joemcfadden
10th August 2021

Sundance London 2021 recap: Day 3 – CODA, Pleasure, and more

The third day of Sundance London 2021 featured a wide variety of films, ranging from Sian Heder’s indie coming-of-age darling CODA to the European pornography drama Pleasure. Read on for a recap and review of day 3.
Sundance London 2021 recap: Day 3 – CODA, Pleasure, and more
Picturehouse Central Cinema in Piccadilly Circus where the festival took place Photo: Ewan Munro via Wikimedia Commons

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 my recap of day 2!

In the same breath

Nafu Wang’s latest feature documentary for HBO is a compelling and depressing look at the Covid-19 pandemic from a perspective that is often forgotten. The documentary takes a look at the initial outbreak in Wuhan and its impact on its citizens alongside the actions the Chinese government took to initially cover it up before it enacted what would become the world’s first lockdown of the pandemic. What could be a simple documentary is bolstered by a unique and sympathetic perspective that, whilst being politically critical, showcases the human impact of the pandemic and serves as a reminder of what we have all collectively suffered over the past 18 months. 

Another highlight is how Wang crafts a unique voice through her documentary, making it feel personal and passionate instead of a mechanical, detached news feature. Her use of editing, archive footage, interviews, and other journalists’ on the ground footage helps elevate the documentary above the slew of insights into the pandemic we’ve gotten over the past 18 months and Wang’s compassion is what makes this marriage of politics and medicine work without it being an ideological interrogation of government’s (both Chinese and American) failures.

4.5

CODA

If you see one film from this year’s Sundance selection it must be Sian Heder’s indie darling CODA. Telling the story of the only hearing member of a deaf family (Child Of Deaf Adults), the film follows 17 year old Ruby as she struggles school and working on her family’s fishing boat, with her being their interpreter and thus their only connection to the hearing world. 

Despite following some story beats that are genre staples and will be more than familiar to fans of the coming-of-age genre, CODA proves that a unique premise and a compelling (and well told) narrative can be more than enough to create a fantastic film. Emilia Jones’ performance as Ruby is one of the year’s best and more than deserves an Oscar nod. Even for a ‘normal’ performance Jones would already have done more than enough to receive critical acclaim but when added to her use of sign language and doing her own singing it would be a crime if the Academy didn’t recognise this performance. 

Jones showcases a teen girl perfectly (helped by the fact that she herself is only 19) as she strikes the right balance between vulnerability and determination, giving us a portrait of a girl who wants to live a normal life but who feels so loyal to her family she can’t despite wanting nothing more than to give up the fishing boat for a singing career. 

Of course, the genre tropes are still there – the love interest, the eclectic teacher, and the climatic audition – but what sets CODA apart from the countless other coming-of-age stories is its compassion and realism. The rest of the family, headed up by another superb performance by Marlee Matlin as Ruby’s mother, round out the supporting cast and add a level of dynamism that other genre films lack. The script really digs into the separate identities and conflicts of each character, making them complex and flawed without it turning into a grand interrogation of human traits. The film also looks amazing and is expertly shot, with Heder using the natural scenery of New England to give the film a vibrant and colourful look that compliments the film’s heart warming story well.

Additionally, as one might expect from a film about music, the soundtrack is superb with songs ranging from Marvin Gaye to The Clash that really help to flesh out the parts of the film that can’t be told by dialogue or visuals. Another refreshing element of the film is that it ditches the middle class viewpoint the genre was built on and instead focuses on a blue collar family and community.

Ultimately, CODA is evidence that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to craft a perfect film. Sometimes all you need is a unique idea, a good script and a cast that all bring their A-game to a compelling and compassionate story told with heart. CODA is easily the best film of the festival by miles.

5/5

 

Pleasure

Pleasure is a bold, provocative and impactful look at the pornographic industry. Brimming with colour and humour but always aware of its darkness, Pleasure uses porn as a lens to address questions of misogyny, exploitation and capitalism with the result being a compelling and unique film that is as creative as it is critical. For a film that focuses on the exploitation and objectification of women, Pleasure never fetishes or glamorises the world it depicts, instead it treats its subjects with respect by showing the complexity behind this dark world we are all aware of but rarely engage with. The performances are also outstanding with newcomer Sofia Kappel showcasing a layered and complex character that manages to anchor the film when at times it can begin to stray its focus.

