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 third dispatch from the fest, which features a tear-jerking VR documentary, a megachurch mockumentary from Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall, a primer on TikTok and Dakota Johnson in the winning romantic dramedy "Cha Cha Real Smooth."
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.: A megachurch mockumentary masterclass
Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown appear in "Honk For Jesus, Save Your Soul" by Adamma Ebo, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Alan Gwizdowski.
The premise: "As the proud first lady of a Southern Baptist megachurch, Trinitie Childs carries immense responsibility on her shoulders. Her church, Wander To Greater Paths, once served a congregation in the tens of thousands, but after a scandal involving her husband, Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs, forced the church to close temporarily, Trinitie is struggling to manage the aftermath. Now Trinitie and Lee-Curtis must rebuild their congregation and reconcile their faith by all means necessary to make the biggest comeback that commodified religion has ever seen."
Our critic’s take: The initial pitch for "Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul." seems simple enough. The film opens as a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary about a Black Southern Baptist Atlanta megachurch trying to get back on its feet after a scandal involving its peacocking pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown). Anchored by a hilarious turn from comedienne extraordinaire Regina Hall as his put-upon wife and dutiful "first lady" Trinitie, the opening act of "Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul" coasts along on familiar but well executed jokes about the absurdity of prosperity gospel. "There’s something about a pastor in Prada," the Childs gloat as they give the film’s in-world documentary crew a tour of the massive designer-filled walk-in closet the church keeps onsite.
Writer/director Adamma Ebo has a keen ear for the details of this world, including the passive aggressive daggers hidden behind every "bless your heart" and "god is good." And if "Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul." had simply maintained the opening act’s broad comedic tone, it likely still would’ve emerged as one of the most delightful entries in this year’s Sundance Film Festival line-up. But Ebo has something more complex up her sleeve as she expands her 2018 short of the same name into a formally inventive, tonally bold debut feature. A subtle shift in aspect ratio indicates when the film has stepped away from the mockumentary format to show us Trinitie and Lee-Curtis in their private lives, where the forced smiles are gone but the self-delusion remains. There’s a core of unexpected drama here as the film slowly reveals the exact nature of Lee-Curtis’ offenses and the weight that Trinitie bears as the loyal wife who’s chosen to stick by her husband.
If not every tonal shift works, the pure ambition on display is exhilarating. By the time the film has built to one of the best tragi-comic mime-related sequences in cinema history, it’s clear that Ebo has the confidently idiosyncratic voice of a filmmaker to watch. And she’s found the perfect collaborators in Hall and Brown, two of the most dexterous actors working today. Together, the director/actor trio gracefully dance up and down the entire comedic spectrum, from broad gags to surrealist dark comedy. The Childs may be out of sync, but this tour de force satire is perfectly in tune. [Caroline Siede]
WATCH FOR FREE ON TUBI: Regina Hall in dramedy "People Places Things"
Watcher: Maika Monroe shines as a woman watched
Maika Monroe appears in "Watcher" by Chloe Okuno, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
The premise: "Julia joins her husband when he relocates to his family’s native Romania for a new job. Having recently abandoned her acting career, she finds herself frequently alone and unoccupied. One night, people-watching from her picture window, she spots a vague figure in an adjacent building, who seems to be looking back at her. Soon after, while alone at a local movie theater, Julia’s sense of being watched intensifies, and she becomes certain she’s being followed — could it be the same unknown neighbor? Meanwhile, a serial killer known as The Spider stalks the city."
Our critic’s take: The history of cinema is replete with thrillers featuring protagonists suffocating under the claustrophobic paranoia of surveillance, but Chloe Okuno’s debut feature "Watcher" effectively adds to the formula. Laced through Okuno’s evocative film is a sparse, chilling element of cultural alienation, adding yet more tension to scenes that speak to the specific anxieties of being a woman in public spaces.
It’s the kind of film that would lend itself to tawdrier, skeezier tones, but Okuno keeps her cards close to the chest and plays it straight. Benjamin Kirk Nielson’s cinematography is David-Fincher-cold — slow zooms and out-of-focus background figures contribute to the titular feeling of voyeurism that both Maika Monroe’s Julia and the audience are meant to feel. Nathan Halpern’s eerie, precise score keeps us off-center, and (when we finally get to see him) actor Burn Gorman makes perfectly unsettling use of his signature brand of fish-lipped English menace.
