Hello from the Sundance Film Festival in frigid Park City, Utah, where your faithful Projectionist will spend the next week answering important questions like: Are we about to discover the next great filmmaker? Is it possible to look chic in a puffer jacket? And wait, there’s a Neon party tonight? Why didn’t I get an invite?
The festival is celebrating its 40th edition this year, but it’s a Hollywood 40, meaning some effective nips and tucks have kept Sundance seeming fresh and vital even as the industry it’s a part of has changed considerably. In the ’90s, every independent filmmaker dreamed of launching their career at this festival as the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh had. Now, with the independent-film market in a precarious position, talent comes to Sundance to schmooze and say, “What I’d really like to do is make a limited series.”
And hey, the festival programs those now, alongside the documentaries, shorts and narrative films that remain Sundance’s bread and butter. Some movies have premises so outrageous that you could only find them here: In “Love Me,” Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun play a buoy and satellite who fall in love, while “Sasquatch Sunset” casts Jesse Eisenberg and Riley Keough as an unrecognizable pair of Bigfoots and, I’m told, plays things utterly straight.
Other movies evoke past Sundance classics. On Thursday, I watched “Ghostlight,” about a troubled family that finds solace by staging Shakespeare: It reminded me of the Sundance hit “CODA,” down to the third-act performance that had audiences weeping. Then I booked it to the documentary “Girls State,” a distaff sequel to Apple TV’s 2020 Sundance pickup “Boys State.” The new one follows hundreds of teenage girls as they try to craft a mock government.
The opening night’s hottest ticket was “Freaky Tales,” a gonzo anthology starring Pedro Pascal, Jay Ellis and the pop singer Normani. Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who’d previously brought their films “Half Nelson” and “Mississippi Grind” here, “Freaky Tales” follows four interconnected stories set in 1987 Oakland that all tend to climax in outrageously bloody scenes of revenge. Whenever the red stuff spurted, the audience hooted.
Though Sundance has introduced a virtual portion to its festival that will be available next week, people remain eager to attend in person. Pascal, one of Hollywood’s most overbooked actors, made the briefest of trips to Park City just so he could attend the raucous “Freaky Tales” premiere. “Ghostlight” directors Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson were even more determined to make it to the festival: Though they were still shooting their film just three months ago, thanks to fleet work from their editors, the two were able to submit a first cut to Sundance in early November, just four days after they’d wrapped.
It helped, O’Sullivan said, that she had another ticking clock that demanded quick work: She shot the film while eight months pregnant.
“I said we had a hard out,” she joked at the premiere.