Much to everyone’s relief, the 33rd annual Sundance Film Festival did not commence with the winter storm of the century. Cross-country commuters prepared for a meteorological Armageddon—a blanket of white slowing our ascent into the mountains—were greeted instead by the snowfall one can always expect when driving or flying into Utah in January; if there were delays, they were the usual ones. No, it’s a much different kind of storm cloud that’s settled over Park City in 2017, dampening more moods than clothing. This storm is really coming. I can hear it happening on the TV in the other room as I type this.
Just as it was smart to take the weather warnings with a grain of salt, it was naïve to expect that I, or any one of us, was going to get through the next few days without talking, hearing, or thinking about Donald Trump. Part of the appeal of Sundance, as I seem to write every year, is that it’s a bubble: For a hectic week and change, droves of artists, industry players, journalists, and movie lovers put their lives on hold for the fantasy camp of a film festival, where the mediocrities look briefly like masterpieces and the hype is practically edible. Sundance tends to be the topic of every Sundance conversation. So it’s a testament to how angry, scared, and generally distraught people are feeling right now that the real world has intruded upon this yearly jamboree. No one can just focus on movies at a time like this.
What that will mean for Sundance, in practical terms, is a lot of politically slanted Q&As, tomorrow’s protest march down Park City’s historic Main Street (Chelsea Handler is leading it; expect more celebrities where she came from), and plenty of festival dispatches like this one that will annoyingly mix talking points with obscenely quick takes on new movies. The festival’s organizers also didn’t miss the significance of their big event overlapping a much bigger one; Trumped, a hastily completed documentary on our (big breath) new president’s political ascension that will air on Showtime next Friday, was a late addition to the lineup. (Should I make time for it? Besides the inevitable nausea, it would mean missing XX, a horror anthology featuring shorts by all female filmmakers—an oddly apropos screening conflict.)
There was also, of course, the nakedly political slant of the festival’s opening-night screening, scheduled on the final day of the Obama administration and the eve of Trump’s inauguration. “Full disclosure: Al Gore is a very good friend of mine,” confessed Robert Redford, by way of introducing last night’s world premiere of Gore’s new movie, a decade-later follow-up to his Oscar-winning global-warning polemic, An Inconvenient Truth. The “recovering politician” (his own words) was greeted with rapturous applause a couple hours later, as he took the stage for some post-screening remarks. Still, even Gore’s hopeful insistence that “we’re going to win this” couldn’t entirely pump up the crowd of filmmakers and corporate sponsors filling out the majority of the seats in the enormous Eccles Theater, to say nothing of us pass-holders packed into the balcony above. On this particular day, could anyone feel genuinely hopeful?
Maybe it was just the film itself, which plays more like a tribute to its mastermind’s indomitable spirit than an inspirational rallying cry. (Don’t believe the reports that the standing ovation started with the end credits—people didn’t really get off their feet until Gore made it to the stage.) Admittedly, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power (Grade: C) is a less stodgy documentary than the glorified PowerPoint presentation that it follows. Replacing Davis Guggenheim in the director’s seat, filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, who made last year’s Sundance alum Audrie & Daisy, escape the lecture-hall format of the original by following Gore on a kind of world tour, as he meets with global leaders, shapes disciples into fellow climate-change activists, and continues to tour with his eye-opening slideshow. The footage of natural disasters from the last few years offer much more immediate, compelling evidence than charts and graphics—which is to say, rather perversely, that Gore’s awareness campaign benefits from some of his fears being realized. And footage of the Paris Climate Summit of 2015 actually provides some genuine human and political drama to a project whose aims are chiefly educational.
Except, are they? Truth To Power may be more of an honest-to-God movie than its predecessor, but it’s not nearly as purposeful. An Inconvenient Truth served the unsexy, uncinematic function of a seminar, and though one would struggle to make any kind of case for it on formal or artistic grounds, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that its message about global warming got through to a lot of people. The sequel often plays, strangely and by contrast, like a victory lap. Much of its running time is devoted to Gore basking in adoration and talking about the victories the movement has made in the last decade. The man has certainly earned his hosannas; whether they required a feature-length showcase, complete with scenes of Gore taking phone calls or shaking his head at some dopey skeptic talking nonsense on TV, is debatable. What’s more, the election of a proudly vocal climate denier to the White House really throws a monkey wrench in Gore’s message of positivity: Even with a late-breaking epilogue that acknowledges the dire news of a Trump presidency, the film feels—as of, oh, today—sadly outdated. Talk about inconvenient.
Those at Sundance in no mood for such an optimistic outlook did have the option to chase Gore’s pep rally with a less-rosy opening-night selection: the aptly titled I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (Grade: C+), a dark comedy starring Melanie Lynskey as a depressed nurse whose philosophy that “everyone is an asshole” explodes into a full-blown vendetta after her house is burglarized. It’s the directorial debut of Macon Blair, who starred in Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin and played a key supporting role in his Green Room, and the influence is plain in everything from I Don’t Feel At Home’s contrast-heavy cinematography to its focus on fringe-dwelling lowlifes to its sudden bursts of grisly violence. But while Saulnier has scored grim chuckles from the hapless maneuvers of amateur law-breakers, Blair—who also wrote the screenplay—cranks the dumbfuck-pratfall levels to wacky extremes: Lynskey, recognizably human in a role that puts her expert comedic timing to good use, is quickly surrounded by a rogues’ gallery of cartoons, including Elijah Wood, channeling Dwight Schrute as an oddball Christian neighbor turned sidekick.
I Don’t Feel At Home has some solid laughs, from the moment when Wood’s character shows off his hacking skills by Googling “Look up license plates?” to the exasperation of a condescending detective when Lynskey’s fed-up heroine shows up at the police station to present some of the evidence she’s gathered during her foray into amateur vigilante justice. Blair also seems to have picked up some of his regular director’s chops behind the camera, prolonging the tension during the break-in scene and developing an apparently innate gift for using editing as a comedic device. Ultimately, though, the whole doesn’t amount to much more than misanthropic hijinks, like a Coens imitation with thinner characters. The best you can say for it is that Blair shows enough raw talent to suggest that he might make something good down the line. On a day like today, that’s about as optimistic as it gets.