Opening night at the Sundance Film Festival, in recent years, has featured mixed results. During the afternoon, before the premiere, as you walk around Park City, there are countless variations of the same conversation that goes something like, “Hey, we could get another Whiplash!,” followed by, “Sure, or we could get The Bronze.” (If you don’t know what The Bronze is, and you probably do not, there’s a reason for that.) And last year gave us Blindspotting, a movie that stayed in the 2018 discussion the whole year and wound up on our best films of 2018 list. The two Thursday night Sundance premieres at Eccles, After the Wedding and Native Son, were both ambitious efforts, but I’d have a hard time imagining either on any “best of” lists.
Bart Freundlich’a After the Wedding is a remake of Susanne Bier’s Oscar-nominated Danish film, only Freundlich gender swaps a lot of the roles. Look, it’s always weird after a film festival movie when people ask what you think and then, when your answer differs from theirs, you get this sad, perplexed face in return. But I did seem to enjoy After the Wedding more than most people. And I think there are a couple reasons for that.
With a movie starring Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams and it being the opening night film, I got the sense people were looking for something profound. After the Wedding is not a profound movie. Instead, it’s a movie about hidden family secrets, with a comical amount of twists, and it plays more as melodramatic schlock. And I just happened to really be in the mood for melodramatic schlock.
Without giving too much away: Isabel (Williams) works for a non-profit organization in India. She’s summoned to New York by a wealthy CEO, Theresa (Moore), who is thinking about donating a substantial amount of money to Isabel’s charity. Theresa’s daughter is getting married this weekend and she invites Isabel to the wedding. It’s there Isabel sees Theresa’s husband (Billy Crudup), who Isabel has a long, very complicated history with, and from here on out we are off to the races with twists and turns and revelations – and it’s all so over the top, but I somehow found myself relating. Which is very weird.
After the movie, I was talking to a colleague and I mentioned that a lot After the Wedding hit home for me. He looked at me like I was nuts. Without getting into too many private details about my life, let’s just say the idea of finding out about a father lying about a secret relative isn’t something that sounds that outlandish to me anymore, even though it is pretty outlandish.
Rashid Johnson’s Native Son, which premiered right after After the Wedding, is both ambitious and, unfortunately, disappointing. But, before we get into that, I do want to point out how great Ashton Sanders is in this movie. After his breakout performance in Moonlight, and a supporting role in The Equalizer 2, this is a young actor who we will be hearing about for a long, long time. He’s just infectious to watch.
Based on Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, only set in the present day, it’s admirable what Johnson attempts to pull off here. I mean, he goes for it. This is a huge swing. And if you read about this movie, you’re probably going to read a lot of opinions that go something like, “I was into it for the first half, then I wasn’t.” And, sadly, that goes for me, too.
Sanders plays Bigger Thomas in such a unique, interesting way that I couldn’t help but be enthralled by his life. Unfortunately, the plot points in Wright’s novel, of all things, betray him. Even though Johnson sets the events of the film in the present day, the main beats of the novel are all still there. And one, in particular, is probably a mistake, to the point it took me out of the film for the rest of the duration. I understand this is in the book, but perhaps Wright’s novel just wasn’t made to be set in 2019. The scene in question displays an act the movie treats as a freak accident, but what we see is something obviously aggressive and violent. The end result of the act isn’t intended, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t violent. It’s a strange and head-scratching decision to portray this event in that way because it’s just one scene, but it’s the most important scene in the whole movie and it really is a case study of how one clumsy scene can derail an entire film.
Regardless, it’s also pretty obvious how talented a filmmaker Rashid Johnson is already, and how talented he’s going to be in the future. His use of time-lapse and his use of angles had me murmuring to myself, “Wow, what a great shot.” I suspect Rashid Johnson is a name we will be hearing a lot from as the years go on.
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