Sundance 2017, Days Three and Four: Casey Affleck's Sheet Ghost Movie


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Sundance 2017, Days Three and Four: Casey Affleck's Sheet Ghost Movie

Looking at the highs and lows of 'Landline,' 'Mudbound,' 'Dayveon,' and 'A Ghost Story' at Sundance.

I had never seen a 10x surge price before this past Saturday. That's the first thing one should know about the Park City Women's March, which, over the course of a few hours, went from a quietly side-eyed punchline to a substantial happening. There were three kinds of people who made it to Main Street: people who either rode the bus for up to two hours, hiking through the unshoveled ankle-deep slush of Park City; people who had the prime Main-adjacent real estate; or people who paid an Uber driver $100. I missed the march itself, stuck in the crawling traffic; I suspect many would-be supporters missed the whole thing. I arrived too late for the opinings of Chelsea Handler, who for some inexplicable reason was the celebrity speaker billed as the "leader" of the march. But I got there just in time for Daily Show alum and The Incredible Jessica James star Jessica Williams to take the podium. She shared a lesson from her mother, that when you're a black woman, you don't have the privilege of merely being average. At one point Williams reflected on the journey that brought her to this rally, "talking to all you white people in Uggs," while  Parks and Rec's Nick Offerman wandered around the crowd in his Pussy Hat, taking pictures with fans. It takes a (celebrity-filled ski resort) village.


Partly serendipitously, and partly by choice, my Saturday was dedicated to the work of female filmmakers. To the festival's credit, there is a comparative wealth of female-directed films this year at Sundance, but two of the most hyped were showing that day. After getting shut out the day before, I finally made it into Landline,Gillian Robespierre's follow-up to 2014's  Obvious Child.It's a chatty family dramedy set in 1995 in New York City, centering on the loves, infidelity, and rebellions of a mother (Edie Falco) and her two daughters (Jenny Slate and Abby Quinn). Counterintuitively, it has a very timely appeal, in that all anyone wants right now is to time travel back to idyllic, pre-9/11 America. (Hillary Clinton makes an appearance via newscast, which inspired a few rueful chuckles at my screening. Ha ha.) The New York of Landline is abundantly chill, a world of playwrights, Paper magazine, upstate country homes, and performance artists taking a vow of silence.

It's also the perfect example of a film that gets talked up and absolutely mobbed despite being simply… fine. I'm not sure what Landline's larger purpose is, other than being a showcase for its three great, idiosyncratic female leads (John Turturro also stars as the father of the film's chaotic house.) Near the end, after all the bombshells have been dropped and the tears shed, teenage Ali (Quinn) remarks about their family's drama: "It's not even that bad." I couldn't have said it better myself.


A still from 'Landline.' Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival

The one thing Sundance loves almost as much as a coming-of-age story is a family drama. The mother of all of them arrived Saturday night with the premiere of Dee Rees's Mudbound. Based on the novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan, it follows two families, one black and one white, working the same seemingly cursed piece of land in the Mississippi Delta. Epic in scope, it plays out as a kind of Southern Game of Throneswhere history piles layer on layer of insult and injury between the McAllans and the Jacksons. But the film distinguishes itself through its bridging of seemingly untraversable cultural divides, specifically with the imbalanced but empathetic bonds between Laura (Carrie Mulligan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige) and fellow WWII veterans Ronsel (Straight Outta Compton's Jason Mitchell) and Jamie (Garrett Hedlund). Through these interactions, Rees is able to reflect on shared trauma, privilege, and the ever-present burden of emotional labor in a way that always shows, never tells.

A still from 'Mudbound.' Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival

In the post-film Q&A, Rees addressed the pitfalls of setting out to do a "message" movie, emphasizing that the best way to reach an audience and open up their perspective is through strong characters, not an agenda. In other words, don't talk about it, be about it—which Rees backed up by enlisting a female cinematographer (Rachel Morrison) and editor (Mako Kamitsuna), whose work is indispensable in weaving together the film's many moving parts.


