If you’re a celebrity seeking to rebrand, the Sundance Film Festival can offer a useful assist. From Marvel superheroes seeking an indie turn to teenage movie stars hoping to segue into spicy adult roles, the snowy event is the perfect place to debut a new direction.
This year’s big rebrand was so skillfully executed that many people I ran into here at Sundance didn’t even know it had happened at all. If they had, we might have gotten a mob scene at one of the typically sedate short-film showcases, where an 18-minute project called “The Heart” premiered from a fledgling filmmaker credited as Malia Ann, though she’s much better known as Malia Obama, the daughter of the former president.
Now 25, Obama is no Hollywood neophyte: After interning at the Weinstein Company in 2017, she studied filmmaking at Harvard as a visual and environmental studies major and then, upon graduation, wrote for the Amazon series “Swarm.” That show was cocreated by Donald Glover, who also served as executive producer of “The Heart” and has been helping to steer Obama’s nascent career: “The first thing we did was talk about the fact that she will only get to do this once,” Glover told GQ last year. “You’re Obama’s daughter. So if you make a bad film, it will follow you around.”
That’s not a fate likely to befall “The Heart,” a well-shot and spare debut. Effectively a two-hander, the short stars singer-actor Tunde Adebimpe as Joshua, a sensitive man who still lives with his mother (LaTonya Borsay). After they have a passive-aggressive fight about the groceries and share a silent, side-by-side TV dinner, Joshua goes upstairs for a shower. Minutes later, his mother clutches her chest, collapses to the floor and dies alone.
Racked with guilt, Joshua finds it hard to move on, not least because he must now carry around a jar containing his mother’s preserved heart, as per her will. But he gets a second chance of sorts when he encounters a stranger on the street who looks just like his departed mother. Determined to say the things he never got to tell her when she was alive, Joshua ultimately learns that maybe he should go a little bit easier on himself.
What prompted Obama to write and direct this odd, appealing modest story? In a “meet the artist” video released by Sundance, Obama said she hoped watching her short film “makes you feel a bit less lonely, or at least reminds you not to forget about the people who are.”
It’s a promising debut, though there’s no juicy allegory here for political pundits to uncover, just a short film about two sad souls. You wouldn’t even suspect it came from a former first daughter, though in-the-know types might wonder if the “Steven and Kate” thanked in the closing credits are Spielberg and Capshaw, a husband and wife who can ensure a well-connected debut.
At the very least, there’s no need to speculate about the final names on the special-thanks list, who are listed simply as “my parents and my sister.”