2019 Sundance Film Festival
Reviews by Jessica Pena
We’ve all been young at some point. We’ve all probably loved something, someone, lost touch with ourselves, regained ourselves. To come of age can mean to relinquish your pains, trade them for new beginnings, and even let them simmer in the hopes that you’ll eventually figure this all out. It can mean finally putting yourself first, forgiving the past that’s shaped you, or finding common ground with others through mischief. Five distinctively unique films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival explore those desires and pains. From Chicago to a snoozy beachside town in Uruguay, these five films are examples of our evolving human experiences.
Hala (2019) by Minhal Baig
Minhal Baig’s personal story which fuses culture and religion, both exceptionally displayed on-screen, takes the coming of age experience to a special place. Hala (Geraldine Viswanathan) is almost off to college. She comes from a devout Muslim family, practicing her faith and balancing it along with school, a curiosity for love, and personal growth. Though she gets on quite well with her lawyer father, it’s her mother that she feels at odds with. This is in part a side effect of cultural displacement and the regular teenage quarrels. She finds her hurdles hardest when the cultural restraints are at their most ambiguous. As Hala navigates her sexuality and identity, her parents’ dynamic begins to affect her life more and more. As the writer-director, Baig’s sense of self and place carry Hala to a path that culminates to inner peace. Viswanathan shows a step up from raunchy comedy (Blockers), accelerating her natural charisma and heart in a film that finds its protagonist’s freedom and independence within herself.
Honey Boy (2019) by Alma Har’el
Penned by Shia LaBeouf while in rehab, the Alma Har’el directed Honey Boy is a piece of reflective filmmaking that will look you straight in the soul. It’s the story of LaBeouf’s actual relationship with his abusive, alcoholic father during the span of a decade, with Lucas Hedges portraying an older version of LaBeouf. With a timeline more devoted to its child years, with Noah Jupe showcasing his career best acting chops, the story unfolds as a lullaby to family pain and finding the strength to forgive and still ask for the love of those who’ve hurt you for so long. Har’el and LaBeouf work a personal magic in this film that comes from kinship. Both coming from hard relationships with their fathers, the excellence in the way they portray such matters is poignant, as it needs to be. The way time and trauma reveal themselves illustrates the way pain is never really absolved, just repressed. Honey Boy quietly works to find solace for its main character. This passion project is moving, aching, and intimate. It makes for a devastating watch, but its existence is comforting.
This Is Not Berlin (2019) by Hari Sama
Hari Sama evokes tension, sensuality, and angsty art in his fifth feature film This Is Not Berlin. Set in 1986 in the suburb Lomas Verdes of Mexico City, the film follows Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) and Gera (José Antonio Toledano) as they finesse their way through the punk queer scene, as they are introduced by Gera’s older, cool sister, Rita (Ximena Romo). Sama introduces period influences of music, anarchist performance art, and pansexuality. Though his characters are finding their feet, they’re painstakingly aware of what they want, even when they hide it. This constant state of disillusion and identity is nestled in the theme of finding your crowd. Where Carlos is, Gera wants to be. Where Gera is independent, Carlos wishes he could be that confident in himself. It’s partly a story of two friends, running aimlessly away from each other when change ensues. Sama’s semi-autobiographical period film speaks volumes to a time that felt wayward was its best chance at survival. This Is Not Berlin is a piece of magnetic culture shock, dripping with style and surrounded by a liberating haze. Hari Sama has a unique vision and he’s here to stay.
The Sharks (2019) by Lucía Garibaldi
From staring at the back of a guy’s neck as he scratches it, to slow-motion landscape men, Lucía Garibaldi’s The Sharks is drenched in the female gaze. The story about a teen girl eyeing her new crush and dabbling in mischief is a vibrant, quiet sit. Backdropped by rumors of sharks roaming the beachside, Rosina (Romina Bentancur) is interested in talking up a fellow coworker from her dad’s landscaping business. When she sees he’s just another brick in the wall, she conjures up her own fun, inviting little malice to her long, hot days and taking a peek at what makes him go. She’s not concerned with beauty and hygiene, although her mother would probably have her help with a manicuring/waxing side hustle. This dive into Rosina’s internal calculation is refreshing. What more could a girl want than to do whatever she pleases, however she decides to? Garibaldi’s story may be miles and miles away in South America, but her itch to visualize a teen girl’s perspective is contagious and playful.
Premature (2019) by Rashaad Ernesto Green
Rashaad Ernesto Green’s Premature is raw, at times painfully so, but always tender. This is the kind of love story that you wish would heal itself and flourish, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. Ayanna (a remarkable, breakout performance by Zora Howard) is bold, brave, and independent. She has the support of her tight-knit girlfriends to talk to, she’s almost off to college, and there’s a boy who’s stepped into her life when she didn’t need him to. Cut to the beautiful intimacy and life of their ongoing relationship and you’ll find a connection so remarkable and human you won’t want to see them spend one minute apart. Because real love is hard to pass on, what Ayanna and Isaiah share is deeply intimate, devotedly real, and a gut punch to how we receive affection. Green’s film, which is also co-written by Howard, knows what it means to love and lose, to burn and rekindle, and to move forward. Premature is an excruciatingly underrated film from the festival. It allows you to feel how we are wired to feel as people in love. The story is beautiful, the acting is magnificent, and its depiction of emotion is deeply human.
These five films are as bold as they are intellectually skilled. They don’t shy away from what they want to say. Some are overlooked, some already critically adored. Each of these films have power backed by mesmerizing performances and engaging scripts. Do yourselves the favor of finding the humanity in stories that these narratives hold dear. So if these words had the power to put something on your radar, there’s the prize.