Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Native Son
Photo: Sundance Film Festival

Big news rumbled like an avalanche across the peaks and valleys of Park City, Utah yesterday afternoon. Robert Redford, beaming public face of the Sundance Film Festival, would be stepping away from the event he founded in 1978 and which has, for 35 of the years that have passed since, shared the name of his most iconic movie character. Redford has a habit of making big announcements and then walking them back—last year, for example, he insisted that his elegiac Old Man & The Gun would be his final acting role, before basically requesting that no one hold him to that. But there was, at least, some sound logic in the brief farewell remarks Redford made at the festival’s opening-day press conference, which he kicked off, as he does every year. “I don’t think the festival needs a whole lot of introduction now,” he reportedly told the crowd assembled at the Egyptian Theatre. “It runs on its own course, and I’m happy for that.”

Whether Redford actually hangs up his spurs or returns to again play master of ceremonies and diplomat to the stars (would anyone lament more of the laid-back celebrity charisma he brings to a podium?), his point is taken. At this point, Sundance requires no introduction. It’s not just the biggest and most influential film festival in the country. It’s an institution, a ground zero for American independent cinema, and an annual mecca for movie-lovers, journalists, buyers, sellers, artists, publicists, partiers, and starfuckers. It’s also a brand, though not a universally trusted one: While the festival’s stamp of approval can easily land a film distribution (sometimes for exorbitant eight-digit figures) and put asses in seats, it can also be a stereotype, denoting certain qualities, like quirkiness or sitcomish formula, that turn up the noses of discerning cinephiles. At this point, in other words, the festival may actually be bigger than Redford. Not to be morbid, but it will probably outlive him.

Which is not to say that its identity is written in stone. The idea of what constitutes a “Sundance movie” has changed over the years, from the festival’s ’80s infancy as a showcase for genuinely underground work to its transformation into a big-money, star-studded feeding frenzy in the ’90s to the nebulous nexus of art and commerce it occupies today. I’ve only been attending the fest for a few years, but in that time, it’s seemed caught in a constant state of transition. This year, that’s meant taking big, conscious strides toward inclusiveness—a diversity initiative that extends from the filmmakers being programmed to the critics being accredited. It’s a reductive conclusion, but I can’t help but look at this year as the first truly “post-Weinstein” Sundance—and not just because the disgraced mogul, whose influence and presence in Park City once rivaled Redford’s, is “starring” in a documentary here about his abuses.

That prevailing focus on spotlighting marginalized voices dovetails with a related return to Sundance’s supposed core values: While plenty have long bemoaned its celebration and promotion of supposed “indies” by established filmmakers and starring Hollywood talent, the last couple years have seen the festival move gradually away from big-ticket premieres (like Boyhood or Manchester By The Sea, my go-to examples for recent major auteur works at the ’Dance) and toward genuinely new voices. These days, many of the big breakouts from the fest are debuts; just look at last year’s most celebrated alumni, many of which were first features: Eighth Grade, Hereditary, Sorry To Bother You, Blindspotting, The Tale.

The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley
Photo: Sundance Film Festival

You know that Sundance has moved away from stacking its lineup with heavy hitters when one of the biggest names in the program is Alex Gibney. To be fair, Gibney has become one of the better-known figures in documentary filmmaking, thanks to the high-profile nature of his investigations, the infotainment zing of his aesthetic, and the sheer speed in which he churns out features. His latest, The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley (Grade: B-), which anchored a typically quiet opening night here in Park City, chronicles the meteoric rise and heavy fall of Elizabeth Holmes, former CEO of defunct biotech giant Theranos. Her claim to fame was an ambitious invention: The Edison, a suitcase-sized automated laboratory that was poised to revolutionize the health-care industry by performing up to 250 medical tests using a single finger-prick of blood. Holmes, who founded her company at the young age of 19 and modeled her whole look and style on Steve Jobs, inspired everyone she met, and quickly amassed an army of powerful investors, including Henry Kissinger, Rupert Murdoch, and James Mattis. There was just one tiny little hitch: Her device didn’t work—it was almost purely theoretical.

