Sundance London 2021 recap: Day 2 – The Nest, Zola, and more
Last month I was fortunate enough to attend the Sundance London Film Festival. Below is a recap and review of all the film’s I saw on the festival’s first press day. Click here for my recap of day 1 and here for day 3!
Sean Durkin’s second feature The Nest features fantastic central performances from Jude Law and Carrie Coon as an American couple who move to the UK during the 80’s financial boom in the City of London. The story, centering around money, greed and the ‘capitalist spirit’ is a familiar one but told expertly well. Law’s performance is his best in years, with him being both revolting and charming in a similar way that Jon Hamm’s Don Draper was in AMC’s Mad Men (2007-2015). The production design perfectly captured 80s London in a way that made it feel like you were in the 80s without watching something about the 80s (e.g. Netflix’s Stranger Things), whilst the soundtrack and background news stories helped contextualise the story and immerse the viewer.
As aforementioned, the story beats are familiar – any story told about the American dream often follows a similar structure, however what makes The Nest stand out from the crowd is Sean Durkin’s direction. The film has a theatrical feel to it without it being a play (like Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men could be). Durkin’s camerawork is very good, allowing the story to unfold whilst resisting the temptation to pack his shots full of generic symbolism or cheap editing tricks, thus bolstering the drama as it comes from the script as told by the leads.
Whilst it’s not the most original film to come out of Sundance, The Nest certainly is one of the best all thanks to Durkin’s compelling script, confident direction and Jude Law and Carrie Coon’s riveting performances.
Janicza Bravo’s second feature Zola is a very entertaining story about 2 girls that go to Florida for work that takes a very dark turn. Based on the 2015 viral twitter thread, Zola is a darkly comic look at exploitation and trafficking with two outstanding performances from Taylour Paige and Riley Keough. In supporting roles we have Colman Domingo and Nicholas Braun, with Domingo giving another riveting and layered performance as Keough’s character Stefani’s pimp. All 4 performers make the movie, which at times can feel a bit lacking in the structure and character department, as each actor brings the vibrancy and drama to life that made the twitter thread go viral in the first place.
Furthermore, the stylish elements help make the movie even more entertaining. The editing helps to pace the film well and give it style whilst the sound effects and use of the “send tweet” spot effect helps to almost make it a new genre of film. I like to call it ‘post-post modernism’, where directors use the internet to tell traditional stories (Bravo herself talked about looking at the film from a Brechtian perspective) but in a style and manner that is very fresh and, for lack of a better term, ‘digital’.
Despite the script having some structural issues the dialogue is tight and witty, helping to keep the film grounded and real to counteract its ‘internet style’. Bravo’s camerawork was also strong, helping to keep the film moving and interesting whenever the lack of depth caused the audience to lose focus, thus making the film entertaining and a very good time at the cinema.
Misha and the Wolves
Misha and the Wolves is an interesting documentary that is completely undermined by its poor style and irritating filmmaking techniques. It follows the story of a Holocaust survivor who’s story is not all as it seems and how the “quest for truth” leads to shocking and unexpected turn of events. Without getting into too much detail, this is one of the few documentaries where “spoiler” labels could apply, Misha and the Wolves is a documentary presented as a righteous quest for truth that is often more irritating than it is compelling.
The main fault of the filmmakers is their use of a ‘gotcha’ format. At times, it feels like a bad Channel 5 documentary – something more akin to The Nightmare Neighbour Next Door than Ken Burns or Michael Moore. It also features unnecessary reconstructions which do little to add to the documentary’s value whilst the talking heads are irritating and unsympathetic – which is partially due to the ludicrous nature of the story but also an uninteresting depiction of a fascinating case. Ultimately, what had the potential to be a fascinating documentary on the Holocaust, investigative jounralism, and deception, is instead a tedious, irritating traipse through a story that is best left where it began – in our imagination.
One of the weakest films of the Sundance festival slate, Human Factors is a boring appeal to mediocrity masquerading as a family drama fused with a mystery thriller. Its premise is simple, as Variety puts it “A mysterious housebreaking exposes the agony of an exemplary middle class family”. If this premise sounds intriguing then that’s because it is. Indeed, the first 10 minutes are interesting as we are presented with a serene picture of middle class life that is disrupted by a break in. However following this the film goes downhill fast.
The main source of conflict is the disintegrating marriage of the couple who own the house; however for a drama like this work (think Noah Baumbach’s excellent 2019 film Marriage Story) the characters need to be sympathetic and relatable and, above all else, at least interesting. Human Factors is none of these things with the two lead characters being notably unsympathetic, two-dimensional, and irritating. To make matters worse, the script is one of the worst I’ve seen with stilted dialogue, an unnecessary non-linear structure, and a distinct lack of themes and complexity. Confounding this, the lead actors’ performances are wooden and stiff although most of this blame lies with the writer and director. A film like this could have some saving grace if the visuals were at least interesting but somehow the film features a defunct visual style that is as forgettable as it is bad. All in all, Human Factors is a Sundance flick that is best left ignored and forgotten.