Sundance 2024: On the Come Up
This article appeared in the January 26, 2024 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here. Catch up on all of our Sundance 2024 coverage here.
Kneecap (Rich Peppiatt, 2024). Courtesy of the Sundance Institute.
One of the most striking images I saw at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival was a picture posted on Instagram by the Irish rap group Kneecap, the subject of an eponymous film in this year’s NEXT program. The trio and their team showed up with Palestinian flags—the colors in vibrant conversation with the green, white, and orange of the Irish-flag balaclava worn by one of the members—to a daily vigil organized on Main Street by the newly formed coalition Film Workers for Palestine. The collective launched on the opening day of this year’s festival with a solidarity statement calling on the film community to stand for “an end to genocide, and for a free Palestine,” signed by more than 700 filmmakers and industry workers, including Mike Leigh, Mira Nair, and Boots Riley. (The number of signatories now exceeds 5,000.) Over the course of the festival, FWP and several local activist groups organized events that drew attention not just to the terrible death toll in Gaza, but also to the international solidarity that has emerged in opposition.
Solidarity is a key theme of Kneecap: beneath its strobe-lit music-biopic trappings is a resounding anti-imperialist rallying cry. Directed by Rich Peppiatt, Kneecap offers up a fictionalized origin story for the real-life group, with its three members—Naoise Ó Cairealláin, Liam Óg Ó hAnnaidh, and JJ Ó Dochartaigh—playing versions of themselves. In the opening sequence, Naoise’s forest baptism is illuminated by the beams of a British police chopper—the cops think they’ve stumbled on an Irish Republican Army training camp. It doesn’t help that Naoise’s on-screen father, Arlo (Michael Fassbender), is indeed a Republican militant, who soon fakes his death and goes on the lam. From then on, the lives of Naoise and his friend Liam are defined by rage against the ever-present police (or “peelers,” as they call them), the party drugs that they acquire by cannily invoking the “generational trauma” of having lived through the Troubles, and their passion for writing raps in Irish Gaelic. Before he left, Arlo drilled the native language into them with the motto, “Every word of Irish spoken is a bullet for Irish freedom.”
When the two comrades cross paths with high-school music teacher and aspiring producer JJ, Kneecap is born, and they soon become a loud, irreverent voice in a civil rights campaign to get Irish Gaelic official recognition and equal status in Northern Ireland. Though their main enemies are the British empire and its battery of cops, the protagonists’ most vociferous opponent is a group named R.R.A.D., or Radical Republicans Against Drugs, who believe that these coke-snorting, profanity-spewing, butt-flashing rappers are sullying the movement. (The name Kneecap is a cheeky reference to the violent punishment that Irish paramilitaries would inflict on those accused of drug-dealing). The antics that ensue may be zany, but the film bristles with sincere rage against the respectability politics often unfairly demanded from those who oppose oppression—as if only the noble and upstanding deserve to be free—and folds in struggles from around the world, with stray glimpses of keffiyehs in the background and references to Black American artists’ use of hip-hop.
A similar strain of antiestablishment exuberance runs through Freaky Tales, a lovely omnibus film by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. After co-directing the 2019 blockbuster Captain Marvel, the duo seem to have set out to prove that they still have indie chops (although the high-voltage star cameos in their new film belie its scrappiness). Set in the 1980s in a grungy Bay Area—framed in a square aspect ratio that, combined with the occasional animated flourishes, makes the film feel like a comic strip—Freaky Tales unfolds in four interconnected chapters. The first follows two members of an antifa punk group as they decide to fight the neo-Nazis who violently disrupt their gatherings. The second revolves around two aspiring rappers—played by Dominique Thorne and R&B singer Normani—who get their big break in an underground hip-hop battle. And the third traces a day in the life of a violent debt collector, played by Pedro Pascal, who, on the cusp of fatherhood, is forced to face up to the agony he has wreaked in the lives of others.
The performances, eye-popping production design, and steady stream of witty gags make the film abundantly entertaining, but Boden and Fleck also color in the political climate of the times, as seen and experienced by the underclass. A discussion among the punks about the moral merits of calling the cops on skinheads versus taking up arms themselves sets up a later scene in which a smarmy cop (Ben Mendelsohn, impressively infuriating) harasses the two rappers, underlining the impunity of the police and the helplessness of Black women in the face of it. Mendelsohn’s character reappears in the third chapter with a revelation that leads into the final segment, involving a robbery at the house of a Golden State Warriors player (Jay Ellis in a star-making turn). Freaky Tales is fun and stylish, and it drives home the terrifying implications of the state’s monopoly on violence far more effectively than Yance Ford’s Power—a Premieres selection whose archival images and talking-head interviews about policing land with the dullness of a lecture.