The problem, though, is that "Watcher" is ultimately a little too icy, too hazy, to keep it from feeling predictable and static. Apart from Gorman, Monroe doesn’t get much to work with in terms of scene partners; as Julia’s disinterested husband, Karl Glusman doesn’t make much of an impression. And the central conflict would be more compelling if the film left room for uncertainty about Julia’s situation and suspicions. As is, "Watcher" is a brilliant showcase for Okuno’s command of atmosphere. Expect great things when she has more to lean on. [Clint Worthington]
WATCH FOR FREE ON TUBI: Maika Monroe in "I’m Not Here"
We Met in Virtual Reality: A heartwarming tale of creating community across the digital divide
A still from "We Met in Virtual Reality" by Joe Hunting, an official selection of the World Cinema: Documentary Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Joe Hunting.
The premise: "Virtual reality for many is as far away a place as can be imagined. In his groundbreaking work, first-time feature director Joe Hunting examines this new frontier for human engagement with surprising tenderness. Following a number of couples who met in VR during the pandemic, Hunting leads with romance but opens an exploration of technology, borders, and imagination. One of the most visually singular and formally exciting documents of the COVID-19 lockdown, "We Met in Virtual Reality" is a powerful testament to the new paths to connection that creativity can forge. Everything from belly dancing, sign language lessons, and hotly contested billiards games bring an unexpected familiarity to these never-before-seen spaces."
Our critic’s take: While the COVID-19 pandemic forced us all to turn to the Internet to find community (largely through Zoom and/or more traditional social media), VRChat offers a more immersive, creative experience: Users of the online virtual world platform can create their own avatars and worlds, allowing them to dream up a digital self of infinite possibility. Want to look like a buxom catgirl? Have at it. A spiky-haired anime character with rippling muscles? More power to you. Kermit the Frog? You do you, boo.
But the heartwarming key to Joe Hunting’s inviting, humanistic documentary is the utter lack of condescension he exhibits toward his subjects. Tracking a number of communities in VRChat, including several couples who met on the platform and now engage in long-distance relationships, Hunting focuses on the freedom these kaleidoscopic virtual worlds lend to their inhabitants. We see neurodivergent people seeking the comfort of community, queer folks using the freedom of their avatars to explore their true selves, women exploring their sexual freedom in the anonymity of digital space and so on.
Tucked away in these manufactured worlds, Hunting’s subjects have found a place to call their own — to fall in love, to explore themselves, to while away a few short hours and leave the trials of the workday behind in a place where they won’t be judged. Yes, there are giggles to be had at the sight of glitching avatars of increasing levels of ridiculousness talking to each other in fantastical environments or the wonky physics of VR pool games. But the sound of the held-back tears in someone’s voice as they walk down a virtual aisle to marry their sweetheart, or the sight of a Deaf user signing goodbye to a brother lost to suicide before sending their soul to rest in a virtual lantern ceremony — those moments tell a very different story. As virtual as the venue may be, the love and connections formed inside it are as tear-jerkingly human as they come [Clint Worthington]
91 minutes. Documentary. Dir: Joe Hunting.
WATCH FOR FREE ON TUBI: Docuseries "Life 2.0"
TikTok, Boom.: A beginner’s guide to all things TikTok
Spencer X in "TikTok, Boom." Photo: Sundance.
The premise: "Dissecting one of the most influential platforms of the contemporary social media landscape, TikTok, Boom. examines the algorithmic, sociopolitical, economic, and cultural influences and impact of the history-making app. This rigorous exploration balances a genuine interest in the TikTok community and its innovative mechanics with a healthy skepticism around the security issues, global political challenges, and racial biases behind the platform. A cast of Gen Z subjects, helmed by influencer Feroza Aziz, remains at its center, making this one of the most needed and empathetic films exploring what it means to be a digital native."
Our critic’s take: If you’re looking for a primer on all things TikTok, you could do worse than the accessible tech documentary "TikTok, Boom." The trouble is, you could also do better. Director Shalini Kantayya tries to look at the popular social media app from seemingly every angle, including content-creator fame, censorship, branding, child safety, cyber security, algorithmic bias and geopolitical tension. Yet in doing so, she winds up sacrificing depth for breadth.You’ll certainly come away from "TikTok, Boom." with a lot of talking points, but you might not feel like you’ve actually gained a deeper understanding of the platform itself.
The most interesting thing about this largely conventional talking head documentary is the contrast that emerges between Kantayya’s two main groups of subjects. The Gen Z content creators eagerly connect their experiences with the app to personal self-actualization stories. In contrast, the tech experts are quick to emphasize that the potential dangers of TikTok (i.e. data collection, harassment, child endangerment) are endemic to pretty much all social media apps; that this is a systemic issue, not a novelty story.
