I was thrilled I got to attend my first Sundance Film Festival this year. I’ve been a film freak since birth and it’s always been a dream trip for me. Before departing, I was nervous that I’d end up schlepping through the sub-arctic conditions of Utah without getting to see any films at all and feel a bit ripped off by the experience. I never thought that I would get to see nearly every film at the top of my bucket list or that I would be so completely charmed by Park City.
films & shorts
Seeing Honey Boy was unforgettable. My boyfriend and I lucked out and got #6 and #7 on an 150 person waitlist for a last minute, intimate screening at the remote Sundance Mountain Resort. It was a 40 minute drive away from civilization and we essentially had to hitchhike our way back to Park City after but the entire experience was well worth it. Indisputably, the power of the film was that it was a (only slightly) fictionalized version of Shia LaBeouf’s own story. Honey Boy centers around the character of Otis, a grown up child actor who winds up in court-ordered rehab. The majority of the story is conveyed in flashbacks to Otis’ youth where we witness the near constant abuse he endured at the hands of his “hired chaperone” father, a former rodeo clown and addict played by Shia himself. The performance is both brilliant and devastating. Shia, FKA Twigs, Byron Bowers (someone to really watch), and the director Alma Har’el actually came to the screening and did a Q&A after. The director shared that Shia had wrote the script and sent it to her in an email while in rehab following his 2017 arrest. I asked Shia if it was healing to watch his story take place on screen like this. To paraphrase his answer, he responded that it was not healing to watch because of “how much of a narcissist he is”. He later amended his answer that acting it out was the aspect that was most healing.
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley
The Inventor was one of the more buzzed about documentaries at Sundance. Elizabeth Holmes is a controversial and fascinating figure and I was intrigued to get a fresh perspective on her. I thought the documentary had some significant plot issues, used redundant footage, and ran too long. I also was curious why they chose to leave out some juicer details about Elizabeth Holmes’ life that are all easily accessible online. The documentary gave barely any perspective into her family life or childhood (no mention of the fact that her father was a vice president at Enron?). They also glossed over her romantic history with Ramesh Balwani, whom she met while she was 18 and he was 37 and still married and not in 2009 when he joined Theranos as the documentary implied. I’m not sure if this was intentional so as to not have the film appear to be a biased character assassination or if Holmes’ legal team got to them. Although I found the archival footage of Thomas Edison to be a little much and the whole theme of her as “an inventor” to be inconsistent throughout, one aspect that I did enjoy was the insight into Holmes’ bigger vision. Her theory was that a more efficient blood work process in which people were able to get labs done quickly and with more frequency would eventually mean that this data could all be compiled into a sort of “movie” so that an individual could get a better sense of their own health and predict outcomes more successfully. Pretty revolutionary.
One of the people I went to Sundance with was the cousin of the director of Midnight Family. The documentary details the lives of the Ochoa family who run a private ambulance in Mexico City, where there are only 45 government-run ambulances servicing a city of 9 million people. For a film exposing the brutality of a system in which private ambulances are racing on another to get to gruesome accidents first, I expected to see some stomach-churning scenes. I agree with other critics of the film when they say that the strength of this documentary, along with being beautifully shot, lies in its restraint to not show the gory details. Some of the most horrifying stories take place off screen, through one of the paramedics giving his girlfriend the play-by-play over the phone after work. Even the visuals for the most harrowing moments given on-screen are shown with respect and moderation: the hand of a baby reaching out into the camera’s view and finally hearing him wailing after he is resuscitated following about 15 seconds of bone-chilling silence when the paramedic could not find his heart beat. Not only is this more effective storytelling, it’s more human storytelling. There is an understanding by the filmmaker and those being filmed that they are working alongside the tragedy of real people. There was also the layer of moral complexity added by the fact that the Ochoa family is also impoverished, partially due to the police force requiring them to pay bribes in order to operate and for providing services that many are ultimately unable to pay them for. As an audience member, it is incredibly difficult to watch them attempt to collect payment for a patient who has just died when you have just witnessed the Ochoa’s struggle to feed themselves and sleep all together on the floor of a small apartment. There is no clear villain in this situation except a corrupt and broken system.
