5 to See: Drama at Sundance

Now that Sundance 2019 has ended for another year, we take a closer look at a selection of films that competed in the World and U.S. dramatic competitions.

Still from The Souvenir.

The Souvenir, UK. Dir. Joanna Hogg
110 mins

British director Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical feature The Souvenirwon the Grand Jury Prize in World Dramatic Competition at this year’s Sundance. It tells the story of Julia, a young, shy filmmaker who becomes involved with a charming, mysterious heroin addict. His destructive influence on her life and career threatens to jeopardise everything she holds dear. “You’re lost and you’ll always be lost”, Anthony (Tom Burke) drolly informs his lover Julia (Honor Swinton Byrne). It’s the kind of remark we expect from this troubling – and troubled – enigma: it’s administered like loving paternal advice when, really, it’s the type of insidiously manipulative remark that aims to keep Julia close to him.

It’s a tactic that works disturbingly well. Julia constantly appeases Anthony – much to our exasperation. “Can you lend me a tenner?” becomes a refrain throughout the film. And each time Julia lends her partner the funds that eventually go on to fuel his heroin addiction. Hogg’s directing is as subtle as it is deeply intelligent: rare are those shots of Julia moving around when Anthony’s in shot. Instead, she remains static when he’s around with the implication that she’s just as totally dependent (or “fixed”) on him as he is on the drug that threatens to annihilate them both. The Souveniris executed masterfully.

Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr and Naimo Watts appear Luce by Julius Onah, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Larkin Seiple.

Luce, USA. Dir. Julius Onah
109 mins

Luce is the model student. He gets good grades, is captain of the school running team and gets on with everyone, be it student or teacher. Except Miss Wilson, that is. In one early exchange with his parents, he informs them that she is, in fact, a “bitch.” It’s a moment that jolts us into suspecting there’s more going on beneath Luce’s mild-mannered, respectful surface. From there on in, we – along with his (white, liberal) foster parents – are made to wonder constantly who Luce really is, what he might be thinking and what he’s going to do. And it’s this constant wondering and atmosphere of suspicion (that we are complicit in producing, it’s suggested) that makes Onah’s film so brilliant.

As a young person of colour from a war-ravaged country, there is the sense of expectancy around Luce; people either wait for him to do better than he ought to, given his background, or they’re ready to point out he’s failed. To be honest, it’s hard to understand why Julius Onah’s haunting and complex feature film, which deals with race relations in the U.S. so expertly, was overlooked for an accolade at Sundance. Luce will be one of the most intelligent, multi-layered and gripping films you see this year. It’s stylish, it’s perfectly paced, and the impressive cast deliver in every scene. Luceis about the mutability of truth in the USA, how it can morph, change, slip or slide according to who you are. Truth, often considered an objective concept, has never looked so subjective.

Noah Jupe in Honey Boy. Courtesy of Sundance.

Honey Boy, USA. Dir. Alma Ha’rel
93 mins

When child actor Otis isn’t on set charming audiences, he spends his time with his abusive father and guardian, an ex-rodeo-clown whose cocktail of drug- and alcohol-related problems leaves an indelible mark on his young, impressionable son. These traumatic memories have a major effect on Otis later on in life. This we witness in full detail—to the detriment to the film: it flips back and forth between a frame narrative, starring Lucas Hedges as the adult Otis, and the story of the younger Otis, played by Noah Jupe, whose performance (alongside Shia LeBeouf) is so strong that the narrative loses its charge when he’s not on screen. One major highlight is the perfectly choreographed miming scenes between Noah Jupe and FKA Twigs. Based on Shia LaBeouf’s own experiences, Honey Boyis also a heartfelt tribute. It succeeds because we recognise the complexity of the problems faced by Otis’ father. Although he often comes off as a monster, no one in the film is more troubled by that fact than he is. It’s no doubt because of the Alma Ha’rel’s sensitive treatment that the film was awarded a Special Jury Prize for Vision and Craft.

Still from The Farewell.

The Farewell, USA and China. Dir. Lulu Wang
98 mins

At root, The Farewellis a comic exploration of the differences between Chinese and American cultures. Chinese-born American-raised Billi (played by American rapper Awkwafina) is shocked to learn that her family in China do not intend to tell her beloved grandma the results of a recent medical test, which indicate she only has three months left to live. Despite her reluctance, she plays along. Cue: a series of near mishaps and comic attempts to hide the secret from the dying (yet peculiarly full-of-life) matriarch. The Farewell isn’t just a comedy with a classic comic narrative conceit.

It’s a film concerned about how people in two strikingly different cultures approach one of the most profound challenges we all have to face: how to prepare for the death of a loved one. Billi soon realises that death is not an experience that only concerns the dying or deceased; it also happens to concern those around them, like their family and their friends, all of whom have to shoulder the burden. Writer-director Lulu Wang imbues her film with warmth and wit, while the uniformly excellent ensemble cast (with a breakout performance from Awkwafina) invites us to share this extended clan’s joy and sorrow – and to feel, for 98 minutes, at least –like a part of their family.

The Last Tree, UK. Dir. Shola Amoo
99 mins

Shola Amoo’s semi-autobiographical debut feature film documents the life of Femi, a young boy whose life takes a sharp turn when he moves to London, following an idyllic childhood in rural northern England. With a standout performance from lead actor Sam Adewunmi, the film interrogates what it means to live without a proper support network and shows just how easy it is to deviate off track when there’s no one to look out for you in a hostile city. The film feels very linear at times as it jumps forwards from A to B directly. The cost here, of course, is narrative depth. Still, The Last Tree was one of the best British feature films to be shown at Sundance 2019 and was eventually picked up by Picturehouse Entertainment U.K. after its premiere in Utah.

Christopher Webb

Lead Image:  Still from Honey Boy.