Vincent Schilling
Indian Country Today

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival looked a bit different this year but it was still full of creativity and genius, and the world premiere of the Indigenous-made film “Wild Indian” made it better.

As the #NativeNerd film critic, I was looking forward to Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr.’s “Wild Indian” starring Michael Greyeyes and Chaske Spencer. I also watched several enjoyable, and admittedly disturbing films to include “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” directed by Mariem Pérez Riera, and “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World,” by filmmakers Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri.

The Sundance Film Festival for 2021 started on Jan 28 and ran until February 3. A special thanks to Sundance for consistent land acknowledgments to the Ute tribe and all Indigenous people at the beginning of all of their feature films and other programs.

I initially viewed fifty short films (which were immediately available upon the start of the festival,) I added the feature films listed below which were featured at the Sundance Film Festival 2021. 

RELATED SUNDANCE 2021 COVERAGE:
— Indigenous excitement at Sundance 2021
— #NativeNerd: My top 10 Sundance shorts

"Wild Indian"

Director Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr.

Michael Greyeyes

Makwa, a young Anishinaabe boy, has a rough life. He often appears at school with bruises he says he got falling down, but no one believes him. He and his only friend, Ted-O, like to escape by playing in the woods, until the day Makwa shockingly murders a schoolmate. After covering up the crime, the two boys go on to live very different lives. Now, as adult men, they must face the truth of what they have done and what they have become.

I entered the Sundance Film Festival 2021 with the film “Wild Indian” on my radar. I was aware that Greyeyes would be working alongside Jesse Eisenberg and that Chaske Spencer and Kate Bosworth would also be joining in the venture.

This film has a dark and somber message that plays on the essence of Native identity. Greyeyes as the main character Makwa is a man who struggles with the terrible choices he made as a teen. Spencer portrays Ted-O, a Native man who literally wears his identity on his face.

The struggle, the agony, and the intrigue is each man’s futile grip on the Native identities. Makwa struggles with his life as a Native man in a white world, he struggles with what seem to be sociopathic tendencies, while Ted-O struggles with a secret he has held onto since he was young.

The ugly conflict outwardly comes to a head when the two men interact, but the climax could be more of an internal realization. Living in a White man’s world, giving in to colonial practices, and embracing non-Native ways do pay off. But at what expense?

The film is engaging and yet sincerely disturbing. The scene where Spencer, coming face to face with a secret and a personal revelation, blew me out of the water with his emotional range. Greyeyes is a sociopathic presence throughout the film, left me feeling unsettled angst that I still can’t seem to have shrugged off.

The young actors playing young Makwa and Ted-O also did exceptional work as did the rest of the cast. “Wild Indian” is a film that resonates with reality, as well as disturbed me with some of its deep-diving into personal tragedies I have seen in my own personal lifetime.

Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir

Director Jamie Redford

Amy Tan - Unintended Memoir (Courtesy Sundance)

Literary titan Amy Tan analyzes her life, her work, and her family—in the present and past tense—in this longitudinal biopic directed by James Redford. As Tan traces her childhood through The Joy Luck Club and her later compositions, she dissects issues of representation, multigenerational trauma, and the stigma and challenge of illness. Forcefully matrilineal in focus, this film moves through generations of Tan’s family, revealing listening as the heart of Tan’s creative practice and contextualizing the patience with which Tan broke through barriers and waited on the other side, welcoming the world to join her.

Sometimes you may respect a person in life due to their accomplishments. But after watching this film, my respect for writer and novelist Amy Tan increased exponentially. She admits coming from a place of privilege, but that does not mean she experienced any less struggle in her lifetime.

I was mesmerized by the story and relationship with Tan’s mother, a force to be contended with. Her mother’s life was achingly tragic, and I reflected on the struggles of my own family’s journey. Redford does an incredible job in creating a beautiful, thought-provoking story of a novelist who earned a seat at the table of the publishing world’s elite.

The Blazing World

Director and screenwriter Carlson Young

The Blazing World (Courtesy Sundance)

Ever since Margaret (Carlson Young) was six years old, she has been haunted by the memory of watching her sister drown during an explosive fight between her parents. As a young woman, she slides further into her twisted inner life, ultimately finding herself on the brink of suicide. Through an epic journey down the smokiest and scariest corridors of her imagination, she tries to exorcise the demons pushing her closer and closer to the edge.

By far one of my absolute favorite films at the Sundance Film Festival. “The Blazing World” by director Carlson Young is a dark, provocative and cinematically breathtaking film that borders the genres of fantasy, horror and drama. Many times a film in my view does not go far enough into a good story, and this film is the perfect example of diving in to explore everything I wanted it to. Yet it still left me to ponder how the characters would continue to explore their lives outside of the confines of the story.

I loved the film, the character’s journey to find herself while exploring the passageways and worlds of her mind and/or other worlds. I will forever be on the lookout for further works by Carlson Young. An incredible and beautiful film that left me thinking about it after the story ended.

