Sundance 2023 — Part 3

In her summary piece on this year’s Sundance Film Festival, The New York Times‘s Manohla Dargis lauded the documentary line-up, noting a greater consistency of quality this year and most years, also allowing that the films “were more intellectually engaging than formally revelatory.” Then she added, “One of the nice things about documentaries, though, is that a movie can grab hold of you simply through the power of its subject.”

The plain accuracy of Dargis’s assessment kept circling through my head as I steadily soured on Magazine Dreams during my viewing. Written and directed by Elijah Bynum, this character study follows a troubled young man named Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors) as he channels his misery into aspirations of becoming a revered professional bodybuilder. The film displays an impressive commitment to unflinchingly depicting the toxicity that shapes Killian and the ways in which it makes him painfully unprepared to interact with others. Majors puts his all into the role, and he’s never more effective than when Killian is emotionally wounded by a rejection that he just can’t quite comprehend. Eventually, the narrative heaps on so many indignities, many of them depicted in a highly implausible fashion, that it comes close to those Lars von Trier films that smack of authorial sadism. If the point is to render these experiences through the warped perception of the lead character, that arguably excuses the discarded authenticity, but it doesn’t transform the flouting of basic logic into satisfying drama.

Because Native American lands within the borders of the U.S. are their own sovereign nations, they are not bound by the dictates of federal law, including the rights guaranteed under the Constitution. That includes the First Amendment, and the vast majority of tribes don’t officially promise freedom of the press. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation was one of the rare exceptions until leaders upset with unfavorable coverage of their misdeeds stripped those rights away, in 2015. The documentary Bad Press, directed by Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler, depicts the toll the repealed protection and subsequent meddling from Muscogee officials take on the dedicated workers of Mvskoke Media. It also gives a blow-by-blow accounting of the effort to restore press autonomy. The film moves with impressive energy that calls to mind fine fictionalized accounts of journalist triumph in recent years. In particular, Landsberry-Baker and Peeler shrewdly home in a couple key figures that pop with personality on screen, which goes a long way towards keeping the film entertaining when it could be bogged down by detail. If there’s some mild cheating in Bad Press to make a tribal vote on press freedom look more imperiled than it actually was, that framing feels more like a fair attempt to capture the tension of the moment than true narrative sleight of hand.

Animalia, the feature debut from writer-director Sofia Alaoui, treads delicately into metaphysical ponderings. Itto (Oumaïma Barid) is a pregnant young Morrocan woman who’s struggling to fit in with the family of her wealthy husband (Mehdi Dehbi). After she orchestrates her absence from a household trip, the suddenly arrival of strange, unearthly forces set her on a quest to reunite with her spouse and his parents and the safety their significant means can provide. Alaoui shifts elegantly back and forth between the bare logistics of traveling among panicked humans and the encroaching presence of beings who defy understanding, accentuating the quiet menace of both parties. As the film’s dreamlike qualities build, Animalia can start to feel overly obscure. The understandable instinct towards ambiguity means Barid might leave a little too much unspoken. The film is intriguing without being wholly satisfying.

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