Additionally, the technical aspects are equally outstanding with the cinematography and art design crafting a glitzy, music video-like depiction of LA without reverting to overly simplistic colours or lens flares. This is paired with solid camerawork as Ninja Thyberg never allows the image to lose focus or linger too long, thereby crafting an effective look at exploitation that doesn’t fetishise or indulge in the objectification it documents, meaning that the correct balance is achieved between a desire to show without the movie becoming pornography itself. Ultimately, Pleasure is a very good film that achieves its goal of showing the realities of the adult film industry without becoming a mouthpiece for any ideology whilst acting as a vehicle for Sofia Kappel’s talents.

4.5/5

The Most Beautiful Boy in the World

Depressing, artistic, and compelling, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is a raw, unflinching look at fame and how exploitation can ruin the most promising of careers. Following Björn Andrésen, the teen star of acclaimed Italian director Luchino Visconti’s 1971 adaptation of Death in Venice, this documentary serves as a poignant commentary on how the world failed an innocent child and the way the film industry treats its stars. 

Technically, Beautiful Boy is superb with it making excellent use of archival material and talking heads whilst offering a narrative that follows the now ageing Andrésen as he attempts to heal from a lifetime of tragedy, abuse, and exploitation. Despite its artsy and existential presentation, at the heart of the documentary is a very human story and it respects that story by asking human questions of both the audience and talking heads.

Its confessional style may prove too much for some but at its best it provokes the audience into processing the horrific abuse inflicted on an innocent child and acts almost like a cautionary tale of the way fame often goes hand in hand with abuse. Certainly not light watching, some may find it distressing but if you can sit through it then you will leave The Most Beautiful Boy in the World in a state of thought that is rare to experience these days.

4.5/5

First Date

Unfunny, badly acted, and showcasing piss-poor camerawork, First Date is the worst film to come out of Sundance and certainly one to avoid. Following the exploits of a teen duo on their, you guessed it, first date, the film takes on the format of a comedy of errors- bouncing from blundering criminal to teen love and everything in between in an attempt to make you laugh but the results are more mild irritation than amusement. At its best moments, First Date felt like a poundshop version of Tony Scott’s Tarantino-penned flick True Romance; however those scenes were few and far between. 

The film featured a distinct lack of originality that was only confounded by its wooden leads and a script that needed at least 3 rewrites to make it into something worthy to be put to screen. My main complaint with the script was its mind numbing stupidity. Events happened randomly with little connective narrative tissue to connect them other than coincidence. Of course, not every script needs to have events occur like its a scripted 2-d platformer but for a film like this, that is so loose and open in its premise, there needs to be some sort of hook for the audience and the film needs to have a logic to it in order for us to believe these extraordinary events that happen in one night.

Moving onto technical aspects, most were (at best) unnoteworthy but at their worst they distracted from the attempt at telling a story that unfolded on screen. Particularly to my chagrin was the dreadful sound mix, which at times was deafening. Coming from someone who once had to redo a drama examination because I almost made the audience deaf – it’s not a very good idea believe me. At best you piss them off, at worst you might have a lawsuit on your hands. The camerawork and choreography also left something to be desired. The film’s saving grace could have been its climatic gun fight but it ended up devolving into a chaotic mess of cuts, handheld camerawork, and a carelessness to its choreography that even 10 year olds would have picked up on. 

Another one of my many issues with this film were the lead characters themselves. Every character was either annoying or a cliché, with this being doubly true for the leads. It was clear the writers had simply forgotten what being a teenager was actually like, otherwise they wouldn’t have had to do the equivalent of narrative gymnastics to contrive a plot this bad in order for two teenagers to have some sort of chemistry between them. The lack of depth was staggeringly bad, teen romances are some of the most simple stories to write the basics of so it baffles me how these writers got it so wrong. There was also an entire sub-plot surrounding one characters parents that felt so off and wasn’t even fleshed out that I couldn’t even describe how bad it is – this is also not to mention the random post credits scene that made me think I had somehow watched a bad comic movie book movie but no, for some reason First Date refused to die even as my brain cells had already been sufficiently killed by it.

If you haven’t guessed by now, First Date is one of the worst films I’ve seen in years, so much so that it skips mediocrity, and, so bad it’s actually good’, to find its way onto my list of 20 films that should not exist. Nothing can save this messy, unfunny, and ultimately forgettable attempt at a teen romantic comedy. If someone suggests seeing this film as a first date, just run.

0.5/5

Joe McFadden

Joe McFadden

Managing Editor (2022/23)

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