The NEXT program at Sundance is often where some of the most memorable films premiere, usually works from young filmmakers who are playing with the form in a way that feels like it’s looking to the future of film more than its past. The three films I chose to cover from the program this year, while all worthwhile, don’t feel too traditionally NEXT in terms of form. Sure, one is a playful genre experiment, but even that one is really just about something that’s always been intrinsic to the indie film scene: the joy of making a movie with your friends. The other two have more timeless templates, including a gorgeously rendered tale of intimate connection and a chronicle of the history of an ordinary family.
The best of the bunch, and the best film I’ve seen at about my halfway point of Sundance, is Max Winter-Silverman’s poignant and lovely “A Love Song,” an intimate story that somehow also holds a quirky, almost Wes Anderson sense of humor around its edges. It’s a beauty, a showcase for two actors who have long been grounding, realistic presences in films that didn’t quite give them this kind of platform. It’s an invigorating debut from a filmmaker who I hope keeps making gentle, graceful little projects like this one for a long time.
“Winter’s Bone” and “Hell or High Water” star Dale Dickey is in every scene of “A Love Song,” anchoring it with an incredibly nuanced performance. Without much dialogue, Dickey gives Faye not just an inner monologue but an entire history. We sense years of a life lived, which has now brought Faye to a camping site near a gorgeous lake in the mountains of Colorado. She doesn’t do much, living off what she can get out of the water and cans of beer she pulls from a cabinet. The film will draw comparisons to “Nomadland,” given how far Faye is off the grid.
But Faye is there for a reason. She’s waiting for someone. As she spins the dial on a radio that always seems to play just the right song for the right moment and meets a couple vacationing at another site along with a quirky group of Indigenous people who are waiting for Faye to move, she waits for a childhood sweetheart named Lito (Wes Studi). They haven’t seen each other in decades, but now they’re both widowed. Faye is clearly nervous, as is Lito when he arrives. They talk about their childhood and their lost partners. They connect, but the film isn’t a traditional love story, it’s more of, well, a song, something to interpret and make your own.
Dickey and Studi feel so believably like their characters that they disappear into them. We don’t question their long-ago connection or the lives they’ve lived since they last saw each other. There’s a surreal, unforced nature to their conversation over warm beer and ice cream that’s never overly sentimental. They’re processing life—where they were when they knew each other and where they are now. In one of my favorite scenes of the year, Faye climbs a large mountain and comes down again, ready for the next chapter. Without simple resolutions, I found the end of “A Love Song” very strikingly moving. When a love song is over, we don’t forget it, but it impacts how we hear the next one.
Completely different and yet also about connection in its own way is “Something in the Dirt,” the latest project from the wonderful Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, the geniuses behind “Spring” and “The Endless.” About to have the year of their careers with “Moon Knight” (and coming off good reviews for “Archive 81”), the pair make their Sundance debut with their quirkiest film, a genre treasure about two men who fire up each other’s curiosity and possibility their growing insanity. It’s a little too long at 115 minutes, but there’s a lot to like here from a pair of filmmakers who I’m happy to see still taking crazy risks when it comes to storytelling and form.
Benson/Moorhead films take genre constructs to tell stories of human need and connection. In this case, the construct is both a traditional WTF sci-fi story and a meta commentary on filmmaking itself. It starts when Levi (Benson) moves into a barren apartment in the Hollywood Hills, a final stop before he leaves the din of Los Angeles. Right from the beginning, the directors make the City of Angels into a character with helicopters tending to a fire in the hills, planes flying overhead, and that general buzz of the electricity that flows through a major city.
Amidst the noise, Levi meets John (Moorhead), who has just left his partner and also needs a friend. He offers Levi some unneeded furniture and the two witness something impossible in Levi’s apartment. More than just scared off by the seemingly supernatural occurrence, the guys decide to turn it into a project. Record the happening, make a series or a movie, and make a fortune. As they do so, the film folds in on itself with segments that feel “real,” ones that are recreations of what happened to Levi & John, sections of interviews, and even presentations on the history of Los Angeles. John digs into the backdrop of a city that’s always felt a little obsessed with the occult and, well, things get weird.
“Something in the Dirt” doesn’t quite add up to the same emotional impact as the best of the Benson/Moorhead works, but I don’t think it has those intentions. It’s very clearly a “pandemic movie,” not only in that it’s practically a two-hander by the people who co-directed, co-edited, co-wrote, shot, and star in it, but in that it’s partially about the insanity of being trapped with another person who shares your obsessions. “Moon Knight” is going to take these guys to another level of fame. I hope they find the time to keep making weird little gems like “Something in the Dirt.”
Finally, there’s Ricky D’Ambrose’s clever “The Cathedral,” a film that our own Glenn Kenny has already praised out of its premiere and production from the 2021 Biennale College Cinema program. D’Ambrose clearly has a confident, fascinating voice as a filmmaker, making a family drama that plays out almost like a memory. The human mind often connects imagery to emotion when it thinks about family, whether it’s a grandfather’s cigar or an aunt’s jewelry. D’Ambrose’s static camera centers these images, how a seemingly mundane moment like someone painting their fingernails could imprint itself on a child who views it at the right day and time.
Reportedly semi-autobiographical, “The Cathedral” unfolds as a story told mostly by an unseen narrator, usually unemotionally recounting the story of Jesse Damrosh, born in 1987 to a typical middle-class family. Dramas and divisions will unfold, but “The Cathedral” is an impressionistic feature—D’Ambrose will often focus on something ordinary as a key moment of Damrosh’s life is unfolding in the background or even off-camera. And he places it all against the backdrop of current events, regularly dropping in news clips from the ‘80s and ‘90s, or even commercials from the era. It’s a fascinating way to balance the micro and macro of American history in that we often place our own memories against what was happening in the world at the time. And it’s a reminder that as these major cultural and international touchstones were happening, events were unfolding in American living rooms and kitchens that had their own emotional currency that was just as important.
I’m not sure every decision in “The Cathedral” works into the cohesive whole and I think some of the performers think they’re in different films—some have a cold, almost emotionless affect while others feel directed more to a traditional family drama (on that note, Brian d’Arcy James is quite good here). Although that’s maybe intentional. Maybe Ricky himself remembers his father with a more varied, emotional register than other people in his family. But it can make some aspects of “The Cathedral” feel disjointed. Still, this is a film that really does live up to the brand on this program as I’m extremely eager to see what D’Ambrose does next.