With a festival like Sundance, where critics and distributors alike are clamoring to find the next big thing, certain types of films are bound to get lost in the shuffle. Such is the case with Ramona Diaz’s fine, unassuming documentary Motherland. Centering on the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital in Metro Manila, one of the busiest maternity wards in the Philippines, the film has a wealth of fascinating material. A nurse tallies the number of women and children in the ward; a young mother learns of “Kangaroo Mother Care” (widely used because of a lack of incubators); a nurse attempts to convince various mothers to use an IUD; the ward doctor drones over the PA system in a strict, motherly tone (the way one would speak to a summer camp group). There’s a great documentary to be made here, so it's somewhat frustrating that Motherland is merely quite good. A brief look at the health insurance mechanisms provided by the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) hints at a more ambitious Wiseman-like institutional documentation. Occasional bursts of playfulness between the mothers make one wish that Diaz had pursued the bonds between the women. But the final scene, which follows a mother and her newborn twins as they leave the hospital—a decisive break from the relative comfort of the maternity ward—hits a perfect note of unease and uncertainty; the larger world seeps back into the frame.
Equally attuned to the world at large, though in an entirely different way, is Dina, Dan Sickle and Antonio Santini’s simple, moving documentary—a love story between Dina Buno and Scott Levin, two individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome (apart from other related autism spectrum diagnoses). The directors simply observe the couple as they get engaged, interact with friends and family, and with each other. (Scott’s sexual inexperience is a recurring issue for the couple.) What elevates the film is its directness, which bypasses both irony and cynicism in a way that's not overly treacly. (A montage leading up to the wedding, set to Yaz’s “Only You” is a highlight.) Dina is also frequently, surprisingly hilarious, but never at the expense of those on-screen; its honesty (and unabashed embrace of what would normally be considered kitsch) obviates any such issues. (Particularly memorable: a rowdy bachelorette party; Dina and Scott discussing The Joys of Sex as two kids walk by.) Elegant, too, is the way Sickle and Santini sometimes film the couple from a distance, so their expressions are obscured, but their voices fully audible. The film's best scene observes the couple in long shot, taking a stroll during their honeymoon—just two silhouettes, backed by the sunset—having the most bracingly honest of conversations. Precisely because of its intense focus on the couple—this is decidedly not an “issue doc”—the film manages to so eloquently and obliquely address their place in the world, as it were. A major reservation (not a deal-breaker, but close) is the way a traumatic event in Dina's past is revealed, which was the only moment that struck me as baldly manipulative—it’s even hinted at throughout. But otherwise, it's nigh-impossible to not be moved. Amidst all the slick Sundance movies reverse-engineered for maximum audience reaction, it's a pleasure to spend time with a film that just is.
You say you're ready to go home (and so am I), but Manana (Ia Shugliashvili), the middle-aged woman at the center of My Happy Family, Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross’s perceptive Georgian drama, just wants to leave hers. When the film opens, we see her buy an advertising newspaper, look at an apartment, and then have dinner with her family—her husband Soso, her elderly parents, her two children, and a son-in-law. A few days later—just after her birthday, no less—she packs up and leaves. There's no inciting quarrel, no lengthy explanation; she just can't live with her family anymore. If Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits saw two families unwilling or unable to sever their roots, My Happy Family observes what happens when those ties are, if not entirely severed, then stretched to their breaking point.
Co-director Nana Ekvtimishvili, who wrote the screenplay, has a knack for casual, lived-in detail: the difference between dill and fennel, a cherry juice stain on a refrigerator, a slice of strawberry cake on a sunny afternoon. Even more impressive are the film's many, sharply modulated arguments, all perfectly attuned to how emotions flare up and die down within seconds, oscillating with every offhand comment, every minor irritation. Filmed in long, handheld takes (apparently not the sole purview of the Romanian New Wave), these scenes are at once coherent and chaotic, the camera roving and restless, attempting to find some foothold in “this whirl of life.” There's palpable discontent, but also joy and profound beauty. (If this film is anything to go by, apparently all Georgians are marvelous singers.) “I survived the Communists… I survived so many shitty governments,” says Otar, Manana’s taciturn father. But family is something else altogether. This is a film that both understands that, and communicates it well.
Although it may not initially seem like it, that’s also true of The Big Sick, Michael Showalter’s hit romantic comedy, which recently sold to Amazon for a staggering $12 million. As you pointed out with Patti Cake$ (not to mention last year’s Birth of a Nation), a big deal at Sundance doesn’t always mean a great film, let alone a good one. So I’m pleased to report that The Big Sick is, in fact, a commendable film. Based on the real life relationship between Kumail Nanjiani (playing himself) and Emily Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), both credited as screenwriters, the film starts out as a tentative romance (complete with the requisite meet-cute during Kumail’s first stand-up comedy routine). But The Big Sick takes a sharp-left once it reaches the title event: Emily’s subsequent hospitalization, during which she was induced into a coma for treatment. With half of the romance out of the equation for a good part of its runtime, the film becomes something quite different. Race, particularly Kumail’s Pakistani ethnicity, is a major thread. (Kumail’s parents set him up with Pakistani women, and expect him to continue practicing Islam; a man shouts a racial slur at him during his stand-up routine.) In concept, a lot of the material could be played for rather cutesy humor or a quick punchline—and there is some of that. But there's a groundedness to the film (particularly in its generosity towards its characters) that both charms and moves, even as it maintains its punchy, jokey rhythms. The structure can seem somewhat shambling and some beats a touch overdetermined; but it's the kind of personal story that actually feels personal. And with that, my first Sundance experience comes to a close. But the year—and the year's cinematic offerings—are only just beginning.
Until next time!