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This Year’s Sundance Was an Unofficial State of the Union — And America Is Screwed

And a few other observations from the Park City film festival

One of my favorite parts of Sundance each year is the 45-minute shuttle ride with random strangers from the Salt Lake City airport to Park City. Everybody, no matter why they’re attending the festival — for the parties, for the networking, for the movies and/or for the skiing — is always filled with such enthusiasm. For them, Sundance is a blank slate with endless opportunities to discover new films and new talents. And while we won’t see each other again for the rest of the festival, for that moment, we’re all headed in the same direction.

Now, though, that I’ve done both that happy shuttle ride — and more importantly the return trip back to the airport (and home) — let’s look at the major narratives that emerged from Sundance 2018.

#1. Sundance was a smorgasbord of movies about what’s wrong with America.

It’s probably unwise to look at a festival’s diverse slate of films for some kind of overriding theme. Still, this year’s Sundance seemed especially attuned to what’s going on in the country — and it was all depressing.

The opening-night film, the despairing police-brutality drama Blindspotting, got things started, portraying Oakland as a town struggling with racism and economic inequality. The wild satire Sorry to Bother You is a blunt political commentary about slavery and the co-opting of black culture by the white mainstream. The Miseducation of Cameron Post (which won the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic competition) looked at a group of gay youth forced to attend a conversion therapy center run by religious zealots. And the social-media thriller Search lamented how much of our lives are spent online as an anguished father (John Cho) tries to hunt down his missing daughter using nothing but FaceTime, his iPhone and Facebook.

But best of all — and the most talked-about film at the festival — was The Tale, which stars Laura Dern as Jenny, a successful documentarian who revisits her childhood. Specifically, she examines the time she was 13 and had a sexual relationship with an adult running coach (Jason Ritter) she deeply admired — only now, though, does she realize how wrong their relationship was.

At Sundance, The Tale was casually referred to as “the child rape movie,” but that glib simplification doesn’t do justice to a film that couldn’t be timelier in our Time’s Up moment. As Jenny comes to understand that she was sexually assaulted, she reassesses her past and acknowledges how this crime has subtly shaped the rest of her life. But The Tale is also about how men fail women, including Jenny’s boyfriend (Common), who thinks she needs to be rescued when, really, she just wants to be heard.

This raw, emotional movie (which will premiere on HBO later this year) feels like the start of a #MeToo conversation that’s going to continue for quite some time. And like so much of this year’s festival, it was a film that turned our most glaring social ills into urgent, complicated drama.

#2. Horror movies don’t need ghosts or gore to be terrifying — just a bunch of bros out in the woods.

Tyrel isn’t, technically, a horror film, but it was nonetheless one of the most nerve-racking experiences of the festival. It’s a deceptively simple story: A group of buddies, including new pal Tyler (Jason Mitchell), hang out in the middle of nowhere in the Catskills to celebrate a friend’s birthday. But from the start, Tyler doesn’t feel welcome. Is he paranoid? Is it because he’s the new guy? Or is it because he’s the only black man in the group?

Filmmaker Sebastián Silva never gives us a clear-cut answer, but the longer we spend time with these dudes over a few nights of drinking and random craziness, the more obvious it becomes that there’s something ineffably unsettling about packs of young men hanging out on their own. Tyrel twists the knife further by setting the story in 2017 as these white dudes complain about Donald Trump’s presidency — they all seem like the sort of guys we’d be aligned with politically, but their chummy, bro-centric rapport makes the audience as uncomfortable as Tyler.

A year after Get Out premiered at Sundance, Tyrel feels like the next chapter of an ongoing debate about toxic masculinity and why we all can’t get along. But what’s best about the film is how it makes you realize that what one person considers “all in good fun” can, for someone else, feel threatening, even frightening. As a longtime R.E.M. fan, I’ve never been so horrified to hear their music than when these bros start singing along to “Stand” while Tyler gets more and more unnerved.

#3. Looks like Nicolas Cage is about to have a comeback.

It’s been quite some time since the Leaving Las Vegas Oscar-winner has been in a good movie. Lately, Cage pops up in straight-to-video cash grabs or cut-rate action-thrillers that aren’t worthy of his talents. And yet, some fans (and film critics) hold onto this idea that he’s just a misunderstood genius flexing his bug-eyed intensity in B-movie trash as some sort of bizarro artistic exercise.

Those die-hard supporters may have the last laugh if the advance buzz around Mandy is to be believed. This midnight-movie selection was advertised in the Sundance program booklet with a photo of an intense-looking Cage, whose face is caked in blood. That’s just the tip of the iceberg for a film that Variety critic Dennis Harvey described as a “hallucinogenic mashup of Satanic-cult horror and revenge thriller” that “anyone with a taste for Nicolas Cage in full gonzo mode should [enjoy].”

That was definitely the report I heard from audiences that checked out Mandy at Sundance, many of them raving about the feverish experience of watching Cage’s lumberjack character seek vengeance on the religious cult that kidnaps and murders his beloved wife (Andrea Riseborough). As Vulture journalist Kyle Buchanan put it, “I watched a bloody Cage scream for two or three minutes straight during a scene in Mandy that will make for one of the absolute best clips on YouTube in about a year. Your own reaction to the scene may differ: The man in the tie-dye shirt next to me simply pumped his fists throughout, while the dude on the other side of him, upon the scene’s end, screamed an appreciative ‘CAGE!’ into the darkness.”

By all accounts, Cage received a hero’s welcome at Mandy’s post-screening Q&A, and the film got great reviews out of the festival. We’ve gotten so used to the idea of Cage as a freaked-out lunatic that it’s hard to imagine him harnessing his talents into a truly amazing movie. Talking about his acting style last year, he said with utter sincerity: “I don’t even like the word acting anymore because it implies lying in some way. I don’t act, I feel.”

But amidst a Sundance that often focused on the despairing and the unsettling, Mandy, no matter how violent, actually sounds like it offered something hopeful: a comeback narrative.