PARK CITY, Utah — How is it possible that the Sundance Film Festival is able to share so powerfully in the current #MeToo moment? The movies for this year’s edition, running through Jan. 28, were selected well before the groundswell of post-Weinstein revelations. The films themselves have been in the works for at least a couple of years.
Yet the premieres that people have been talking about in the first half of Sundance 2018 feature women in distress and pushing back under duress, and the best of them build to scenes so harrowing that they almost require trigger warnings. “The Tale” is possibly the best, definitely the most talked about, and certainly the most conceptually audacious: a dramatization of writer-director Jennifer Fox’s own adolescent sexual abuse and her adult coming to terms with it.
Fox was 13; her running coach was in his 40s; for years she told herself he was her “first boyfriend.” “The Tale” casts Laura Dern in a raw and nervy performance as the grown Jennifer, prodded by her aging mother (Ellen Burstyn) to see what happened for what it was. Newcomer Isabelle Nelisse plays her younger self, and the film is as much about the dance of memory and denial as about the abuse itself.
Fox is a long-established documentarian — her first film, “Beirut: A Home Movie,” played Sundance in 1988 — making her narrative feature debut. “A Tale” has stiff patches in its dialogue and plotting, and it favors emphasis over subtlety. But it’s also brilliantly edited to interweave past and present, what Fox remembers with what actually happened, and the film’s cumulative power is overwhelming. The sequences between Nelisse and Jason Ritter as the coach are extremely difficult to watch (a body double was used for some scenes), yet Fox has to go there — “going there” is very much the movie’s point. “The Tale” doesn’t as yet have a distributor, and one wonders if any company will have the nerve.
“Eighth Grade” offers a less traumatized but still cringe-y take on adolescent girlhood, this time from a current-day perspective. A solid writing-directing debut from Hamilton-bred comedian Bo Burnham, it’s a surprisingly tender and empathetic black comedy about the awfulness of being a middle-school girl in the era of social media. Elsie Fisher is terrific as Kayla, a 13-year-old ugly duckling who makes YouTube advice videos no one watches. She’s glued to her Instagram feed, contemptuous of her single dad (Josh Hamilton, perfectly hapless), and desperate to be someone, anyone, other than herself. The movie’s a comedy, but only because you know Kayla will survive (and her father will survive her).
But, again, there’s a scene in “Eighth Grade” in which an older boy (Daniel Zolghadri) tries to seduce the heroine where you see so many aspects of the stories we’ve been hearing: the silence, the acquiescence, the unheard refusals, the shame. The movie suggests this is a girlhood rite of passage and then asks us to think hard about what that means.
Grazing against some of the same issues — and of special interest to New England moviegoers — is “Lizzie,” a hit-or-miss drama about the Lizzie Borden case. The film has been a passion project of producer-star Chloe Sevigny for over a decade, and director Craig William Macneill’s recreation of 1892 Fall River feels stultifying and precise. It’s a film about repression, resentment, patriarchy, and the toxic emotions that can swirl out of that mix, and after keeping the lid arguably too tight on the choked passions of the Borden household, “Lizzie” explodes in a speculative and shocking burst of violence.
Jamey Sheridan and Fiona Shaw do strong work as the murder victims, crushingly cruel and invested in their social standing above all. Sevigny plays Lizzie with an affectless air of alienation that works well in some scenes and feels unduly modern in others, but Kristen Stewart as the Borden’s maid, Bridget — used, abused, and taking solace in an emotional and physical intimacy with Lizzie — is quietly devastating. Is Stewart becoming the most intuitive and possibly the best actress of her movie generation? It’s getting harder to deny.
The African-American experience seen through the prism of Oakland, Calif., is another unexpected focus of this year’s Sundance. The festival opened with “Blindspotting,” a streetwise buddy-dramedy written by and starring two sons of Oakland, Daveed Diggs (one of the scene-stealers of Broadway’s “Hamilton”) and Rafael Casal. The former plays a parolee with three more days of toeing the line, the latter’s a touchy white homeboy who can be his own and his friend’s worst enemy. “Blindspotting” stretches to cover issues of gentrification, inner-city gun violence, police shootings, and white cultural appropriation, all while trying to remain funny and deep.
Points to first-time director Carlos Lopez Estrada for keeping the film’s many balls in the air as long as he does and for the genuine laughs and harsh insights of the first two-thirds. “Blindspotting” overreaches in its third act, though, culminating in a dramatic rap monologue that’s simultaneously risky and forced. Much more risky — not to mention insane, sloppy, and hilarious — is “Sorry to Bother You,” the first film from rapper-provocateur Boots Riley.
It’s also set in Oakland, but on the day after tomorrow, when a struggling black guy (Lakeith Stanfield, the “Get Out” supporting actor, at last getting a solid lead) can find success as a telemarketer by using his “white voice.” “Sorry to Bother You” starts naturalistic and slowly ascends to a pitch of acrid surrealism, among other things positing a Google-esque mega-corporation called WorryFree that rebrands slavery as an aspirational lifestyle choice.
The casting is absurdly deep — Tessa Thompson, Danny Glover, Armie Hammer, Terry Crews, Omari Hardwick — and the targets are many and fat. “Sorry to Bother You” is a mess and the better for it, a fusion of Charlie Kaufman, George Clinton, Terry Gilliam, Justin Simien (”Dear White People”), “Office Space,” “Putney Swope,” and The Firesign Theatre. It’s the kind of movie Sundance always promises and is generally too safe to deliver. This year, the promise feels like it’s being kept.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.