Sundance 2020: Palm Springs, Zola

Two of the most buzzed and ridiculously fun films from Sundance 2020 came out of the U.S. Dramatic Competition program, a pair of movies that I can’t wait for the rest of the world to see. Neither are perfect, but both have that kinetic energy that gets people talking. It’s no surprise that one came in with the A24 logo and the other left with the Neon one. These are movies that the two current big dogs in the indie film race want to be a part of when they hit the national conversation. And they’re going to hit it hard.

One of the biggest stories of the year was the fact that Max Barbakow’s “Palm Springs” sold to Neon for an incredible $17,500,000.69 – the added spare change so it could beat the previous record-holder of highest Sundance sale of all time, “The Birth of a Nation” by 69 cents in a funny bit of one-upsmanship. While that number sounds a bit insane given the box office track record of its star, it’s easy to see why Neon was drawn to “Palm Springs,” a wildly entertaining entry in a genre that is on life support lately, the romantic comedy. We simply don’t get nearly the number of smart rom-coms we deserve, and this is one of the most delightful and easy-to-like ones in ages. People who love it are going to love it, and almost no one is going to hate it.

The conceit of “Palm Springs” isn’t given away in the Sundance description although it will have to be in the preview really, but if you want to go in completely blind, bookmark this page and come back later. It’s something that’s revealed only about 10 minutes in, but it’s such a crazy idea that you may enjoy “Palm Springs” more not knowing it. So you’ve been warned…

Still here? “Palm Springs” is basically another riff on “Groundhog Day” or “Russian Doll” in that it features a time loop in which the same day repeats forever, and most people don’t realize it. Nyles (Andy Samberg) totally realizes it. Every morning is the same day – the one in which he was dragged to a wedding by his awful girlfriend. On one of the hundreds of times that Nyles has gone through this same miserable day, in a way that I won’t spoil, Sarah (Cristin Milioti) ends up caught in the loop with him, turning “Palm Springs” into a movie about two people falling in love as the same day repeats around them over and over again.

Writer Andy Siara has crafted a funny take on the “Groundhog Day” concept, imbuing Nyles, Sarah, and the world around them with enough detail that his talented actors can play within this repeating world without it every feeling stale. It was very clever to not have his couple enter the loop on the same day, allowing Milioti to play Sarah’s confusion and Samberg to imbue Nyles with the cynicism that would come from hundreds of repetitive days. And he allows his characters to come together slowly, grounding their romantic interest in one another in something that feels genuine within this high-concept bubble. Samberg and Milioti have never been more likable, which makes complaints that “Palm Springs” doesn’t quite stick the landing and has a few jokes that fall flat feel minor. Sarah, Nyles, and their wacky predicament just makes for an entertaining rom-com. There aren’t enough of those.

A similar originality drove the buzz around Janicza Bravo’s wildly entertaining “Zola,” the first film based on a Twitter thread. After the premiere, comparisons were drawn to another modern Florida story in “Spring Breakers,” but Bravo’s film feels refreshingly unique. It’s not just the way Bravo uses modern internet language to enhance the storytelling – for example, tweet sounds punctuate lines like rim shots – but the totally engaged performances she draws from her cast, especially a fearless Riley Keough, who delivers another all-in performance that should take her to another level.

Keough plays Stefani, who Zola (Taylour Paige) meets at a restaurant at which she’s working and the two become instant friends. Although, we know that’s gonna end thanks to the instantly engaging first line of the film, “You wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” Zola ain’t lying about that.

What unfolds is a hysterical and thrilling story of a road trip to Florida, on which the two ladies are accompanied by Stefani’s boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) and “roommate” (Colman Domingo). Playwright Jeremy O. Harris and Bravo figure out a way to take a 144-tweet thread and turn it into a script that’s not just coherent but completely engaged with its origin. Zola and Stefani are always on their phones, texting and using internet language (they’ll say “idk” instead of “I don’t know”) but Harris and Bravo don't lose the story or characters in what could have been an overly stylized affair. Most of all, Bravo grounds her story in a vision of Florida that feels genuinely dangerous and strange in ways that only Florida can, and pulls great performances from her cast, who are all-in on this crazy vision.

Like “Palm Springs,” I kind of wanted more from the final scenes, but the journey is undeniably worth the unforgettable ride here. Like other A24 hits of recent years, this is going to be wildly buzzed about when it hits theaters. It’s a major new film, one of the best of Sundance 2020 and a movie that is going to light the arthouse movie scene on fire when it gets released. Start preparing now. 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also the Editor of Magill's Cinema Annual, a writer for The New York Times, Vulture, The AV Club, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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