As Sundance wraps up, I was able to watch four more films that are completely unlike one another. Not just in story, but tone and presentation. In this report, I was able to watch a sweet dramedy, a truly spectacular drama, and a strange documentary that makes you question reality. Lastly, I finished with a period film romance. Who doesn’t love some assortment in life? I know I do.

Together Together (Nikole Beckwith)

Together Together (2021) – source: Sundance Film Festival

Together Together is a rare film for several narrative reasons. One: this is about a relationship of love that isn’t about falling in love. Secondly: It takes on a story about a man desiring to be a single dad, using surrogacy to make this come true. These are both amazing in their own right, and Nikole Beckwith spins a beautiful tale. The film is able to compound that with some of my favorite performances of Sundance 2021, with tenderness and a sincerity that is admirable.

Matt (Ed Helms) wants to have a child, so he interviews Anna (Patti Harrison) to be that surrogate. From there, he starts off as super attentive (annoyingly so) but through his eccentricities and commitment develops into a beautiful friendship. Don’t we all just want to connect with another individual? Sometimes that might confound others, teeter outside “norms” but that’s not what is important. I loved this movie specifically for this reason: it was able to show a heart-warming duo, without it being about falling in love. The people you meet in your life, all leave their mark. Sometimes, you’re lucky enough to create a bond like those in this film does.

Ed Helms is amazing, maybe my favorite of any of his portrayals, but the real star here is Patti Harrison who is a revelation. She was the right balance of funny and heart-rending. The connection between her and Helms is so wonderful, I admire it. I honestly relish this tether, but also just appreciate how amazing both of their abilities mesh to create a unique bond that we all hope to achieve. The movie has its doses of sadness, of questioning its own decisions, and while the ending might seem abrupt to some, it’s where I predicted it to go, and I found a measure of tranquility to it. Their story is one that’s a wonder to obtain. Together Together is a sound retrospective on what it means to find kinship, go for what you want, and achieve meaning in the journey.

This is truly a warm hug of a movie; funny, comforting, and ultimately a reminder of the importance of human connection. A real gem of a film. Discover it, you won’t be disappointed.

Mass (Fran Kranz)

Mass (2021) – source: Sundance Film Festival

This movie truly grips you. It’s one of those stories that is so personal, so visceral, that it hangs on. You feel its effects long after the characters are gone.

From the acting that I knew of Fran Kranz (and loved), I wouldn’t have necessarily predicted this as his directorial debut, but I am so glad it was. There were many movies over the course of this year’s festival that left an imprint, but very few as much as Mass.

Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, and Reed Birney (powerhouses much?) play the two couples facing a nearly impossibly difficult situation. One is the parents of a victim, and another, the perpetrator. There is nothing easy about losing a child, and the dynamic between these two couples, which straddles the line between contempt and understanding, is so truly powerful.

When you are considering such a small construct with set design, basically one room in a church, with four people, you know it’s going to be deep and very personal. These are stories that may be fictional, but they rely on things that real people have lived, and that makes this so much more meaningful.

There’s a lot within Mass to make you think. It makes you consider all sides, (a life lost is still, a life lost), the importance of gun control, of recognizing signs and the importance of nurturing mental health, and the fact that everyone has a story; sometimes it’s just hard to hear. The performances in this movie deserve to be praised. Again, and again, and again. The casting was spot-on, and the superb dialogue mixed with each of these actor’s individual strengths was movie magic. It’s tragic, it’s unforgettable, Mass is a must-see.

I think, going into this film, which is already so impactful, with as limited details as possible, is for your benefit. Because, those, make all the difference. So much of it revolves around the emotional resonance that is gut-wrenching at times, but the searing response is what makes this so memorable. This is a movie that has an ultimately huge scope in concept, but flourishes under an intimate telling; very rarely will something affect you as much as this film does. Throughout the festival, no other movie hit me quite as hard as Mass. I can’t wait to see what Fran Kranz does next.

