Sundance 2023 Dispatch 1:
Approaching the Frontier
By Caitlin Quinlan

The continuing online access to the Sundance Film Festival, first introduced mid-pandemic, has been greatly appreciated for critics who, like myself, live overseas and for whom attending in person is not feasible. I hope this hybridity continues for a range of accessibility reasons—it certainly creates more opportunities for a diverse group of critics and commentators to participate.

At the same time, the confusion over the New Frontier section this year, initially planned as a virtual-only event despite the strand’s 15-year history and then canceled altogether, suggests that wrinkles remain in the relationship between the online and in-person approaches. Three films did eventually screen online and in person as part of the New Frontier program and were some of the most invigorating and intellectually stimulating works I saw at the festival. First was Fox Maxy’s Gush, an ambitious, uncategorizable work that combines observational documentary, post-internet animation, and archival television footage, often in split-screen or laid on top of one another. The subject choices are varied but often funny: supermodels falling on catwalks, Maxy entertaining her dog, parties in disco-lit bars, or Halloween-costumed friends dancing in a forest with balloons that spell out the film’s apt title. Maxy’s first feature is a torrent of ideas, terminally online humor, and kaleidoscopic visuals, akin to scrolling rapidly through a particularly varied and strange TikTok “For You” page. Much of Gush has the energy of the gone-but-not-forgotten platform Vine (TikTok’s funnier, more meme-able predecessor) with its short, sharp bursts of weirdness.

Grounding the film in more serious questions of trauma and survival, Maxy uses clips from a famous 2005 interview between Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks in which the then feuding models made amends, but specifically the moments where Campbell hints at the abuse she suffered as a child. This facet of the film is later tied to one of the best sequences, a conversation in a car between two twenty-something young women. They speak in the frantic and loose vernacular of close friends who need no context, laughing at each other’s chaotic stories and decrying the men in their lives. In particular, they speak of an older man who has known at least one of them since they were a young child but has recently made an inappropriate advance. Their verbal takedown of his gross behavior and their self-confidence in doing so imbues a difficult circumstance with strength and joy. Maxy capitalizes on this feeling for much of the film, documenting experiences of community support and collective euphoria and soundtracking them with the party sounds of early 2000s R&B and 2010s trap.

The section’s two other films paired well as works of ecocriticism observing the difficult dynamics between humanity and the environment. A Common Sequence by Mary Helena Clark and Mike Gibisser is structured as a triptych of stories, or scientific investigations, all concerned with notions of the “commons” and how any natural thing can come to be owned or co-opted. They begin with a study of the achoque salamander, endemic to Lake Patzcuaro in Mexico, where their population numbers are rapidly declining. A more unusual conservation method is carried out by local nuns who maintain a thriving colony of the amphibians in order to keep making a famous medicinal syrup from their skin. While the work they do helps to ensure the salamander’s survival, other scientific research into their ability to regrow limbs and organs is noted in the film as being of interest to the U.S. Department of Defense who hope that it could inform military medicine, specifically regarding amputation.

Clark and Gibisser then shift focus to the use of AI in the harvesting of apple trees where robotic arms are coded to select perfect specimens of fruit, and later to the concerns of Indigenous American and Mexican people surrounding the commodification of human DNA. As Native nations, they fear that their genome could be mined for information and therefore exploited given their longer existence on Earth and the rising possibility that their DNA could be a profound resource. The three sections of the film are not presented as disparate circumstances but flow into one another as concordant narratives that speak to the interwoven nature of human life and the natural world. We slowly begin to realize just how easily something initially merely peculiar like the nun’s achoque syrup has been made relevant to global politics and warfare. It’s a film imbued with unease, both an acknowledgment of scientific marvel and a warning of how unstoppable such a mining of resources could be.

In Deborah Stratman’s Last Things, the filmmaker’s eco-focus revolves around a practice of deconstructing hierarchy and decentering the human experience. Stratman presents a world history from the perspective of geology, looking at how rocks, crystals, and larger formations have witnessed and participated in the very construction and evolution of the Earth. It’s a film that could easily have been called “First Things,” as the filmmaker considers the longevity of rocks and the earliest history they hold in their matter. But Last Things anticipates, perhaps more importantly, their history that is to come and their potential to outlast. The film is essayistic and dynamic, using scientific research footage of crystals in microscopic close-up or the sublime expanses of mountain ranges, and the voiceover of filmmaker Valerie Massadian who reads from a variety of science-fiction work and poetry by the likes of Clarice Lispector and Donna Haraway.

