With the hybrid version of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival having drawn to a close, these are the films that we found to be the best of what the at-home version of the festival had to offer.
One of the most joyous experiences of a festival like Sundance is walking away from a film having experienced a work from a voice that feels distinct and special. Writer and director Sean Wang expertly weaves millennial nostalgia with an immigrant family story that feels fresh and full of energy. It shines in its authenticity where (for better or worse), it actually feels the way that teenagers in 2008 would talk. Not overwritten, or too smart for their agebut pure, honest, dumb teenagers. Come for the nostalgia wave from the sounds of AOL Instant Messenger and MySpace Top 8 checks, and stay for a sweet and warm exploration on the awkwardness of growing up.
As the Audience Award winner for the U.S. Documentary category at this year's festival, “Daughters” is a moving documentary about a program that brings the daughters of incarcerated men into the jail for one night for a father/daughter dance. In order to be eligible, the fathers must attend a 10-week training program on parenting and the importance that they play in their families lives. “Daughters” is impeccably edited, allowing the audience to see perspectives from both the fathers who are eager to make a positive impression, and the daughters whose real, honest and raw emotions range from pure joy to anger that their fathers are not there. With staggering closing statistics on how this program has impacted recidivism, “Daughters” is a powerful look at not only the importance of family, but how treatment, rehabilitation and proper motivation can spark change.
One of the most challenging watches of Sundance 2024 also ended up being one of the most rewarding, with “Sugarcane,” a documentary from Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie. The film illuminates stories from the people of the Williams Lake First Nation, an indigenous tribe in Canada. Starting in the last 1800s, indigenous children were segregated out of schools and sent to a residential school run by the Catholic Church. From there, over the course of many years, children began disappearing under mysterious circumstances. Years later, unmarked graves were found at the site of the school, in addition to widespread reports of sexual abuse leading to an investigation into the terrible atrocities that happened at the school. This powerful film gives the former students and victims space to not only process what happened, but to allow these memories to bubble to the surface in an effort to not just heal themselves, but an entire community. The overall investigation story is also woven in with a personal story of co-director NoiseCat and his father Ed Archie, who was left abandoned at the school. The parallel of NoiseCat’s perceived abandonment by his father leads to some of the most powerful moments of confrontation of the film. The film is well constructed and paced, leaving plenty of space for these heavy moments to breathe as its subjects, and thus the audience, processes. It’s not an easy watch, but it is as essential as it is harrowing.
The NEXT program is often a place for unique exploration of ideas and filmmaking prowess. While “Kneecap” could certainly serve as a fictionialized biopic of the Irish music group, it takes place in the shadow of the Irish Language Act, which was a fight to protect the Irish language with official status. The aforementioned music group plays slightly fictionalized versions of themselves in their acting debuts and gets to display some of the music that made them into a sensation. The mileage on the drug-reference laden raps may vary for audiences, but these scenes are uniquely presented with written on-screen lyrics and well-shot performance sequences. It’s an extremely ambitious project, and it is quite incredible that something that is so brash, frenetic, energetic and singular can come together to be a wonderful love letter to a language.
Resilience is tested for a Norwegian family in the documentary “A New Kind of Wilderness.” After the loss of the matriarch of their family, the Payne family, who live a simple, self-sustaining life on a farm in Norway, must reckon with having to make some major changes in order to make ends meet. It’s an intimate film that captures not only the weight of processing grief, but the necessity and sheer power of being able to adapt to a new normal. It’s also incredible to watch eldest daughter Freja take a leadership role in her family, being wise beyond her years and navigating complex relationships with grace. It’s a somber affair, but it is sprinkled with so many moments of love and connection that it makes for a very moving experience.
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