Welcome back to Vol. 2 of MMH Sundance Selects! In case you missed it, our previous installment covered two festival favorites (Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person In The World, and Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love) as well as one of the more disappointing entrants (Adamma Ebo’s Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.) This week, we’re focusing on three festival award winners: Happening, Navalny, and Cha Cha Real Smooth.
**As always, spoilers for all three films to follow, so read at your own peril! **
(image via Screen Daily)
Directed by: Audrey Diwan
Starring: Anamaria Vartolomei
Written by: Marcia Romano, Audrey Diwan, Annie Ernaux
Director of Photography: Laurent Tangy
Music By: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine
Happening arrived at Sundance with a fair amount of acclaim, having previously won the Golden Lion at the 2021 Venice Film Festival (director Audrey Diwan is only the sixth woman in 72 years to have received the prestigious award, take that for data). I settled into its first Sundance screening on Saturday at 11:15 EST (well past my usual “in my thirties and can’t function without nine hours of sleep” bedtime), and spent the next hour-and-forty minutes being utterly demolished by easily the most uncompromising film of the festival.
Based on the 2001 Annie Ernaux novel of the same name, Happening tells the story of 23-year-old Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), a French student whose unexpected pregnancy in 1963 leads her to seek an abortion during a time when the procedure was still illegal. (France first legalized abortion in 1975, two years after the US Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.) The film trails Anne as she desperately seeks support from physicians, classmates, teachers, and ex-partners, unable to accept the looming ignominy that her society mandates for unmarried mothers. In her own words, “I’d like a child one day. But not instead of a life.”
In spite of its weighty subject matter, Happening is a film fixated with procedure. We attend Anne’s doctor appointments, listening to measured, subtextual conversations about what she may or may not be experiencing, and what medicinal avenues may or may not be available to help her. We watch her prepare and inject medicine prescribed, she thinks, to induce a miscarriage. When that alone proves unsuccessful (later revealed to be because it was, in fact, maliciously prescribed to strengthen her fetus), we watch Anne’s step-by-step process of preparing for and attempting an at-home abortion. Each sequence lingers on the mechanical details, the minuscule expressions, the matter-of-fact language, and lets the tension come from the invasiveness of our proximity.
It’s the technical rendering of that proximity that is at once Happening’s most distinctive trait, and its most distracting. Director Audrey Diwan creates a full immersion in her protagonist’s experience by relying almost exclusively on long take, over-the-shoulder close and medium close-up shots, framed either from Anne’s POV or fixed on her reactions. The obstinance of this approach means that while we’re inextricably tethered to Anne throughout the film, we’re also acutely aware that someone has bound us to her.
The craft with which that knot was tied is, more often than not, impeccable. No scene captures this more clearly than Anne’s second abortion attempt (the first of two aided by Anna Mouglalis’ illicit clinician, Madame Rivière): the meticulously intrusive framing of Anne’s body arching, her contorted face peeking in and out of the corner to our left as we watch Rivière work between her straining legs, seemingly miles away. It’s a visual marriage between the brutal intimacy of the moment with the metaphysical distance between Anne’s pain and her abortionist’s clinical focus.
Yet, for all the tension Happening’s invasive cinematography creates, its self-conscious adherence to this singular cinematographic style acts as a constant reminder that we are watching a deliberately stylized film. In doing so, Diwan inadvertently affords us a bit of distance from Madame Rivière’s makeshift operating room, and at least partial relief. Throughout the viewing, I found myself wondering whether a more varied shot selection and a more strategic deployment of these lingering close-ups could have produced a similarly impactful emotional response, without the unearned reprieve.
To call Happening a timely film would be to disregard the historically perpetual assaults on the reproductive rights of those who carry children. Yet it’s impossible to watch Happening in 2022 and not think of the 2021 Texas abortion bounties or of the impending Dobbes v. Jackson Women’s Health Supreme Court case that may overturn (or eviscerate) Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. As has always been true, implicit in the arguments behind these modern anti-abortion regulations is a fundamental lack of empathy; a deliberate or compulsive need to ignore the human impact of legislation limiting the right to choose.
