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Sundance Film Festival 2021 (Day 1)
by Erik Childress

Watch this space to see my filings from the 2021 edition of the Sundance Film Festival.

CODA

Though we are all (mostly) doing Sundance virtually this year, the strength of a good movie's emotional pull can be transporting. In this case, it was like being sent directly to Park City to hear a pin drop and the sniffles starting during the climax of Sian Heder's film. This is usually the film viewers find through the dust of disappointments and heavier fare that ends up making their day at a weekend matinee only for them to pay forward that good will until it makes its way through the shuttles, onto Twitter and eventually onto other's schedules if they are fortunate enough to have the opportunity. I had a pair of instantaneous emotional reactions to moments in this film; something that admittedly rarely happens after seeing too many dimes and too many dozens. But I have already made my way through a good share of Sundance entries this year and this is one of the few that I want to immediately share with people.

Rubi (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing child of a deaf family. She works with her father (Troy Kotsur) and brother (Daniel Durant) on a fishing boat and serves as their signing translator. Her effort to gain the attention of a classmate (Sing Street's Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) gets her to sign up for choir which reveals a secret passion. Though some subconscious fright overtakes her at first, it is clear to even the untrained ear that she is an excellent singer and her teacher (Eugenio Derbez) wants her not only for the big duet performance but offers to accelerate her training for a shot at the Berklee College of Music. This leads to the age-old struggle of pursuing one's dreams at the cost of leaving one's family behind and though the film mostly plays out as one would expect, there is a genuineness in the performances and a real heart beating throughout that is hard not to feel.

Have not even mentioned yet that Marlee Matlin plays Rubi's mother and like Kotsur and Durant gets into a lot of the film's humor, especially the running gag about mom and pop's libidos. Children of a Lesser God (for which Matlin won the Oscar some 35 years ago) bravely powered through the language barrier without subtitles. CODA provides that kind of assistance but in its two most powerful moments at the big recital and an audition, Heder, Jones and the cast bring the characters (and us to them) closer together in a way where we are left with no other choice but to feel. It is strange to see the star of Sing Street actually seem to play down the vocal talent he brought to that Sundance crowd-smasher in order to allow Jones' voice to take center stage because that natural talent flows through all by itself. I believe even those who may dismiss CODA out of school as being the kind of movie that works in the altitude of Sundance but feels like an afterthought everywhere else will find themselves reevaluating it in the wake of films that tried to bring the heart but only brought an empty cooler. This was the beginning of one of the best opening nights I have had at Sundance in 19 years and this alone will make the evening of those who get to see it in the future.


CENSOR

In the midst of everyone throwing around the term "canceled" as often as they misuse and botch the First Amendment argument, the feature debut of Prano Bailey-Bond makes good timing on an issue that has plagued the public and government alike for decades and actually centuries. Does art provoke violence or is it merely a window into society and our darker instincts? Don't bother debating pornography if your eyes tell you all you need to know but that label has often applied to our appetite for bloody imagery and the glee some take in wanting more of it, especially in movies. Censor whirls these thoughts around our head in what feels like a mash-up of Videodrome & 8MM but is, funny enough, not nearly as nasty in its approach.

Enid Barnes (a very good Niamh Algar) works for a UK censor bureau tasked with rating the various horror and exploitation films making their way onto VHS tapes in the 1980s. While she watches the bloodletting and brutalization of women with a sterile eye, Enid still carries with her the trauma of her younger sister going missing when they were kids. Then a tape from a mysterious director (who specifically requested her input) comes in and the storyline feels all too familiar. Is someone trying to send her a message? Could her sister still be alive after all this time? The mystery does not so much grow as the film appears to give us an answer early on, but what Enid is ultimately chasing inside herself may expose something even larger about the whole chicken-and-the-egg debate itself.

Annika Summerson's cinematography gives the film an assist in crafting a kind of sterilized griminess to Enid's journey towards darkness. There's an innocence in the way Algar dresses and keeps emotions to a minimum except when fear begins to overtake her. These moments become real for an audience as well since Bailey-Bond provides just enough doubt in how this will all resolve itself. The implication of the arbiter of good taste inflicting their will of reality over the fantasy of others wraps its tentacles around the varied forms of hypocrisy often dictated by those in power with enough kinky vices to make us all look puritanical. Censor is not about big scares but rather the bigger scare that those purporting to look out for us are really the ones we should be worried about.


STAY TUNED FOR MORE REVIEWS FROM THE FESTIVAL. ALSO, CHECK OUT MY PREVIEW PIECE WHERE I RECOMMEND NINE OTHER FILMS YOU CAN SEE FROM THIS YEAR'S FESTIVAL.

Stay tuned throughout the festival for more updates and look out for multiple shows on the Movie Madness Podcast with more coverage and reviews.


link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=4288
originally posted: 01/30/21 03:22:16
last updated: 01/30/21 09:24:23
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