Sunday, 16 August 2020

SUNDANCE LONDON 2020 review

Sundance London normally takes place every year in June at its London home of Picturehouse Central, but this year, for obvious reasons, the organisers have had to pivot to an abridged online version of the festival. I've attended the London leg of the festival for the last few years now and it's always a highlight of the film festival calendar for me, so it was with some sadness that it wasn't able to go ahead in its full format, but hey, at least it was able to continue in a form that kept everyone safe. Rather than back to back screenings, this year's festival opted to focus on three of the most popular films from January's original run - the Paul Bettany starring Uncle Frank, Andrea Riseborough's Egypt set existential dilemma, Luxor, and the Grand Jury prize winning documentary, Boys State. Here's my thoughts on all three films.

Uncle Frank
Set in 1970s South Carolina, Uncle Frank follows college student Beth (Sophia Lillis) and her professor uncle Frank (Paul Bettany) as they travel from their New York lives back home to attend a funeral. Also in tow is Frank's longtime partner Wally (Peter Macdissi), who Frank would prefer to keep a secret from his family after a traumatic encounter with his father (an intimidating Stephen Root) in his youth has left him afraid of their reaction to him being a gay man.

Directed by Six Feet Under creator and American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball, Uncle Frank is fundamentally a film of two halves, first focussing on Sophia Lillis's character as she leaves small town Creekville, and the close knit family life and expectations of her as a young woman behind to pursue her studies in New York City. There she comes to learn that the comfortable bachelor lifestyle her family think uncle Frank lives is not entirely true (he even goes so far as to have a female friend pose as his sometime girlfriend), and that he is in a long term relationship with Wally, an Arabian immigrant who is similarly secretive to his own family. When they have to return to Creekville for a family funeral, Wally sees this as the perfect opportunity to meet Frank's family, travelling behind them against Frank's wishes.

There's a period in the film where it's just Lillis and Bettany driving alone, and they're among some of the best scenes in the film. It's not much of a road movie, more concerned with the dramatic potential at the other end, but it's a shame more time wasn't given to the development of this pairing. Both are on journey's of discovery, and despite the sense of fun Wally injects into every scene, there was room for more scenes between these three before their arrival in Creekville and the sidelining of Lillis's character.

Despite the introduction of Frank's long held trauma over the end of his first relationship and his increasing alcohol consumption, the drama and jeopardy of Frank's return home is never earth-shattering, but more by-the-numbers in a pleasingly portrayed way, although the reading of a will provides a real kick in the teeth moment that shakes the course that Frank is on. The film has an often repeated idiom along the lines of "I'm going to be who I want to be, not who people say I should be" that gives an indication as to where the story might head for Frank and Beth. We the audience might see where this very sweet, sincere family drama is going too, but that doesn't detract from the charm and solid performances from a great ensemble supporting cast (I haven't even found space to mention that Steve Zahn, Judy Greer and Margot Martindale also feature in the film), and its leads, Bettany, Lillis, and a stand-out Macdissi.

Luxor
I'll be honest that of the three films on this year's slate, the premise of Luxor didn't immediately grip me from the outset, but I was pleasantly surprised with how much it drew me in to its world. The film with an emotional resonance that Eat, Pray, Love could only dream about, Luxor follows Andrea Riseborough's doctor, Hana, as she returns to Egypt after many years away, bumping into her ex-boyfriend Sultan (Karim Saleh) on a ferry and then reliving and re-evaluating some of the choices she made in the past. Directed by Zeina Durra, it's a beautiful piece of wanderlust filmmaking that'll have you booking flights to Luxor (although maybe without Hana's emotional baggage) as Riseborough visits ancient tombs that literally speak to her, and manages to spiritually free herself enough to dance in front of a room full of strangers at a hotel bar before despair grips her again.

There's a real air of the contemplative reckoning of Before Midnight to Luxor, with Hana walking through incredible scenery on an introspective journey to heal her mind from the horrors she's seen in the world, having just finished as a medic in Syria and about to head to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. This leads to long periods with little or no dialogue and no non-diagetic sounds, including when she visits archaeologist Sultan at one of his digs. The film also features real archaeologist Salima Ikram, essentially playing herself to give her opinions on the spiritual tourism of the area, with large numbers of (often older aged) visitors claiming to be reincarnations of ancient Egyptians. For Hana, the connection with the world she is looking for is much more current, and even if it's not always overtly stated in dialogue, Riseborough's performance is so strong that we are on Hana's journey with her, experiencing the magic realism of hearing voices from beyond to guide her along her path. Luxor is a journey unlike anything else I've seen on screen before, and worth experiencing for yourself.


Boy's State
The last film of the festival was the Documentary Grand Jury prize winning Boy's State, following a group of young men attending the yearly American Legion sponsored, conservative leaning political summer camp that takes place in Texas each year (there is a girl's state too, although not featured in this documentary). If you think American politics and its cast of characters has become too much of a presence in the daily news cycle, save a bit of room for this thoroughly entertaining documentary that's enlightening about the kinds of 16 & 17 year old boys that would actively choose to enter into the world of politics, performing a mock election and campaigning to decide who gets to be a number of roles, the big daddy of them all being Governor. They all arrive as equal people, or Statesmen, and are assigned as either a Federalist or Nationalist, the party platform to be decided as things go on and the camp mentalities start to resemble something not a million miles away from William Golding's Lord of the Flies.

The mixture of nerves, charisma, strategy and natural leadership talent on show is truly jaw-dropping, and a real insight into the system that breeds such a powder keg of bravado and toxic posturing. There's an element of play-acting to it, both to the camera and to their followers, but as these young men stand on a stage in front of hundreds of their peers and spout their views about guns and abortion, the approval their words gets from a braying crowd goes some way to explaining why change moves so slowly in Washington.

Of the cast of characters, there's a number of stand-outs in both the Federalist and Nationalist camps, including the Bill Clinton-a-like Robert McDougall, with his soft texan drawl and easy going manner that makes him an early hit with the camp, the workhorse Ben Fienstein who, despite making some questionable choices (there's an ever present conflict between how much this is reality and a morality free game), is a strong political presence in his camp; and Rene, who on the back of a crowd-winning speech is quickly voted as party chairman, only to see a small faction turn against him and call for his impeachment. He's also able to cut through the pomposity of his surroundings to deliver some of the film's best zingers, including saying about a competitor "I think he's a fantastic politician, but I don't think 'a fantastic politician' is a compliment either". But, the absolute star of the film is the plucky Steven Garza, who's a man with principles who actually believes in his campaign platform for Governor and who wants people to vote for him because of his policies, not his charm offensive. As his position on gun control (a major issue at this event, particularly in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas shootings earlier that year) is called into question, along with the rumours that he organised a pro-choice rally in his home town, he's ballsy enough to stand his ground and say "what I'm going to say next could cost me my chances of winning, but I'm going to say it anyway". It's his refusal to not pander to his voters that makes him a stand out figure in the film, but it's the fact that he does differ so much from his 16 and 17 year old peers that makes you wish the glimmer of hope he offers outweighed the overwhelming majority.

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So, there you have it. Luxor and Uncle Frank have release dates pencilled in for later in the year (although nothing's set in stone these days, but try to check them out when released), and Boy's State is already available to view for Apple TV+ subscribers. As for Sundance London, it's a shame the organisers had to compromise his year, but it was a quality selection, at least. Here's hoping that Sundance London 2021 gets to return to its regularly scheduled slot at Picturehouse Central next year with even more independently produced gems. I, for one, will be there.


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