Gibney has spent much of his career studying frauds and fallen heroes, a fascination he’s worked out through films on Eliot Spitzer, Jack Abramoff, Julian Assange, and L. Ron Hubbard; even his most hagiographic-in-conception doc, on Lance Armstrong, morphed accidentally into a portrait of a con artist. Holmes, who faked her way into the spotlight by putting the cart before the horse, fits right into that area of interest: She built an empire of cards on nothing but premature faith generated by the confident, appealing self-image she projected. What she had was a great story to sell, and that’s really what The Inventor has going for it, too; in laying out the trajectory of the Theranos scam, Gibney illuminates the dark side of America’s obsession with self-made success, tying its cautionary tale of moxie-without-results into a larger indictment of Silicon Valley. (There are some deeper, more disturbing parallels here, too, especially in Holmes’ almost pathological refusal to admit fault—she stops just short of using the words “fake news” when the press begins to untangle her lies.)

Thing is, all of that is pretty much right there on the surface of Holmes’ story. Like a lot of Gibney’s work, The Inventor functions most reliably as a fast-paced, involving summary, one occasionally enlivened by the little, revealing bursts of personality he captures from his various talking heads. But as in his Assange doc, We Steal Secrets, Gibney can’t entirely compensate for the (admittedly understandable) void at the center of his portrait—which is to say, for the fact that he couldn’t land an interview with his main subject. Over and over again, The Inventor cuts to the same live footage of Holmes, to the same pictures of her staring blankly from fawning magazine covers, as though hoping to find some essential truth about her deception in these images. (Tellingly, the closest he comes to ever catching a crack in her façade is in footage repurposed from an ad campaign shot by one of his major influences, Errol Morris—and even that famously probing interviewer isn’t immune to her charms.) Mostly, what Gibney finds is a question mark of motivation. He stares into the void and the void stares back—and none of the director’s oppressively slick craftsmanship, his computer-generated power-pointing, can fill it.

Native Son
Photo: Sundance Film Festival

The Inventor, like Dirty Money and Going Clear before it, will turn up on HBO, which is probably where it belongs. (Gibney’s accessible information-delivery machines are well suited to Sunday primetime viewing.) Native Son (Grade: B-), which A24 produced but just sold to the premium cable channel, is less of a natural fit for the small screen—its values and textures are plainly cinematic. First-time director Rashid Johnson certainly can’t be accused of playing it safe with his debut, which transports Richard Wright’s devastating classic of black American literature from the 1930s to the Chicago South Side of here and now, re-envisioning Wright’s tragic hero Bigger Thomas as an alienated punk-rock kid played by Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders. That’s an original take on the character, and one that could almost be said to address James Baldwin’s contemporaneous critique of Bigger, his fear that he embodied certain stereotypes about black youth. If nothing else, this version of the character doesn’t fit easily into any box.

It’s a provocative experiment, a modern-dress Native Son, and a lot of the film’s power comes from how little the original story—which finds the 20-year-old protagonist taking a job as a driver for an affluent white family, only to be swallowed by a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy of guilt—had to be changed to still look plausible. The early stretch of the movie is its strongest, as Johnson lays out the bric-a-brac of Bigger’s life, which involves a good deal of code-switching, and carefully tweaks the novel’s key relationships, updating the condescension of his employer’s rich-kid daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley), to a new era of white guilt and microaggressions. Stylistically, Johnson exhibits a plain Barry Jenkins influence: Even without Sanders in the lead, the elliptical pacing, warm A24 hues, and striking back-to-the-camera compositions would mark this as one of the first American dramas you could call explicitly “post-Moonlight.”

Anyone who’s read Wright’s story will be prepared for the dark, terrible places Native Son eventually goes. Those who haven’t might be shocked by its spiral into hopefulness and violence. Unfortunately, it’s when the plot starts clicking into motion that Johnson’s film loses its way, curiously condensing the novel’s desperate, paranoid backstretch. This feels, in the end, like a familiar case of adaptation problems: For as much as he leans on voice-over narration, Johnson can’t offer the same kind of window into Bigger’s thoughts that Wright could—and without that context, the film’s final act lacks the necessary psychological dimension. It’s been quietly received here in Park City—an unusual fate for a movie this conceptually audacious, but a typical one for Sundance’s opening night, when movies rarely land as loudly as Redford’s (possibly temporary) resignation.

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