White Girl Review By Jeff Goldsmith from Sundance 2016

White Girl

“Now you know why I don’t want a daughter,” is what the late 20s woman in front of me laughingly commented to her pal as they left the theater, after viewing Elizabeth Wood’s writing-directing debut White Girl on Saturday. As a parent to a brightly imaginative and loving daughter – the only notion I had in such regards is – I don’t want a life like that for my daughter. The film overflows with consensual sex – which seemed to bring the characters moments of elation only to be followed up by scenes depciting over the top drug abuse, rape and even murder. For as grim and depressing as the film became – the saddest point of the entire evening occurred during the Q&A when after being asked what inspried the film Wood frankly said that much of the film happened to her. The room went deathly silent and the moderator moved on to the next question and that’s where I feel it’s importat to begin my review.

Wood accomplished what most debut writer-directors only dream of – she captured great perforamnces and laid the foundation for a very entertaining and watchable style that I’m sure her work will continue to build upon. There’s a vibrancy to her style which bleeds with color in the club scenes only to be countered by the harsh light of day the characters force themselves through in anticipation of the the coming eve where they can come alive again as drugged up vampires they are. When it comes to the drug use – the scenes and experiences blur together, fast paced and rarely taking a breather. There’s a vibrancy to it – helped by the excellent editing and music selection the film implores, yet such a style leads to the root of the narrative problems that emerge. The film is a present tense tale with practically no room for any amount of perspective by protagonist Leah (Morgan Saylor). 

After moving into a trashy Queens neighborhood she reaches out to a group of Puerto Rican drug dealers who seem friendly enough to help her resupply her stash. In the same day that her boss practically raped her at work after getting her high, later that eve she quickly falls for Blue (rapper Brian ‘Sene’ Marc) who she has consensual sex with after he treats her right. He’s a drug dealer with a heart type of character and seemingly the only positive male influence in Leah’s life (we never hear anything about her father). When Leah realizes that white kids would pay 3 times as much for Blue’s coke she brings him to a party where he has quite a profitable night. And right as their relationship is starting to go places, he’s arrested by an undercover cop, thus clarifying Leah’s journey for the rest of the film as she rushes to do anything within her power to help get him out of jail. In order to raise the money needed, she becomes a drug dealer so she can pay  Blue’s expensive legal bills. Her drug use heightens and she continues to lose control over her life and eventually falls victim to rape and violence in her pursuit of freeing Blue. 

And this brings us back to perspective. Leah, like the film, is moving too fast to really have any sense of perspective or even a learning curve for that matter. There’s a great urgency seen in present tense narratives – yet the pitfall is that if the character isn’t learning anything at all from scene to scene – the traps they walk into will over time seem more than a little obvious to the audience, which is what happens here. All the great groundwork laid out earlier seems lost as we watch Leah stumble through the second half of the film. While it can be argued that perspective is dificult to find in the present tense – here even basic common sense is thrown out the window as Leah chooses to put herself into each new dangerous and humiliating predicament. This doesn’t seem to be done in a self-destructive sense so much as as the audience is asked to suspend their dispbelief that Leah can’t see the dark turns ahead that are so glariingly obvious. Regardless of the truths depicted on screen from Wood’s own life, while she succeeded in illuminating them as cautionary tales – she  essentially neglected her responsibility to filter the rawness of these events into moments that constitute a solid enough character arc for Leah that audiences could truly invest in. While we sympathize with her during these repeated humiliations, we’re frustrated to see her so naively choosing paths that by the middle of the film she should simply know to avoid. 

Consensual sex is never presnted in the light of fetish in Wood’s realm,  but rather in a stylized documentary fashion whereby it’s simply another drug for her characters to consume. The film pushes boundaries in its depcition of sex and will likely garner a  NC-17 rating from the pro-violence but sex-shy MPAA. To her credit it seems as if Wood was trying for an R, which she’d still likely be denied, namely in a scene where she creatively   framed Leah and another woman snorting cocaine from the surface of an man’s erection. Without really seeming pornographic but instead more cinema verite’ Wood conveyed the act using  the bare amount of information needed to do so, but via angles mainstream audiences rarely see as sex like this isn’t presented too often. Maybe it’s the tone of the drug fueled sex scenes throughout which play as more animalisticevents deviod of eroticism whereby the images may shock but the lack of intimacy allows the audience enough distance to safely process them. Thankfully when Leah is raped Wood mostly focuses on reflections from a window. 

