Being reel: A second virtual Sundance Film Festival offers sci-fi, social commentary and nostalgia

A young man carrying a guitar talks to an older woman.
“When You Finish Saving The World” stars Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard as Evelyn and Ziggy, a mother and son. (Courtesy: Beth Garrabrant)

When the Sundance Institute announced that it was moving its annual festival online due to the omicron surge, Film Twitter was put in a frenzy. Initially, the 2022 Sundance Film Festival was supposed to be held in person with a very exclusive audience of those who could procure the hot ticket to attend the fest. 

Luckily for the terminally online (yours truly), the festival went virtual for the second year in a row, allowing the Film Twitter’s casual critics, as well as the lurkers of Letterboxd, to buy tickets to showings for a variety of documentaries, shorts and narrative features from across the globe. 

The first film I saw was Jesse Eisenberg’s feature directorial debut, “When You Finish Saving The World.” The film centers around two characters, Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) and Evelyn (Julianne Moore). Ziggy is a highschooler who prides himself on his songwriting. Evelyn is Ziggy’s mother and runs a shelter for women who are survivors of domestic abuse. Over the course of the movie, we see the relationship between Ziggy and Evelyn become complicated purely because they cannot manage to see beyond their own noses – something that never gets truly resolved. 

Eisenberg’s film tries to tackle Gen Z’s affinity for political action (but more Eisenberg’s idea of teenage pseudo-leftism), liberal guilt (with which both Ziggy and his mother suffer) and teaching children brought up in a privileged household about privilege. While Eisenberg approaches good critiques of all three in the film, he fails to deliver with any of them. 

Eisenberg succeeds on the production side of things, with consistently enjoyable color palettes and cinematographic choices. But this movie never lets us learn anything about the characters. We are supposed to figure out how to sympathize with Evelyn and Ziggy’s awkwardness and difficulty navigating professional life and school, but the only conversations they have are stifled and argumentative, making it feel like Eisenberg wrote the dialogue as a fight between him and an imaginary person in the shower. The film will probably succeed commercially considering its cast and its A24 backing, but it’s difficult to get through, dragging despite its brief 90 minute runtime.

Cooper Raiff’s sophomore feature, “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” follows Andrew (Raiff himself), a recent graduate struggling with the fact that he has no post-grad plans and that his girlfriend is living it up on her Fulbright in Barcelona. On a whim, he takes his younger brother (a marvelous Evan Assante) to a bar mitzvah in their hometown, and there he finds his calling as a bar mitzvah party starter. The movie becomes more complicated with a love story between Andrew and a local mom named Domino (a magnetic Dakota Johnson), but at its core, this movie is about finding yourself and messing up.

This movie is touching in the same way that Raiff’s debut feature “Shithouse” (2020) was, in that it is uncomfortable because specific scenes seem to be lifted directly out of our own lives. Some may claim that Raiff’s sophomore effort is saccharine, but the verisimilitude in Raiff’s films adds to their charm. 

The faults of this movie reflected Raiff’s status as a relatively new director. Eventually the film ties together, but there are moments when I was not sure whether the focus was on feeling lost in your early 20s or on an awkward romance. However, the film got picked up by Apple TV for a whopping 15 million dollars and won the festival’s Audience Award, so it is worth seeing, especially if you’re in the mood for some nostalgia and some heart-string pulling.

The final movie that I saw at Sundance was not a premiere. “After Yang” is the sophomore feature by video artist Kogonada and stars Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith as Jake and Kyra, a couple in a futuristic world. They have adopted Mika (an incredible debut by Malea Emma Tjandrawidjadja), a Chinese girl, and have bought a “techno-sapien” named Yang (Justin H. Min) to guide Mika through the Chinese cultural learning that she is lacking from her parents. Mika develops a strong connection to Yang, but Yang malfunctions and it becomes apparent that he won’t be able to come back to his original form. 

This film explores ideas about the use of Asian aesthetics in science fiction through a subversion of common sci-fi tropes by examining questions like “what does it mean to be Asian?” Kogonada himself is South Korean, making the tone and topic of this film feel more self-exploratory than exploitative. 

Min and Tjandrawidjadja’s chemistry on screen blurs the lines between technology and humans, which adds to the weight of every character decision. This is furthered by the inclusion of a Mitski cover of the Japanese-alternative artist Lily Chou-Chou’s song “Glide” that haunts the viewer and creates a feeling in the film of both comfort and impending drama.

This film is challenging, and while that qualifier is normally attached to the kind of arthouse cinema that includes long takes of cats meowing, Kogonada makes this film so engaging and fun, even in its dramatic sci-fi moments, that I could not look away. Audiences around the country will be captured by the way it handles its many themes, but also by the richness of the writing, the impeccable staging and cinematography and overall brilliance in vision by Kogonada.

This Sundance yielded varying results in terms of quality, but that is the reputation of the festival at large. The highlights for sure were “Cha Cha Real Smooth” and “After Yang,” but I would also encourage interested people to keep an eye out for “Nanny,” which took home the U.S. Dramatic Jury Prize as well.

Adam Osman-Krinsky PO ’25 is from New York City, NY. He loves movies and logs all his most recent watches on his letterboxd @Adam0k and talks about movies on his twitter @ahoyvey.

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