Film Reviews: Sundance 2022 — Dispatch #1, People Are Horrible and Amazing

By Peg Aloi

The first three films I saw at the Sundance Film Festival were very high-profile premieres.

For the second year in a row, the Sundance Film Festival has gone remote. That proved to be a very successful and user-friendly model and, as a civilian, I was able to easily purchase tickets (at a reasonable price of $16 per screening) and see a number of excellent films. There have been some changes since last year. I’m attending as a critic, and the ticket prices have gone up slightly. But the website remains pretty easy to navigate. (Though, oddly, the feature where you can vote for your favorite films has been separated from the website — it is now a phone app, which seems like a sly commercial move.). There’s a big, juicy slate of films, and it’s still pretty exciting to be attending a film festival, even if I’m watching from my comfy couch next to my dog. I plan to send my dispatches over the weekend and into next week writing about three films at a time, so here we go.

Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore in When You Finish Saving the World. Photo: Sundance Institute

The first three films I saw were very high-profile premieres. When You Finish Saving the World is a soulful, quirky indie that marks the directing debut of actor Jesse Eisenberg (whose last Sundance appearance was in The Double). Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things) plays Ziggy, a somewhat awkward teenager who spends his free time writing perky folk songs that he performs online for a social media site where he has 20,000 international followers. Julianne Moore is his mother Evelyn, who runs a shelter for battered women in Bloomington, IN. They’re disdainful of, and uninterested in, each other’s obsessive lifestyles. In fact, when circumstances dictate that they swerve outside of their narrow lanes, the result is ungainly and painful. Ziggy’s crush on a girl at school finds him asking his mother for advice on how to sound knowledgeable about politics. Evelyn doesn’t seem to realize that her strange, sensitive son can’t be shaped into the proactive, savvy teenager she assumes is aching to burst forth. Meanwhile, Evelyn’s attempts to help a family shattered by violence reveal her rather rigid ideas of what adulthood and success look like, as well as her unconscious yearning to bond with her son. Finn and Moore give tender, nuanced performances, as son and mother trying — and failing — to connect to others. Their clumsiness is made very plausible. Eisenberg, who adapted the script from his own audio project, steers these lonely people steadily toward a possible future in which they might at last be able to peer inside each other’s worlds with compassion.

The Princess is an absolutely stunning documentary feature debut by Ed Perkins. Using contemporaneous media footage of the British royal family gathered by various media professionals and amateurs, the film contains no script or narration. It simply lets the images and audio speak for themselves. Beginning just before Diana Spencer became Princess Diana at age 19, in a wedding watched by millions around the world, and then following her ascent to international celebrity treasure, the film portrays her tumultuous marriage to Prince Charles, her affection for her two sons, and her admirable work as an ambassador to bring attention to people with AIDS and landmine victims in Angola. The film provides a timeline of events as it traces the trajectory of horrifying behavior by the press (and to some extent, the royal family itself) that culminated in Diana’s untimely death at the age of 36. The film is also a very touching tribute to who she was, her kindness and warmth, particularly her groundbreaking engagement with ordinary people, which flew in the face of the previous behavior of the monarchy. We see how her bright spirit radiated out to so many in the world who loved her. This film is a rather stark, yet brutally appropriate, companion piece to Pablo Larraín’s Spencer.

Bill Nighy in Living. Photo: Sundance Institute

I very much enjoyed Living, by South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus. It’s a reimagining of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru, adapted to a ’50s British setting in a script written by Kazuo Ishiguro. Bill Nighy plays Mr. Williams, a civil servant who, upon learning he has a terminal illness, decides it is time to escape his drab office job and finally experience some of life’s pleasures. He and one of his young employees (Sex Education’s Aimee Lee Wood) strike up an unlikely friendship. This is as a fine a contemporary heritage film as any I’ve seen, capturing the look and feel of England in 1952 without a whiff of anachronism. The opening credits are from British Pathé archives: they are thick with color, bustling images of London that meld seamlessly into Living‘s first scene. The superb cast also features Alex Sharp (The Trial of the Chicago 7) and The Souvenir’s Tom Burke. The animated score and period music are effectively juxtaposed with the staid, sleepy existence that Mr. Williams struggles to rise above. Living powerfully limns the traps of existence: bureaucracy, work culture, procrastination, fear, loneliness, and acquiescence. But, in the spirit of Kurosawa’s masterpiece, it is ultimately an uplifting story that implores viewers to seize the day.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at

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