The talent in front of and behind the camera here is undeniable. Saylor and Wood succeed in creating a vibrant film with a memorable character that we empathize with so much – that we’re simply left wanting a little more from.  –Jeff Goldsmith

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FROM THE SUNDANCE GUIDE:

The cross section between New York’s mean streets and its gentrified alcoves makes for potent social satire in Elizabeth Wood’s tough and exhilarating debut. Equipped with platinum blonde hair and a winning smile, college girl Leah (Morgan Saylor) seeks out pleasure in any form. She has two weeks before fall semester, and in between getting high with her roommate and snorting lines with her boss, she finds time to hit it off with a handsome, young Puerto Rican drug dealer named Blue. Within days, the two are selling dime bags to her affluent white colleagues, collecting fast cash, and living the high life. But their euphoria comes to a grinding halt once Blue is arrested and Leah’s left with a hefty amount of his coke. Does she sell it to save him or use it herself?

Shot with a sharp eye for New York City, White Girl thrashes through an increasingly high-stakes game of hedonism where unspoken socio-economic tensions coupled with a blatant disregard for consequence converge into a shocking commentary on today’s youth culture. Saylor and Wood are forces to be reckoned with, unleashing a torrent of vulnerability and confidence that will leave audiences enticed and unsettled.

Director: Elizabeth Wood
Screenwriter: Elizabeth Wood

Swiss Army Man Review by Jeff Goldsmith

Swiss Army Man

Narratively, directorially and certainly in each performance – risks were continiously taken – which is why Swiss Army Man is nearly a litmus test for what a fantstically creative Sundance film can be. 

Co-writer/co-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (A.K.A. “The Daniels” as they’re credited) constructed a narrative that relies entirely on point-of-view from a very unreliable narrator. Hank (Paul Dano)  starts off the film ready to kill himself after being stranded on an island for far too long. Suddenly a corpse washes up on shore –  Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) – and the only response Hank manages to elicit from this rigid shell of a man is the release of his morbid gaseous fumes as Hank leans on him and tries to save him.  Dismayed that Manny can’t offer any sort of companionship, Hank resumes trying ot kill himself as Manny continues an orchestral suite’s worth of farting – which gives Hank an idea – what if these seemingly powerful emissions could be used to help his own situation?

Soon we find Hank literally riding Manny like a jet-ski as Manny’s fumes glide the pair over the waves at a solid 35 MPH speed. Thus marks about the first three minutes of a film which luckily never lets up in such wild ideas.

The script tells a simplistic, yet complicated tale which The Daniels described in the Q&A as “A suicidal man needs to convince a body that life is worth living.”

As the corpse gains consciousness and the ability to converse, the tale delves much further than simply being a artful homage to Weekend At Bernie’s – but rather a fractured reckoning for Hank as his inner demons seem to bubble to the surface. If the existential tale isn’t interesting enough – the direction is extraordinary in it’s creation of gorgeous imagery captured on such a low budget. Sometimes during monologues elaborately dreamlike montages play out and other times beautiful music fills the track. To their credit – The Daniels packed so much imagery into the film and sometimes presented it in such a speedy fashion that a wild frenetic feel takes over that just about seems to put you into the thunderous concert taking place within Hank’s mind. 

Films this risky aren’t made so often – and it was the combined star power and endorsement of Dano & Radcliffe that made Swiss Army Man happen – therefore it’s no surprise they dove into their roles, because aside from being wild – they’re quite meaty. It’s basically a two-man show filled with poignantly emotional moments and even some surrealism as well.

And that’s where some critics and audience members split – as some disconnected from the story during those interludes. Since surrealism isn’t often seen in narrative films  beyond a cheesy and obvious dream sequence unfortunately some people were turned off by it – and checked out mentally in those sections. Which is a shame as they’re missing out on the opportunity to invest themselves into a rare experience that allows the viewer’s mind to wander – just as the characters traverse past their own inner demons both past and present. All these risks began as wild ideas on the page – that seemingly made the writer-directors continue to say – “I wonder what happens next?” –  which is a great place to lead their audience.

