Sundance 2022’s last-minute, Omicron-inspired transition to a fully-remote experience may have upended the festival’s traditional structure, but it also opened the door to audience members who might not otherwise have been able to make a trip out to Park City, Utah.

That’s why, if you happened to peek in on my Saturday, January 21st, you would have seen me wake up late, whip up a plate of chilaquiles and a coffee, fire up the projector in our makeshift bedroom theater, and spend the day watching a slate of movies that won’t otherwise be available in our rural Vermont neighborhood until the back half of 2022.

Between this week and next, I’ll be highlighting six films from the virtual festival, ranging from best to meh, as well as a few honorable mentions. Given that the films to follow have had only limited releases thus far, we’ll be keeping spoilers to a minimum; but if you want a completely untainted first experience with The Worst Person In The World, Fire of Love, and Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul., consider this your warning to steer clear.

First up, the festival favorite:

The Worst Person In The World 

Director: Joachim Trier
Starring: Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Herbert Nordrum
Written by: Trier, Eskil Vogt
Director of Photography: Kasper Tuxen
Music By: Ola Fløttum

(image via IGN)

By the time it arrived at Sundance, The Worst Person In The World was already sporting a Cannes Best Actress win for its lead, the top-slot on numerous year-end critic lists, and a shout-out on this very site following its New York Film Festival screening. The film is the fifth feature from Norwegian director Joachim Trier (the third in his informal “Oslo” trilogy, following 2006’s fantastic debut Reprise and 2011’s gutting Oslo, August 31st), and decidedly his best work to date.

Across its just-over-two-hour runtime, 14 fragmented chapters serve as flashbulb memories that weave into a cohesive narrative. Though this arrangement may sound the “pretentious” alarm for those averse to narrative contrivance (a dodecalogue bookended by an introduction and coda, lit-nerds rejoice!), here the novelistic approach is perfectly deployed. A post-coming-of-age rom-“com” refracted through a prism of surrealism, grief, and Norwegian existentialism.

Amongst many highlights, the brightest is the now-award-winning Renate Reinsve (a relative film-unknown aside from a brief appearance in the aforementioned Oslo, August 31), who not only steals the film, but this year in acting. Her character Julie is a protagonist in progress, clearly defined in some ways, constantly mutating in others. Reinsve’s performance is contortionistic, but never at the expense of our connection to her. She adapts to each new burst of passion and anxiety with a gravitational earnestness that keeps the audience in a tight orbit, even as her desires rapidly shift.

Flanking Reinsve are longtime Trier-collaborator (and real-life physician) Anders Danielsen Lie, and the bumbling, explosively charismatic Herbert Nordrum, who portray Julie’s two paramours. Though neither spend as much time in the center of the frame as Julie, Aksel, and Elvind each have a depth and complexity that defies the respective “unworthy partner/right-guy-wrong-time” tropes they might otherwise be consigned to.

Danielsen Lie’s quiet transformation across the film expertly mirrors his romantic interest’s ever-evolving perception of him, while Nordrum’s chemistry with Reinsve lights a fire under the movie from the moment he appears (with an assist from two “scene of the year” contenders in the crashed wedding and frozen Oslo sequences).

Trier, who’s demonstrated a knack for both narrative maximalism and restraint in his earlier Oslo installments, finds a way here to marry the two. Our five-year window with Julie is full of grandiose, time-stopping romantic gestures and simple domestic disagreements, profound grief, and momentary elations. A hallucinatory, climactic, tampon-hurling confrontation with an estranged father hard-cuts to a quiet hangover. It’s a brief portrait of a life that feels at once impossibly expansive and painfully limited in scope.

What elevates The Worst Person in the World above other self-discovery epics of its kind is a willingness to embrace those decidedly human dichotomies: the love of your life is until they aren’t. The music swelling in your ears builds to nothing. A luminous city turns harsh in the morning. Without sacrificing the peculiarities of Julie’s narrative, Trier and his collaborators tether them to these all-too-familiar contradictions, and in doing so, anchor their story in a reality reflective of our own––no matter how far from Oslo we might be.

5 out of 5 Halucinagenically Manifested Ex-Boyfriends

The Worst Person In The World opens in NY and LA on February 4th, with a wider release to follow 

Fire of Love

Directed by: Sara Dosa
Narrated by: Miranda July, Katia Krafft, Maurice Krafft
Edited by: Erin Casper, Jocelyne Chaput
Music By: Nicolas Godin

(image via CNN)

A different sort of love story than The Worst Person In The World, but every bit as romantic, Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love is a New-Wave-tinged celebration of pioneering volcanologist couple Katia and Maurice Krafft, whose on-the-job passing in 1991 rocked their scientific community. Integrating research footage taken by the couple with excerpts from their previously released films and television appearances, the documentary illuminates the intertwining romance and careers of the two scientists with a buoyancy that belies its tragic conclusion.

Visually, the film is a startling achievement, both in terms of the phenomenon it captures on screen and the grace with which that captivating footage is collaged into narrative cohesion (it was rightly rewarded with the festival’s Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award). The story is often most compellingly told in rapid cuts between striking images: a tiny, tin-foil-wrapped explorer marches towards the frame-filling magma of a “friendly” red; cut to a close up on the lava’s dancing invitation, as if on the edge of the abyss ourselves; now back with the explorer, returned to the foreground, head uncovered with a manic grin cutting through the soot coating her face. We’re granted a taste of the adrenaline rush, without taking on the accompanying risk ourselves.