Regardless of the limitations of its technical approach, Happening unequivocally succeeds in its refusal to let us look away from that human impact. Anne’s resolve to continue on a professional path that would be disallowed as an unwed mother, straining against her anguish as she discovers the lack of legal options to end her pregnancy; the physical toll on her body as she turns to illegal ones; the emotional burden of nearly every support system turning away when they learn of her situation–each play out inches from our faces, presented with harrowing detail.
It’s a film that is difficult to recommend wholeheartedly, knowing the gut punch that awaits viewers (not to mention its numerous potential triggers); but especially for the cis men among us who will never experience pregnancy or its potential consequences first hand, for whom society is so often intent upon insulating from the full awareness of these experiences, it’s an absolutely essential watch.
4 out of 5 stars
Happening is scheduled to be released on May 6th in the US.
Those looking for ways to support reproductive health and rights can donate to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund here
(image via BBC)
Directed by: Daniel Roher
Director of Photography: Niki Waltl
Music By: Marius de Vries and Matt Robertson
In the uncinematic light of a German hotel room, against the backdrop of an It’s Always Sunny In Philadephia-reminiscent conspiracy board, Alexei Navalny finally gets his would-be murderer on the phone.
Winner of the Sundance 2022 Festival Favorite and Documentary Audience Award, Navalny follows Russian politician and vocal adversary of Vladimir Putin, the titular Alexei Navalny, as he recovers from a 2020 assassination attempt and determines his political path forwards. Navalny was a last-minute addition to my Sundance viewing slate (at the Twitter-urging of The Ringer’s Sean Fennessy) and quickly rocketed up my festival rankings, in no small part due to its aforementioned, Jinx-esque, “holy shit how did they get this on camera” confessional sequence.
Alexei Navalny rose to prominence as an outspoken critic of Russian governmental corruption who weaponized the use of social media as a means to circumvent the country’s state-run news outlets. Between the late aughts and 2020, Navalny actively campaigned against the Putin regime, organized a series of investigations into alleged criminal activity by members of the Kremlin, and pursued a number of political offices, including the presidency. In response to his activism, he was repeatedly faced with criminal prosecution, and at times violent retribution–the culmination of which was his poisoning during a flight to Moscow on August 20th, 2020.
This is the moment where Navalny (the film) pivots. In the wake of his miraculous survival, the embattled politician and his family flee to Germany, where they are introduced to Bulgarian investigative journalist Christo Grozev. What began as a document of a political rise shifts to a thriller-worthy criminal investigation, as Grozev, Navalny, and their team seek to uncover the actors behind the assassination attempt. We watch as they purchase information through a series of distressingly inexpensive dark-web channels, connect the dots between flight manifests, and ultimately arrive at a collection of Kremlin-linked agents they believe could have played a role.
And then they call them.
It’s truly a sequence unlike any other I’ve seen in a non-fictionalized setting. In quick succession, Navalny and Grozev work their way down the list of names. The former dials, introduces himself (at first by name, later under an alias), and inquires about the other party’s involvement in the assassination attempt. Most calls end with the two investigators laughing at the speed with which their targets hang up the phone. Then they reach Konstantin Kudryavstev, a chemist who, after Navalny requests information on the failed mission under false pretenses, proceeds to outline the planning, attempt, and aftermath in its entirety.
Director Daniel Roeher and DP Niki Waltl let the camera linger here, perhaps in as much shock as the two men in front of them. We see an expanse of emotions run across Grozev’s face as Navalny tries to remain composed and maintain the ruse. When the call ends, Navalny wears an off-kilter grin. They high-five as Grozev, triumphant, says “we got them.” Then, as if remembering the human element: “They’re going to kill him” (we’re later informed that Kudryavstev went missing after the publication of Navalny and Gorzev’s collected evidence).
