The Current Debate: Sundance 2020, the Year of Women

Some of the most intriguing premieres at Sundance were films by and about women: an overview of their critical reception.
Leonardo Goi

Above: Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Of the many narratives that have emerged from this year’s Sundance’s indie extravaganza, there is one that seems to herald a promising sign of change: some of the most exciting works screened in Park City over the past couple of weeks were films by women, about women. Few works unveiled at the fest this year have earned as much praise as Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which follows 17-year-old Autumn (newcomer Sidney Flanigan) in her journey from Pennsylvania to New York City to abort an unwanted pregnancy. Whether or not the film stands as Hittman’s career-best (a suggestion raised by David Sims at The Atlantic), it marks a departure from the director’s prior youth-in-crisis tales Beach Rats (2017) and It Felt Like Love (2013). Largely because, as observed by Devika Girish at Film Comment, this study of fraught teenagehood “turns into something more overtly political than any of Hittman’s previous work: an intimate encounter with the state of women’s reproductive rights in the United States.” And yet the film is not, Alison Willmore notes at Vulture

[an] agitprop for an era of increasingly restricted abortion access, though it’d be entirely justified and effective in being so. It is, simply, a depiction of a reality of our present, and the fact that it often feels like a thriller is a damning reflection of how much peril those restrictions have created, especially for the already vulnerable. 

Nor does it ever tilt into overt miserablism or melodrama, a point articulated by Andrew Barker at Variety. As a study of institutionalized, ossified abuse, the key to the film’s effectiveness may lie in its ability to capture present-day America as essentially frozen in time. To borrow from Girish again (whose Sundance dispatch features eye-opening comments by Hittman):

This hint of anachronism pervades the whole film, underscoring the failures of the American healthcare system and the fact that, in Hittman’s words, "the country just seems to be rolling things back."

Following her 2018 Sundance highlight Madeline’s Madeline, Josephine Decker returned to the fest with Shirley, a psychological drama penned by Sarah Gubbins and starring Elisabeth Moss as novelist Shirley Jackson, famed for “The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House. Moss’ turn has received some glowing praise already: over at The Playlist, Jason Bailey calls it “astonishing,” lauding her ability to find endless nuances within the realm of mental illness after her work in Her Smell (2018) and Queen of Earth (2015). But it’s Decker’s signature brazen style that has attracted some of the most interesting critical output. Shirley may not be a biopic tout court, but it may well be the most accessible project the director has helmed, at least—as per Justin Chang at the L.A. Times—“insofar as its under-the-skin atmospherics are tethered to a more linear narrative than, say, Butter on the Latch or Madeline’s Madeline.” Yet while Decker’s surrealist and daring style is on full display from the first frames, Ethan Warren, in his perceptive two-part Sundance dispatch at Bright Wall/Dark Room, argues:

In seeing Decker elevate Sarah Gubbins’ screenplay, I couldn’t help feeling a mild loss, a sense that a joyfully rowdy voice—one that may be sporadically successful but always singularly daring—has been suppressed in service of someone else’s story. For every thrilling burst of surrealism there’s a beat of conventional plot that left me wistful for the palpable danger in every naturalistic moment of Madeline’s Madeline.

Shirley is the first feature Decker hasn’t penned herself, and it may well be that what Warren sees as a stylistic submission owes to that writer-director disjunction. His remarks find an interesting echo in Vadim Rizov’s words at Filmmaker Magazine (whose Sundance dispatches should be a starting point for anyone attempting to wade through the fest’s gargantuan critical output). That Shirley may strike “as less startling” than prior works, he suggests, could well owe to a change in cinematographers: 

[It] is a question of technical execution rather than of diluting a radical aesthetic: [Madeline’s Madeline’s cinematographer] Connor’s images conjured up connotations of horror’s visual language, with extraordinary points of light emerging from disturbing darkness. [Shirley’s DP] Sturla Brandth Grøvlen Grøvlen can mimic her woozy close-ups of heads against out-of-focus backdrops, but the color scheme is flat and washed-out, more functional than exploratory side.  

Any discussion of female auteurship in Park City this year would not be complete without Kajillionaire, Miranda July’s portrait of a family of small-stakes grifters, with Evan Rachel Wood in top form as Old Dolio, the family’s 26-year-old lone and taciturn daughter. At, Nick Allen describes her performance as “massive with its physicality, all meant to counter the tense quietness of her character.” But while Allen goes on remark on the gap he perceives between July’s “visually curious artistic abandon” and some of the film’s “emotionally opaque” moments, Bilge Elbiri, at Vulture, praises Kajillionaire as what may be July’s “best film yet,” commending her ability to immerse us in a wildly singular, unpredictable tale: 

Her treatment of the material is narratively matter-of-fact, but visually precise: Like a good comedy director, she frames the characters’ weird interactions and movements in such a way as to make sure we get the gag, but she doesn’t dwell too long on any of it. She keeps things moving, and soon enough, the strangeness just becomes part of the movie’s reality. We go with it.