The documentary short Fast Horse gave me a snapshot into the bareback horse racing world from the perspective of a Blackfoot horseman. Even coming from a family with a competitive riding background, I had no idea the Indian Relay existed and it was thrilling to see the skill and danger involved. One of the opening moments of the short showed the jockey training by jumping rope in front of a teepee and it was one of the most exquisite shots I saw at Sundance. During the Q&A, the director stressed how importance it was to highlight indigenous people who were heroes within their own community rather than victims of systemic oppression. I think she more than accomplished this in Fast Horse. In just a thirteen minute short, you’re exhilarated by the sport and uplifted by the noble spirit of the horseman she showcases.
desires of the flesh
I was dazzled by Desires of The Flesh, a Brazilian short that explored youth, sexuality, aggression, and Catholicism. Although young women are fetishized in media constantly and there are a multitude of stories detailing a boy’s first erotic experiences, the story of a girl’s sexual coming-of-age is rarely told, especially through the female gaze. The two actresses at the center of the short were unflinchingly raw and natural, had it been filmed with a handheld in bad lighting I could have believed I was watching a documentary about pre-teens in Brazil. But I think the biggest driving force behind the piece was that it was directed by a woman. The excitement, intensity, angst, and occasional horror of a girl discovering her sensuality was so convincingly represented, only a female director could have been behind it.
sometimes, I think about dying
As a therapist, this was one of the most accurate portrayals of depression and suicidality I’ve ever on film. Individuals who are suicidal in the cinematic universe are often depicted as hysterical, desperate, or low-functioning. Although people who experience suicidal thoughts can be all those things, the problem with those representations is that they can limit our idea of what a severely depressed person looks like. When our concept of sucidality is reduced to a caricature, it’s easier for people who need help to go undetected. In this short, the main character Fran thinks of dying daily, but she is also funny and able to function. She shows that you can be suicidal and still into the idea of flirting with your coworker, that even people who think about their own death constantly aren’t unidimensional drones. Fran’s story also showed that there wasn’t some “great tragedy” beneath her thoughts of dying like other films generally depict, which dangerously implies that a terrible event has to occur to you in order to feel suicidal. The short showcased those micro-moments of wincing embarrassment and self-hatred that you could imagine had accumulated over a lifetime and lead to a state of despair. The most poignant insight into the mind of Fran comes in the final scene when she discovers that her coworker chose to spend his birthday with her and she asks “Why?”, as if the idea that someone would enjoy her company is utterly absurd. Any self-aware person who has experienced severe depression is familiar with this sensation: the feeling that you must be repulsive to others because you are repulsive to yourself. I do not believe this film had an agenda beyond art. The film was beautifully shot and the acting was flawless. However, I think it is important to acknowledge that art inherently plays a role in social change and I was pleased to see a piece at Sundance that had the potential to expand our view of mental health.
Shopping & Dining
The major parts of town are very accessible by a free shuttle system and every volunteer and member of the community I talked to was authentically kind and helpful. Reservations for the most hyped restaurants (Chimayo, Adolph’s, Wahso, etc.) are hard to come by but we preferred an excellent Mexican dive right next to The Ray theater called Sergio’s. Most of the waitresses didn’t speak English and you could see a grandmother making tortillas in the kitchen.
As far as shopping, it doesn’t get more “mountain luxury” than The Gorsuch. I could easily imagine Pippa Middleton pheasant hunting in any number of the outfits displayed. Basically if you have money to blow and think that decorative antlers plucked from the wall of a German hunting manor in 1908 sound like a great gift idea, you’ll be obsessed with this store. Another favorite that I found was Cake Boutique. Their clothes were cute and well curated (Elizabeth & James, Equipment, Rag & Bone, Le Superbe)but their buyer really excelled with the beauty product and lounge wear room. Think Byredo, Malin + Goetz, Barbara Sturm, Vinter’s Daughter…I was in love.