Present Pasts, Foreseeable Futures
By Matthew Eng
Early on in Nikyatu Jusu’s feature directorial debut Nanny, the protagonist, a Senegalese émigré named Aisha, unwinds in a Harlem hair salon and speaks of her homeland and the young son she has left there in order to watch the children of well-off white people, in the hopes of forging a more stable life for the two of them. Jusu’s camera stays fixed on the gently expressive face of leading lady Anna Diop, allowing her steady, soothing delivery to kindle the feeling and memory in Jusu’s words and transport the viewer beyond the frame, back to the terrain where this character’s home and heart reside. Jusu’s genre-blitzing film, which received the U.S. Grand Jury Prize at this year’s abruptly virtual Sundance Film Festival, reimagines the central tragedy of Ousmane Sembène’s 1966 Black Girl as a deep-rooted maternal melodrama and shiver-inducing sensory experience, entwined with figures from West African folklore. The drama that plays out between Aisha and her employers, her lover, and her faraway son evinces an emotional richness that is sustained at all points by Diop, delivering one of the most elegant and self-possessed breakout performances in recent memory.
Yet, at the time of this writing, Nanny is still awaiting distribution, while the competition entrant that enacts all the worst traits of a “Sundance film” was snatched mid-festival by a media giant for an eight-figure sum. It’s one thing to acknowledge the proliferation of the Sundance style in independent narrative cinema, as typified by Cooper Raiff’s Audience Award–winner Cha Cha Real Smooth. It’s another to confront this style head-on at the festival of its origin, to encounter the banal images, wan color palettes, coming-of-age chestnuts, earnest monologues, budget-stretching needle-drops, half-hearted attempts at thematic import, and amorphous montages that act like pressure-cookers of instant character development.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is the sophomore feature from 24-year-old writer-director Cooper Raiff, who casts himself as Andrew, a twentysomething New Jerseyan who develops a relationship with divorced single mom Domino (Dakota Johnson, also a producer on this project) and her autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), as he whiles away his postgrad summer as a bar mitzvah party-starter. Despite a charming and unhurried start, Raiff’s dramedy devolves into solipsistic cliché, its good intentions curdling from Raiff’s near-pathological insistence on valorizing his onscreen avatar, a glass-half-full schmoozer who enjoys hanging out with teenagers, dancing to hip-hop, and doling out dating advice to his worshipful younger brother (Evan Assante). He’s the frat-house Ted Lasso, a walking billboard for #NotAllMen, Benjamin Braddock as though written by Dan Fogelman. The character’s aggressive wholesomeness remedies and gets reflected back to him by everyone else’s struggles, from the barely registering bipolarity of Andrew’s recently remarried mom (Leslie Mann, refreshingly tasked here with playing a human being rather than an insult-slinging hysteric) to the transitional uncertainty of Domino, whose engagement to a no-nonsense attorney (Raúl Castillo) might catapult her into the next stage of adulthood.
At least there is Johnson, an adroit comedienne who boasts the disarming, soft-touch charisma that her underrated mother possessed in spades. Even in such middling vehicles, Johnson’s whispered line-readings and distracted eyes suggest a woman looking after a private, unprocessed sadness that directors like Raiff love to probe and exploit in the service of their own surrogate’s emotional growth. Of course a film entitled Cha Cha Real Smooth ends with a character dancing in dreamy slo-mo; that the character is Raiff’s suggests plenty about this fast-rising filmmaker’s self-interest, which has now been validated by Apple to the tune of $15 million.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the immutable affection embodied by two veteran performers, Dale Dickey and Wes Studi, in Max Walker-Silverman’s A Love Song. Dickey, a stabilizing force on the fringes of innumerable indies throughout the years, is the unwavering center of this low-key charmer as Faye, a widow who has dragged her RV out to the Colorado mountains to meet childhood friend Lito (Studi) to see if their decades-long relationship might turn romantic. Walker-Silverman’s first feature falters in its efforts at self-conscious quirk; its punchline-providing panning shots and front-facing setups, all involving a group of cowhands, and its fondness for time-marked objects suggest Wes Anderson having a crack at Nomadland. But Dickey soothes the soul in a dozen different ways, grounding this dramatically lax film in a sense of hopeful, anticipatory awe that the loss and loneliness of 60 years on earth have yet to extinguish. My mind keeps returning to a moment of heart-fluttering loveliness in which Faye espies bashful Lito running his fingers through his hair while changing his shirt for their first dinner together and the sweet smirk that slips across Dickey’s face, her character amused yet also touched that he has put care into his appearance just for her. Though teeming with ravishing images of rocky, towering peaks and rolling skies drenched with sun and stars, all exquisitely shot on 16mm by Alfonso Herrera Salcedo, the film’s most magnificent natural wonder remains its leading lady. Dickey’s internalized performance is a silent plea for connection, a warm hand stretching out to a fellow recluse, inviting him to grab on to it before time makes memories of them both.