Perhaps Dosa’s greatest directorial achievement is her ability to display the realities of that risk without dismissing Katia and Maurice as lunatics for working in defiance of it. On the contrary, there is a sense of admiration for the Kraffts’ pragmatic awareness of the consequences their work invites, and their conscious decision to prioritize passion nonetheless. “I couldn’t live with someone who doesn’t share that love on top of a volcano,” Maurice tells us in the film’s first half, echoed more ominously in the second by Katia when she explains, “If he’s going to die, I’d rather be with him, so I follow.”

As an excerpt, that may sound morbidly fatalistic. In Fire of Love, that matter-of-factness is celebrated as a testament to the self-awareness of the Kraffts, and to the profound love they were brave enough to share. More than once we’re made privy to their struggles to contend with the loss of life in the wake of an eruption. However, we’re never left long without a reminder of why they remained committed to their work, whether from Miranda July’s lyrical narration (“understanding is love’s other name”),  Nicolas Godin’s exuberant score, or yet another beautifully framed moment of revelatory combustion.

We know how it will end long before we see it borne out on screen. By all indications, so did the Kraffts. Yet rather than leaving us to shoulder the tragedy of their deaths, Dosa makes sure to turn our attention back one final time to the passion they had for the life they chose: the blooming magma, the billowing smoke against sky, the lovers lucky enough to dance together on the edge of oblivion. A joyous epitaph, a unique approach to documentary storytelling, and a genuinely brilliant film.

4.5 out of 5 Uncomfortably Romantic Comments About Geological Phenomenon

Fire of Love was acquired by National Geographic, who are expected to make the film available to the general public later this year. 

Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul

Director: Adamma Ebo
Starring: Regina Hall, Sterling K. Brown
Written by: Adamma Ebo
Director of Photography: Alan Gwizdowski
Music By: Marcus Norris

(image via Variety)

Unfortunately, attempts at formal innovation are not always as successful as in the case of Fire of Love.

Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. is a part-mockumentary, part-relationship drama following megachurch pastor and first-lady Lee Curtis and Trinity Childs as they attempt to rehabilitate their congregation in the wake of a scandal. The debut feature highlights director Adamma Ebo’s willingness to challenge narrative conventions, but the execution is unsteady, teetering between two ungrounded poles. The result is at once a comedy absent the comedic highs, and a tragedy that fails to find its emotional footing.

The most glaring of Honk For Jesus’s issues stem from its visual storytelling. As if second-guessing (or acutely aware of) its own tonal control, the film deploys a series of ill-advised visual cues to notify its audience of when we are watching comedy, and when we are watching a drama: budget-documentary fullscreen for the former, an anamorphic wide for the latter.

NBC has long-since conditioned us to connect jagged handheld cinematography with an Office-style narrative. However,  the sweeping frame juxtaposed against it feels ill-suited to its assigned role of portraying “real life”––a “peek behind the curtain” that reads as far more cinematic than its “on-camera” counterpart. As the film progresses, the stylistic shifts become more erratic, further collapsing the narrative construct, and undermining what few emotional beats are allowed to thrive.

When they do, it’s largely thanks to Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown, whose respective abilities to act their way out of any corner are on full display. Whether in the midst of an ill-advised roadside praise-mime performance, rapping along with “Knuck if You Buck” (the highlight of the movie by many miles), or contending with the unspoken repression devouring their relationship from the inside out, Hall and Brown display a depth of character that is sadly absent from the script proper.

Brown’s characteristic magnetism is presented here as deliberately self-conscious; a portrait of a man whose assets as a showman facilitate his most destructive tendencies (rather than leading him towards a healthier understanding of his sexuality). There is a disconnect between his eyes and 1000-watt smile, his easy proclamations, and the tension in his every gesture.

For her part, Hall demonstrates a commanding emotional versatility in her portrayal of a woman constantly made to perform––sometimes for the “camera,” sometimes to appease local expectations of faux-politeness, sometimes simply to convince herself. When the cracks in the veneer emerge, the rage and pain, and sadness that leak out are as potent as they are controlled.

Though it lacks the dueling-supernova energy of Hall and Brown, the original short that the Honk For Jesus feature was based on benefits from its more contained structure. By dedicating the majority of its runtime to the comedy, its final-act dramatic reveal feels all the more deliberate and impactful than in its full-length cousin. You can’t fault Director Ebo for trying to match the longer runtime with a bigger swing; but hopefully, in future films, she can find a way to more effectively deploy stylistic flourishes in service of her story, rather than asking the story to thrive in spite of them.

2 out of 5 Ostentatious Regina Hall Church Hats

At the time of publication, Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. has not yet been acquired for distribution. 

Swing back next week, when I’ll be taking a look at three more films from this year’s festival (as well as shouting out a few honorable mentions to keep an eye out for). In the meantime, you can find the full ranked list films I saw at Sundance on Letterboxd.