Film Reviews: Sundance 2022, Dispatch #3 — What Remains
By Peg Aloi
I’ve seen a really interesting assortment of films so far. I can’t recite them all from memory, but they’re not blurring into each other, either. Not yet, anyway.
A Love Song is a gentle, earthy story of two lonely people who meet up after not having seen each other since childhood. Faye (Dale Dickey) brings her camper trailer to a remote lakeside spot in a mountainous desert landscape. Her days are serene but monotonous, catching crayfish in a trap, reading about birds in a field guide, and waiting for a mysterious suitor to arrive. She’s friendly with the mailman, who makes his deliveries by donkey, and camping neighbors are a respectable distance away. She hastily smooths her hair and tucks in her shirt whenever she hears a car approaching.
When her visitor finally arrives, he does the same sort of nervous preening, unaware Faye is watching as he knocks at her door. Lito (Wes Studi) is an old schoolmate, and the two, now widow and widower, live mostly solitary lives. But in this vast landscape, with its enormous night sky, these two people are drawn together as if they are searching for answers to eternal questions. The dialogue is spare: not poetic or lofty, but achingly real and yearning all the same. Max Walker-Silverman’s feature debut is somehow restrained and grandiose at the same time, anchored by a pair of performances that are genuine and heart-wrenching. Reminiscent of Nomadland’s paean to the open road, and what it means to age with grace, A Love Song suggests that our heart’s desire may lie in something much closer, and much simpler, than we’ve previously imagined.
I found Something in the Dirt to be engaging on many levels. It’s funny, weird, clever, and unsettling. Levi (Justin Benson) is hanging out in a short-term rental apartment in Los Angeles, preparing to leave the city. One night he runs into his neighbor John (Aaron Moorhead). As they smoke endless cigarettes on their balcony, they discover that they are kindred spirits who share a love of the uncanny. When they both witness some unusual paranormal occurrences, they decide to make a documentary about what may be their haunted building. But there is something mysterious about these two men as well, including the events that brought them to this moment.
Moorhead and Benson wrote, directed and photographed this film together and they have come up with a whip smart commentary on myriad topics (conspiracy theories, the occult, social media, filmmaking) that is also entertaining as bizarre X-Files-style antics unfold, assisted by the creation of a documentary-within-a-documentary. It’s tempting to become caught up in pinpointing all the pop culture influences lurking here. But the film is more rewarding than that: it is wholly original in the way it portrays a mercurial friendship based on obsession. It is clear that these two filmmakers can generate plenty of highly charged creativity. Something in the Dirt is my favorite film of the festival so far.
Mariama Diallo’s debut feature, Master, is an intriguing thriller with touches of terror. The film takes place on a fictional elite college campus in Salem, MA. Among its strengths is an unflinching examination of racial politics in the Ivory Tower, and the overlay of white supremacy that haunts venerable American institutions. Gail (Regina Hall) is a new resident “master” in a historical dormitory building; she’s the first Black woman to hold this position on campus. New student Jasmine (Zoe Renee) receives a warm welcome at first, but soon notices repeated microaggressions and eventually blatant instances of racism from her peers and teachers. Liv (Amber Gray) is a professor who is being considered for tenure; Liv becomes embroiled in controversy when it’s discovered she may be hiding her true identity.
All three women are forced to confront the bigotry of racism on campus, and deal with the inescapable realization that the hatred may never go away. The film’s dramatic struggles are plausible enough, but Diallo also skillfully weaves in subtle horror elements. Inspired by the notorious location and history of the campus, the supernatural elements include the ghost of an accused 17th-century witch and a Black student who died in her dorm room. These specters are manifestations of the lingering power of colonialism and sexism. The performances are all first rate, and Charlotte Hornsby’s cinematography is effectively moody.
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 themediawitch.com.