Every year around this time, film critics, movie-lovers, artists and producers descend on Park City, Utah for the storied Sundance Film Festival. This year, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic made gathering in-person an impossibility (as it did in 2021 as well), but that hasn’t stopped the world’s biggest cinephiles from seeing some of the most exciting films on the horizon well before they turn up at multiplexes.
From Jan. 20-30, our film critics are scoping out the best, buzziest and most unexpected titles of the festival. Read on for our first dispatch on the first two days of the fest, which featured a new dramedy from writer/director Jesse Eisenberg, a stylish documentary about Princess Diana, a new take on the "one wild night" teen comedy formula and a stellar Norwegian romance.
When You Finish Saving the World: Jesse Eisenberg makes his darkly funny directorial debut
Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore appear in <i>When You Finish Saving the World</i> by Jesse Eisenberg, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Beth Garra
The premise: "From his bedroom home studio, high school student Ziggy performs original folk-rock songs for an adoring online fan base. This concept mystifies his formal and uptight mother, Evelyn, who runs a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse. While Ziggy is busy trying to impress his socially engaged classmate Lila by making his music less bubblegum and more political, Evelyn meets Angie and her teen son, Kyle, when they seek refuge at her facility. She observes a bond between the two that she’s missing with her own son, and decides to take Kyle under her wing against her better instincts."
Our critic’s take: Having made a career out of playing anxious, socially awkward loners, it’s no surprise that actor Jesse Eisenberg channels that exact same energy into his debut feature, "When You Finish Saving the World," which played on the opening day of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. What’s unique about this small-scale mother/son dramedy is the coldly reserved, darkly funny tone that stems from its two self-interested leads. Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) is a minorly famous internet teen who can only introduce himself by way of his follower count. His principled mom Evelyn (Julianne Moore) does selfless work at a women’s shelter yet makes small talk in a way that’s easily mistaken for a negative performance review.
It takes a minute to get onboard with the rigid, robotic way in which the characters in this world interact, but once you do, a multitude of pleasures await. Eisenberg crafts a poignant, drily comedic 21st century comedy of manners about activism, narcissism and communication. Unable to figure out a way to connect with each other ("You were supposed to be one of the good ones," Evelyn sighs in frustration at her self-absorbed son), Ziggy and Evelyn look to others to fill that void. While Wolfhard’s vain live-streamer tries to win over a politically radical classmate, Moore gets the film’s most deftly handled subplot as Evelyn strikes up what amounts to a maternal emotional affair with someone else’s golden child son.
At its best, there’s a delicate nuance to the relationship dynamics in "When You Finish Saving the World" – one that’s not entirely dissimilar from Eisenberg’s 2005 Sundance breakout "The Squid and the Whale." The problem is that the story here is so slight that "When You Finish Saving the World" almost doesn’t feel like a complete film. Still, at a breezy 88 minutes, the broad strokes that don’t work are at least mostly balanced out by the tensely funny, eccentrically stilted ones that do. [Caroline Siede]
WATCH ON TUBI: Jesse Eisenberg in "The Squid and the Whale"
The Worst Person in the World: An exceptional romantic dramedy from Norway
Renate Reinsve appears in "The Worst Person in the World" by Joachim Trier, an official selection of the Spotlight section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Kasper Tuxen. All photos are copyrighted and may
The premise: "Julie is young, beautiful, smart, and not exactly sure what she desires in a career or partner. One night she meets Aksel, a well-known graphic novelist 15 years her senior, and they quickly fall in love. Wondering if this will be the rest of her life, she meets a coffee barista, Eivind, who is also in a relationship. Julie has to decide, not just between two men but also who she is and who she wants to be."
Our critic’s take: Do we ever stop coming of age? That’s the question that implicitly sits at the heart of director Joachim Trier’s exceptional romantic dramedy, "The Worst Person in the World" — Norway’s official entry for Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards and an early contender for best film of the year. Julie (Renate Reinsve) is a 20-something who swiftly decides that med school isn’t for her, even if she isn’t entirely sure what comes next. Her new boyfriend Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) is fifteen years older and struggling to figure out his own next step in life after finding early success as an acclaimed underground comic book artist.
Trier has nothing but the deepest empathy for his lovably flawed lead characters, who also include Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), the more lighthearted lad who catches Julie’s eye at a party. Like the best coming-of-age romances, Trier’s funny, wistful film adds epic emotionality to the relatable minutia of everyday life. In the film’s most overtly magical moment, the world literally stops as Julie sneaks away for a romantic tryst. In a surreal trip sequence, magic mushrooms unlock the dark corners of Julie’s subconscious.
