Sundance Film Festival’s eclectic NEXT section is proof that a story can come from anywhere and be told in many different ways. No two movies are quite alike in this section, which sometimes feels like a catch-all for gems that were either too risky to run against likely crowd-pleasers, or are passion projects that make giant leaps of faith that may not always land for everyone in the audience.
The first movie was an erratic feature-length anthology titled “Omniboat: A Fast Boat Fantasia.” Directed by a misfit army of filmmakers including Daniel Scheinert, Hannah Fidell, Alexa Lim Haas, Lucas Leyva, Olivia Lloyd, Jillian Mayer, The Meza Brothers, Terence Nance, Brett Potter, Dylan Redford, Xander Robin, Julian Yuri Rodriguez and Celia Rowlson-Hall, “Omniboat” delivers on its colorful and strange vision of Florida. Although each segment looks and feels wildly different from one another, they each start with two basic ingredients: Miami and a sunset-dayglo painted speed boat. From there, the stories spin out into the sustained odyssey of real estate developer (Mel Rodriguez) in his quest to sell investors’ their own visions of South Florida, a recession-induced meet-cute between a speed boat and a monster truck, the comic saga of Cuban migrants saved by a speed boat, a stunning Terrence Malick-esque modern dance routine set in the wake of a hurricane, and the out-of-this-world thriller featuring aliens hiding in human form. When other famous names drop in like Jessica Williams, Adam Devine and Robert Redford’s voice, they’re not even the strangest thing on-board.
Set on a much smaller scale in Los Angeles, Patricia Vidal Delgado’s black-and-white “La Leyenda Negra” features none of the showy and sparkly hues of its Miami neighbor. Instead, the subdued coming-of-age drama focuses on one teenager, Aleteia (Monica Betancourt), who struggles to fit in as a transfer student with many of the other popular girls because she’s political, nonconformist and doesn’t follow their beauty standards. Luckily, Rosarito (Kailei Lopez) connects with Aleteia as a friend—and first crush—and the two must learn to deal with the fallout of changing immigration laws that could derail Aleteia’s future.
Certain scenes may seem a bit too unpolished because of the young actors, other times the camera can look quite shaky or some plot points are harder to believe than others. Yet, there’s a shaggy energy throughout that gives the movie a sense of urgency over current issues facing Salvadorian immigrants like Aleteia, now that TPS (Temporary Protective Status) is in danger of getting cut. The film bottles Aleteia’s anger against those who make fun of her in-person and those who threaten her way of life in an artfully composed way that doesn’t detract from her palpable emotions.
Written and directed by Danny Madden, “Beast Beast” is a wild card movie in the NEXT deck that will either win you over with Shirley Chen’s effervescent screen presence or will doom its goodwill with its third act twist. Krista (Chen) is a lively theater kid who catches the eye of soft-spoken skateboarder Nito (Jose Angeles). The two start an adorable high school romance before their paths cross with an aspiring YouTube personality and gun fanatic, Adam (Will Madden), with unintended consequences. Through these different stories, three different movies play out as each character is off living their own lives. I’m not sure Madden knew what note to end the movie on, as "Beast Beast" tries to tackle youth culture, gun violence and social media addiction all at once. It’s a conflicted work, but not without its merits, especially when it comes to Chen’s performance.
On the heels of the American Dirt controversy and the discussion over who’s allowed to tell stories that aren’t yours, Heidi Ewing’s heartfelt “Te Llevo Conmigo (I Carry You With Me)” shows how to share those stories with empathy and love. The movie follows two young men from Mexico as they fall in love, cross the border and struggle to carve out a piece of the American Dream for themselves. Years later, one of them regrets leaving his son behind and the other wants to stay firmly in the U.S. where they have built their home. Both of them face the same hard consequence: because they came to the U.S. without documentation, they risk deportation and semi-permanent exile from Mexico.
Ewing, who’s made her award-winning Sundance narrative feature debut with “Te Llevo Conmigo (I Carry You With Me),” uses her documentary roots to seamlessly weave in the real-life inspirations of the younger characters, who recreate the men’s lives before the story begins, right down to their tortured childhoods where their fathers tried to scare them into being straight young men. The movie quietly observes the couple work through these unspoken tensions.
You can see and feel Ewing's love for her characters in beautifully natural ways. It doesn’t feel like an outsider’s gaze looking down on them from up above, but as if it were another person standing next to them, fearful of the journey north and weary of the hard road ahead. We learn to root for their successes and feel their pain when it comes. The movie gives the audience a stronger emotional connection to their journey by simply putting us in their impossible positions.