The most high-profile sections of Sundance 2022 seem to get the most press, groupings like U.S. Dramatic Competition, NEXT, or World Documentary Competition—programs that launch films into the arthouse scene for the rest of the year. There are, however, other programs at the festival that deserve a look. For example, Spotlight this year was incredibly strong, including screenings of “The Worst Person in the World,” “Three Minutes – A Lengthening,” and “After Yang.”
It was also the home to one of the most acclaimed international films of 2021, Audrey Diwan’s fearless “Happening,” the French director’s adaptation of the memoir by Annie Ermaux. The film won the Golden Lion at the 2021 Venice Film Festival and it’s easy to see why. It’s an unflinching story of the nightmare a young woman goes through in her efforts to get an abortion that feels timely with our country’s attacks on a woman’s right to choose. Abortion was a major theme at Sundance this year in films like “The Janes,” “Call Jane,” and this one. It’s a reflection of a growing national concern, and Diwan handles the reality of abortion with unforgettable plotting and imagery.
The movie doesn’t work at all without the absolutely fearless performance from Anamaria Vartolomei at its center. Vartolomei plays Anne, a student in 1963 France with dreams of a prodigious writing career. When she learns she’s pregnant, she sees all of that potential slipping through her fingers, but abortion isn’t legal in France in 1963. “Happening” is an escalating series of encounters and attempts really to terminate a pregnancy. It will be too much for some to take, especially in its realistic portrayal of the lengths Anne is willing to go to end her pregnancy, but its value is in how much it refuses to look away. So many abortion dramas feel like they exploit the plight of women by turning their stories into melodrama. Diwan and Vartolomei very intentionally avoid this, graphically capturing the truth of abortion when it’s forced outside of the safe parameters of the medical profession. It’s more than just a powerful drama, it’s a warning about what it means when politicians try to control a woman’s body.
The diversity of programming in Spotlight is apparent in how it can shift from a character study set in 1960s France to an Afrofuturist musical like Ansia Uzeyman and Saul Williams’ breathtaking “Neptune Frost.” Originally premiering at TIFF (where Marya Gates wrote about it here), “Neptune Frost” is a vision of the future that deeply tied to the roots of African expression through music, clothing, and art. It has the narrative fluidity of something like slam poetry for which Williams is most famous, buoyed by rhythmic, pulsing original songs. It’s not story-driven as much as it is thematically-driven, flowing through ideas with the logic of a poet instead of a traditional cinematic form. I’m not sure I fully grasp all of its cultural depth, but I found it riveting as I allowed its ideas and ambition to wash over me.
“Neptune Frost” is set in Rwanda, opening in a mine that bursts into song after the death of a worker. From there, it bounces around in time and space to tell the story of the miner (Bertrand Nintereste) who grieves that opening death and his connection with a character named Neptune, played by both Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo. It's a very playful film in its tone and structure, but it also has so much to say about both gender and racial identity. It unfolds like a dream, blending technology created by what is extracted from those coltan mines, but it is dense with ideas and imagery. It is a vibrant act of cultural expression, and I’m eager to read more detailed unpackings of its themes when it’s released later this year.
Finally, there’s the disappointing “Summering,” from the great James Ponsoldt, writer/director of “The Spectacular Now” and “The End of the Tour.” The brilliant, empathetic filmmaker turned his newest project over to a tribute to what it means to be a girl, elevating the creative passion of young people in a way that’s not often seen in film. The truth is that stories of girlhood often feel shallow, failing to really respect the dreams and joy of those years before the pain of being a teenager or obligations of being an adult invade the world. It’s a great idea. I would love to see a gender-flipped “Stand by Me” that works. But too much of “Summering” feels overly scripted—it fails to find that realistic flow that a film like this needs to work. “Summering” needs to be a hangout movie, letting its characters be imperfect, quirky, and genuine, but it felt completely calculated to me, pushing them to manipulative subplots in pursuit of a story that doesn’t really come together.
That story starts in the final days of elementary school for Dina, Lola, Daisy, and Mari. It’s the summer before they start middle school, and they’re very aware that everything is about to change. I have a kid in 5th grade, and I did love the way Ponsoldt captures the hazy hang-outs of this age in the early scenes—times when kids just get together to do something. They’re not sure what. In fact, I would have watched that movie for 90 minutes—kids being kids. However, these particular kids find a dead body on one of their last days of summer and the film becomes about them trying to solve a mystery, one that reveals their own concerns about adulthood and their own futures.
It’s all admirable and the kind of thing that I’m drawn to in concept, but the execution is clunky and inconsistent. Some of the young performances feel unnatural and the film really apart when it starts to feel manipulative and melodramatic as its plot takes over. Ponsoldt will bounce back, of course, and I respect his effort to make something that would allow his daughter to feel seen in pop culture. If that happens because of “Summering” then it’s done its job.