Every screening at Sundance begins the same way: with a short video officially introducing the festival and acknowledging its sponsors. Most of the major public fests now include some variation on this branded bumper—Toronto has a whole maddening block of them, seemingly designed to destroy what’s left of the press corps’ sanity—and as these things go, the Sundance one is fairly bearable. It depicts a young woman in a rustic cabin at dusk, lighting a lantern, then following the bolts of neon energy (pulsing with Dolby sound) that come shooting out of the extinguished match. I’m sick of it, but not sick from it. Maybe that’s because its metaphor does kind of track. At Sundance, everyone is chasing something: a scoop, a deal, a breakthrough, a celebrity sighting, a decent meal, a little shuteye, a great party, a better movie, that next big thing. Chasing it is what the fest’s all about.
One of the more trivial chases at Sundance is the speculation surrounding its annual secret screening. Secret screenings are silly and mostly pointless appendages on the modern festival experience; they exist to drum up a little buzz, and they rarely stay secret for long, anyway—especially here in Park City, where the identity of the movie in question is usually heavily rumored days in advance, then inevitably confirmed by Variety hours before the screening. For critics on the beat, of course, this silly annual ritual at least provides the possibility of seeing and covering something major later in the fest. I can hardly complain, for example, about this year’s selection, which premiered last night at midnight: Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out (Grade: B). Not only was this a more-exciting-than-usual pick (by intense contrast, last year’s was Eddie The Eagle), but it also offered the promise of a little Hollywood fun to go with our weeklong Indiewood buffet.
Get Out, incidentally, is more fun than it is scary—an impression underlined by the nonstop cackling that erupted through Park City’s Library theater last night, even during some of the more unsettling moments. But the Key & Peele star, who also co-wrote last year’s Keanu, has definitely made a horror film with dashes of comedy, not the other way around. And he demonstrates few first-feature jitters, establishing his confidence behind the camera in an opening abduction that puts a culturally pointed spin on the predatory cinematography and deceptively safe residential backdrop of John Carpenter’s Halloween. Right from the jump, Peele is turning white panic about predatory black men on its ear.
Very much the Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner/Stepford Wives mashup its (overly revealing) trailer teases, Get Out follows photographer Chris (Sicario’s Daniel Kaluuya) as he accompanies girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to the massive suburban estate of her wealthy parents, Missy (Catherine Keener) and Dean (Bradley Whitford). Here he’s put through the casually racist wringer, subjected to a litany of slights both offhand and overt. (Whitford, perfectly cast, manages to slip a couple subtle variations on “boy” into a single two-minute stretch—just one example of the barely concealed racial condescension that Peele surgically identifies scene to scene.)
Touching on everything from police harassment to white America’s appropriation of black culture, Get Out works so well as a gauntlet of social horror that it almost doesn’t need its more traditional thriller elements. In fact, after swelling to a fever pitch of just-because-you’re-paranoid tension, the film settles for some disappointingly conventional third-act survival games. (A subplot involving a TSA sidekick who smells foul play also doesn’t help, steering the film closer to broad comedy than it needed to go.) Then again, the very nature of the film’s hero/villain dichotomy lends its climax a uniquely cathartic chill. It’s a far cry from the black-guy-is-the-first-to-die school of horror.
“The search for the fest’s likely winner—the big breakout—is still ongoing,” I wrote two days ago, when a frontrunner for the U.S. Dramatic prize (the closest Sundance has to a Best Picture award) had yet to emerge. I hope that’s still true, because the one main-competition title that has scored some serious buzz since wouldn’t make for a very worthy winner. Patti Cake$ (Grade: C), about an overweight white female rapper (Danielle Macdonald) chasing her dreams on the fringes of New Jersey, plays like an energetic checklist of every cliché in the underdog-story playbook. This is a movie that includes a local bully, a disapproving parent still resentful about her own music-industry failures, a godlike record-industry mogul, a big talent competition, a nerdy sidekick, an other-side-of-the-tracks love interest, a scene where the characters hear their song on the radio, and even (basically) a rapping grandma. Macdonald makes for an appealing, sympathetic protagonist, especially when rocking the mic on stage or holding her own in a rap battle; she’s the one element of Patti Cake$ that feels truly genuine. Otherwise, this is 8 Mile and Hustle & Flow redux, only with worse music. That it’s earned standing ovations isn’t surprising, because the film has been shamelessly engineered, from top to bottom, to hit pre-programmed pleasure points. Resist, jury!
If Patti Cake$ looks distressingly like a protypical Sundance winner, one of the fest’s best and most beloved selections probably could have competed in Cannes. I’m talking about Call Me By Your Name (Grade: A-), the latest from I Am Love and A Bigger Splash director Luca Guadagnino. First-summer-of-love movies are a dime a dozen, but Guadagnino’s new variation on this well-trod genre pulses with beauty and insight, like some lost Eric Rohmer classic. Set on the Italian Riviera in the early ’80s, the film concerns the courtship that develops, in fits and starts, between a smart, sensitive teenager (Timothée Chalamet, in an incredible breakout performance) and the strapping hunk (Armie Hammer, in his best work since The Social Network) who’s come to stay for the summer as a guest of the boy’s parents. At 130 minutes, Call Me By Your Name takes its time with a fairly straightforward narrative, and that’s a big key to its luminous power: The central relationship develops naturally and carefully, through signs, flirtatious gestures, furtive glances, stolen touches, and loaded squabbles, as these two dance around each other, sometimes literally. Guadagnino, meanwhile, stages it all with purposeful high style; this time, every lunge of the camera and every music cue—“Love My Way,” by the Psychedelic Furs; some tender original contributions by Sufjan Stevens—feel synced to the skipping heartbeat of the characters. This is the light we’ve all been chasing at Sundance.