Swiss Army Man provides a fascinating big screen experience – and if you have a chance to see it at the fest – it’s certianly worth the effort.

Read the official Sundance Guide synopsis below:

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FROM THE GUIDE:

Alone on a tiny deserted island, Hank has given up all hope of ever making it home again. But one day everything changes when a dead body washes ashore, and he soon realizes it may be his last opportunity to escape certain death. Armed with his new “friend” and an unusual bag of tricks, the duo go on an epic adventure to bring Hank back to the woman of his dreams.

Music video gurus “The Daniels,” a.k.a. Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, craft a wholly original debut feature bursting with limitless creativity both in content and form. Their consistently surprising script spans a wide range of emotions: from the ridiculously absurd to a touching exploration of what it means to be human. Given what are likely to be some of the most unique roles of their acting careers, co-leads Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe give their all to a movie that celebrates the wonder that cinema offers.

YEAR 2015

SECTION U.S. Dramatic

COUNTRY U.S.A.

RUN TIME 95 min

Morris From America Sundance Review  By Jeff Goldsmith



Morris from America

Writer-director Chad Hartigan follows up his 2013 Sundance flick This Is Martin Bonner with a heart-felt coming of age story in Morris From America.

The film follows Morris in a fish out of water tale where we expereince the African-American 13-year-old try to fit into a small German town and realize that maybe there simply isn’t a place for him.

While racial lines come into play – they are not the focus of the film (it’s funny how the German kids all think because Morris is black he must be able to rap,  and play basketball – he can’t play ball but wants to rap). So when he meets Katrin and falls for her – ultimately it becomes a love story as Morris tries to impress this older gal.  She’s a bit of a rebel a es that her mom is scared of her dating someone black – and ultimately she builds a friendship with Morris – but it is their age – not the color of their skin – which remains a dvide. That’s something Morris comes to learn to understand – just becuase she , a 15 year-old, is attracted to a college fella doesn’t mean that they can’t still be friends. Therefore the film remains a solid tale about growing up and finding friends in unlikely places.

The ghost of the film is Morris’ dead mother, who Craig Robinson (who plays his father) still pines for years after her untimely death.  Tasked with raising Morris on his own, he’s just trying to do what’s best for his son and works for the entire film to get Morris to understand that.  The climax in this father son relationship is when Robinson delivers a monolouge about  meeting  Morris’ mom and the silly things we all do for love. It’s a great monologue and was well filmed while Roinson is seemingly driving (in real life he was filmed on a moving camera car). 

During the Q&A I asked Robinson what inspired his performance for the monolouge and he said it remeinded him of a time where he messed up as a teen and got his family’s car impounded. He remembered that when he called his dad to apologize and ask for help – rather than get really mad – his dad started talking about something he thought Craig sould try and do in his act. It was definitely one of the more dramatic performances Robinson had given and besides speaking German with a fluent feel – he really did a fantastic job with this vulnerable monologue.

It’s a solid indie coming-of-age story with great new talent  – and if you have a chance – you should definitley see it.

READ THE SYNOPSIS FROM THE FILM GUIDE: Morris from America revolves around a 13-year-old African-American boy named Morris and the relationship he has with his father, Curtis, during the transitional period of adolescence. Complicating matters, they are new residents of Heidelberg, Germany—a city of rich history but little diversity. Morris falls in love with a local German girl named Katrin, and his tumultuous connection with her takes him on a journey that ends in self-discovery and a new dynamic to his relationship with Curtis.
Morris from America has style and heart so perfectly calibrated that it unfolds effortlessly before our eyes. Pulsating with the rhythm of a 13-year-old’s heart, this film springs from different cinematic traditions to become a distinctive coming-of-age story all its own. Writer/director Chad Hartigan returns to the Sundance Film Festival (This Is Martin Bonner, 2013) with another nuanced character piece featuring a breakout star. This time it is Markees Christmas in the lead role who turns in a dizzyingly endearing performance that will have audiences cheering “Ich liebe Morris!”

Director: Chad Hartigan

Screenwriter: Chad Hartigan