The latter group provides meatier, more thoughtful analysis, as tech journalists and specialists try to parse out why TikTok’s connections to China make it different to Silicon Valley-based social media apps, even as others raise questions about whether that very framing is steeped in xenophobia. In the end, however, the TikTok-famous youngsters are just inherently more interesting to watch. Recent Afghan-American high school grad Feroza Aziz recounts how she avoided censorship by hiding political messaging in faux make-up tutorials. Former Kamala Harris campaign staffer Deja Foxx speaks with the poise of a future politician and the enthusiasm of a young 20-something. Musician Spencer X breaks down in tears while recounting how TikTok made his dreams of becoming a professional beatboxer come true.
There’s a fascinating — and at times unintentionally humorous — tension between the optimistic idealism and simplistic navel-gazing that characterizes these TikTok fame-os. Had Kantayya simply trained her camera on any one of these influencers, she might have had an interesting character study on her hands. As is, however, "TikTok, Boom." sort of feels like scrolling through TikTok itself: A lot of content without much focus. [Caroline Siede]
90 minutes. Documentary. Dir: Shalini Kantayya.
WATCH FOR FREE ON TUBI: How-to guide "Tech Talk Time: Tik Tok in 30 Minutes"
Cha Cha Real Smooth: A stellar new riff on a classic indie dramedy formula
Dakota Johnson appears in "Cha Cha Real Smooth" by Cooper Raiff, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
The premise: "Fresh out of college — but now what? Higher education failed to provide 22-year-old Andrew with a clear life path going forward, so he’s stuck back at home with his family in New Jersey. But if college did teach him one thing, it’s drinking and partying — skills that make him the perfect candidate for a job party-starting at the bar and bat mitzvahs of his younger brother’s classmates. When Andrew befriends a local mom, Domino, and her daughter, Lola, he finally discovers a future he wants, even if it might not be his own."
Our critic’s take: Don’t be put off by the fact that "Cha Cha Real Smooth" sounds like a movie you’ve seen before. Andrew (writer/director Cooper Raiff) is a recent college grad with absolutely no idea what he wants to do with the rest of his life. Paralyzed by the prospect of "real" adulthood, he moves back in with his family and takes a dead-end job to make ends meet, before eventually striking up a flirtatious relationship with a dazzling woman who will change his life forever. This is a tale as old as time (or at least as old as "The Graduate"), yet Raiff elevates it so gently and empathetically that the well-trod beats somehow feel fresh all over again.
That springs from the fact that Andrew isn’t some icon of 22-year-old entitlement, but a genuinely kind, caring person whose idea of a good time is taking his little brother (Evan Assante) to a bar mitzvah and ensuring the party goes off without a hitch. It’s a quietly radical depiction of masculinity, all the more so because "Cha Cha Real Smooth" doesn’t present this as some kind of heroic act on Andrew’s part. It’s just a natural outpouring of the compassionate personality he developed in his loving yet challenging childhood. When beguiling 30-something local mom Domino (Dakota Johnson) impulsively admits that she feels completely comfortable around him, you get it. He’s the kind of person who’s constantly striving to put others at ease.
Which isn’t to say that Andrew doesn’t have his flaws. As writer and director, Raiff brings a maturity beyond Andrew’s more naïve perspective. Stuck on the cusp of adulthood, Andrew doesn’t always realize just how limited his viewpoint is — and how much higher the stakes can be for people in other stages of their lives. Like the best entries in the "kind movie" canon, "Cha Cha Real Smooth" crafts a world without the melodramatic conceits of heroes and antagonists. Instead, the characters are all fundamentally nice, caring people, and the tension stems from the way their wants and needs don’t always align, much as they might want them to.
Wistfully romantic and impossibly charming, "Cha Cha Real Smooth" is a special little movie that’s deeper than the moniker "crowd pleaser" might suggest. Raiff has a knack for writing dialogue that captures how people actually speak (or at least how they might if they were 10 percent more emotionally honest with each other). And that lends a palpable chemistry to just about every relationship in the film – from Andrew’s crackling flirtations with Domino (Johnson is excellent in her enigmatic role) to his sweet dynamic with his sensitive mom (Leslie Mann, also wonderful). Filled with details and nuances that breathe new life into a familiar formula, "Cha Cha Real Smooth" is somehow both a gut-punch and a warm blanket all at the same time. Poignant, funny and gorgeously empathetic, it’s among the best of what this year’s Sundance has to offer. [Caroline Siede]
WATCH FOR FREE ON TUBI: Dakota Johnson in indie dramedy Chloe & Theo
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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