Sundance 2024, blog 3

The Kids Are Alright

In the Summers

Wilfred Okiche reports from the 40th edition of the Sundance Film festival, where coming-of-age stories dominated among the award winning films.

It is quite interesting how the perception of the typical Sundance film has shifted from the low brow but energetic aesthetics of Sex, Lies and Videotape in the ‘80s to the heavy pop culture references of Reservoir Dogs in the ‘90s. With the success of Little Miss Sunshine in Park City- and beyond- in 2006, the narrative vibe shifted to variations on the dysfunctional family drama. But in 2021, Sundance scored what is perhaps its biggest cross over success when CODA became the little film that could. The coming-of-age drama won the jury and audience prizes, sold to Apple for a record $25 million and went all the way to the Oscars where it won three trophies included best picture.

A close reading of the Sundance program this year suggests that the shadow of CODA lingers still in Park City. A good number of the films in competition- Didi, Ponyboi, Brief History of a Family– center coming-of-age or family experiences. Similar themes are also reflected in the award-winning films. In the Summers which won the top prize in the U.S Dramatic Competition is a slight family drama about two children spending summer holidays with their erratic but loving father in a small town in New Mexico. Alessandra Lacorazza Samudio who also won the directing prize for her feature length debut unpacks this complicated relationship across four summer visits over a 20-year period.

Paying detailed attention to mood, setting and the performances of the revolving door of actors who play the kids as they age, Lacorazza Samudio observes a gradual erosion of trust and confidence. As the reckless father continues to make one bad decision after the other, the kids gradually realize that loving him unconditionally also means reckoning with his faults and keeping him at a necessary distance while they figure out their own lives.

The absent father is also the driving force behind Sujo, the entrancing Mexican drama which won the World Cinema Dramatic Competition jury prize. Directed by the duo of Astrid Rondero and Fernanda Valadez, both of whom also collaborated on 2020’s Sundance hit Identifying Features, Sujo is a flawed but remarkable tale of a young man struggling to escape the cycle of violence that he is born into as well as the formidable women- both family and strangers- that guide him along his journey. The filmmakers avoid graphic or gory scenes and keep the focus on the character’s humanity as he grapples with what masculinity means to him.

Radiantly shot with striking compositions and a fine eye for atmosphere, Sujo is set in a Mexican border town where the obvious recourse for the boys growing up is to join the drug cartels in one capacity or another. This endless loop of violence and death has already claimed Sujo’s father and when the cartel comes for the orphan kid- lore insists that male heirs must be killed also to prevent their future thirst for vengeance- he is protected by his witchy aunt who raises him off the grid.

As he grows into a young man, Sujo considers his manifest destiny and the rest of the film which is split into four parts representing different characters follows him as he makes the choice between perpetuating the cycle or breaking free.

The family at the center of A New Kind of Wilderness, winner of the World Cinema Documentary prize appears to be a more stable one, far removed from drug cartels and dysfunctional parents. But it is also a pretty unique one. The stability that subjects Nik and Maria Payne have carved out for themselves and their four children in an isolated Norwegian farm is threatened when Maria whose blogging and photography work is the family’s primary source of income succumbs to cancer. All of a sudden, her surviving loved ones must adjust and figure out a way to live within their means while holding on to the alternative lifestyle that she cherished so much.

Director Silje Evensmo Jacobsen does not force on any external or artificial threat on her subjects but makes compelling viewing out of the very real and mundane aspects of their lives. Whether it is a big decision like choosing between joining family in England or living independently in Norway or more minor ones like determining how many days a week to commit the kids to homeschooling, the close-knit family arrives at their decision through loving deliberation.

But at some point, Nik who has dedicated his life to being the pillar of the family observes the once helpless kids display independence of mind as they grow older. He is raising them to be respectful of nature, expressive of their emotions and kind to one another. One wonders how in the future the family will navigate milestones like welcoming new members or even someone leaving the bubble.