Opening night at Sundance 2021 had a lot to offer.
“It’s amazing what people can cut out when they can’t handle the truth.”
Censor, Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut feature and Sundance’s opening night horror entry, is set in the lush grime of the Video Nasty era in 1980s Britain. It tracks a film censor, Enid (Niamh Algar), tasked with reviewing and adjudging low-budget exploitation films. Bailey-Bond subsumes the country’s famous repression into her mise en scène, muting both the visuals and the narrative. She turns an eerie story inside-out, digging far deeper into the way our own brains censor trauma than the nitty-gritty of film editing. Algar is stunning, a jumble of internal conflict floating through life, finally finding solid ground in an explosive climax.
Censor lags at times, but its mood sustains its pace even when its story doesn’t. Bailey-Bond plumbs the depths of human suffering for an incisive portrait of grief (a common theme of this year’s Sundance) and the lies we tell ourselves to cope - both consciously and sub-consciously. The final image is the most haunting of the festival, and heralds great things to come for both Algar and Bailey-Bond.
Flee, an innovative, animated documentary from Jonas Poher Rasmussen, grabs you by the collar in the opening minutes and never lets go. Rasmussen interviews a refugee about his lifelong journey - both physically harrowing and psychologically tumultuous - and recreates the events through animation. The interviewee himself is animated, one of several measures that Rasmussen takes to protect his identity. Amin, as we know him, faces the camera with stunning frankness and vulnerability, peeling back the layers of his life and his story with dramatic honesty. Flee offers sensitive, non-exploitative filmmaking from Rasmussen, a welcome arrival in the era of sensationalist real-life documentaries - at least one of which joined Flee at Sundance 2021. It’s one of the best films of the festival.
You've seen a movie like CODA before. A big-tent, comedic tear-jerker that looks you directly in the eye and wears its heart on its sleeve, CODA adheres closely to the Sundance model. But I'm not sure if you've seen a movie that perfects that model as flawlessly as Sian Heder's sophomore directorial effort. In this year's opening film, Heder infuses every moment with an unmatched vibrancy, reflecting that life off of her dynamic ensemble cast. Emilia Jones delivers what should be a star-making performance as a child of deaf adults (the acronym that gives the film its title), though it's Troy Kotsur, playing her father, that steals nearly every scene he's in. And if you somehow manage to finish your viewing without a tear-stained smile plastered across your face - well, let's just say there's a reason CODA sold for a festival-record $25 million.