On Tuesday, after days of tramping around Park City, Utah, griping about the movies and the logistical headaches this mountain resort town presents, I was transported into the Sundance Film Festival that I always hope for, the one in which a movie surprises and moves and maybe delights me, and so successfully makes good on its promise that, after the lights come up, the crowd delivers the festival version of hallelujah with a floor-shaking standing ovation. I admit, I wasn’t expecting that to happen when I walked into the new Will Ferrell joint.
That would be “Will & Harper,” a documentary by Josh Greenbaum in which Ferrell and his longtime friend Harper Steele, a trans woman, set off on a momentous cross-country journey of discovery. Former colleagues at “Saturday Night Live,” where Steele was a head writer, they have collaborated on other Ferrell vehicles, including the Spanish-language comedy “Casa de Mi Padre.” Here, prompted by love and interest — Steele yearns to feel more at ease in public, Ferrell wants to support and understand his friend’s transition — they deepen their friendship while traveling through a predictably divided country.
Like many, if not most, of the movies on this year’s slate, “Will & Harper” will probably make its way into theaters and onto streaming. I hope that’s the case for another movie about trans identity: Jules Rosskam’s “Desire Lines,” a low-budget documentary that doesn’t have star power, just heart and intelligence.
It deserves more attention than, say, “It’s What’s Inside,” Greg Jardin’s gimmicky, ugly-looking and unscary horror movie, which Netflix bought for an eye-popping $17 million. Splashy festival deals like this one generate a lot of noise but there’s always much behind-the-scenes haggling, so I’m hopeful that “Desire Lines” and some of the other lower-radar selections will reach a larger audience.
Movie love is why tens of thousands of attendees continue to gather at Sundance, which ends on Sunday. With 91 features on the slate, the program was somewhat more streamlined this year than in recent editions; in 2023, it presented 110 features. The smaller lineup and reduced number of Park City theaters suggested that the rumors about the festival having some serious money issues were true. It also made me wonder if this time the festival really was going to leave Park City. When I asked Eugene Hernandez, the festival’s director, whether the event was moving, he answered, “Park City is our home, Utah is our home.”
In that case, I will keep on traveling to Utah to slip on the ice and sit in the dark because in January Sundance is the place to be for film lovers. Since it was founded in 1985, the festival has weathered a lot of gossip, drama and changes, including in its identities as a cultural brand, a symbol of artistic independence and a player in the cinematic ecosystem.
This year the event celebrated its 40th anniversary, a milestone the organizers marked with screenings of restorations of eight hits — among them Rose Troche’s “Go Fish” (1994), Jared Hess’s “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004) and Dee Rees’s “Pariah” (2011) — that together offer a snapshot of Sundance’s commitment to diversity, inclusion and, yes, entertainment.
Missing from this sampling was “Sex, Lies & Videotape,” the film from a 26-year-old Steven Soderbergh in 1989 that put the festival on the proverbial map, reshaping the American cinema scene. “Sex, Lies” went on to international acclaim (it won top honors at Cannes) and became an astonishingly lucrative global hit; it also helped turn its American distributor, Miramax Films, into a major player.
What happened next was weird, sometimes great and sometimes completely nuts. The festival blew up, the mainstream invaded, stars descended, the paparazzi swarmed, and the major studios formed (and later shuttered) a number of specialty divisions. Indiewood became a thing, for better and occasionally worse. Sundance didn’t invent independent cinema, which has always existed and often struggled in the shadow of the mainstream. What the festival did was give a type of market-ready independent movie a cohesive, media-exploitable, commercially friendly identify that worked both for audiences and Hollywood.
Given Soderbergh’s history with Sundance it was fitting that he was back this year with “Presence,” one of the strongest, most formally audacious selections in the program. Once again, he has teamed up with the screenwriter David Koepp for a smart, playful and pleasurable nail-biter that — much like their last joint effort, “Kimi” (2022) — makes witty use of a restricted physical space. This new collaboration, set entirely inside a rambling family home, is at once an involving domestic melodrama and a chilling — emotionally and otherwise — haunted-house story.
The director Rose Glass (“Saint Maud”) clearly had a rollicking good time making “Love Lies Bleeding,” an expressionistic thriller with pooling shadows and blood. In yet another American dead end, a classic nowheresville with a looming force of evil (a hilariously bewigged Ed Harris) and conveniently deserted streets (which makes moving corpses easy), a gym worker (Kristen Stewart) and a bodybuilder (Katy O’Brian) hook up and spiral into disaster. The story riffs on a familiar setup in which beautiful love-struck outsiders can’t do right because they must do diverting wrong. To quote the tagline for one infinitely better precursor, “Bonnie and Clyde”: “They’re young … they’re in love … and they kill people.”
There were all manner of emanations at this year’s festival, but I was more struck by the cascades of tears generated by male characters, including in “Rob Peace” and “Exhibiting Forgiveness.” Written and directed by the British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (who adapted it from a book by Jeff Hobbs), “Rob Peace” dramatizes the harrowing, infuriatingly unfair life story of its titular character (a very moving Jay Will), a brilliant New Jersey kid who charted a course from a poor neighborhood to a prep school and Yale. Filled with richly inhabited performances, especially from its young cast, the movie is a take on the classic American striver, though one haunted by family (Ejiofor plays the father) and profound generational trauma.
André Holland stars in “Exhibiting Forgiveness,” another drama about the ties that can bind and nearly destroy sons and fathers, which was written and directed by the visual artist Titus Kaphar. The story kicks in after Holland’s character, a successful painter named Tarrell, receives an unwanted, psyche-rocking visit from his long-estranged abusive father (John Earl Jelks).
As the characters circle each other warily and angrily, Kaphar explores what it means to survive great personal hardship in an equally brutal country. Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor is wasted as Tarrell’s mother and there are awkward passages (and ungainly writing), but Holland and Jelks are lovely, and they flatten you emotionally.
A few other movies did a number on my tear ducts, including “Between the Temples,” Nathan Silver’s wistful, often very funny comedy about a widowed cantor (Jason Schwartzman) whose crisis of faith is derailed when a former teacher (a peerless Carol Kane) re-enters his life. A prime example of what I think of as the comedy of Jewish discomfort à la Albert Brooks, the movie explores identity with humor and not an ounce of sentimentality.
It would make a fitting double bill with “A Real Pain,” a touching, beautifully acted, laugh-laced drama about two cousins — played by a brilliant Kieran Culkin and Jesse Eisenberg, who also wrote and directed — on a trip to Poland. An exploration of family, faith, loss and the enduring trauma of the Holocaust, the movie is a knockout — I can’t wait to see it again.