Yet the most poignant moments in "The Worst Person in the World" are often the most grounded; a flirtatious meet cute, a melancholy sharing of regrets, a fight that melts away into a quiet moment of reconciliation. If we never really come of age perhaps that’s because there are too many complicated layers to life to ever reach anything resembling a full stop – until, of course, we inevitably do. Without ever slipping into sentimentalism, "The Worst Person in the World" understands the warts-and-all beauty of what it means to truly live a life to the fullest, stumbling, striving and messing up along the way. [Caroline Siede]
WATCH ON TUBI: Joachim Trier’s thrilling drama "Thelma"
Emergency: A comfortable comedic formula in a brutal, familiar world
RJ Cyler, Sebastian Chacon and Donald Elise Watkins appear in <i>Emergency</i> by Carey Williams, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are co
The premise: "Straight-A college student Kunle and his laid-back best friend, Sean, are about to have the most epic night of their lives. Determined to be the first Black students to complete their school’s frat party legendary tour, the friends strap in for their ultimate assignment, Solo cups in hand. But a quick pit stop at home alters their plans when they find a white girl passed out on the living room floor. Faced with the risks of calling the police under life-threatening optics, Kunle, Sean, and their Latino roommate, Carlos, must find a way to de-escalate the situation before it’s too late."
Our critic’s take: "Emergency" has all the ingredients of a classic "one wild night" story, and it is that — hard to imagine a movie in which someone shoots pepper-spray into their own face after jabbing a stranger repeatedly in the butt with a big stick could be anything else. What makes "Emergency" unusual is that its familiar formula takes place in the reality that Black people in America experience every day. It’s a simple yet devastatingly effective approach: What happens to "Superbad" or "Dazed and Confused" if our heroes have to worry about getting murdered by the police?
That’s a heavy question, and "Emergency" is often a heavy film. Yet it never capsizes under its own weight, thanks in no small part to its boundlessly charming ensemble. Adapting their own short of the same name (a Special Jury Award winner at the 2018 festival), director Carey Williams and screenwriter K.D. Da’Vila display a real knack for lightning-fast characterization; each time we meet a character, they’re instantly familiar yet believably complex. That’s doubly true of the three young leads: Donald Elise Watkins, Sebastian Chacon and RJ Cyler (a standout in Netflix’s "The Harder They Fall") more than rise to the occasion of Da’Vila and Williams’ rich material. Cyler and Watkins, in particular, have the easy, watchable chemistry required to make the story sing, while Chacon gives the fanny-pack-wearing Carlos an irresistible gentleness.
There are some bumps in the road — the odd moment that feels just a bit on the nose, like a line item checked off a list, rather than an honest conversation between complicated people. Still, it’s hard to argue with the results. "Emergency" ratchets up the tension with each new wrinkle the young men encounter in their one wild night, but the final moments of this film exist in the bright light of day. It’s those sunkissed end notes that are most likely to grab you by the throat. In one simple scene, Williams tells us that the story continues, the experience lingering inside his characters like a splinter in the skin, too deep to dig out, just waiting to fester. [Allison Shoemaker]
105 minutes. Dir: Carey Williams. Featuring: RJ Cyler, Donald Elise Watkins, Sebastian Chacon, Maddie Nichols, Madison Thompson, Sabrina Carpenter. Distributed by Amazon Studios.
WATCH ON TUBI: Coming-of-age Britcom "Spaced," starring Simon Pegg
Fire of Love: Half nature documentary, half love story — and an unforgettable whole
A still from "Fire of Love" by Sara Dosa, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news o
The premise: "Katia and Maurice Krafft loved two things — each other and volcanoes. For two decades, the daring French volcanologist couple were seduced by the thrill and danger of this elemental love triangle. They roamed the planet, chasing eruptions and their aftermath, documenting their discoveries in stunning photographs and breathtaking film to share with an increasingly curious public in media appearances and lecture tours. Ultimately, Katia and Maurice would lose their lives during a 1991 volcanic explosion on Japan’s Mount Unzen, but they would leave a legacy that would forever enrich our knowledge of the natural world."
Our critic’s take: Pick just one of the major elements of this remarkable film — the Kraffts’ mind-boggling footage, Miranda July’s appealingly curious narration, direction that’s equal parts playful and mournful, masterful editing, a real humdinger of a love triangle — and that one element would be enough to make "Fire of Love" well worth approximately 100 or so minutes of your time. (93 minutes to watch, plus at least 10 to recover.) But director Sara Dosa allows all those fascinating pieces to roil together before, yes, erupting into a singular experience.
For a film that begins by telling us its heroes are long since dead, "Fire of Love" strikes an unexpectedly exuberant tone. Dosa and team capitalize on the playful stylishness of the Kraffts’ footage, turning to the French New Wave as inspiration. It’s a choice that allows the audience to experience both the awe and joy felt by its subjects as they dance on the edge of destruction, lava spewing liquidly, even puckishly, just beyond their silhouettes. What footage do scientists capture when each day on the job is also a dream vacation? What’s a day at the beach like when the sea is made of fire?
As with many great love stories, the romance becomes richer and more complex with age, as the Kraffts turn away from the bubbly red eruptions to their lethal gray cousins. Death is a constant presence in "Fire of Love," but its meaning to the Kraffts changes as they learn and experience more. It’s here, in the film’s more mournful second half, that Dosa really gets cooking. In the poetry of this precious scientific footage, Dosa unearths meditations on love, life, art, discovery, film, sacrifice and joy — and in doing so she brings the film back around to its early ebullience. When lava erupts from the earth, you see it raining furiously down. But if you shift your gaze past that veil of fire, you can also see it soaring up, up, up. Dosa, like the Kraffts, sees both at once, and her audience is all the richer for it. [Allison Shoemaker]
93 minutes. Documentary. Dir: Sara Dosa. Featuing: Miranda July.
