Sundance 2020: ‘The Assistant,’ ‘Save Yourselves!’ top Best of the Fest

The 2020 Sundance Film Festival has wrapped, announced its winners, and has once again, stayed ahead of the industry curve by getting close to, achieving, and/or surpassing gender parity in filmmaking.  Statistics for this year show that 42 percent of the feature films are from women (directors and/or writers), 48 percent are features in competition, 51 percent are short films, 56 percent are U.S. documentaries and an impressive 50 percent are the U.S. and World Dramatic competition and the World Documentary competition.  With a slight nudge upward in the feature film category, Sundance will be the first to solidly arrive at gender parity in most major categories.

With higher numbers comes the wonderful difficulty of attempting to see all of these female-lead films; an impossibility, but what a great conundrum with which to wrestle!  Attending 18 screenings which included films, indie episodics, and shorts, eight were written, co-written, directed, or co-directed by women for a grand total of 44 percent.  

Here are my best films from females at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

The Assistant written and directed by Kitty Green explores a day in the life of an entry-level young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), working for a media mogul.  As it explores the obvious toxic environment of exploitation, degradation, and harassment in the workplace, it puts into question the behavior of others which essentially condoning it. It’s a haunting film that slowly seeps into your core, provoking you intellectually and emotionally as you walk in Jane’s shoes.  This introspective and personal perspective pits morality and personal gain against one another, inciting a conversation about our own values and where the line is drawn. Garner’s understated and finely tuned performance is one of few words, but her subtle expressions, body language, and increasing tension allow us to feel her frustration and fear. Green’s script and deft direction paired with Garner’s performance bring us not only into the possible Weinstein scenario, but into the world of gender bias and expectations. (Interview coming soon)

Save Yourselves!, co-written by Eleanor Wilson and her partner Alex Huston Fischer, finds consistent and unexpected humor in this alien invasion comedy.  John Reynolds (Jack) and Sunita Mani (Su) star in this film which rests primarily on their shoulders to carry as the couple in need of uninterrupted time together.  That means no technology on their vacation in the woods. As they arrive at their destination, the aliens also arrive to decimate Earth, but with no cell phones, no emails, no texts, Jack and Su are oblivious until one of them turns on their phone.  This is a laugh-out-loud hilarious film that takes full advantage of today’s communication between couples and our common relationship issues. Add into the equation the incredibly talented physical comedy of Reynolds paired with impeccable timing and chemistry between he and Mani and you have a hilariously fresh comedy that stays with you long after the credits roll.  Wilson and Fischer keep you guessing with the script, but then neatly tie a bow to wrap it all up in a very novel, but perfect way. With tight editing and a succinct and creative script, it’s a comedy I’ll watch again and again. (Interview coming soon)

Wake Up is a short film already available on YouTube.  Written and directed by Olivia Wilde and starring Margaret Qualley, the film poses the question of “Can we find balance in our world between human connection and technology?”  Qualley finds her role as a young woman discovering the importance of interaction while those around her are glued to their phones and computers, forgetting to look up and engage.  Qualley’s character explores her world, but with her insight, she discovers why she is able to be connected. The climax of the film is like a gut-punch that will ultimately remind you of the importance of balance in our world of technology.  And Wake Up is also a reminder that short films can be as potent or more so than a feature.  (See video interview at FF2 Media)

Worth, directed by Sarah Colangelo, takes us back to the wake of 9/11 as a law firm attempts to assign a monetary value to those lives lost, giving financial support for those they left behind. Based on the true story of Kenneth Feinberg, who was appointed by Congress to complete the Victim Compensation Fund, the story takes a close look at not only the compensation equation, but the reasons behind it and how one man dared to question the process. While the overall story is told, we also learn of three sub-stories that drive home the personal touch of losing someone in this way.  Michael Keaton stars as Feinburg, giving an extraordinary performance as he battles Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), a community advocate who lost his wife and lobbies for a way to “Fix the Fund.” It’s an enlightening and insightful story filled with heartbreak, compassion, and hope.

The Netflix Documentary Crip Camp walks us back in time to the 1970s to a dilapidated camp in Upstate New York called Camp Jened for teens with disabilities.  Participating in this camp, it is the one time each year, or perhaps in their lives, that these teens feel they are just people, not handicapped. Directed by Nicole Newnham and former camper Jim LeBrecht, found footage of pure fun and teen interaction as well as painstakingly raw interviews with the campers, and historical film clips allows us to better understand the roadblocks that existed prior to the Americans with Disabilities Act.  It’s an inspiring film that depicts how many of these campers were responsible for the activism necessary to make changes to our laws for equality.

Other notable films include Josephine Decker and Sarah Gubbins’ Shirley, Haiffa Al Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate, and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s bizarrely entertainingly cautionary tale Love Fraud airing as a docuseries on Showtime on May 8, 2020.

© Pamela Powell (2/2/20) FF2 Media

Featured photo: Save Yourselves!

Bottom photo: Crip Camp

Tags: Crip Camp, Save Yourselves!, The Assistant, Wake Up, Worth

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New York native film critic and film critic Pamela Powell now resides near Chicago, interviewing screenwriters and directors of big blockbusters and independent gems as an Associate for FF2 Media. With a graduate degree from Northwestern in Speech-Language Pathology, she has tailored her writing, observational, and evaluative skills to encompass all aspects of film. With a focus on women in film, Pamela also gravitates toward films that are eye-opening, educational, and entertaining with the hopes of making this world a better place. 
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