I suspect whether or not Kajillionaire will speak to viewers will ultimately depend on how attuned one is to July’s trademarked quirky and deeply iconoclastic universe, a world she began crafting as early as 2005 with her Sundance hit Me and You and Everyone We Know.  

Above: The Assistant

That Sundance should steer clear from politics is a point festival founder Robert Redford has already stressed at length in previous years. But such reticence—real or theoretical as it may be—seemed all the more ironic in an edition that hosted a panoply of gripping calls to action and timely “issue” films, including “the first great movie about Me Too,” as per Alison Willmore’s Vulture review of Kitty Green’s The Assistant. In what unfolds like a thriller, Jane (Julia Garner) spends her long workday serving as the assistant to a Weinstein-like head of a film-production company, struggling to negotiate her role vis-à-vis her predator boss. Curiously, the man is never shown, a choice which, for Willmore, underscores “that the man himself is less psychologically interesting than the people around him, and how they’ve learned to tolerate, accommodate, rationalize away, or internalize his behavior.” Crucially, this blanking out extends to Jane as well. The young woman appears defined by the most superficial markers—a white Northwestern graduate aspiring to be a producer—and her name is seldom used by her (male) coworkers. Over at The New Yorker, Richard Brody notes that the strategy “suggests a deliberate dehumanization, a de-identification of Jane with herself.” It also elicits a chilling effect:

It leaves Jane as a silhouette onto which viewers can project themselves. The movie becomes a sort of agonized game, within the virtual framing device of self-reflection: How would you feel, and what would you do?

But do these elisions and blanking out leave The Assistant’s well equipped to reckon with the current #MeToo zeitgeist? At Variety, Peter Debruge contends this is hardly the case. “This is no time for subtlety,” he argues, adding that the “exasperatingly low-key look at gender dynamics in the workplace” might stand as a case of “too little, too late.” Yes, the world needs films that reckon “with the way that those who don’t speak up become passive enablers (...) but it needs for them to be dynamic, dramatic, and more empowering overall.”

Browsing through reviews and dispatches several time zones away from Sundance, the debate around The Assistant and its relationship with #MeToo strikes me as one of the most intriguing ones to have come out of Park City this year. Yet the movement’s influence was also felt in what turned out to be one of Sundance’s biggest conversation pieces. Written and directed by former Killing Eve show runner Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a small-town predators’ predator who shows up at bars pretending to be drunk only to exact her revenge from the self-proclaimed “nice guys” who try to take advantage of her. But the film, “certainly on the more commercial end of the fare on offer at Sundance this year,” according to Richard Lawson at Variety, is far smarter and sophisticated than the vigilante vendetta it promised on paper. In fact, as noted by A.A. Dowd at The A.V. Club, “the film’s mainstream sheen actually works for, and not against, its provocations”, as Fennell seems to enjoy subverting conventions and complicating our identification with Cassie, pushing her avenging angel into some uncomfortably dark terrain.  

It looks as though the main point of contention around Promising Young Woman lies in the unresolvable tension that underpins Cassie’s mission, and the film as a whole. This is a tale that seems to juggle saccharine moments and deep-seated, volcanic rage—and the balance between the irreconcilable moods can oftentimes feel precarious. As remarked by Alison Willmore in her illuminating take at Vulture, the film is left to contend with a complicated question that Fennell skirts all along:

[a question] of reconciliation versus retribution, and whether there’s any benefit to holding fast to rage forever, no matter how warranted. Fennell’s film is a vibrant, stylistically precise piece of work, but the sentiments it conveys don’t feel examined. It’s an acceleration off a cliff when what you’d really like to see is some kind of road forward, no matter how rough.

The breadth of these debates, and the intriguing works that have inspired them, is a testament that Sundance’s careful and inclusive programming can help broaden new narratives, and the range of people who can tell them. Here’s hoping this year will pave the way for a lot more to come.

The Current Debate is a biweekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.

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The Current DebateEliza HittmanJosephine DeckerMiranda JulyKitty GreenEmerald FennellSundanceSundance 2020Columns
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