There’s been an unexpected symmetry in the U.S. Dramatic Competition scheduling this year in that the first three films all centered on the Black experience in this country while the next three films all featured alienated female protagonists, adrift by location or situation. Is it a coincidence? Festival attendees, in-person or virtual, have a habit of trying to find patterns in a program. What does this say about independent film and the state of the world? The Sundance Comp program this year has very clearly centered stories that feel timely, whether they’re #MeToo allegories or dissections of what we mean when we say Black Lives Matter.
Chloe Okuno’s “Watcher” is the former, and the best Competition film I’ve seen so far. With star Maika Monroe once again facing creeping dread, it will draw comparisons to “It Follows,” but the template here is more ‘70s European Paranoia Horror, films about people in new, uncomfortable places, ones where they may not be welcome. Sleek and effective, “Watcher” is an old-fashioned thriller with a modern heartbeat, an announcement of Okuno as a major talent to watch.
Watch as Okuno slinks and slides her cameras down the imposing halls of the apartment building occupied by Julia (Monroe) and her husband Francis (Karl Glusman). Her camera placement with cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen is spectacular, using low angles to make the very walls of Julia’s house feel somehow threatening without drawing too much attention to the technique. I love a filmmaker who understands how to turn a relatively mundane setting into an imposing one and that’s what Okuno does with this small corner of Budapest, where an average woman named Julia may be losing her mind.
At least that’s what the people around her try to convince her is happening. She looks out of the massive window of her large apartment and sees life going on normally in the building across from it except for one room in which it appears there’s a figure watching back. When Julia thinks she sees the same man (Burn Gorman) following her to a movie (she watches “Charade,” a classic that clearly inspired this project) and then to a grocery store, her panic rises, especially when she sees news reports about a serial killer named The Spider. Francis is never home because of his busy work schedule, allowing Julia’s fear to elevate with every passing day.
How afraid should we be? Is it paranoia or self-preservation? This is a question that women, especially when alone, simply have to ask more than men, and “Watcher” gets at this idea of calculating risk without overplaying that card. Unlike some Sundance 2022 films, its themes aren’t over-highlighted, allowed to be the smart backdrop to what is a very refined thriller. I think Monroe is under-directed a bit to be a bit too low-key, but it allows the film to feel more realistic than the exaggerated form of something like Giallo, which this easily could have been with just a few tonal shifts. The end feels a little rushed, but it’s effective, leaving “Watcher” as a tight, moody thriller that’s definitely (sorry) worth watching.
A very different kind of horror unfolds in Nikyatu Jusu’s “Nanny,” but it too turns a seemingly ordinary residence in an apartment building into something more sinister. Maybe there’s a think piece here about genre films telling us that even the apartments we can’t leave during a pandemic won’t protect us. Even more than that, there’s a sense in both “Watcher” and “Nanny” that the word 'home' can’t be so simply recreated somewhere else. For Aisha (the phenomenal Anna Diop), it feels like the very concept of home has been fractured. Is it back in Senegal, where her son waits for a chance to come to the United States? Is it at her own place in New York, where she makes ends meet and sends her boy money? Maybe she can make one with a new love of her life? Or is it in the home of the Manhattan couple (Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Spector) for which she now works as a nanny? It's no wonder she feels displaced, and sometimes like she's drowning.
Jusu’s film opens with Aisha getting that job as the protector of Rose, and she almost immediately starts having strange, supernatural events at the residence, dreams of her room being filled with water and visions of a creature that may be a mermaid that emerge from the African myth of the Mami Wata. Jusu unfolds parallel narrative tracks of a horror movie with echoes of “His House”—a fantastic Sundance 2019 premiere about African immigrants who learn that people can be haunted as much as a house can be—and a more traditional domestic drama, wherein Aisha is a witness to a crumbling marriage and begins a relationship of her own with a young father named Malik (a very charming Sinqua Walls).
The dramatic half of “Nanny” works better than the genre one as Jusu draws natural performances from her cast, especially Diop and Walls, who have remarkable chemistry. As the requirements of the supernatural half of the story start to weigh on the film, it becomes less effective tonally, but Diop is up to every challenge this complex project presents her. She’s a revelation here, wonderfully present in every scene while capturing a character whose heart is thousands of miles away.
Alienation unfolds in a very different way in “Dual,” the new project from Riley Stearns, the director of “The Art of Self-Defense” and “Faults.” The SXSW darling made his Sundance premiere with this Competition title, one that feels inspired by deadpan comedy writer/directors like Yorgos Lanthimos but with its own distinct personality. “Dual” is a challenging movie, a genre hybrid that purposefully exists at a cold distance from reality and the viewer. Despite its admirable ambition, it feels like a short film idea that needed one more rewrite to justify its feature existence. I have to say though that I expect “Dual” to be one of the more divisive films of Sundance 2022, and I wish there were more filmmakers that felt as willing to be “not for everyone” as Stearns is here.
Karen Gillan plays the awkward Sarah, a woman who seems to live a solitary existence that’s punctuated by video chats with her boyfriend (Beulah Koale), who is always away on business, and ignoring calls from her mother (Maija Paunio). After waking up with blood all over her face and sheets, she receives a terminal diagnosis. She won’t get worse—she’ll just die someday soon. In this near future, there’s something called a “Replacement” service, wherein a dying person can have a clone made to take their place. Sarah does exactly that, but then discovers that she’s not going anywhere, and, well, there can be only one Sarah.
The concept of “Dual” naturally inspires deep philosophical readings as came with films like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” a movie that used tech to comment on human existence. What does it mean that Sarah doesn’t seem to really care that she might lose her life until she learns that a better version of herself is trying to take it? Is Stearns noting how much we take for granted? Sorta. Maybe. Every time that “Dual” seems to flirt with a deeper commentary, Stearns very purposefully backs away. He’s more comfortable having fun with Sarah’s flat affect or Aaron Paul’s clever turn as someone who trains Sarah in how to kill her double. “Dual” is never boring, but it starts to feel hollow, an experiment that doesn’t just eschew deeper meaning but pushes back against it. One could even say it’s a movie that’s always fighting with itself.