The 2017 Sundance Film Festival opened on January 19 and runs through January 29. Alissa Wilkinson is on the ground in Park City, Utah, from January 19 to 25, and we’ll be running festival diaries those days with capsule reviews and reflections on the day’s films.
The first night of Sundance 2017 just happens to fall on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration, and having been to a few Sundance opening nights in the past, I can tell you: The mood is weird.
Earlier in the day, at the opening press conference, Robert Redford (the festival’s founder) strenuously argued that Sundance isn’t political, and there’s good reason for that. While many of the filmmakers and attendees might identify as progressive, the festival takes place smack in the middle of Utah, one of the reddest states of them all. Many of the volunteers (who are, by the way, uniformly delightful) are locals. It’s wise to keep the event clear of political affiliation.
But Redford’s demurral can seem like protesting too much — especially this year, when the documentaries section includes films about police brutality, ISIS, Gawker’s shutdown, and Trump himself. And on Saturday, the Park City edition of the Women’s March on Washington will proceed down Main Street, right through the middle of the festival. (The march and Sundance are not affiliated with one another in any way, but many attendees are planning to be there anyhow.)
Perhaps the one factor that tempers Redford’s political distancing is the selection of the opening night film — An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, the follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and the first movie I saw at this year’s festival.
That movie’s getting all the opening night attention, partly because Al Gore is lurking around somewhere here at the festival (and was at the film’s premiere). But I also had time to see the offbeat dark comedy I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.
But as often happens at festivals, two movies you’d never have put next to one another under normal circumstances turn out to resonate with each other — even though I can hardly imagine two more different movies.
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power isn’t sure what kind of movie it is
I expect most journalists are writing their own version of “Sundance in the Post-Truth Era” think pieces (I’m composing my own), and this movie will end up in all of them.
At its premiere, it received a standing ovation, but it’s a strange, strange film to be watching on inauguration eve. The main arc of An Inconvenient Sequel explores the roots of Gore’s commitment to raising awareness about climate change, and it culminates with an inside look at how Gore was instrumental in getting the Paris Agreement adopted in late 2015, in which major countries agreed to work toward measures that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s heartwarming and inspiring to watch leaders of countries come together in agreement (one of the best moments, and the biggest laughs, happens when Justin Trudeau bumped into Gore in the hallway and introduces himself as “Justin Trudeau, prime minister of Canada”). Gore himself is clearly a man of integrity and passion — he’s been working tirelessly on the issue for decades, motivated by both his faith and a sincere belief that humans can come together and do good for the planet.
And yet, the movie was obviously hastily modified after Trump’s win in November, and the film grimly forces viewers to remember that Trump has always dismissed the idea of climate change wholesale, and pledged during his campaign to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement.
Because so much of the film seems to have been shot with the hope that progress would continue to be made, the hasty re-edit feels a bit like getting dropped off a cliff, even though Gore exhorts us to not give in to despair.
Unfortunately, the filmmaking is, alas, not very good. Directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk are trying to tell a story, but I can’t quite make out what it is — the movie’s structure is all over the place. Sometimes, it’s like watching a PBS special about Al Gore, in which he reminisces about the highs and lows of his political career and what drives him. Sometimes, it’s more like watching taped lectures. There are beautiful shots of glaciers exploding and melting, which are not really supposed to be beautiful since the collapse of glaciers bodes poorly for the environment.
Any one of those would have made an interesting film on its own, but when they’re all mashed into one film the effect is something like someone flipping incessantly through a radio dial. You just want to stop and go deep on one topic, or hear more than one viewpoint (Gore’s).
Still, though, the film got an ovation, and part of the reason is simply that it’s full of hope. Gore believes that getting the right information to people will encourage them to speak truth to power, and while that seems almost naive in an era of deeply partisan “facts,” it’s good to be reminded that someone still believes.
I don’t feel at home in this world anymore is a Southern Gothic tale that’s gory and funny at the same time
The second film of the night is nothing like An Inconvenient Sequel. Starring Melanie Lynskey, I don’t feel at home in this world anymore is the delightfully unpredictable story of a depressed loner frustrated with the world — “everyone is an asshole!” she says early on, in a fit of anger — who gets wrapped up in a strange, elaborate, and gory heist plot, entirely by accident, after her house is robbed.
She makes unexpected friends with a neighbor (Elijah Wood) who has a penchant for ninja weapons (nunchucks, ninja stars, you get the idea), and the pair find themselves in the center of something far crazier than they expected.
This is Macon Blair’s directorial debut, and he’s confident behind the camera. Blair appeared in former Sundance favorites Blue Ruin and Green Room, both films that marry deftly sketched characters with startling brutality at times. That tone also turns up in I don’t feel at home in this world anymore, which feels like a Southern Gothic tale in which someone’s finger might get snapped or a hand blown off, eliciting both gasps and giggles from the audience.
The movie isn’t making fun of anyone, but it knows exactly how absurd humans are, and it uses tiny details — a woman’s obsession with nut milks, a man’s rat tail — to pull together a kooky cast of characters who still aren’t stereotypical.
Lynskey and Wood have impeccable comic timing, and the film is often very funny. It doesn’t go anywhere you would expect — but it doesn’t want to. It’s more violent than anything the iconic Southern Gothic author Flannery O’Connor ever wrote, but I detected hints of O’Connor in the story regardless: the flashes of goodness in the midst of bad, and the affection for characters who are, after all, terrible people. Also, there’s a bogglingly racist old woman in the first scene, and later on, there’s a swamp — Southern Gothic to the core.
Seeing these two very different movies back to back on inauguration eve was a study in contrasts. An Inconvenient Sequel is trying hard to inspire and bring hope, but at times it feels too optimistic about people’s willingness to work together for the public good.
On the other hand, I don’t feel at home in this world anymore is blatantly pessimistic about human nature. Everyone’s an asshole. But there’s some hint that goodness lives in the middle, and that sometimes we connect with one another in spite of ourselves.
Put those two ideas together, and maybe we can muddle through after all.