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It

Director Mariem Pérez Riera

Rita Moreno - Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It

Talented, energetic, and full of joy, Rita Moreno has been dazzling audiences for over 70 years. Whether showcased on television, film, or stage, her artistry transcends singing, dancing, and acting, as she continuously reinvents herself and pushes creative limits. Moreno is a pioneer and one of the most authentic performers of our time, and she has the EGOT status to prove it.

This was a beautiful and telling film about the life journey and film career of Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno.

Moreno started as a young girl in California who literally had just taken a ship from Puerto Rico to New York. Her career as an actress began rather quickly and she managed to portray many roles due to her ethnicity. However, though she first portrayed roles as a Native American, Island girl, Asian girl, Latina, and more, what she first thought was acceptable, began to weigh on her.

Morenos speaks of a personal struggle and getting pigeonholed, her love affair with Marlon Brando, and winning an Oscar as Maria in “West Side Story.” Her life’s story is a charming (and sometimes extremely troubling) journey that is enjoyable as much as it is tragic.

The film is a lot of fun. I was unaware of just how much she had accomplished and struggled within the course of her career. Though she is credited with giving the shortest Oscar speech in the history of the Academy Awards, Moreno makes up for lost opportunity (as she calls it) in every other way in “Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It.”

"The Most Beautiful Boy in the World"

Directors Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri

The Most Beautiful Boy in the World (Courtesy Sundance)

Björn Andrésen was 15 when he starred as Tadzio opposite Dirk Bogarde in Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Death in Venice. A year later, during the film’s Cannes premiere, Visconti proclaimed Andrésen to be “the world’s most beautiful boy.” A comment that might have seemed flattering at the time became a burden that tainted Andrésen’s life.

When the openly gay Italian director Luchino Visconti was scouting for a young boy to play a character in his film “Death in Venice,” he happened upon a 15-year-old Swedish boy by the name of Björn Andrésen.

Visconti, a world-famous director, told the press at the film’s Cannes Film Festival premiere that Björn Andrésen was “the most beautiful boy in the world,” which thrust Andrésen into a world of fame he never asked for, nor expected.

Andrésen is a tragic figure in the film. Though he receives worldwide attention for his role in the film and for an identity thrust on him by Visconti, Andrésen struggles with the overwhelming attention he receives.

Andrésen’s tragic story continues to unfold throughout the film, and as a viewer, I found myself continuously asking, “how much tragedy can one person take?”

The film paints a troubling picture regarding the price of fame and the accompanying unwarranted objectification toward Andrésen.

He never asked for the title given to him by Visconti, and for all of the young actor’s fame, glory, and sparkling resonance, the ultimate conclusion is that Andrésen was nothing more than an innocent victim. He was treated like a trophy of sorts and left discarded once his time in the spotlight concluded.

A disturbing but eye-opening film about the truth behind the scenes of “the world’s most beautiful boy,” who was left behind in a sense of ruin, once he became a man. 

Together Together

Director Nikole Beckwith

Together Together (Courtesy Sundance)

When 26-year-old Anna becomes a gestational surrogate to a single, middle-aged app designer named Matt, she expects only a transactional bit of good karma and the payday that will allow her to finish her college degree. But as Matt’s unbridled enthusiasm for impending parenthood leads him to persistently insert himself into her life and invite her into his, the initially annoyed Anna finds herself reluctantly charmed. The pair of self-described loners gradually open up to each other, give in to the intimacy of their admittedly finite shared experience, and forge an unlikely friendship.

“Together Together” by writer/director Nikole Beckwith was by far the funniest of the films I viewed at this year’s Sundance. Ed Helms and Patti Harrison have fantastic one-on-one interactive energy and chemistry that led me to laugh out loud throughout the film. The premise of Helms interviewing and working with a surrogate mother — that is a bit over-controlling — was a hilarious premise that was executed perfectly. The film is a lot of fun and enjoyably heartfelt in every way.

Judas and the Black Messiah

Director Shaka King

Judas and the Black Messiah (Courtesy Sundance)

Fred Hampton’s cathartic words “I am a revolutionary” became a rallying call in 1969. As chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, Hampton demanded all power to the people and inspired a growing movement of solidarity, prompting the FBI to consider him a threat and to plant informant William O’Neal to infiltrate the party. Judas and the Black Messiah not only recounts Hampton’s legacy and the FBI’s conspiring but also gives equal footing to the man who became infamous for his betrayal—highlighting the systems of inequality and oppression that fed both of their roles.

“Judas and the Black Messiah,” absolutely earned its title as a double Sundance Grand Jury Prize nominee. A poetic and cathartic film, the story is a cathartic, yet tragic tale of real struggle in the face of adversity. It was beautiful, if agonizing to watch due to the truth of racial inequalities that have existed for generations. 

In this film, truth is more volatile than fiction, leaving me to ponder just how important it is to teach our children the real histories from where their ancestors came from. A profoundly brilliant film.

