Half the Picture
This year at Sundance London—the Utah festival’s fifth edition based across the pond—the line-up was heavy with women-led and directed features. Of the twelve films that screened last weekend at London’s Picturehouse Central, seven of them were directed by women (working out to about 58% majority for women directors). The festival organizers inform us that this was a serendipitous programming choice, and maybe it was, but it settles into the feminist zeitgeist of the American film industry in a timely manner. In fact, #WhatsNext was the theme of this year’s festival: examining the future of independent film in light of the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements that have precipitated dramatic change in the industry over the past few months.
Accordingly, one of the most relevant films in the lineup was Amy Adrion’s documentary Half the Picture, focusing on a handful of talented and successful female Hollywood filmmakers (Ava DuVernay, Catherine Hardwicke, Jill Soloway, and the like) who tell the story of their obstacles and triumphs in a line of work still unwelcoming to them in many ways. Some of the anecdotes therein speak volumes on the climate for women working in Hollywood, particularly one from Brenda Chapman—the originator of Pixar’s hit film Brave—and the way she was written out of the film’s success. Half the Picture went on to win the Picturehouse #WhatsNext Award at the closing night of the fest. Another standout from the weekend was Jennifer Fox’s HBO film The Tale, a harrowing autobiographical story of reckoning with a history of childhood sexual abuse. Fox’s onscreen stand-in is Laura Dern, poignant and dignified in a central role which asks her to reconsider what she once believed about her own victimhood and trauma.
Meanwhile, some of the weaker links of the fest leaned back on familiar American indie tropes. College-heist movie American Animals is too laconic for its own good, offering little real insight into the foolhardy crimes of a bunch of privileged frat boys. Augustine Frizzell’s Never Goin’ Back is easily the worst of a good bunch; an aestheticized and unfunny buddy comedy, feeling like inconsequential ‘white-trash’ tourism lensed with a hipster’s gaze.
Overall, though, the selection was rarely lacking in quality. Paul Schrader’s remarkable, austere First Reformed, a story of a rural parish priest sucked into environmental activism and existential terror, sees a veteran return to the remote spiritual style he’s essentially defined. Debra Granik’s gently-made father-daughter drama Leave No Trace was also among the finest films I saw last weekend—or this year. Her film yields a much-needed empathy for a deeply divided America, one of seemingly insurmountable political differences and vast inequality.
Another prominent running theme of this year’s Sundance London seems to be located in its self-conscious crossing of the lines between fiction and documentary. The program is full of documentarians making first features (Skate Kitchen, The Tale) quasi-documentary style (Leave No Trace) or documentary-type interruptions into narrative fiction (American Animals). If there are any larger takeaways from this crop of films, they do seem to offer vague echoes of the wider culture. The string of allegations around the #MeToo movement has meant rethinking of the past and how we perceive it, of what female subjectivity really means, and about how a multiplicity of female voices can be both complex and necessary. Although independent film may have not seen the fullest permutations of that, there’s a hint of something exciting here. Alongside the desperately-needed discussion about the gendered machinations of the film industry, we also see that the formal qualities of films themselves may be prone to their own sort of shift.