That momentary shift, from exultation to solemnity, mirrors the experience of any viewer with a passing awareness of Navalny’s story; because while this scene would be an ideal climax for any other film, here it is ultimately a prelude. Navalny will release the information. The story will circulate, breaking into the global news cycle and instigating an unprecedented media assault from the Kremlin. Navalny will ultimately decide to abandon the safety of his exile and return home, where he will be imprisoned. As we watch him taken into custody, his direct-to-camera, seemingly “present-day” interviews that had been interspersed throughout the film recontextualize, now haunting apparitions.
It’s an enthralling yet deeply disconcerting framing, one that denies us any of the usual resolution we would expect from a film focused on a living subject. So too does the awareness that this investigative structure, with its fixation on bombshell reveals, leaves little room for examination of the less redeeming facets of Navalny’s persona (most notably his willingness to align with anti-Semitic nationalist groups, which is mentioned and quickly hand-waved as political versatility). No matter how compelling the structure, there is something unsettling in the way it’s applied to Navalny’s story. As a piece of filmmaking, however, it is an absolutely singular achievement.
4.5 out of 5 Ill-Advised Phone Confessions
Navalny is expected to be available for streaming on HBO Max later this year.
Cha Cha Real Smooth
(image via IMDB)
Directed by: Cooper Raiff
Starring: Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson
Written by: Cooper Raiff
Director of Photography: Cristina Dunlap
Music By: Este Haim and Christopher Stracey
By the time I reached Cha Cha Real Smooth’s second halogen-soaked Bar Mitzvah sequence, I started to wonder if a film had ever been more in my wheelhouse. The sophomore feature from directorial wunderkind Cooper Raiff was considered a likely Sundance 2022 highlight even before its premiere, largely thanks to the success of Raiff’s previous indie darling (2020’s Shithouse) and the participation of Dakota Johnson (the film’s co-star, and a producer on the project). That anticipatory hype, however, could not have prepared me for the absolute pummeling of nostalgia I received from Raiff’s cocktail of pre-teen anxious exploration and post-collegiate aimless romanticism.
In spite of its personal resonance with this lapsed-Jewish and chronically over-emotional critic, Cha Cha Real Smooth will likely not be a perfect fit for every viewer–particularly not those allergic to the historically overabundant subgenre that is “extra-special twenty-something white boy learns about himself.” However, those willing to take the plunge will find a bit more nuance beneath the archetypically familiar surface.
Cha Cha Real Smooth begins with a tone-setting and distressingly relatable proposition of romance by a 13-year-old version of the film’s protagonist, Andrew, to a decade-older Bar Mitzvah party host. After she politely declines, citing the vast chasm between their relative needs and experiences (a lesson we’ll soon learn does not fully take), we vault ten years forward. Here, we meet young-adult Andrew (portrayed by Raiff) meandering through the dark days of post-graduate apathy while living with his mother (the manically genius Leslie Mann), younger brother (Evan Assante, sweetness personified), and stepdad (live-action Eeyore Brad Garrett).
Amidst the collision of his untethered expectations (find “a really great non-profit to work at”) and reality (hard cut to behind the counter of “Meat Sticks”), Andrew stumbles, as if fated, into the role of party-starter for his younger brother’s generation of B’nai Mitzvah-ees. On the clock at this new sure-lets-call-it-a-job, twenty-something Andrew encounters thirty-something Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her teenage daughter Lola (Vannessa Burghardt), and the arc of a predictable romance appears to emerge (cue the opening chords of “New Slang” creeping into the background).
Instead, what follows is an at times hilarious, at times harrowing interrogation of the very tropes the film trades in. Andrew is at the center of the frame throughout, but the director (and producers Johnson and Ro Donnelly, who helped refine the script) seem as intrigued by their leading man’s earnestness as they do in the “good guy” gymnastics he engages in to justify his pursuit of Domino despite her engagement to Joseph (Raúl Castillo).
For every novelty-t-shirt facilitated rescue after a restroom miscarriage (“I don’t want the parents to think I Kill-Billed somebody in the bathroom”), there is a boundary-crossing flirtation that makes us question the intentions–subconscious or otherwise–behind his budding relationship with the mother and her daughter. Raiff and co. assure us throughout the film that Andrew, Domino, and Lola share a uniquely meaningful bond, but also seem intent on asking the question: What form does that bond need to take to be meaningful?
