PARK CITY, Utah — There are no themes at Sundance other than the themes created by the movies one chooses to see. That said, this particular festival has always been predicated on the idea of outsider filmmakers tackling risky, difficult topics. So it’s been interesting to find a range of films this year that take as their subject the tension itself between outsiders and insiders.
“Leaving Neverland,” the HBO documentary that was the lightning-rod entry going into the festival, could be crammed into that thematic box, but it’s more than that. Exhaustive, exhausting, enraging, it feels like the definitive answer to whether singer Michael Jackson sexually abused at least two of the young boys he befriended during his career.
Scheduled to be screened on HBO in two parts in March, “Leaving Neverland” was shown in Park City in one intense, security-heavy, four-hour screening at 8:30 in the morning at the bandbox Egyptian Theatre on Main Street. That sounds grueling and it was, but the movie is also consistently gripping as James Safechuck and Wade Robson, both now in their 30s, tell of the sexual relationships with the singer that began when they were, respectively, 11 and 7 and that lasted for years. Both men denied any wrongdoing on Jackson’s part while he was alive; both battled depression and say they confronted themselves and their families with the truth after they were married and had children of their own.
The film is about the power of superstardom and the desire to believe, on the part of the boys as well as their mothers and siblings (who are all interviewed at length as well). It’s about the ripple effect of guilt, silence, and shame that fractures entire families. Jackson is a spectral presence throughout the film, which focuses more intently on the memories of the two men, sickening in detail and oddly moving in their portrait of a warped secret they convinced themselves was love. (On Jan. 21, the Jackson estate issued a statement categorically denying Safechuck’s and Robson’s allegations.)
The boys were nobodies; Jackson was the ultimate Somebody. Directed by British documentarian Dan Reed, “Leaving Neverland” is methodical, damning evidence of the dispensations we grant the famous when they step down from the pedestal into real lives. A film festival like Sundance is also about pivoting from the darkest of subjects to Hollywood effervescence, in this case an early evening screening of “Late Night,” a pleasing concoction that functions a little like “The Devil Wears Prada” for grown-ups. Written by Mindy Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra, the film offers a welcome bouquet to Emma Thompson, who plays a legendary talk-show host whose best days and ratings are behind her. Faced with a writing staff of men whose names she doesn’t even know, she brings in a diversity hire named Molly Patel (Kaling), an earnest newbie who challenges her boss and upends the show.
Mindy Kaling in “Late Night.”
Emily Aragones/Sundance Institute
The leads are immensely likable — Thompson never more so than when her character is at her most unlikable — and the supporting bench is deep and wide, but it’s the dialogue of “Late Night” that shimmers. In the post-screening Q. and A., Kaling spoke of her love for such storied media movies as “Broadcast News.” She’s made a capable inheritor if not an instant classic. Amazon snapped up US rights to “Late Night” for $13 million early in the festival.
Who’s a bigger cultural outsider than a Satan worshiper tilting his Luciferian lance in the Bible Belt? “Hail Satan?” is the latest deadpan documentary insurrection from filmmaker Penny Lane, who embeds herself with The Satanic Temple, a Salem-based organization that formed in 2013 as a free-thinking prank but that quickly picked up adherents and multi-city chapters of disaffected activist punks who defined Satanism as a PR pushback to encroaching Christianity in government.
Lucien Greaves, co-founder of The Satanic Temple, and “Hail Satan?" director Penny Lane at Sundance.
The group combats monuments of the Ten Commandments on state capitol grounds by commissioning an 8-foot statue of the goat-god Baphomet and arguing for equal time. They set up After School Satan Clubs to counteract Christian Good News Clubs and are part of local civic Adopt-a-Highway programs. Are they a monkey-wrenching goof or are they for real? Lane answers “yes,” as any good documentarian should.
Ashton Sanders in “Native Son.”
Matthew Libatique/Sundance Institute
Richard Wright’s 1940 novel “Native Son” is a classic tale of an American outsider, one that artist-turned-director Rashid Jones has updated to the modern day with mixed results. Ashton Sanders (“Moonlight”) is very good as Bigger Thomas, a Chicago teenager whose entire look and mien seem intent on escaping racial pigeonholing until he is hired as a driver by a wealthy white family. The first hour of Jones’s “Native Son” feels thrillingly new and alive, the mid-section dives into a horror show that flirts with mere horror, and the final act — changed from the novel — feels pat and inconclusive. A strong debut nevertheless.
One of the most unusual projects this year is “The Infiltrators,” a hybrid documentary-feature film that literalizes the outsider/insider dynamic. Filmmakers Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera recreate the 2012 events at Florida’s Broward County Detention Center, a privately owned warehouse for undocumented immigrants threatened with deportation.
From left: directors Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra and producer Darren Dean of “The Infiltrators" at Sundance.
Two young activists from the National Immigrant Youth Alliance got arrested on purpose to investigate from the inside while working to get many of the imprisoned released; the film cuts back and forth from the real people to actors playing them in convincing reenactments. The performances tend toward the amateurish, the filmmaking is solid given the budget constraints, and there are moments you could be watching a classic prison film from the Studio Era — just one with a powerful message to impart and human faces to replace the statistics and headlines on the nightly news. “The Infiltrators” doesn’t have a distributor yet, but it deserves one.
Perhaps the most emotionally satisfying film I’ve seen in the early days of Sundance 2019 is “Hala,” a tale of a Muslim teenager in suburban Chicago that works the endless gray area between outside and inside. Geraldine Viswanathan, the comic secret weapon of the raucous 2018 teen comedy “Blockers,” shows affecting dramatic range as the title character, a high school senior, dedicated skateboarder, and gifted writer who has a crush on a lanky classmate (Jack Kilmer, Val’s son) that puts her in conflict with her traditional Pakistani mother (Purbi Joshi) and deceptively liberal-minded father (Azad Khan).
Geraldine Viswanathan, star of “Hala," at the premiere of the film at Sundance.
There are a million coming-of-age stories at Sundance, and “Hala” can’t escape the tropes of all of them. Yet writer-director Minhal Baig, whose deeply personal script rings true, establishes a tone of immense tenderness and sympathy even as her film, expanded from a 2016 short, pads the running time with a few plot tangents that don’t quite land. The central concept — a realistic take on a young Muslim-American woman exploring self and sexuality — has the confidence of a life honestly and fairly observed.
The director started the post-screening Q. and A. by FaceTiming her mother and showing her the cheering Sundance crowd. She then confessed to the audience that she made “Hala” to find herself onscreen. “Growing up, I didn’t see this character [in the movies]. I really wanted to see her. I would have felt less alone.” Baig came into the screening an outsider and brought us all inside.