The Sparks Brothers

Director Edgar White

The Sparks Brothers (Courtesy Sundance)

Sparks is your favorite band’s favorite band, and soon to be yours too. Whether or not you’re aware of it, Sparks likely had a hand in something you’re fond of. This is a band that has been in the background of almost every art form across the last 50 years. Growing up in the ’60s, Los Angeles brothers Ron and Russell got by on a heavy diet of popcorn matinees and pop music until the spotlight of school talent shows illuminated their way on a musical journey that has so far spawned 25 studio albums.

“The Sparks Brothers” is a film of informative unfolding, where you discover more about the band’s music than you realized. At the beginning of the film, which follows the timeline of the Sparks history, at first, didn’t appeal to me only because I was unfamiliar with their music, nor did I like it. But what was most surprising was that as the film progressed, so did the evolution of the band. As it turns out, I loved quite a bit of the duo’s music decades after they first started their career in music. I was intrigued by the Sparks' ability to continuously reinvent themselves, not for the fans, but for themselves, who in the midst of the musician explorations, created an incredible body of music.

A surprisingly revealing film about a group that I hadn’t realized contributed to my life as a youth still discovering himself, much like the band has continued to do throughout their decades-long musical career. Truth be told, I didn’t realize how much I was going to enjoy this film, but I did.

P.S. They were the group that sang “Cool Places” with Jane Wiedlen of the Go-Gos.

We’re All Going To The World’s Fair

Director/Screenwriter Jane Schoenbrun

Were All Going to the World's Fair (Courtesy Sundance)

Late on a cold night somewhere in the U.S., teenage Casey sits alone in her attic bedroom, scrolling the internet under the glow-in-the-dark stars and black-light posters that blanket the ceiling. She has finally decided to take the World’s Fair Challenge, an online role-playing horror game, and embrace the uncertainty it promises. After the initiation, she documents the changes that may or may not be happening to her, adding her experiences to the shuffle of online clips available for the world to see. As she begins to lose herself between dream and reality, a mysterious figure reaches out, claiming to see something special in her uploads.

This film was a bit strange and unsettling in a very good way. More so than the film, the young actress, Anna Cobb, who plays Casey was the real and actual star of the project who brought a sense of sincerity and troubling honesty to the film. I appreciated her earnest efforts to create a scenic world of unsettling behavior in her world, and she hopefully will continue to mark her mark in the acting world. Truth be told, she disturbed the heck out of me with some of her portrayals as a troubled young person, whose only real connection to people is through the online world.

Mayday

Director/Screenwriter Karen Cinorre

Mayday (Courtesy Sundance)

An unusual storm is approaching, and it’s about to change everything for Ana (Grace Van Patten). After a short circuit at her workplace mysteriously transports her to an alternate world, she meets a crew of female soldiers caught in an endless war. Along a strange and rugged coastline, men face the stark truth lurking behind damsels who appear to be in distress. Under the leadership of Marsha (Mia Goth), Ana trains as a sharpshooter and discovers a newfound freedom in this uninhibited sisterhood. She soon senses she may not be the ruthless killer they expect, though, and time is running out for her to find a path home.

The premise of “Mayday” is a stunning one, an island of young women who fight as soldiers against other male soldiers in an effort to maintain their rightful place. It caused me to think, “If I was given ultimate power over my transgressors, how would I respond?” The thoughts created by the film are pervasive ones. Would I start out with a sense of brutality in my revenge which would dim in time as I realized my true nature? The film is a collection of these traveling thoughts, and the death of once-dominant soldiers fade into a sense of not much more than falling dominoes.

The film circles back around, much like my own realizations, is that no matter your situation, we will always revert to our true natures. A compelling and thought-provoking journey of a film and I am a better person because of it. One side note is that there are a few wonderfully-filmed underwater scenes and other choreographed moments that are artistically beautiful, fluid, and resounding in how much I thought of them after the fact.

Prisoners of the Ghostland

Director Sion Sono

Prisoners of the Ghostland (Courtesy Sundance)

In the treacherous frontier city of Samurai Town, a ruthless bank robber (Nicolas Cage) is sprung from jail by wealthy warlord The Governor (Bill Moseley), whose adopted granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella) has gone missing. The Governor offers the prisoner his freedom in exchange for retrieving the runaway. Strapped into a leather suit that will self-destruct within five days, the bandit sets off on a journey to find the young woman—and his own path to redemption.

By far, this film was the most artistically-created and beautifully done cinematic film I saw at Sundance. The vibrant colors, incredible and ornate costuming, and set design created a work of art on film. Throw in the fact that Nicolas Cage was the star, and I was all in. Some of the acting was a bit overdramatic, but all in all, it was a lot of fun. 

The film was a veritable anime cartoon of sorts that was turned into a beautifully-vibrant feature film and the cultural aspirations of director Sion Soro were clear. Watch it and have fun.

Native Nerd Phone

Vincent Schilling, Akwesasne Mohawk, is associate editor of Indian Country Today who enjoys creating media, technology, computers, comics, and movies. He is a film critic and writes the #NativeNerd column. Twitter @VinceSchilling. Email: vschilling@indiancountrytoday.com he is also the opinions’ editor, opinion@indincountrytoday.com.

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