WATCH ON TUBI: Docuseries "Living with Volcanoes"
The Princess: Diana doc views the People’s Princess as a cultural object
A still from "The Princess" by Ed Perkins, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Kent Gavin. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpo
The premise: "Decades after her untimely death, Princess Diana continues to evoke mystery, glamour, and the quintessential modern fairy tale gone wrong. As a symbol of both the widening fissures weakening the British monarchy and the destructive machinery of the press, the Princess of Wales navigated an unparalleled rise to fame and the corrosive challenges that came alongside it. Crafted entirely from immersive archival footage and free from the distraction of retrospective voices, this hypnotic and audaciously revealing documentary takes a distinctive formal approach, allowing the story of the People’s Princess to unfold before us like never before."
Our critic’s take: As recent efforts like "The Crown," "Spencer" and (woof) "Diana: The Musical" prove, Princess Diana lingers in the cultural conversation decades after her death. But while those media depictions interrogate Diana’s inner life, Ed Perkins’ new documentary views her rise and fall as The People’s Princess through the cameras that followed her at the time. No talking heads, no contextualizing narration — just a narrative constructed entirely from archival footage.
The results are fascinating, highlighting the myriad ways British culture both idolized and consumed her. Really, it’s less about the woman herself than about the way the British people viewed her: as a role model, as a commodity, as a figure to be both envied and possessed. Citizens weep with gratitude at her beauty and charity; panel show pundits scrutinize every element of her tumultuous marriage with Prince Charles; paparazzi hound her day and night, the machine-gun clacking of cameras following her every move. And in the middle is the woman herself, choking under the strain of the cameras and the public’s expectations.
Diana’s life has been so thoroughly documented and photographed that even the minute details of the story should be familiar to most; "The Princess" never pretends to impart any scandalous new information. But it offers a front-row seat to Diana’s experiences. We witness the merciless media campaigns to interrogate her private life as well as Diana’s attempts to turn that obsessive scrutiny into a tool for her many humanitarian efforts; we bear witness to the public’s subsequent reduction of a complex woman to a stereotypical camera-hungry fame seeker. More than anything, "The Princess" interrogates how the public’s need for a fairy tale dovetails with their need to destroy it. [Clint Worthington]
106 minutes. Documentary. Dir: Ed Perkins.
WATCH ON TUBI: "Princess Diana: the Quiet Revolution"
About the writer: Allison Shoemaker is a Chicago-based pop-culture critic and journalist. She is the author of "How TV Can Make You Smarter," and a member of the Television Critics Association and the Chicago Film Critics Association. She is also a producer and co-host for the Podlander Presents network of podcasts. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @allisonshoe. Allison is a Tomatometer-approved Top Critic on Rotten Tomatoes.
About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and TV critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she lovingly dissects the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her ongoing column When Romance Met Comedy at The A.V. Club. She also co-hosts the movie podcast, Role Calling, and shares her pop culture opinions on Twitter (@carolinesiede).
About the writer: Clint Worthington is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, and a Senior Writer at Consequence. You can find his other work at Vulture, Nerdist, RogerEbert.com, and elsewhere.
Build your own film festival with these award-winning titles, streaming (for free!) on Tubi
Schindler’s List (1993): Liam Neeson leads Steven Spielberg’s harrowing account of the Holocaust and the heroic man who saved more than a thousand lives. "Schindler’s List" won three Golden Globes and seven Oscars, and is often held up as one of the greatest films ever made. Rated R. 195 minutes. Dir: Steven Spielberg. Also featuring: Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes.
Lion (2016): Dev Patel transformed his career (and his public image) with this critically acclaimed true story of a young Indian-Australian man who becomes determined to find his lost birth family. With four Golden Globe nominations, six Oscar nods and two BAFTA wins, it’s a cross-cultural story that resonated around the world. Rated PG-13. 118 minutes. Dir: Garth Davis. Also featuring: Sunny Pawar, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, Priyanka Bose, David Wenham.
Lilies of the Field (1963): The great Sidney Poitier made history when he won a well-deserved Oscar for this comedic drama, an adaptation of William Edmund Barrett’s 1962 novel "The Lilies of the Field." When Homer (Poitier), an itinerant worker with long-dormant dreams of becoming an architect, saw a group of German nuns attempting to build a fence on a ramshackle Arizona farm, he probably didn’t expect to wind up taking on a massive construction project — but thanks to the intrepid Mother Maria (Lilia Skala), he’s persuaded to stay and help with a number of small jobs, then some medium-sized jobs, and then a whole church-sized job. It’s a charming film anchored by Poitier’s warm presence and thoughtful performance, a turn that will appeal to believers and non-believers alike. Rated TV-PG. 94 minutes. Dir: Ralph Nelson. Featuring: Sidney Poitier, Stanley Adams, Lilia Skala.
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