Johnson, as if in direct conversation with her captivating performance in The Lost Daughter, delivers a masterfully restrained portrait of balancing motherhood and mental illness. There is a constant shifting of layers from the first moment she enters the film, with depression morphing into biting humor, giving way to moments of tenderness, then back again.
Where Johnson excels is in her ability to resist the “hard-shelled exterior breaks to reveal vulnerability beneath” archetype, opting for an approach that is less linear, and decidedly more human. Her sadness is pervasive, even in a moment of true levity while dancing with her daughter to bad (great) 00’s Bat Mitzvah music. Her adoration of Lola is unmistakable, even as she vents to Andrew about the complications of parenting a child who is on the spectrum. She allows these incongruous emotions to visibly cohabitate, and Domino is all the more recognizable a character for it.
Burgheart is the film’s true scene-stealer, balancing the anxious charm of Andrew and the inscrutable weight of Domino with the film’s most controlled and grounded performance. There’s a precision to Lola’s responses to Andrew’s jokes, to Domino’s comforting, to the teasing of her classmates; one which provides us with a great deal of insight into her internal life despite little overt modulation in tone or language.
“Most of the auditions I get are for autistic characters and they’re usually very stereotyped, like a shell of what people think autistic people are supposed to be,” Burgheart explained in an interview with Variety ahead of the film’s release. “Lola seemed like a fully formed person,” she continued, and her portrayal further enhances that depth on screen.
Given his age and penchant for starring in his own films, there is a tendency to ascribe autobiographical qualities to Raiff’s features. However, where Shithouse reads like a reexamination of his own literal experiences, Cha Cha makes careful effort to remind us that no matter how often his perspective guides the frame, this is not a story solely about Raiff, or his fictional stand-in. Andrew comes to this realization along with the audience, delivering the film’s thesis while looking at Domino across her kitchen island: “I thought you were talking about me…because I’m an idiot.”
Like so many stupid boys before him, Andrew is at his stupidest when he confuses someone else’s story for his own. The film doesn’t absolve him of that ignorance; but it balances the critique with a conscious celebration of the moments when, in the midst of that hormonal confusion, he stumbled into supporting someone else’s narrative.
It’s a small but essential distinction, one which distinguishes Cha Cha from the indiscernible parade of early aughts Zach Braff-cosplaying meditations on how a cast of quirky, two-dimensional side characters can help an angsty white boy become their best (but still angsty) self. Though we’re watching from his vantage, Andrew is the quirky side character to Domino and Lola’s story. He helps lead the dancing, but it’s their party.
It will be interesting to see Raiff’s evolution as his career extends beyond his twenties, and how his filmmaking style adapts to narratives less immediately reminiscent of his own. Within that limited framework that defines his first two efforts, he’s demonstrated a capacity for nuanced character development, and (in spite of the auteur label we’re quick to assign him) an earnest willingness to collaborate with others who can help him deepen his stories beyond the scope of his own experiences. That alone has me incredibly excited to see what comes next.
4.5 out of 5 Really Great Non-Profits To Work At
Cha Cha Real Smooth was acquired by Apple TV and is expected to have a theatrical and streaming release in 2022.
Thanks for checking out MMH’s coverage of 2022 Sundance, and a massive round of applause to the Sundance team for making the virtual festival such a rewarding experience! Below are a few final honorable mentions, as well as a handful of films I wasn’t able to catch this time around. And for those listically inclined readers, here is the fully ranked collection films I saw at sundance (on Letterboxd).
- 892 (dir. Abi Damaris Corbin)
- A Love Song (dir. Max Walker-Silverman)
The Ones I Missed:
- After Yang (dir. Kagonada)
- Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (dir. Sophie Hyde)
- Emily The Criminal (dir. John Patton Ford)
- Duel (dir. Riley Stearns)
- We Need to Talk About Cosby (dir. W. Kamau Bell)
- When You Finish Saving The World (dir. Jesse Eisenberg)
- Lucy and Desi (dir. Amy Poehler)
- Am I OK (dir. Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne)