Sundance Dispatch: Call Jane / Sharp Stick / Brainwashed
I’ll admit to a bit of bewilderment while watching Call Jane, Phyllis Nagy’s first film work since 2015’s Carol: how could this be the same writer whose beautiful adaptation led to one of my all-time favorite films? When the credits rolled, I realized I’d made an incorrect assumption that Nagy would have chosen to write and direct, which of course is not the case. To be clear, it’s not that the script by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi is bad, but it is merely serviceable, resorting a little too often to expository and on-the-nose dialogue and overly convenient plotting. Nagy’s direction of the material fares better overall — she has a solid eye for visual flair, especially when it comes to period trappings, and she gets good work out of her actors, particularly star Elizabeth Banks and supporting player Chris Messina (a great performer whose role here is fairly underwritten, as is that of the legendary Sigourney Weaver). If you’re unfamiliar with the story of the Janes — a late ‘60s underground group helping women gain access to abortions — the film provides an entertaining enough overview, but with the talent assembled it’s hard not to feel like there was a missed opportunity.
Lena Dunham’s latest marks her first feature film in over a decade, and Sharp Stick delivers the provocation many have come to expect from the sometimes controversial Girls creator. Kristine Froseth stars as Sarah Jo, a sexually repressed 20-something who starts an illicit affair with the father of the boy she nannys. Sarah Jo’s story of self-discovery takes plenty of unexpected turns, to Dunham’s credit; there are plenty of ideas on display here, and though not all of them work I can appreciate the attempt. The frank and stylized dialogue may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the real highlight comes from the impeccable cast Dunham has assembled: Jon Bernthal stands out as Sarah Jo’s problematic lover, Taylour Paige and Jennifer Jason Leigh are always fun to see (although the film doesn’t really seem to know what to do with them), and Scott Speedman pops up in a supporting role that steals the show through a winking portrayal of a specifically idealized form of masculinity. Sharp Stick may ultimately feel like empty calories given the subject matter, but it’s an enjoyable watch nonetheless.
An acclaimed independent and experimental filmmaker since the 1980s, Nina Menkes makes her foray into documentary with Brainwashed, based on a lecture she’s given at festivals and other film education spaces over the past few years. Through academic grounding and a compilation of clips from the history of film, Menkes makes a persuasive argument that it’s not just the movie industry that trafficks in sexism and misogyny, it’s the learned techniques of filmmaking itself. Menkes’ lecture can be discomforting as one has to reckon with the inherent prejudice and objectification present in many great works of cinema, and even if you don’t fully agree with all her examples, the foundation she provides is incredibly well-reasoned and should — at the very least — help make those who view it into more nuanced film consumers. Unfortunately while the substance is fascinating, compelling, and often harrowing, the packaging of the material doesn’t quite deliver — with the exception of some talking head interviews, the bulk of the film is made up of recordings of Menkes’ live lectures. While providing an accessible opportunity to view her talk has a lot of value, it feels ultimately disappointing that the film wasn’t able to take advantage of the change in form.