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Sundance Film Festival finally goes virtual

Every year, the transition week between January and February has allowed me the opportunity to do two things: live vicariously through coverage of the Sundance Film Festival and pine for the day when I will be able to experience it for myself. Unfortunately, reality suggests that day will not be arriving in the near or distant future. Neither financially nor physically, the average film lover cannot reasonably buy a pass, a plane ride and full accommodations for a less-than-week-long event in Utah. Which is why I never would have guessed this year I—and the friends who joined me in buying a combined total of five $15 tickets for five films—would be attending from the comfort of my living room couch. 

Our first selection was Pascual Sisto’s “John and the Hole” starring Jennifer Ehle, Taissa Farmiga and Michael C. Hall, with Charlie Shotwell as the titular character. Adapted from screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone’s novel, “El Pozo,” the story of a 13-year-old boy drugging his family and holding them hostage without provocation certainly had strong thematic potential. Unfortunately, it translates from book to live action as a painfully obvious, lackluster attempt to mirror the style of Michael Haneke and Yorgos Lanthimos. In doing so, it misses what makes the work of Haneke and Lanthimos so intoxicating, and lacks real substance or creativity to offset its meandering plot and uninteresting dialogue. Bone-dry and bombastic, it felt like the worst version of a stereotypical A24 film. 

At 12 a.m., we prepared to watch the premiere of “Mother Schmuckers,” a controversial comedy appropriately slated for its midnight time slot. Directed by Belgian brothers Lenny and Harpo Guit, the film follows a pair of on-screen siblings as they spend one surreal day searching for their mother’s beloved dog. It could be assumed from the deceptively simple tagline that “Mother Schmuckers” is in the same vein as Scorsese’s “After Hours,” but from the opening scene, it’s clear the Guit brothers intend to make Paul Hackett’s adventure look like an average night on the town. The action-packed 70 minute film begins with Issachar (Maxi Delmelle) and Zabulon (Harpo Guit) frying dog feces while taunting themselves and their mother with the prospect of eating it before she vomits the film’s title card onto the screen. If that doesn’t interest you, then the movie has succeeded in weeding out its audience within the first few minutes. If it does, then the remaining hour is high-energy, nonstop entertainment, filled with scenes that are often disturbing and invariably absurd.

Later that day, we caught Erin Vassilopoulos’ “Superior,” inspired by her 2015 short of the same name. In both films, Alessandra and Anamari Mesa play estranged twins whose worlds collide in the director’s feature-length debut when Marian, a woman on-the-run, must hide out in the home of her suburban housewife sister, Vivian. Although shot on lovely 16mm film, the high-camp, amateur 1980s aesthetic fails to heighten its narrative or create an atmosphere where the writing and acting become engaging. The lack of depth and awkward pacing are glaring faults, especially notable after viewing her short film, which mastered the surreal ambience that Vassilopoulos tried to regain here. The final act had the power to make or break its entirety, and the underwhelming conclusion to “Superior” is a firm “break,” causing it all to feel trivial in retrospect. 

Our final screening of the festival was Ronny Trocker’s sophomore effort “Human Factors.” Instantly, I was reminded of “Force Majeure,” as conflict in Trucker’s film centers around a father’s selfish decision to remain outside on his phone during a break-in. But this is where similarities between “Human Factors” and Ruben Östlund’s visceral masterwork end. Through showing multiple different perspectives of the same event, Trocker’s film loses itself in a poorly structured timeline that builds a barrier between the viewer and characters. Soon, it devolves into tension-less, muddled disarray, where the harder it tries to be meaningful, the more it feels pointless and ill-contrived, ultimately solidifying itself as nothing more than a turgid domestic drama with a buffed-out thrilling edge. 

Regardless of my feelings toward these five films, I was completely enamored with the experience itself: the live Q&A sessions featuring members of the cast and crew after each premiere, the chat where festival-goers communicated with each other across the country and the passion I felt through my screen at every turn. Although our need for finding solidarity, solace and escape has increased in light of a worldwide pandemic, this event was a reminder that it has always been here and it will always be here.

Yes, watching movies in a theater setting is a singular experience, and one that cannot be replicated through a computer screen or a cracked iPhone. Yes, the appeal of attending any festival is to be surrounded by the energy of those who are just as excited as you are. And yes, there is a quantifiable difference between in-person and online networking. The thing is, for a lot of people, it’s impossible to pack up and go to Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, regardless of our ongoing national emergency. The pros and cons of an in-person fest become irrelevant when the highly coveted opportunity presents itself to join virtually.

Expanding the accessibility of film festivals and other creative spaces that foster community is vital. This year has seen how well online transitions have worked, which can be combined with in-person events when safety is no longer a concern. In their outro survey, Sundance asked if the festival should continue to offer an online option for people who cannot attend in person. I hope I can look forward to joining virtually again in 2022. 

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