Searching for Compassion at Sundance
Macon Blair’s 'I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore' and Dustin Guy Defa’s 'Person to Person' are meaningful and timely in their modest requests for human acknowledgement.
Courtesy of the Sundance Institute
The unofficial theme of this year's Sundance has been What are we doing here and does any of this matter anymore? and it isn't surprising that a common response to these questions and to the political activism happening this week is a sort of self-implicating cynicism. In between screenings, iPhones light up as people check in with the latest Trump news and then share knowing glances that seem to say: Yep, here we are, watching movies on a mountain while the world burns below.
And the setting for Sundance isn't helping anything. The theater shuttle loops riders past the Park City Cemetery, where heavy snowfall outlines the unmarked graves of miners and their families, reminding us of Park City's long-gone working-class origins. Passing through Old Town, my friend Iris, a local, pointed out rows of houses that used to belong to the miners and told me that 30 years ago you could buy one for $15,000, but now the cost for these small, quaint homes averages at $2 million. She nodded up to the ski resorts and mansions perched above on the surrounding mountaintops and said, "Now Park City is just a safe place for rich, white men to express themselves."
On Saturday, I attended Park City's Women's March on Main, which featured speeches from Chelsea Handler, Jessica Williams, Connie Britton, and others. As I listened, I tried to be moved toward either hope or anger, as either seemed more appropriate than the undefined sadness I actually felt. Another journalist standing nearby read my scowl and said, "Cute, isn't it?" and rolled her eyes. "I can't believe I'm here and not in Washington." I roamed the edges of the march reading signs, but the more I saw, the less sure I was of what I should be feeling.
Clarity came, unexpectedly, that night at a screening for Macon Blair's directorial debut, I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, which stars Melanie Lynskey as Ruth, a quiet, kind-heartened nurse who really just wants people to be a little nicer to one other. The film introduces us to Ruth through her muted reactions to other people's carelessness: She picks up after a shopper who drops food in the aisles of the grocery store and is rewarded by being cut in line at checkout; in the parking lot, she dodges a car that backs into her path without looking. Blair himself makes a cameo as a man who strikes up conversation with Ruth at a bar, interrupting her while she's reading. Instead of being annoyed with the intrusion, Ruth reveals her hunger for human connection by eagerly engaging until he ruins the ending of her book and walks away.
I Don't Feel at Home's plot centers on a burglary of Ruth's home, but the film's emotional weight rests in the smaller, everyday slights. After the break-in, Ruth seeks comfort at her best friend's house, only to receive politely dismissive reactions to her trauma. In the best scene of the film, Ruth tells her neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood)—who has an epic rattail and a ninja-throwing star collection—about her break-in, and he responds by whipping nunchucks into a table, thus expressing the rage she's kept bottled. His acknowledgement of her frustration emboldens her and sets them both on a path of righteous revenge that is equal parts funny, violent, and suspenseful, earning Blair apt comparisons to the Coen brothers. But Blair's promise as a filmmaker and writer shines most brightly in the way he handles the film's smallest moments. He brings the same level of dramatic tension to the climatic showdown with the big bad Marshall (played by the Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow), as he does to an earlier scene where Ruth, through gritted teeth, says, "Why do people have to be assholes?"
Watching Melanie Lynskey try to contain her despair while being denied the simplest considerations brought into focus the feeling I had walking around the morning's march, taking in the surreal modesty of the requests made in speeches and written on signs. Overwhelmingly, all anyone was asking for was kindness, inclusiveness, and to not suffer diminished rights due to their gender, skin color, or sexual orientation. These requests felt unlikely to be taken seriously by an administration that, so far, excels at nothing more than the fervent denial of the reality of its dissenters. In light of this, the bond between Tony and Ruth, who have nothing in common other than a willingness to take each other seriously, struck me as especially cathartic and profound.
This theme continued at that night's screening of Dustin Guy Defa's Person to Person, which follows several storylines played out in a single day in New York City and is led by actors Bene Coopersmith, Tavi Gevinson, Michael Cera, Abbi Jacobson, and Phillip Baker Hall. Defa, who also wrote the screenplay, was coaxed into taking the stage to introduce the film, his feature-length debut, which he did, shyly, saying only, "This film is about tenderness, friendship, and the desire to connect." The storylines are tied together by each character's asking for some small request—to share a meal, to not be forced to socialize, to avoid confrontation, to not be ripped off, to get an honest opinion on a shirt—most of which go unfulfilled. The most representative moment comes when Michael Cera (in a scene that will either make you sad or cringe with embarrassment depending on your level of cynicism) slumps his head down on a desk and asks Abbi Jacobson if she'd just please have a drink with him. When she refuses, he asks, "Why is it so hard to get people to like me?"
There's a good chance that, had I seen the film months ago, I wouldn't have liked it much, nor thought it had enough to say, but as I sat in the Egyptian Theater, exhausted from months of Trump's skillful gaslighting, I decided that watching a film that explored the sheer frustration of having a reasonable request denied was not, at minimum, a meaningless endeavor.
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