OPINION: 2021 Sundance Film Festival films to be on the lookout for

Keep an eye out for these wide variety of films

The+Sundance+Film+Festival+went+virtual+this+year+which+made+it+more+accessible+to+check+out+a+variety+of+films.+Photo+by+Travis+Wise+%2F+CC+BY+2.0+https%3A%2F%2Fwww.flickr.com%2Fphotos%2F94599716%40N06%2F18118961764

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The Sundance Film Festival went virtual this year which made it more accessible to check out a variety of films. Photo by Travis Wise / CC BY 2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/18118961764

Bradley Hinkson

Staying at home watching movies on my computer is not the ideal way to spend my first Sundance Film Festival, but it also puts me in a situation to finally go to the festival. Sundance is one of the most exciting film festivals as audiences get to experience new films from new or previous talents before many of them even get distribution. I watched a good amount at this year’s festival and all I want to do is discuss the ones that I found to be the best.

“Strawberry Mansion”

Try to find a film as imaginative, sweet, and bizarre as this.

In a near future where dreams are taxed, James Preble, an auditor of dreams played by co-director Kentucker Audley, meets up with Bella, played by Penny Fuller, a woman with a vast VHS collection of her own dreams. As Preble audits more and more of her tapes, fantasy and reality blend as he forms a romantic bond with the younger version of Bella from her dreams and explores his own imagination.

There isn’t a frame in this film that isn’t filled with some sort of artistry, whether it be from its bright color palette, lush film stock cinematography or practical effects. Its strong artistic emphasis on the bizarre could easily have the film just be something that is strange for strange’s sake, but there’s a loving sweetness that shines through this whole film. 

As Preble goes further into his imagination, he discovers how important it is to not let any negative outside forces detract you from being the imaginative person you are. Bella is able to block out advertisements that are being projected into people’s dreams, which is the film truly showing how the individual is more powerful than whatever capitalist forces may try to bring you down. Which, for a small, imaginative indie film with no big studio attachment, feels appropriate. 

It may take some people a second to vibe with what “Strawberry Mansion” is trying to do, but for those willing to go with it, you’ll get something really special.

“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair”

Many films have tried to tackle the internet and the impact it has on people. From melodramas like “Men, Woman & Children” to horror films like the “Unfriended” series, a lot of them have tried to show how the internet is a scary place that ruins us. “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” does take viewers on an eerie journey through the darker corners of the internet, but also has a much more somber perspective on it.

Casey, played by newcomer Anna Cobb in a breakout role, is a lonely teenager who tries her hand at an online horror role-playing game known as the World’s Fair Challenge. We watch as she may or may not be slowly changing and as the loneliness and detachment she feels takes over her.

There is rarely a moment when Casey is not on screen, whether we see the videos she makes for her nearly non-existent viewers or the audience takes the role of her computer screen. We understand her loneliness because just like herself, we only know her. The only other people we see are those in the videos she watches and JLB, played by Michael J. Rogers, an older man she talks with over Skype. 

Many times while Casey is watching videos online, the videos autoplay into the next as the algorithm tries to find a new person she can project an identity onto. In one of the film’s strongest moments, an ASMR video becomes the only source of comfort to help her fall asleep.

Casey’s disillusionment with the world around her takes her down a scary path as the film progresses, but there is an understanding to it. She wants some kind of identity but has no real person around her to help, we only ever hear her father, so she has nowhere else to turn to besides the internet. Director Jane Schoenburn is sympathetic to Casey’s want of identity – Schoenburn being non-binary themself feels so important in understanding that need in finding an identity.

“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” is the kind of exciting debut you always want to see that is the start of a unique voice in director Jane Schoenburn.

“Mass”

How does one accept the death of their child? 

“Mass” follows four parents, played by Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Issacs, and Martha Plimpton, a few years after their children die in a school shooting, with one of the children being the assailant, and the long confrontation they have to finally get some answers and closure.

This film is an actor’s showcase. Each of the main four actors give some truly gut wrenching performances that show the range of the stages of grief. Issacs is filled with so much rage that you’re waiting for the moment when he snaps, while Dowd is filled with so much resentment and pain from what happened that you wait for her to completely break down. 

With such heavy subject matter, these kinds of performances could easily fall into melodramatic trappings with excessive crying and yelling. But while there are quite a bit of tears shed, nothing feels overly dramatic. Thanks to Fran Kranz’s sensitive and even sometimes tense direction and his compelling screenplay, the film confronts grief and forgiveness in a fairly natural way. Though don’t expect this to be an easy sit.

“Mass” is a one-location film that mostly serves as an acting showcase for its leads, but damn what performances these are. Though an argument could be made on if this film adds anything new to the discussion on the cause of mass shootings – the film mostly boils down to the idea that we don’t notice or tend to ignore the signs in the people who commit mass shootings, which is not as interesting or profound as the film may think it is. 

The film works much better as a head-on confrontation of grief in a very emotional way. Expect to hear a lot about this next award season, if not just for the performances.

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street”

And now, something a little more lighthearted.

Following the first two decades or so of the show, “Street Gang” follows the conception of “Sesame Street” from a mere idea to help teach children through television, to the classic show many of us have a fondness for. The documentary focuses on the show’s hope to not only teach kids basic education, but show a diverse group of people to give the representation children needed to see.

This doesn’t break any new mold in terms of how documentaries are presented, but it’s hard not to get invested in the history of the show. The doc makes the smart decision to not entirely focus on Jim Henson’s involvement with the show, as many people only associate his name with it, but show how important Joan Ganz Cooney and Jon Stone were to the creation and success of the show. 

It also focuses on the importance of the diversity of the cast. The showrunners knew they needed to get to children who lived in more inner city neighborhoods and wanted the show to reflect the people they saw in their everyday lives. The film smartly focuses on the importance the show had for many actors of color.

There’s still plenty of fun behind-the-scenes stories and footage throughout to invest anyone who really wants to know what it was like filming the series. A whole film could be made just of the hilarious bloopers.

“Street Gang” feels like the quintessential doc all about the creation of the many Muppet characters we’ve all come to love. Just make sure you’ve got a tissue nearby.

Other films to look out for:

“I Was a Simple Man”

“Wild Indian”

“Censor”

“Marvelous and the Black Hole”