Sundance 2021 — Part 2

Part of experiencing Sundance only vicariously in previous years was having my curiosity piqued about films being positioned as contender in Academy Awards categories for a ceremony over a year out. It’s blissfully odd to instead actually view and assess a film that launches the premature chatter. Passing, the directorial debut of actress Rebecca Hall, might not have anyone talking seriously about Best Picture, but there are awards-circuit pundits who are already sure that two-fifths of the leading actress category is set. There’s a lot of calendar to come, but I understand the swooning speculation. x

Based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name, Passing uses the reunion of childhood friends Reenie (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) to explore racial, class, and cultural divides. It may be set in the nineteen-twenties, but the issues it raises remain sadly pertinent a century or so later. Hall opts for refinement to a fault, shooting the film in arid black and white and employing restraint that sometimes atrophies into stiffness. Negga and Thompson are both sensational, the former benefiting from a role that calls for snappy effusiveness and the latter given the opportunity to gradually, powerfully build a character with a probing emotional fullness.

There’s also a nice performance at the center of Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor, though set at markedly different pitch. With laudable commitment, Niamh Algar plays a British censor in the nineteen-eighties, impassively watching gruesome horror videos with an eye towards how they must be trimmed to make them suitable for release. When one video reminds her of a childhood trauma, she careens into obsession. Bailey-Bond directs with a sharp, playful stylishness, giving the horror film exactly the right florid pop. Censor is consistently clever and engaging, and it boasts a wicked, wily sense of humor.

Directed by Pedro Kos, the documentary Rebel Hearts recounts the inspiring history of a group of Los Angeles nuns who drew inspiration from the activism of the nineteen-sixties — and, you know, the radical humanitarianism put forth by Jesus Christ — to challenge the smothering norms of the Catholic Church. The film is best at its most conventional, laying out the particulars of the sisters’ community building through well-chosen archival footage and more recent interviews. When Kos tries to dramatize historic conflict with stylized animation, it comes across as needless fuss, especially when he puts his thumb on the scale by giving the patriarchal opponents to basic modernization efforts a villainous swoop in the visual depiction. It’s not necessary. By the bare facts, leadership that chafes at campaigns for dignity and equality have already cast themselves as the bad guys.

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