The elemental beauty and symmetry of Stratman’s images is absorbing throughout, almost hypnotic. Rendering these forms cinematic and interweaving the geological with the poetic helps to recalibrate how one might think of our primordial foundations. To see the world as a source of art, perhaps, is a valid means of encouraging active responses to the climate crisis but more simply highlights a potential future in which our environment exists without humanity. Like A Common Sequence, the film is less interested in definitive answers to large questions about our planet’s continuing evolution but instead contemplates what it means to make a resource out of the natural world and how to combat this tendency in favor of non-anthropocentric pursuits.

Away from New Frontier, Raven Jackson’s All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt explored a similar story of the relationship between earth and human history, land and the familial, through a loose, experimental form and ellipses in narrative. Such a fragmented and sensorial approach was quite welcome among typical Sundance indie fodder commonly seen in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Jackson’s past work as a poet has clear bearing on this project, which functions on feeling and association rather than traditional plot construction. But it does cohere, as one can piece together an oneiric, nonlinear retelling of the life of a woman in Mississippi, Mack (Charleen McClure), from childhood beginnings to young adult heartbreak to the complications of motherhood.

These samplings of Mack’s life play out on riverbanks, grassy fields, and mud-slicked paths and, for the most part, are expressed through gestures shot in close-up: the motion of a thumb tracing paths on someone’s back during an embrace signifies their impossible, aching love, or the layering of weathered hands speaks of grief and communal support at a funeral. Comparisons to the work of Terrence Malick are not misplaced, but I was also reminded of filmmakers like Alice Rohrwacher or Apichatpong Weerasethakul (whose frequent editor Lee Chatametikool cut the film), whose focus on natural landscapes and dreamlike narrative weavings harmonize in affecting ways. Jackson uses a recurring image of Mack’s hand reaching into the river that runs behind her family home at varying life stages, her fingers digging into the bed and sifting through the soil, to evoke a sense of belonging and a lifelong bond to the bedrock of her existence. In thinking about this film alongside the New Frontier work of Stratman, Clark, and Gibisser, there is a profound sense of the land as a narrator of Mack’s story and a constant witness to her life. The filmmaker’s fluid, expressive storytelling illustrates many of the same ecocentric ideas of protecting the Earth and acknowledging its life, its memory.

More aligned with typical Sundance fodder, but enjoyably so, was Nicole Holofcener’s You Hurt My Feelings, which zooms in on writer insecurity and its repercussions on one’s relationships in jovial, if unnerving, ways. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Beth, a published author and creative writing teacher who overhears her therapist husband Don (Tobias Menzies) expressing his dislike of her new manuscript. Prior to this moment, their marriage is so sickeningly happy that even their son Eliot (Owen Teague) feels like a third wheel. Together for decades, Beth and Don have never thoroughly contemplated the little white lies that contribute to their successful partnership—things like not admitting to being sick of receiving the same misguided presents or saying the other’s Botox looks good. Beth’s sudden realization that Don doesn’t like her work sends her into a spiral of despair. Holofcener plays with mundane scenarios as the site of deep crisis—Beth overhears Don’s opinion while he’s shopping for socks—but is never dismissive; there is an acknowledgment that Beth’s fears and re-evaluations of her relationship have some degree of validity but are also quite silly. Of course, Don would struggle to tell her the truth, when his love and desire to support her outweigh his less experienced literary criticism. Beth’s real insecurities run deeper and her husband’s admission serves to corroborate an existing sense of failure rather than incite it.

Holofcener’s surrounding characters all share these woes. Don realizes he’s not a very good therapist and is berated by clients who want their money back, while Beth’s sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins) and brother-in-law Mark (Arian Moayed) both suffer identity crises through their respective work as an interior designer and actor. It’s a film that partners well with Kelly Reichardt’s latest, Showing Up, as a treatise on what it means to let your work define you or to feel your talent waning. In its few cloying moments (inevitable in a film concerned with this upper-middle-class milieu feeling a little sorry for itself), it feels like a cinematic evaluation of “gifted kid” syndrome: people who had early success in life and can’t reconcile this with later intellectual struggles. The light tone and breezy pacing of the film suggest a consciousness of this, however, and Holofcener doesn’t weigh the story down with drama. Instead, You Hurt My Feelings works as a tenderly teasing and knowing portrait of creative malaise, a gentle poke at the writer’s condition and all its needless woes. These human foibles pale in significance against the gravitas of the natural crises explored elsewhere at the festival. Yet Holofcener’s soft critique of her characters’ narrow introspection feels somehow aligned with the other filmmakers’ broader interests in looking outwards, beyond the individual experience. The attention paid to collective histories in these films, both human and environmental, encourages bolder ways of thinking that might occur if we were to truly forget ourselves.