s considerable emotional power. The story of a daughter leaving her mother and sister in the wake of familial turmoil while attempting to balance her new life and desires is one of every immigrant, regardless of time or place. It feels permanent, relevant, and biting, even if it plays the tone a bit light, particularly in her moments back in Ireland. A romantic subplot is apparently more expanded in the novel but hurts the conflict here, making for a moving, if uneven, narrative. Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)

The Diary of a Teenage Girl: A hilarious, confident, sometimes shocking film that focuses on a 15-year old girl going through a sexual awakening. While inappropriate material for many, its bite allows the breakthrough lead performance from Bel Powley, who fits in with the likes of Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgård. The film meanders and feels longer than it actually is, due to the tonal shift in the third act that opts for darker material than underage sex. It makes for an entertaining mess that simultaneously celebrates exploration of self while warning against going too far in one’s youth. The performances are just sublime, though. Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)

The Wolfpack: One of the best documentaries to show at Sundance, Crystal Moselle’s film looks at the Angulo brothers, a close-knit group of film aficionados that have rarely, if ever, left their impoverished apartment. Moselle’s discovery is a revelatory look at how film can influence young adults and create their own people, even with such little social interactions. There’s confidence in her presentation of ideas and even more so in her creation of a manic father who has effectively soiled his childrens’ lives. His claims of protecting them from outside malevolence doesn’t seem to understand that the evil may come from within his own grasp. It’s a powerful, if slightly open-ended, film. Grade: ★★(out of 5)

Cartel Land: A documentary that analyzes the border battle in a new light, Matthew Heineman’s exploration of two sides of the same story make for a mostly concise take on the cartel’s dominance of drug trafficking and small cities in Mexico. It’s a sad narrative filled with ruthless looks at mercenaries attempting to fight from within and outside: the self-proclaimed border agents in southern Arizona and the doctors and other impassioned individuals in small Mexican cities want freedom, but will they succumb to pressure from the all-too-powerful cartel? The film’s pessimistic, biting, and deems the work as hopeless. I’m not sure I agree, but it’s structured soundly and examines character with relentless passion. Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)

The Witch: Arguably the best film I caught at Sundance, this 17th-century horror film set in New England looks at the disintegration of the family unit in the wake of a witch hunt directed at a daughter. The film isn’t just scary; it’s bone-chilling, unnerving, and unforgettable. The score is hypnotic, aggressive, and inescapable. That first half hour is so mind-bogglingly great that the second and third acts almost cannot live up to the precedent. Yet they do, providing new scares, an unwavering camera, and gorgeous, color-drained cinematography. This isn’t the type of horror film that saves all of its scares for the last moments, or relies entirely on jumps, but rather aims to sneak inside of you and terrify your mind and spirit. It’s a great horror work. Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)

The Second Mother: A beautiful Brazilian entry discussing class divides within a wealthy household, all through the lens of a tirelessly working maid played by Regina Casé. When her estranged daughter comes back into the mix after being raised almost her entire life by another woman, the two must reconcile with past struggles and understand their place in a world defined by class lines and gender roles. It’s a quiet film, one marked by plenty of affecting comedy and one-liners. I may have laughed more at this film than any other one I attended. The ending drags on for far too long, lingering on a couple too many scenes, but the power is underneath every frame. I thoroughly enjoyed the film and its central performances. Grade: ★★(out of 5)

Written by Eric Forthun