• Nate Adams

Sundance Review Day 1: 'Coda', 'Summer of Soul' and 'Censor'


Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Welcome to TheOnlyCritic’s continuous Sundance Film Festival coverage, each day we’ll file an article with information and reviews of the films screened during the fest. Below is Day 1


CODA

Kicking off the Sundance Film Festival in the US Dramatic Competition is Siân Heder’s wholesome coming-of-age drama “Coda.” Ruby (Jones) is the titular “coda” or “Child of Deaf Adults” and with that comes its own set of burdens. Living in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Ruby’s responsible for translating for her parents Frank (Troy Kotsur) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin), and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) daily because they can’t afford an interpreter. The family owns a fish and catch business, which means Ruby is the ambassador for negotiating prices, answering radios, and catering to their sensibilities. It also means she’s the messenger of bad news, like how fish prices are tanking and their taxes are going up.


A demanding life that deprives Ruby of being a normal teenager (kids at school used to make fun of her because of how she talked and like to point out the fish smell), she finds happiness in singing and her eccentric choir teacher (Eugenio Debrez - having an absolute blast) sees the potential, and he should because that voice is flawless, setting up a life changing musical audition for Berklee. But with the fishing business at a crossroads, it sets the stage for an ultimate decision.


There’s a beautiful metaphor lurking in Heder’s film as Ruby discovers her voice while her parents can never hear it (they even joke about whether or not she’s good). The director paints a stirring portrait about the joy and appreciation of sounds and family. This is a tight knit group, and though folks looking from the outside might laugh, they’d be jealous at their rare commodity.


“Coda” is a wonderful start to the Sundance Film Festival, giving authentic representation to the Deaf community, while finding beats to deliver somber moments of connection. A scene around the dinner table might look different with minimal sounds, yet there’s eloquence to the presentation. It’s equally hysterical when Ruby comes home from school with her crush and the parents are “doing it” because, well, they don’t know any better. In the year that’s seen “Sound of Metal” and “The Ultimate Playlist of Noise” awareness around these issues has never been more heightened.


In the end, “Coda” is a special film that overcomes the conventional and predictable aspects of its story for maximum crowd-pleasing efficiency.


Grade: B+


CODA premiered at the Sundance Film Festival US Dramatic Competition and is currently seeking distribution.


SUMMER OF SOUL (OR WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED)

Questlove's directorial debut, “Summer of Soul (Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” is an infectious toe-tapping good time. Premiering in the US Doc section of the festival, “Summer of Soul” unspools never been seen archival footage of the 1969 Harlem Culture Fest which is pieced together with prominent interviewees (Stevie Wonder, festival goers, Chris Rock and Lin Manuel Miranda) explaining the festival’s overall impact. It’s borderline incredible this footage was preserved for almost 50 years. Credit to Questlove and editor Joshua L. Pearson for fostering a steady, free flowing recollection of the events, which features live concert footage of everyone from gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, BB King, Gladys Knight to The 5th Dimension, David Ruffin and Sly and the Family Stone. You can’t beat this lineup.


Described in most circles as “the ultimate black barbecue” and/or “the black Woodstock,” (which was going on at the exact same time) the Harlem Culture Fest was taking shape during significant historical events, notably the moon landing where festival attendees couldn’t care less. They understood the festival was more beneficial to them than some white guy landing on the moon. Begging legit questions about weather or not the money used to fund the NASA space program could have gone to serve struggling communities. They have a point.


“Summer of Soul” keeps a stable balance though it occasionally felt like topics or subjects are forgotten the longer it moves on. When you have pristine footage of Sly and the Family Stone chewing up the stage for twenty minutes, I’d use it all too, but subjects would start a thought and never finish them. When Lin Manuel Miranda and his father show up to discuss how Harlem Culture Fest paved the way for a new era of Puerto Rican music, they come and go so fast, you could blink and miss them.


Regardless, “Summer of Soul” is a blast that keeps its finger on the pulse of the culture in 1969. Everything from the ramifications of the Vietnam war and the Heroin epidemic, Questlove makes sure each of these influences get their spotlight, but he never loses sight of the music and how the overall vibe was a celebration of healing in a community that desperately needed some love.


Grade: B


SUMMER OF SOUL premiered in the US Documentary section of the Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.


CENSOR

The first film in Sundance’s Midnight section, writer and director Prano Bailey-Bond’s nostalgic splatterfest homage “Censor” is wrapped in a bright neon package. Niamh Algar is Enid, a reviewer for the British Classification Board responsible for slapping films - mostly gory hard to watch exploitative horror flicks the tabloids call “nasties” - with their certification and determining what extensive cuts (if any) should be made. Taking place in the early 1980s, the country is on edge, and the public keeps a watchful eye on the content children consume. “Censor” brings forth the age-old question of how violence in cinema can influence young minds, similar to the fallout of the 1999 Columbine massacre.


When a film she approved gets linked to a series of gruesome killings, suddenly all eyes are Enid. But that subplot takes a back seat to a more pressing and personal issue. Enid’s younger sister went missing when they were kids, and she feels responsible. Her parents have filed a death certification and wish to bury the hatchet, but Enid is determined to find her. The next day at work, she meets a slimy producer of grindhouse horror, screens his new film, and believes the actress on camera is in fact her long lost sister.


From there, “Censor” wastes no time blurring the line between reality and fiction in a gonzo, bloody third act where Enid slowly starts to consume herself. It would seem her daily dose of graphic horror flicks is starting to have a profound effect on her wellbeing in exactly the way parents had worried about their children. It doesn’t always work and the momentum stumbles from the first twenty minutes, but I appreciated what Bailey-Bond is saying about the consequences of restricting art and how it will pave the way for insanity.


Grade: B-


CENSOR debuted in the Midnight Section of the Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.


Stay tuned to TheOnlyCritic.com for continuing coverage of the Sundance Film Festival.

All above photos courtesy of the Sundance Institute.