Sundance 2021 — Part 4

I remember being on airplane watching a parent in the seat attempt to keep their kid occupied by dialing up the R-rated DC animation adaptation of the seminal nineteen-eighties graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, presumably under the belief that all cartoons are suitable for kids. Assuming that wasn’t an entirely uncommon occurrence, expect a spate of traumatized youngsters if writer-director Dash Shaw’s Cryptozoo ever makes it into Delta’s entertainment rotation.

Adventurous in every way, Shaw’s film, created in collaboration with animation supervisor Jane Samborski, imagines a world filled with cryptids, the oddball beasties who are the stuff of folklore and legends. The film follows Lauren Gray (voiced by Lake Bell), an adventurous young woman dedicated to rescuing cryptids that are persecuted in society. She races to find the dream-consuming baku before it can be ensnared by a military-backed competitor (Thomas Jay Ryan) with malevolent intent. The film culminates in catastrophic fashion at a theme-park sanctuary that provides the title. Shaw brings an enviable energy and enthusiasm to the film, even as he occasionally succumbs to a clamorous crassness as a stand-in for more resonant themes. It’s trippy and colorful, quite unlike anything I’ve seen before.

The documentary Searchers has a thin premise, but director Pacho Velez wrings a lot of entertainment out of it. Perhaps inspired by his own need to wade into the digital waters of dating apps, Velez makes a film about the many ways in which people use the online tools, employing a novel construct that puts users in a stationary close-up as they flick through the interfaces. It’s interesting to watch the different interactions, from the sweetly vulnerable to a sort of mercenary calculation (the latter exemplified by a pair of young woman making their way through an app used by aspiring sugar daddies). The film is somewhat formless, which nicely mirrors the flitting attention span that comes from staking romantic prospects on a nearly instantaneous decision between swiping left or right.

When directors Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas came across an image of an Indian woman selling a newspaper called Khabar Lahariya, and then dug a little deeper to discover the publication was entirely run by Dalit-caste women, they thought they might have the makings of a powerful documentary. Writing with Fire proves how right they were. Following the journalists as their news outlet transitions to a more robust digital presence, Ghosh and Thomas expertly develop their stories, focusing on three women in particular. Meera is one of the clear leaders, approaching her work and family live with a quietly headstrong manner, and Shyamkali is a hesitant reporter fretful over her long learning curve with new technology who blossoms into a highly capable contributor. The breakout star is Suneeta, a charismatic dynamo who fearlessly challenges anyone who condescends to her. The film is inspiring. It’s also exceptional storytelling.

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