A Glitch in the Matrix (Rodney Ascher)

A Glitch in the Matrix (2020)- source: Magnolia Pictures

Are we in a simulation? This is a thought that has become as prevalent as ever with recent times and the fact that we’re all stuck inside, sometimes, unable to escape our own contemplations on existence. However, even before the recent crisis, there were some who thought that the idea we were living in Matrix-like reality, wasn’t that far-fetched. In a lot of ways, there are arguments against and for, and I wouldn’t judge anyone for having them. Simulation theory (basically the idea that we are living in a virtual construct, an artificial simulation) is one I’ve always been curious about, and this is a documentary that definitely fuels the potential (while also showing the dangers of such thoughts). A mix of science-fiction with reality, this is a movie that’s fueled by pure curiosity. It’s a documentary for anyone interested in contemplating deeper meaning, even if it is presented by ideas that seem wild.

There were a lot of clips from a talk (and even more direct references to his works) with Philip K. Dick that basically show the author’s point of view, recalling experiences, that were directly related to his stories.

I like the mix-up of digital avatars, of story-telling, as I think for the plot – it’s completely sensible. The delivery of this information was never an issue for me. It’s an inventive way to discuss the concept, and much like his other films, Rodney Ascher shows it in a way you’d expect him to, and yet – not. For so many reasons, I wanted A Glitch in the Matrix to win me over. For the most part, it did. Then there were times… it didn’t.

One of the things I disliked about the movie was how much time was spent on one such subject who actually murdered people because of his obsession with The Matrix and the psychosis that came as a product of this. I understand the function of exploring this, like a big CAUTION sign, but there were more interesting, and potentially engaging, topics. That particular thread, while should be explored, could have used less coverage. I wanted to hear more from those who studied this theory and their findings. When you’re trying to show all sides of this discussion, it invalidates, to an extent, the science of those who believe it to be true. By the end of the film, my thoughts are mostly positive – with a side of icky. Perhaps it’s the strange-craving, curious soul within me, but there is something to be said about exploring and considering all possibilities. But also, this film shows, don’t lose yourself in the process.

The World to Come (Mona Fastvold)

The World to Come (2020)- source: Bleecker Street

I am generally a fan of period romances. It’s a genre that usually hooks me right away. While The World to Come did, it didn’t quite grip me the way I had hoped, the whole way through.

Throughout the film, Abigail (Katherine Waterston) narrates with either journal entries or letters her experiences with Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), her new neighbor and eventual lover. This is the 19th century, so as one can assume, it is one most have to keep hidden. Add to it two very different kinds of marriages that the women are in, and things get complicated. Abigail is married to Dyer (Casey Affleck) who’s indifference makes him understanding but also, ultimately sad. While, Tallie is married to the hot-headed, especially narrow-minded Finney (Christopher Abbott).

The slow, resolute speech can at times be frustrating, and at others, sensible. I loved the poetic nature of the words, and that combination of Abigail’s inner thoughts with the visual tension is one that’s quite effective. This is a nurtured love, after all, one that’s built with time and restraint, with subtle glances and body language to eventual passion and desire becoming a deeply rooted love. They are both trapped, and when they’re able to finally have moments of freedom, together, the scenes sweep you up. It’s delivered in a harsh atmosphere, both in the landscape and in the dangers of their secret coming out, so while somber there are instances of a glow – usually when our leading ladies are together.

Sometimes the script can seem a bit stilted, with a lot of the structure predictable. Luckily, there are other elements that keep the movie from losing steam. The cinematography is terrific, and director Mona Fastvold has a wonderful eye, creating a bleak, and at times haunting, experience. There are some really moving moments, some shots, such as the photo above, that are evocative and lovely.

I thought Vanessa Kirby was especially amazing out of the two women, her tenacity really popping off the screen. Katherine Waterston really grounds it though, remaining our anchor during this tale. She is more reserved which makes the times when she is finally able to express herself, to live in these moments with Kirby, breathtaking. Both of the leads are compelling, in their own ways, and their chemistry is quite magnetic. The World to Come doesn’t break new ground here, but is still quite beautiful, primarily because of the striking performances. I can’t deny, it still had me at the end. I was still blotting my eyes, I was still internally screaming, and I was still reflecting for days.

Conclusion: Sundance 2021

That’s a wrap for me with this year’s 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It was a lot in a short time, and while it wasn’t like the year’s past, I loved it all the same. As we all ease back into a sense of normality, it’s lovely to know we can always count on movies to get us through.

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