The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, which was forced to take place largely online, with scattered outdoor screenings and socially-distanced events in cities around the country. But the pandemic has also impacted Sundance creatively, leading to an opening four days in which filmmakers have used a variety of techniques and genres to grapple with the issues of a virus that was just beginning to surface when the last in-person Sundance took place in Park City a year ago.
The most obvious example is the opening-night documentary “In the Same Breath” from Chinese-born director Nanfu Wang, who came to Park City straight from China in January 2020, and then found she couldn’t rejoin her husband and son there because of the pandemic lockdown. Her film includes wrenching footage from Wuhan in the early days of the virus but expands to look at the Chinese and American governments’ mishandling of the pandemic for political reasons.
But a documentary about COVID is far from the only Sundance film to bear the marks of it. Friday, the second day of the festival, brought an afternoon premiere of Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones’ comedy “How It Ends,” which was shot on the streets of Los Angeles during the pandemic and is set on the last day before the Earth will be destroyed by an asteroid. Three hours later, Ben Wheatley premiered “In the Earth,” a horror film that he shot in the U.K. during the pandemic, about a society in which a virus has raged unabated for a year.
Other Sundance films that have nothing to do with viruses have somehow caught the mood of the moment. Lucy Walker’s “Bring Your Own Brigade,” for example, is a documentary about the wildfires that have grown increasingly deadly in California over the past few years. But as she delved into the story, Walker said when she came into TheWrap’s virtual Sundance studio that she found the science denial and political motivations behind the COVID response was also present in our response to wildfires.
Meanwhile, Robin Wright’s directorial debut, “Land,” is in some ways a meditation on isolation; the creepy drama “John and the Hole” finds a family in its own enforced isolation, which costar Jennifer Ehle compared to pandemic stay-at-home orders; and Christopher Abbott’s performance in Jerrod Carmichael’s “On the Count of Three” is an encapsulation of the rage that lurks under the surface (and often above the surface) in 2021.
Other Sundance films, even ones set in different times, have ended up speaking to the uncertain and tumultuous time in which we live. “When I started out, I thought I was making a movie about 1969,” director Questlove told TheWrap, referring to his documentary “Summer of Soul,” which chronicles a Harlem music festival but expands to cover issues of racial tension. “But then I realized it was as much about today as it was about 50 years ago.”
Sundance 2021 has definitely been about today, starting with the fact that people are watching it from their homes and all the Q&As are virtual. But it’s also about today because the films deal with race (Rebecca Hall’s “Passing,” Shaka King’s upcoming “Judas and the Black Messiah”), refugees (the animated documentary “Flee,” the ISIS doc “Sabaya”), fake news (“Misha and the Wolves”), LGBT issues (“My Name Is Pauli Murray”) and revolutions coming from the oddest places (nuns in “Rebel Hearts,” children’s television in “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street”).
Even the festival’s biggest sale ever, “CODA,” takes a fairly conventional, crowd-pleasing coming-of-age story and gives it a spin that speaks to today’s cries for inclusion and diversity by casting three deaf actors in crucial roles. And as Sharon Waxman pointed out, behind the scenes the festival has hit new peaks in showcasing work from female directors.
That doesn’t mean that Sundance ’21 has been all about current issues; it’s also showcased a typical array of character studies (the docs “Ailey” and “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It”), tough dramas (“Mass”) and indie riffs (“R#J,” which tries very hard to update Shakespeare for the social media age).
Normally, four days into a Sundance Film Festival would be time to look back at the festival so far and look ahead to the remaining week — but in this case, nearly everything has already been showcased. Not only was the festival reduced from its usual 11-day run down to seven days, but it was also severely frontloaded: Of the 74 features screening over six days (the seventh being devoted to award winners), 67 will have premiered by the end of Sunday.
What’s left are some films that have already played elsewhere (“Night of the Kings,” “The World to Come”) and Warner Bros.’ premiere of “Judas and the Black Messiah,” among others. And that means that Sundance so far is pretty much all the Sundance we’re gonna get — a slimmed-down, virtualized, COVID-ized festival that has set a new record for the biggest deal ever while struggling to capture the Park City feeling when nobody’s in Park City.
The Sundance virtual festival platform is state-of-the-art when it comes to moving the festival experience online — but like everything else about the past year, it’s not really what we wanted. Still, as one of Donald Trump’s favorite rally songs reminded us (and him), you can’t always get what you want. And maybe those virtual screenings of “CODA” and “In the Same Breath” and “Passing” and “On the Count of Three” are what we need.
In a pandemic year, we’ll just have to settle for a pandemic Sundance.