The incongruity usually begins at the airport. Year in and year out, a casual clash of cultures greets anyone stepping off a plane into the brisk mountain air of Salt Lake City, at least on the first day—the feverish opening Thursday—of the Sundance Film Festival. The terminal rings with the chatter of industry professionals, many in from Los Angeles, barking into phones almost from the moment they can switch them on again. You might catch, too, the occasional celebrity parting a sea of onlookers, disembarking into the same winter La La Land base camp as the rest of us. But this is Utah, not Hollywood, and there are reminders of that fact reliably clustered around the exit. To wit: a squeal of group excitement in the distance, which any veteran of this festival knows could be a star sighting, but could also just as easily be the cheerleading of Mormon teenagers, lined up to welcome their friends and classmates home from missions abroad. It’s a sight as common, at the onset of the fest, as stylish parkas and SNL alums trying their hand at a coming-of-age drama.
Maybe it’s just a side effect of looking for metaphors everywhere, but I can’t ever help but see a microcosm for all of Sundance in that cross-section of arrivals. Most of the fest takes place a good 40 minutes from the SLC airport, in Park City, which for two weeks every January turns into a mecca for movie stars, movie lovers, filmmakers, producers, journalists, volunteers, partygoers, and photo-snapping tourists. For the full before-after effect, you need to get in on Wednesday, when things are still quiet, not an A24 buyer in sight. But even those who don’t show up until the first weekend can see the extent to which the place is transformed—some might say occupied—by the cinematic summit it hosts. After eight years of covering it, I’m thoroughly used to the strange blend of sleepy ski-town atmosphere and glitz/glamour airlifted in.
This year, that glitz and glamour may literally have been airlifted in. There’s talk, on the powdered ground, of a possible helicopter sighting—or, at least, of the sound of one’s whirring blades, echoing through the canyons. Is this how Taylor Swift came to Park City? She’s here for the premiere of a documentary on her life, Miss Americana, which is one of the small handful of movies premiering on opening night. Tempting though it was to brave the crowds of screaming fans descending upon the town’s biggest venue, the Eccles Theater, I chart a different path in these first few hours. After all, I’m more casual listener than true Tay Tay devotee—and anyway, the film is on Netflix in a week, when someone closer to a bona fide Swifty will review it for The A.V. Club.
Somehow, one of the world’s biggest pop stars doesn’t monopolize all of the night’s excitement. Plenty circulated, like recycled altitude oxygen, around the world premiere occurring concurrently maybe a mile away, at the much more intimate Ray Theatre. Maybe too intimate: It’s clear that this smaller venue couldn’t accommodate the crowd that gathered around its entrance; actual ticketholders were turned away—an uncommon flub at this fest—from the new film by Justin Simien, who’s devoted the last few years to the small-screen adaptation of his big-screen debut, the Sundance breakout Dear White People. “I’m fucking honored,” the visibly moved filmmaker announced by way of introducing his pointed new movie, a half-comic supernatural thriller playing in this year’s grab-bag Midnight program. Dedicating the film to the black women in his life, including his mother, Simien delivered a touching speech—one that didn’t just instantly put the audience on the side of his movie, but also teased what works best about his uneven sophomore feature.
Set against the backdrop of music television in the Los Angeles of 1989, Bad Hair (Grade: B-) has a solid emotional and satirical core. It follows Anna (Elle Lorraine), an aspiring VJ and producer at a television network, Culture, that largely courts a black demographic. The owners, though, want to expand the channel’s reach (“whiter… er, wider,” someone slips) and so they promptly replace longtime head of the network Maxine (Michelle Hurd) with ex-supermodel Zora (Vanessa Williams). As Simien’s characters bluntly acknowledge aloud, Zora is lighter-skinned than Maxine, and the former’s hair is straight, in sharp contrast to the braids favored by the latter. This conspicuous and culturally loaded change in image at the top trickles down through the network, as Anna realizes that her only hope of advancing at the rebranded Cult is to make herself over in Zora’s dictated image–an imperative that leads her to an expensive salon and a painfully grafted-on weave with something of a malevolent mind of its own.