Bad cops also abound in Love Lies Bleeding, the second feature by Rose Glass, the director of the 2019 thriller Saint Maud. Starring Kristen Stewart and Katy O’Brian as a pair of lesbian drifters in a New Mexico border town, the film tries to enliven a contrived plot about cartel politics and sordid family drama with the flashy insignia of A24: provocative sex, neon lighting, and a gray, neo-noir moral sensibility. The story doesn’t much matter, however; the strengths and pleasures of this movie are scopophilic. (That, I will note, cannot be said for the other Sundance title featuring Stewart: Sam and Andy Zuchero’s Love Me, a misjudged and visually inert meditation on love in the age of AI). Both Stewart and O’Brian are magnetically sexy as the lead couple, and the camera exults in their nonnormative physicalities: Stewart’s boyish hair and shuffling, unfeminine gait; and O’Brian’s rippling muscles (her character, Jackie, wants to be a bodybuilder), which Stewart injects with steroids as lovingly as she performs other acts of penetration. It is this luscious portrayal of bodies that exceed the bounds of gender that makes the film’s final flourish, where Jackie’s rage takes on a metaphysical form, believable.
The traps of corporeality are similarly at the heart of the inspired, sometimes deliriously unhinged A Different Man, the strongest fiction feature I saw at this year’s Sundance. Aaron Schimberg’s follow-up to 2018’s Chained for Life again features British actor Adam Pearson, who has neurofibromatosis, in a key role. Pearson doesn’t appear until late in the film, however: the protagonist is Edward, a man who shares Pearson’s condition (played by Sebastian Stan with facial prosthetics). He aspires to be an actor, but the best role he has landed so far is in a cheesy office PSA about being compassionate to folks of his ilk. In the midst of auditions and a futile flirtation with a new neighbor, Ingrid (Renate Reinsve), he learns of an experimental procedure that will “cure” him. Cronenbergian scenes of acrid flesh-peeling follow, and Edward now looks like Stan, with a new name and a new life as a real-estate agent living in a Manhattan bachelor pad. He even finds a way back into Ingrid’s life—via a play she is staging about Edward, whom she believes is dead. All is well until Pearson shows up as the irresistibly charming Oswald, forcing Edward to confront whether his discontents had to do with his face or what’s below the surface. The film’s beautiful 16mm cinematography, contrasting briefly with the flatly lit video of the office PSA, underlines Schimberg’s truistic, yet endlessly generative proposition: that the effects of form and content are not easily separated.
A pair of films about grief closed out my highlights of this year’s fiction selection. Steven Soderbergh’s Presence brings to life a corny psychosexual script with a formal gimmick as powerful as it is simple. From the creepy, wide-shot opening, in which a realtor (Julia Fox in a cameo) sells a home to a family of four, the camera is sinister and kinetic, as if possessed by a curiosity entirely its own. Soon, it becomes clear that the lens represents the point of view of a spirit in the house—a “presence,” if you will—that may or may not have to do with the recent death of the daughter’s friend, or with shady business dealings of the mother, played by Lucy Liu. The provenance of this being remains vague and underbaked enough to allow Soderbergh—who operates the camera himself, under the pseudonym Peter Andrews—to make up his own rules, resulting in a truly unpredictable viewing experience where even a sudden shake or a zoom-in feels like a visceral invasion.
In Handling the Undead, too, why the dead have suddenly awoken on a gloomy summer day in Oslo matters less than the formal thrills that director Thea Hvistendahl distills from the premise. Adapted from a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the film stars Reinsve as a woman whose son crawls out of his grave, and Anders Danielsen Lie as a father of two whose wife starts breathing again after a fatal accident. The protagonists’ initial jubilation turns to confusion when they realize that their loved ones are not alive again but frozen in some strange purgatory. These reanimated corpses don’t do anything for the most part other than stare vacantly at their baffled relatives, inflicting an agony even greater, perhaps, than bereavement. By evacuating horror templates of their familiar thrills, both Presence and Handling the Undead get at one of the central, animating terrors of cinema: to be seen by an unknowable gaze.