The film received a passionate standing ovation, though not the now-mythical, entire-credits applause of last year's Birth of a Nation. The ugly fallout of that film over the past year after its record-breaking Sundance christening was the elephant in Eccles Saturday night. Rees was not so lucky as to premiere her film at the height of Hollywood's panicked response to #OscarsSoBlack. Or maybe she dodged a bullet—perhaps great-while-still-reasonable expectations will be what ensures the film's post-festival success. It's almost as if, for some directors, it's harder to get away with being average. But Mudbound is anything but.

Mudbound distinguishes itself through its bridging of seemingly untraversable cultural divides.

And yet what about those notorious coming-of-age tales? On Sunday morning, I checked out a screening of Dayveon, mostly because it was the film that was showing then that I knew the least about. The film is the first feature by 27-year-old Amman Abbasi, an Arkansas-raised Pakistani composer turned director. Abbasi sets his first feature (which has the blessings of producers David Gordon Green and Jody Hill) in his native state, but opts to tell a story of the titular 14-year-old boy who is drawn into small-town gang activity, despite—or because of—having lost his older brother to a gang shooting. Along the way, he must grapple with some familiar-feeling conflicts between family and adulthood, loyalty and responsibility. It's shot in that lush, sun-dappled Malick-lite style that's so in vogue now; its interludes of rural wandering take some cues from Andrea Arnold's  American Honey, as well as that film's unusual 4:3 aspect ratio.


A still from 'Davyeon.' Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival

I am not sure I know who Dayveon is for. Despite some visual poetry (and some very odd editorial flourishes here and there), I'm unclear what new insight the film has on gang life in black communities. That shallowness creates an inescapable sense of poverty porn that Dayveon never quite shakes. Abbasi used non-professional actors in all roles other than the leads, but doesn't seem to have bothered to explore those real-life gangsters' personalities, as Arnold did with her ensemble of real-life wanderers.

It's certainly impressive that Abbasi set out to create an intimate portrait of a walk of life that's different, if geographically close to his; in most cases, I would say that "write what you know" is a limiting edict. But it's very apparent when a director's attachment to the material is more intellectual than emotional. In any case, it's probably good to make sure you really learn what you write.

Dayveon was part of the NEXT lineup, which has traditionally been the ripest ground for the kind of challenging discoveries that makes Sundance so fun. I had been a little disappointed that the films I had enjoyed so far at the festival were in the Premieres section, which has films that are all but guaranteed distribution if they don't have it already. I wanted a film I could champion, or at least hate enough to get in a fight with someone about. So I dipped back into NEXT, and headed to the premiere screening of David Lowery's  A Ghost Story.


Lowery is a certified Sundance darling; in addition to having a film in the program, he was on the short film jury, and I found that he continually popped up giving soundbites in Sundance reports I read over the weekend. In A Ghost Story, he reunites with Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, who starred in his 2013 film Ain't Them Bodies Saints. He also casts the latter as a ghost who wears a sheet with two eyes cut out for the majority of the film's runtime.

I have to admire A Ghost Story just for being so willfully itself, and inspiring so many overheard sputtering debates as I left the theater.

Tone, of course, is everything, and Lowery mostly does this ghost bit with a completely straight face. There's some self-aware tragicomedy in the subtitled silent exchanges between Sheet Ghost Casey and another spirit in the house next door, but for the most part, A Ghost Story maintains a methodically paced, somber feel. At one point, he holds onto Mara's character for what feels like about five minutes, as she sad-eats an entire pie. While this charmed some critics on Twitter, I found it to be beyond tedious. But overall, the effect of the image of Sheet Ghost Casey is both goofy and deeply unsettling. And that image has a constantly evolving emotional affect as the ghost plods through the years.

I left unsure of whether I loved or hated A Ghost Story. I ultimately think it's too clever by half, a kind of manipulative little machine of a plot that feels like a Pixar short stretched to fill a feature runtime. (I understand that may sound like an endorsement to people unfamiliar with my stance on the cynical, Silicon Valley engineered plots of most Pixar films, which I will happily explain for you in a shouty voice after one and a half glasses of wine.) But I also have to admire it just for being so willfully itself, and inspiring so many overheard sputtering debates as I left the theater. A Ghost Story represented a piece of the Sundance picture I'd been missing: a good, strange thing to fight about.

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