Dickey anchors her film as ably and assuredly as Teresa Sánchez anchors Dos estaciones, the first narrative feature by filmmaker Juan Pablo González. Set mostly in the countryside of the Mexican state of Jalisco, this simmering character study follows Maria (Sánchez), the middle-aged heiress and all-seeing owner of a debt-ridden tequila factory being driven into the ground by unrelenting competition from foreign entities. At a children’s birthday party, Maria is approached by Rafaela (Rafaela Fuentes), a younger woman with experience and contacts in the industry, and appoints her on the spot as her second-in-command, quickly taking an interest in her competent new hire that isn’t solely professional. The tensions in Dos estaciones—between Maria and Rafaela, but also between Maria and the workers she’s unable to pay in full, as well as the townspeople who adulate her—roil beneath the calm, contemplative stillness of González’s prosaic visuals, with its penchant for unfussy long takes, and Sánchez’s tightly coiled and disciplined performance.
Sánchez keeps Maria’s interiority hidden behind a dour, close-mouthed grimace, which ratchets up its own kind of prolonged suspense, making us wonder if this will be the moment when she finally disintegrates. This tensile effect only makes the moments when Maria allows her guard down—cackling while doing donuts in a new truck, spinning Rafaela around the kitchen during an impromptu dance—all the more startling. And yet the film’s most unexpected gesture comes at a complete remove from Maria as González trains his eye on Tatín (Tatín Vera), Maria’s trusted, transgender hairdresser, for one sweet, meandering interlude. Without warning, the film suddenly belongs to this seemingly minor character, whom we follow as she spends a night out at a casino. When Tatín winds up in bed with a man who has taken the seat next to hers at the slot machines, we watch as she allows herself the kind of physical intimacy that Maria has resigned herself to live without, her pain yet another territory over which she exerts full dominion.
Bemoaning or simply acknowledging the metastasis of the “Sundance film” has an obvious tendency of obscuring the nonfiction and non-English narrative entries that premiere at the festival and aren’t likely to be sought out by viewers, especially virtual ones, buried as they are beneath the titles that can bank on the involvement of a Dakota Johnson or Jesse Eisenberg to turn them into a trending Twitter topic. (Eisenberg’s A24-backed When You Finish Saving the World, a breezy, toothlessly satirical mother-son comedy, will primarily be of interest to those eager to see Julianne Moore, her normally precise mannerisms failing her here, toss her accents from Safe, The Big Lebowski, and Savage Grace into a blender and jam the pulse button.)
Danish documentarian Simon Lereng Wilmont’s A House Made of Splinters riveted like few other selections and continues to haunt me in the days since its debut. Wilmont and his collaborators embedded themselves within the walls of a children’s shelter, run by social workers in the Ukrainian city of Lysychansk, located less than 30 miles from the frontline of a war that has raged for nearly eight years. The film centers on four of the institution’s prepubescent, at-risk residents, who have each been removed from precarious living situations and unfit guardians, many of them alcoholics prone to disappearing for days on end, unlikely to even answer their cellphones; once they arrive at the halfway house, the children are permitted to stay for nine months, after which they are released into the care of foster parents (or, in certain cases, approved guardians within their own family) or else consigned to an orphanage. From this miserablist premise, Wilmont crafts a film attentive to the hardships and emotional turbulence of his subjects’ existences. But Wilmont is equally alert to the conventional beats of youth as experienced by dozens of children living together in a community where the adults are assiduous yet prone to leaving their wards unattended. What these children do with their time verges from the genuinely alarming to the comically mundane; there are clandestine smoke breaks, homemade tattoos, petty larceny, and some bouts of roughhousing that set the viewer’s nerves on edge, but also TikTok-ready dance routines, Peppa Pig viewings, and matter-of-fact love letters left on the beds of unreciprocated crushes.