Speaking of minds, Simien definitely has a lot on his here. The central horror-movie metaphor—the weave as a parasitic organism, the expectations white culture puts on black women personified as a bloodthirsty fashion choice—cleverly riffs on the questions of self-image, conformity, and assimilation he broached in Dear White People. And Lorraine, who had a small recurring role on Insecure, gives sympathetic dramatic shape to those issues, in a role that’s more nuanced than the average screen-queen heroine. Yet Bad Hair is also lumpy and overlong. Its premise recalls a short-length John Carpenter segment in the 1993 anthology film Body Bags—an instructive comparison, given how stretched thin the material often feels at feature length, constantly reiterating its skimpy relationships and taking an excessive amount of time to even establish the supernatural component. The impression is of a provocative logline that Simien never quite figured out how to expand into a satisfying movie; once you get the thrust of the story, it’s mostly repetitions on a theme. Still, I did enjoy the charmingly economical effects work, which reaches an enjoyable fever pitch of J-horror mane-based mayhem in the climax.
Simien wasn’t the only Sundance alum to bring his L.A.-based, identity-obsessed second feature to the festival last night. Before Bad Hair, press got a look at Summertime (Grade: B-), the conceptually adventurous but sometimes rather exhaustingly earnest new movie by writer-director Carlos López Estrada, whose Blindspotting made a big impact in Park City two years ago. Remember the divisive big finale of that film, when Daveed Diggs shattered some of the reality of the narrative by breaking into an impromptu, impassioned spoken-word address? Summertime expands that dramatic gambit into a whole movie, assembling an ensemble of Los Angeles slam poets and building a series of vignettes around their fourth-wall-breaking musings. At first, the approach seems to emulate the structure of Richard Linklater’s seminal Slacker, as one wandering character passes the baton of focus to another. But while that indie milestone kept hopscotching to new oddballs, Estrada pretty quickly establishes a network of intersecting subplots, anchored by a solid cast of characters, including two heartsick twentysomethings nursing respective rejections, a teenage Yelp obsessive disowned by his mother for being gay, a harried graffiti artist making his mark all over town, and maybe a dozen others.
As only an occasional visitor to Los Angeles, I can’t speak to how authentic Summertime plays as a portrait of the city. But it’s clearly intended as a wistful valentine—and, hearteningly, one designed to reclaim L.A. for a diverse cross-section of subcultures. (I’ve already heard it discussed as a response to the much-derided whiteness of La La Land, complete with, essentially, its own musical numbers.) By its nature, the film is uneven—Estrada shares screenwriting duty with a whopping 25 poets, and as with any poetry slam, some performances are better than others, both in terms of the words themselves and in the highly variable acting abilities of these mostly first-time stars. Some of the detours are very funny; a couple’s counseling session ends with a very inspired punchline that gently poke funs at the film’s whole organizing principle, and there’s an amusing thread about a hip-hop duo that rises to superstar status over a single day by rapping about their mothers. The make or break for many will be the project’s unabashed corniness, which does feel part and parcel with its strategy of sincere direct address. I’ll admit that I may be just a touch too cynical to keep my eyes from rolling at climactic, entirely irony-free declarations like “I have a pocket full of dreams.”
I also wish the film wasn’t always nudging us toward appreciating it more. There’s a big centerpiece scene where one of the characters confronts someone who’s done them wrong, and the big performance would be plenty powerful without Estrada constantly cutting to reaction shots of witnesses, nodding solemnly at the creativity and bravery on display. The entire film feels a little like that, gushingly supportive at the expense of any real dramatic tension; it’s ultimately more of an everyone’s-a-winner showcase than the messy vision of a community it appears to be aspiring towards. In truth, the film feels more like a debut than Blindspotting did, which may account for why the festival stuck it in Next, a program for up-and-coming talents and more blatantly independent visions. It does, however, feel like a rather perfect kickoff for Sundance, its vignette format mirroring the wildly up-and-down smorgasbord of heart-on-the-sleeve visions attendees will be confronted with over the next few days, as well as the mix of cultures happening on screen and off. Another microcosm, in other words, like that bustling airport in Salt Lake.