Film Reviews: Sundance 2024 Dispatch #2 – Nature Heals
By Peg Aloi
Nature has long been a perennial topic for cinema, and, given the escalation of the climate crisis, the environmental context of these three fine films feels particularly urgent and poignant.
In this installment, I review three films at the Sundance Film Festival that had nature and the beauty of the natural world at their center. Nature has long been a perennial topic for cinema, and, given the escalation of the climate crisis, including natural disasters that represent a growing threat to all of humanity, the subject matter feels particularly urgent and poignant.
The winner of the festival’s World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, A New Kind of Wilderness, is an intimate, moving story of a family who chooses to live close to nature. Filmmaker Silje Evensmo Jacobsen started out making a verité-style documentary about a bilingual British-Norwegian family living on a farm in rural Scandinavia. Nik Payne is an Englishman who left his native land to live in Norway on the picturesque farm, so he and his wife, photographer Maria Vatne, could raise their children alongside nature. In the film, this lifestyle allows the children to care for various farm animals, live close to the land, learn about the environment, create a robust home-schooled education, grow their own food, and stay out of the rat race cultivated by digital culture.
But after a few minutes of gorgeous images accompanied by Maria’s poetic narration, we are told that she died after a brief bout with cancer. Jacobsen continued the project, filming the family closely as they go about their daily lives: gardening, fishing, hiking, reading, chopping wood, and making art. The result is not just a compelling portrait of a family that is grieving, but a drama about their unique way of life, including their struggle to face the possibility of having to leave all that they have built and cherished behind. It’s easy to see how a narrative like this — full of beautiful imagery and deep emotion — could become saccharine or manipulative. There are Instagram-friendly vistas and tableaux as well as a Hallmark movie message about the strength of a family sticking together. But the artful editing, and the subjects, who are earthy and genuine, ensure a viewing experience that is profoundly moving, beautiful, and insightful, even when it proves painful to watch.
Every Little Thing at first appears to be a documentary about hummingbirds. But it is also an exploration of one woman’s mission, and of her lifelong dedication, expertise, and deep love of the species. Terry Masear, a Midwesterner by birth, now lives in Los Angeles. She has a small oasis in her backyard where she nurtures and cares for injured hummingbirds. She knows them by name, and knows all the subtleties of their different subspecies: their coloring, their flower preferences, their quirky behaviors.
As the film follows the heartbreaks and triumphs of caring for these pollinators (many of them brought by neighbors and others aware of Terry’s work), it also delves into Terry’s history, told from her point of view. Childless and now widowed, she had a great marriage and earned multiple graduate degrees in varying subjects. She has strong opinions about wildlife rehabbers; she thinks some of them do it for unscrupulous reasons. Terry’s simple, openhearted love for her tiny charges is apparent in her cooing but frank “conversations” with the creatures, along with the constancy of her care, which, in her autumn years, has become a full-time occupation. Emmy-nominated Australian director Sally Aitken has crafted a mesmerizing human portrait, filled with stunning photography, reminiscent of the powerful Sundance doc premiere from India, All That Breathes (Arts Fuse review), a powerful film that is also about the rehabilitation of injured birds. Every Little Thing’s focus would appear to be minuscule, but it is wide-ranging in its implications: it is a celebration of compassion as an instinct that propels people, at least some of us, to deeds that heal our hearts and inspire the spirits of others.
Good One is a solid feature debut from filmmaker India Donaldson. The setup is fairly benign yet intriguing: Chris (James Le Gros) and friend Matt (Danny McCarthy) are going camping in the Catskills for a weekend. The initial plan is to bring their teenagers along (daughter and son respectively). But at the last minute, Matt’s son decides not to come; his school friend, Chris’s 17-year-old daughter Sam (Lily Collias), will accompany the two men on the trip. Matt’s getting a divorce and his kid is not happy about his parents splitting up. Sam’s already gone through this traumatic experience; her father’s new (younger) wife is about to have a baby. But dad and daughter seem to have a strong relationship, good-humored and respectful. The somewhat complicated situation tints the coming weekend with tension and plenty of subtext. Sam isn’t happy about being the only young person on the trip, but also comes to understand she’s an important buffer (Chris and Matt have a tendency to get on each other’s nerves) and sounding board, even though she’s aware it’s unfair to expect her to be either of those things. There’s a subtle psychological transition in the works, powered by the meta-awareness that Sam is heading off to college soon. The gotcha moment of just-who-is-the-adult-in-the-room (or the woods) plays out more than once.
This is a well-executed and rather naturalistic story about characters who learn what it means to be in the moment and observe what’s happening. Not just being hyper aware in the scenic forest environs, but perceptive about the intricacies of longtime friend-family dynamics. Le Gros (Certain Women) is great as the glad-handing yet somewhat domineering Chris, and TV veteran Danny McCarthy (Somebody Somewhere, Prison Break) does well playing the tougher role of the hapless Matt; his sympathetic vibe breaks down to reveal the same tired selfishness (and even occasional toxicity) Sam has dealt with from her own father. On the cusp of big life changes, we see this young woman come away from the demanding weekend a bit wiser than she had been about herself and her family’s history (and perhaps its future). After Collias’s small but pivotal role in Palm Trees and Power Lines, this is a subtle and rather impressive breakout performance from a promising young actress.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Critics Choice Awards, and the Alliance for Women Film Journalists. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.