Wilmont’s camera establishes a connection to his four primary subjects that is direct and deeply empathetic. When young Alina and Sasha gravitate towards one another out of a similarly neglectful familial situation and a shared love of play-fighting, Wilmont and editors Michael Aaglund and Marion Tuor depict their friendship with an immediacy that eschews sentimentality, pinpointing the specifics of a bond that is necessarily provisional yet no less rooted in an urgent desire for companionship. And then there is Kolya, an insolent mischief-maker with a side-swept undercut, whose narrative is the film’s richest and most wrenching. He barely blinks when a cop picks him up for petty larceny yet tends to his toddler sister with unmistakable tenderness; later, he can’t help but sink into his mother’s embrace when she catches sight of self-administered cuts on his arm during a mandated visit. No matter the superfluousness of the film’s intrusive narration and exceedingly somber score, the sight of Kolya blinking back tears when his time at the center comes to an end is enough to recall Maurice Pialat’s 1968 masterpiece L’enfance nue, another film that presents the life of a wayward child without judgment. Wilmont’s subjects are not purely products of real-world harm, but all that they have seen and survived thus far on Earth. What ultimately sets A House Made of Splinters apart is that its makers treat compassion not as something deserved or earned, but as a given in life and on screen.
Sierra Pettengill’s Riotsville, U.S.A. merited a more robust, dialectical reception upon its unveiling in the festival’s NEXT section, spotlighting “pure, bold works” and “innovative, forward-thinking” storytelling approaches. This invaluable archival documentary homes in on a little-known phase in American history: the fake towns, known as Riotsvilles, built on bases by the United States military in the 1960s for the sole purpose of teaching police and National Guardsmen how to quell the riots that proliferated across American cities during the decade. Making a decisive choice to largely forego footage of rioting and police brutality alike, Pettengill focuses instead on recordings of the large-scale demonstrations that occurred on these stages, a theatrical pageant of rapidly escalating American militarization. The assembled material makes the blood run cold, not least when we are presented with the uneasy and altogether surreal sight and sounds of a Black officer, playing a rioter, haranguing the troopers who have mock-arrested him on this cardboard proscenium, to the delighted howls of white officers sitting in the audience.
As shaped by Nels Bangerter (Cameraperson, Let the Fire Burn), one of the most gifted editors currently working in the nonfiction space, the construction of Pettengill’s cogent counter-history exerts a trancelike power. Its script, brilliantly written by the critic Tobi Haslett and given voice by the actress Charlene Modeste, veers away from the received, dominant narratives of this watershed era. The film argues that the events that occurred in and around the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach more presciently exemplify our current American reality than the polarizing protests of that same year’s much discussed and dramatized Democratic National Convention in Chicago. As Richard Nixon clinched his party’s nomination in August of that year, a protest in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Liberty City led to fatal riots when police encroached on the rally in response to the expulsion of a white reporter. But none of this troubled the pomp and protocol of the convention. In this episode, Pettengill and Haslett locate a paradigm for incidents that have reoccurred over the subsequent 50-plus years, in which demands were made and Black lives were put on the line, only to be met with scorn and willful obliviousness by white America.
America’s history is filled with blueprints that have yet to be realized because they were once deemed too fanciful to fulfill. Pettengill and Haslett indicate this by alighting in their film’s final moments on June Jordan’s visionary plan for a rebuilt Harlem, made up of towering skyscrapers and ample green, liberating its residents from its oppressive grid and the prevalent, death-dealing policing that provoked the 1964 riots. Naturally, such an undertaking was instantly dismissed and disparaged by the mainstream, including the editors of Esquire, who published Jordan and architect Buckminster Fuller’s proposal under the title “Instant Slum Clearance” in 1965. But what if we choose to remember Jordan’s redesign, entitled “Skyrise for Harlem,” not as a quixotic notion but as something practicable, a future to work towards? We are still living with and within the consequences of the ’60s, but, as this remarkable film reminds us, we are also living and reckoning with its manifold possibilities.
Editor’s Note: Filmmaker Sierra Pettengill has contributed to Reverse Shot as a writer.