Still from Nate Parker's 'The Birth of a Nation'
Still from Nate Parker's 'The Birth of a Nation'

Sundance Film Festival is known for the Hollywood stars who flock to the snowbound municipality of Park City, Utah; for the giddy luxury brand-sponsored parties that no mere mortal is ever allowed near; for the eight-figure sums tossed at whimsical, critically lauded films that tank the minute they are seen outside the state borders. But despite the veneer of frivolity, Robert Redford’s independent movie showcase has a track record of throwing up stories that question and test the values of mainstream society.

In theory, 2016 would appear to be the perfect year for that. Gun control, Isis, the end of the Obama years, the rise of Donald Trump, transgender politics and police brutality all seem ideal material for this hotbed of American liberalism — yet few domestic movies seem to engage with the moment. In fact, if there is an overarching theme at this year’s festival, it is death, largely dealt with in an introspective way that suggests a country unwilling to face up to an uncertain future.

The first major film out of the gate was Swiss Army Man by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (credited, in hipster shorthand, simply as The Daniels). An imaginative but very divisive fantasy, it tells the story of Hank (Paul Dano), an island castaway whose bid to hang himself is interrupted when a dead body washes ashore. It appears to be alive, but its jerking movements are revealed to be the product of lingering gastric gases, which Hank harnesses, as if on a jet-ski, to ride the flatulent corpse to shore.

As a scatological short film, it would have a quirky charm but this is merely the beginning of a film obsessed with farts and erections as Hank tries to find his way home. It’s a risky proposition, one that doesn’t always work, but the casting of Daniel Radcliffe as Manny, the film’s straight (as in rigor mortis) man, turns out to be its saving grace. Radcliffe emerges as a lugubrious, deadpan physical comedian, bringing a dark charisma to a film that, in its final stretches, tips over into winsome man-child fantasy.

Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Depp in ‘Yoga Hosers’
Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Depp in ‘Yoga Hosers’

People also die in Manchester-by-the-Sea, the third film directed by the very unlucky Kenneth Lonergan, whose previous works You Can Count on Me (2000) and Margaret (2011), studies of tragedy-imbued filial love and guilt respectively, were both hampered by legal wrangles. Lonergan has remixed his two blighted children into his most assured work to date, the story of troubled Boston handyman Lee (Casey Affleck) who returns home to take care of his nephew after his brother’s fatal heart attack. It was the first buzz film of the festival, selling to Amazon Studios for $10m, but despite terrific performances (notably Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife), it may be too low-key and dour to last the long trudge to next year’s Oscars.

Dealing with death in a lighter way, Matt Ross’s Captain Fantastic casts Viggo Mortensen as Ben, an anarcho-survivalist living in the woods with his six children. Ben is faced with a dilemma after his depressive wife Leslie commits suicide: does he attend the bourgeois funeral planned by his in-laws, and risk the wrath of social services, or betray Leslie’s Buddhist last wishes? Before you can say Little Miss Sunshine, the clan are on the road in a shamelessly schematic feelgood yarn buoyed up by its energetic young cast.

Deathly in a more descriptive sense is Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog. Solondz, once the fearless bad-taste impresario behind 1998’s Happiness, is now a better writer of acid short stories than he is a director. Consisting of four wildly erratic, mostly fatal, dog-related vignettes, his latest feels half-hearted and desperate, using an animated intermission and a long tracking shot of canine diarrhoea to pad out a scant 87 minutes.

Viggo Mortensen in ‘Captain Fantastic'
Viggo Mortensen in ‘Captain Fantastic'

By far the two best death-themed entries both riffed on the same incident: the true story of Christine Chubbuck, a Florida news anchor who shot herself in the head live on air in 1974. In Robert Greene’s hybrid documentary Kate Plays Christine, Kate Lyn Sheil stars as herself as she prepares to play Chubbuck in a never-to-be-seen biopic. Eerie and compelling, Greene’s film picks at the mystery of Chubbuck’s motives to explore the space between drama and fiction, making it a more cerebral proposition than Antonio Campos’s less avant-garde but more emotional Christine.

Starring British actress Rebecca Hall as the seemingly indomitable Chubbuck, Campos’s film has a superb script by Craig Shilowich and paints an elegiac and sensitive portrait of a woman confounded by the odds at every turn. In its final scenes, it uses the lyrics of Mary Tyler Moore’s 1970s sitcom theme “Love Is All Around” to spine-chilling effect, humanising this tragedy and reclaiming Chubbuck’s death from ghoulish internet infamy.

‘Christine’, with Rebecca Hall
‘Christine’, with Rebecca Hall

Literary adaptations also came out in force. Producer and screenwriter James Schamus, Oscar-nominated for Brokeback Mountain, directs a worthy but talky take on Philip Roth’s 2008 novel Indignation, the 1950s-set tale of a Jewish student (Logan Lerman) coming to terms with life in the shadow of the Korean war. Similarly highbrow was Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, a slight but stately interweaving of Maile Meloy’s short stories, featuring an all-star cast of Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern and, again, Michelle Williams.

Unexpectedly leading the pack, however, was Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship, a deliciously witty retelling of Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan, starring Kate Beckinsale as a devious widow in 18th-century England.

Absurdity was another big theme this year. Viewers were able to see Johnny Depp’s daughter Lily-Rose do battle with Nazi bratwursts in Kevin Smith’s garish and chaotic Yoga Hosers, a female reworking of his 1994 hit Clerks, which co-stars Smith’s own daughter Harley Quinn. More artful was Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s The Lure, a Polish rock opera of sorts in which two man-eating mermaids join a disco band and become a topless novelty act.

A feelgood factor was in short supply, which is perhaps why John Carney’s Sing Street literally had audiences dancing in the aisles. Set in 1980s Dublin, it’s a joyful boy-meets-girl story that echoes The Commitments with six working-class boys coming together as a pop group.

Just when it seemed that Sundance was about to flatline, however, along came Nate Parker’s seething but measured The Birth of a Nation. Ironically titled after DW Griffith’s racist 1915 epic, Parker’s film is the story of slave leader Nat Turner, a rural preacher who led a bloody revolt in Virginia in 1831. With obvious nods to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, it is, for half of its two-hour running time, a recap of the horrors of white supremacy. However, in the second half, the worm turns.

The timing could not be better for this angry yet controlled feat of filmmaking; though its style is muted, its feelings are not, as Turner transforms from meek servant to axe-wielding avenger. That major studios were placing bids of up to $20m — an unheard-of sum at any film festival, let alone here — for a story about one of the most politically divisive figures in US history is an irony Turner would have enjoyed, and shows just what a shot in the arm this powerful, necessary film provided.

Festival ends Sunday January 31,

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