As is the recent tradition of screening multiple films on Opening Night (and seemingly adding more each year), The 2020 Sundance Film Festival kicked off its ten day event with nine films (16 if you count each individual short film contained in the Opening Night Shorts Program) that represent the various categories of the festival. Curiously, the two most high profile, popular and star-laden categories of U.S. Dramatic Competition and U.S. Dramatic Premieres are NOT REPRESENTED in the Opening Night buffet.
From the U.S. Documentary competition, Crip Camp, the first film from Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company Higher Ground in collaboration with Netflix, documents the inspiring story of a camp for disabled teenagers run by hippies and located in upstate New York just down the road from Woodstock (where another counterculture revolution had been born.) It utilises archival footage from the 1970s along with music from that era to conjure a time before the disability rights revolution began and a place where disabled kids could be themselves without judgement, experiencing all the joys of summer camp.
From the Documentary Premieres section comes another Netflix documentary, this one directed by Lana Wilson, the Emmy-winning director of After Tiller and produced by Morgan Neville, the Oscar-winning director of 20 Feet From Stardom. Their new film, Miss Americana, gives a revealing look into Taylor Swift’s guarded personal life and her suddenly outspoken views on politics.
From the World Cinema Dramatic Competition comes yet another Netflix film, this time from France, Cuties is a coming-of-age tale of a young Senegalese girl living in Paris who gets involved with a new provocative group of friends.
From the World Cinema Documentary Competition comes the stranger-than-fiction Norwegian documentary The Painter and the Thief about the unique friendship that forms between a Czech artist and the man who stole her paintings from her gallery show in Oslo.
Perhaps the strongest opening night film comes from the “Spotlight” program category which is where Sundance includes those feature-length films that have broken the cardinal rule of already having a U.S. Premiere or a North American premiere at another festival first.
Representing that category this year is The Perfect Candidate, having already wowed audiences at the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals, nominated by Saudi Arabia as their official Oscar submission. This is Haifaa al-Mansour’s spiritual sibling to her first film Wadjda – both films about brave young women who break from tradition to achieve their goals. The Perfect Candidate is a young female doctor who challenges convention even further by running for political office.
From the NEXT Category, which is focused on lower-budget indie films, comes Summertime from returning director Carlos López Estrada. His previous film Blindspotting was also featured on Opening Night in the U.S. Dramatic Competition; whereas that film featured Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs as writer, Summertime lets a group of spoken word artists supply the script, much of it performed as poetry. This film is Slacker meets La La Land, as the structure of random vignettes of miscellaneous characters mirrors Richard Linklater’s tribute to Austin, while the lyrical tour through the city mirrors Damien Chazelle’s love letter to LA.
From the Special Events section (Sundance’s increasing foray into serials and episodics), Love Fraud is the first four episodes of a new documentary series for Showtime by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady about a serial heart-breaker and the numerous women he scorned who finally band together to try and take him down.
The Midnight Films section sees the return of Justin Simien (creator of Dear White People) with his latest racial identity satire Bad Hair, a comedic horror film about a weave with a murderous mind of its own.
Last but not least (except in running time), is the Shorts Program 1 which contained 8 films of various genres and styles.
It may not be a coincidence that for this American election year of 2020, Sundance launched the festival with politically-themed films ranging from a Saudi Arabian woman’s hopeful election campaign in The Perfect Candidate, to Taylor Swift’s regrets about Donald Trump and the 2016 Election, to the birth of the disability rights movement in Crip Camp, to an emboldened celebration of diversity and identity politics in Summertime.
It’s politics Sundance Style…
Top photo credit: Taylor Swift attends the World Premiere of Miss Americana by Lana Wilson, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres section at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. © 2020 Sundance Institute | photo by Jemal Countess.