Sundance 2021 – The Genre

Jonathan Moore ’22 / Emertainment Monthly Co-President

Not just dramas were featured at Sundance this year. Genre ran rampant and had some terrific and thrillingly unique films from horrors to comedies and everything in between.

Quite enjoyable is Daryl Wein and Zoe-Lister Jones’s film How It Ends. A young woman Liza (Zoe-Lister Jones) and her visible younger self (Cailee Spaeny) have one last day before an asteroid destroys the earth to right their wrongs. Conceived during the early days of COVID-19 lockdowns and shot over the summer, most scenes are shot outside with some distance between its cast members.

Zoe Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny in How It Ends. Photo courtesy of IMDb.

COVID pandemic inspired, this film has the vibe of a hangout comedy with an acidic twist. Full of cameos from comedians and respected actors alike, it may feel slight to many. However, the script is witty, similar in tone to Lister-Jones’s Band-Aid, another Sundance film, creating an overall fun viewing experience. Lister-Jones and Spaeny have a great rapport on their quest and some of the cameos are a perfect blend of character and actor. By the end, it almost feels cathartic to watch. 

Back on the late-night genre side is Sean Ellis’s Eight for Silver, a gothic werewolf horror. When a brutal land baron Seamus Laurent (Alistar Pietre) kills a tribe of Romani’s for their land, his family including his wife Isabelle (Kelly Reily) and their children soon fall victim to horrific attacks that plague their settlement. Their only hope is a mysterious pathologist John McBride (Boyd Holbrook) who may have experience in this.

Simon Kunz, Alistair Petrie, and Amelia Crouch in Eight for Silver. Photo courtesy of IMDb.

It’s exceedingly well crafted with its score, direction and cinematography complimenting each other perfectly building an eerie atmosphere. The standout element is the gory horror set pieces whether the violence is human to human or monster on human. A standout sequence comes when McBride is finally able to capture a creature in its horrifying glory. There is some weird pacing and plotting but the cast is committed with the three great main leads and especially Holbrook who gets to have some awesome monster hunting scenes. With its unsettling visuals and gothic tones, this is a solid old-fashioned creature feature.  

Also genre flicks, Carlson Young’s The Blazing World is a stylish gorgeously made psychological horror with a great cast and score. Following Margaret Winter (Carlson Young) as she returns to her childhood home before it’s sale by her parents Tom Winter (Dermot Mulroney) and Alice Winter (Vinessa Shaw). This house has had its share of tragedy as it was where her sister drowned when she was younger. Distracted by a mysterious vortex and an unsettling man operating it, Lained (Udo Kier), Margaret is drawn back into that world to fight for her sister. Margaret threatens to lose herself to it’s darkness.

Carlson Young in The Blazing World. Photo courtesy of IMDb.

An impressive directorial debut by Young building off of her short film of the same name, it’s heavily inspired by surrealist cinema. It is a head-trip of a film with excellent cinematography by Shane F. Kelly and score by Insom Innis. With giallo-esque lighting recalling Dario Argento, it is spooky. It’s not just the technical aspects that make the film work. Young is a great lead, fighting through many hardships in the name of her family and selling the otherworldly nature of the action. Udo Kier is eerily compelling and also a lot of fun as a semi Mad Hatter figure. Mulroney and Shaw have fun with their roles as well and to say more would be giving the game away. 

Another female led, and female directed trippy genre flick is Karen Cinorre’s Mayday. A twist on The Wizard of Oz where in this case, waitress/singer Ana (Grace Van Patten) mysteriously escapes a wedding party from hell in a storm. She emerges in an alternate WW2-esque war zone reality ruled over by a girl army led by Marsha (Mia Goth) who lure unsuspecting men to their watery doom. At first, Ana begins to fit in, but things are not quite as they seem.

Havana Rose Liu, Soko, and Grace Van Patten in Mayday. Photo courtesy of IMDb.

A brazenly original film in its style, Mayday is intriguingly compelling, and the fantastical war zone is fascinating. Gorgeously shot and scored, it feels based on rules but those can change at any second. Including into a musical number scored to Liberace as Ana fully comes into her own.

It’s not all style as the cast is also great. Van Patten is a compelling lead as she is thrust from situation to situation. The other girls in the army are a sympathetic group and their bonds a warm respite from the world’s darker edges. Those darker edges coming from the standout character and performance of Mia Goth’s as the army’s leader Marsha. The evil Peter Pan inspired leader, she is driven to kill and win a seemingly unending war. At first taking Ana under her wing, Goth is enthralling at playing every side of the situation to her own best interest. An enduring image of the film is Marsha on top of their submarine firing guns into the air even as bombs reign down around them. An agent of chaos, she is the force that Ana must overcome to escape this nightmare realm that she finds herself slipping into. A uniquely engaging film, Mayday is entrancing.

The NEXT category is described as pure, bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling” One late breaking film was Carey William’s R#J. Yes, Romeo and Juliet done as a hashtag. Shot entirely through social media and iPhone platforms, this is a modern take/re-write of the Bard’s classic. Romeo (Camaron Engles) and Juliet (Francesca Noel) still meet at a party but it’s done through Instagram, iMessage, Video Recordings and other unique twists. William’s pulls it off even as mileage may vary. It has interesting twists to the classic tale in resonant ways. 

Camaron Engels and Francesca Noel in R#J. Photo courtesy of IMDb.

Also in that section is Kentucker Audley, Albert Birney’s Strawberry Mansion. Another surrealist dramedy set in a surrealist future where dreams are taxed about a dream auditor, James (Audley) who goes to visit an old woman Bella (Penny Fuller) and soon begins encountering young Bella (Grace Glowicki) in his dreams. This disrupting nightly product placement-based dreams. When her nefarious son Peter (Reed Birney) arrives, James has to escape with Grace’s unique knowledge. One of the most straight up bizarre films of the festival, this is an incredibly inventively directed and stylized film. From the old house to the surrealist dream landscapes, it is brazenly original. Highlights are a frog saxophonist who reoccurs in James and Grace’s dreams and the rat crew that James enlists to find his love. 

Strawberry Mansion. Photo courtesy of IMDb.

Only to be topped by Dash Shaw’s animated feature Cryptozoo, set in a world with magical and mysterious creatures known as cryptids. Lauren Grey (voiced by Lake Bell), a savior of these creatures, her boss Joan (voiced by Grace Zabriske) and Amber (voiced by Louisa Krause), a cryptid who can track cryptids, hunt down a rare species that has magical dream sucking abilities. Also hunting the creature down is the government, who wants it as a weapon. Stunningly animated, this is a trip of an animated film and a fully adult one with requisite sex, nudity, violence and profanity. Thematically struggling between zoo morality, discover, peace and saviorism, it chews off more than it can chew but the animation is fascinating and beautiful to look at.  And the third act is insane. 

Cryptozoo. Photo courtesy of IMDb.
  1. How it Ends – A hilarious and high concept hangout comedy – B+ 
  2. Eight for Silver – An atmospheric gothic creature feature – B+ 
  3. The Blazing World – A surrealist psychological horror –  B+ 
  4. Mayday – A brazenly original debut-  B 
  5. R#J – A unique twist on the classic tale –  B- 
  6. Strawberry Mansion – A unique and dream like tale –  B
  7. Cryptozoo – Stunning animation in a new world – B-
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