A year ago, on the eve of the inauguration of our 45th president – and a massive pink-hatted protest against said man to be staged in Washington – Robert Redford came out on the stage of the Eccles Theater and, without mentioning the orange elephant in the room, stressed the need for standing up: for the environment, for our democracy, for truth, for women’s rights, for our rights as citizens, for the right to be seen and heard. “We stay away from politics,” he’d said, before introducing a documentary about fighting climate change that now feels like the scrape of a rusty lance against a windmill. Still, it felt like a statement. The revolution will not be televised, but it may be festival subtweet-programmed.
This year, there was no attempt to rage against the machine or address the state of our nation in either his opening-night remarks or through the evening’s programming per se. The sandy-haired star who serves as the patron saint and weathered pretty face of the Sundance Film Festival had praised the current #MeToo movement during the day’s press conference, as well as addressing a different elephant in absentia, Harvey Weinstein. (Sundance was where the former Miramax mogul established himself as a major player and mythologizing his persona as a bully and a volatile creep; it also unwittingly served as the site of alleged assaults.) When it came time to introduce the 34th edition’s kick-off film, however, his kick-off was curiously brief and just south of batty. “Time shrinks,” he noted. “It felt like I was just introducing last year’s festival.” Ok, then. It’s not like a lot hasn’t happened in the last 365 days. But the show goes on, we have the same mission as before, etc. He wasn’t going to play the inspirational firebrand for the sold-out crowd. The man was there to be an M.C. who warmed up the mic then exited, stage right.
Then on came Festival Director John Cooper, who promised an opening-night selection that was “fun to the point of sassy.” He was not lying. If you can say nothing else about Blindspotting, it wears a fabulous, hard-fought cheekiness on its big-up-Oakland t-shirt sleeve. The story of two lifelong friends – one black, one white; one an ex-felon trying to make it out of probation, the other a grill-wearing would-be hood tough guy – fighting against the Bay Area city’s tide of gentrification and racial tension, this opening-night feature had more classic Sundance-movie elements than you could shake a terminally late shuttle-bus at. A partial roll call would include: a decades-in-conception backstory, a first-time director in Carlos López Estrada, a passion-project feel courtesy of its tight writer/producer/star duo, an excess of D.I.Y. let’s-put-on-a-show chutzpah, some social-issue skimming and a few famous faces. (A tip of the knit cap to Tisha Campbell-Martin, who straight-up walks away with her one scene as a hair salon badass. We’re cosigning on a spin-off movie.)
The longer you trail along beside Collin (Hamilton‘s Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal) as they work their mover day jobs, talk shit, take care of families and try to stay out of trouble, the more you get a sense of the film’s third character, Oakland – that opening montage of BART fights and block parties and street dancers and upper-crust encroachment is a valentine on par with Manhattan‘s best-of-Big-Apple swooning. You also start to realize as the narrative goes on that the movie has a good old-fashioned case of the first-film hiccups, where ambitions exceed grasps and everything feels held together by spit, tape and dreams. Plus star charisma and chemistry: The Hamilton award-winner and his Bay Area poet buddy have a double-act patter that keeps the constant derailment threats at bay. “Everybody likes it when you make it sound pretty,” Casal’s smooth-talker says. “They like the bounce of it.” These guys have some serious back-and-forth bounce. Somebody needs to find them a franchise ASAP.
So is that enough to save Blindspotting from its own blind spots, namely a rickety earnestness and a go-for-broke–ness that keeps breaking up any sense of consistent flow? Milage may vary. The comedy never quite syncs up with the drama; for every standout moment – a raucous retelling of the crime that put Collin in the clink; a devastating shot of a graveyard filled with black, male ghosts – you get some portentous stabs at hostile hipster-takeovers and police brutality that don’t make it past sum-of-their-parts status. A third-act turn stretches dramatic license past the legal limit, and that’s before an ill-advised rap about violence and optical-illusion metaphors takes center stage.
Still, there’s no doubt that these gents have put blood, sweat, tears and a fierce sense of regional pride in this tale – or that, by highlighting this film in this inaugural slot, Sundance is once again proving that it’s legacy lies in championing diverse voices from Day One. To Diggs and Casal: This is good. You guys can do “great.” Keep going. Don’t give up what you’ve got. You’ve been seen.
The scrappy, make-cinema-or-dir-tryin’ passion project is one type of traditional Sundance movie; the celebrity-blessed, character-driven dramedy is another. Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life almost sounds like it was made to order, or customized to fill a programming hole: A New York theater guru-turned-artisanal-pickle entrepreneur (Paul Giamatti) and his lauded writer wife (Kathryn Hahn) are struggling with adoption pitfalls and the IVF blues. They decide to go the harvesting-a-surrogate-egg route; when their choice of donor turns out to be a troubled college student who’s also his step-niece (Godless‘s Kayli Carter), problems arise.
You could say this empathetic tale of the boho-bougie has it all: two veteran indie superstars in the zone (nobody does better self-contempt than Hahn), Jenkins’ keen ear for dialogue (we like the bounce of it), witticisms like “it’s eBay for ova,” a breakout star in Carter, painfully real arguments, anxiety and beaucoup references to Yaddo. You could also say it has too much, given that the movie keeps plodding on to the point that it starts to feel like a miniseries about every type of fertility failure known to man or beast. Endings pile up. Emotional beats are hit, then hammered, then finessed, then run themselves into the ground.
We’ve been waiting for Jenkins to follow up 2007’s The Savages for 11 years now, and if you’re a fan of that achingly painful sibling drama (or Jenkins’ debut, Slums of Beverly Hills), or authentic middle-aged angst, you’ll find plenty to latch on to here. As a opening-night counterpart to Blindspotting, it’s a curious choice. As a reminder that Sundance has a wide indie-flick spectrum, it’s a solid business-as-usual declaration.