Sundance 2022 Dispatch: After Yang, Emergency, Fresh, Master, When You Finish Saving the World

After Yang

Sci-fi is a genre of cinema that loves to explore the notion of what is to be human, especially when robots are involved. That notion is at the heart of Kogonada’s tender and delicate After Yang; a beautifully crafted wonder that explores grief, loss, and love in a way that’s entirely mesmerising. Elevated by a hypnotic score from ASKA, elegant production design by Alexandra Schaller, and Benjamin Loeb‘s gorgeous cinematography, its emotional core will quietly creep up on you and leave you rather breathless.

Taking place somewhere in the not-too-distant future, After Yang focuses on tea shop owner Jake (Colin Farrell), his wife, Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), their adopted Chinese daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), and their android “technosapien” son, Yang (Justin H. Min). Yang was purchased to serve as a brotherly companion for Mika and to help teach his sister about her Chinese heritage. When Yang suddenly stops functioning, Jake tries desperately to have him repaired, leading to the father discovering Yang has been secretly recording all his experiences and storing them as short core memories.

We humans generally take posed photos and videos of major events we consider important in our lives. But Yang captures simple pleasures like the swirling of tea in hot water, sunlight shining through a window, and snippets of seemingly innocuous conversations. This allows Jack to appreciate the way Yang saw the world and how these moments formed who he was. Kogonada eloquently asks us to ponder how even the smallest of memories can shape our lives and why appreciating the simplest of things is so damn important.

Through Jake’s inadvertent journey of understanding who Yang truly was, he’s enlightened to how disconnected he’s been from his life and family and what he’s been taking for granted. Look, I know it sounds very preachy and feel-good fuzzy, but Kogonada meticulously crafts every frame to avoid the maudlin sentimentality that would saturate this film if it came from a major studio. He’s a gentle filmmaker who wisely never bashes you over the head with the film’s message. Instead, it slowly works its way into your heart and opens your eyes to the preciousness of every moment we’re granted on this planet.

Emergency

On its surface, Emergency appears to be your typical college buddy comedy featuring two pals caught up in a wild night on campus where nothing goes as planned. But director Carey Williams has a point to make with this subversive and darkly comedic surprise that tiptoes the line between comedy and drama with expert precision. With lashings of sharp social commentary and a palpable sense of dread, it’s so much more than the sum of its parts.

Sean (RJ Cyler) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) are two best friends at the tail end of their days at college. While Kunle is a strait-laced academic with a bright future, Sean’s more interested in the pair becoming the first Black students at their school to complete a legendary one-night tour of all seven frat houses on campus. Just as they’re preparing to leave, the night is halted by the discovery of an unconscious white girl (Maddie Nichols) on their living room floor. Appreciating the danger of calling the police and being falsely accused of something by virtue of their skin colour, the duo and their Hispanic roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) pop the girl in their car and attempt to get her to safety without being spotted.

Williams initially crafts Emergency like it’s seeking to be this generation’s version of something like American Pie. Had these lead characters been generic white males, the premise of traipsing around town with a drunk white girl in their car would have remained rooted in silly comedy. But this is 21st century America and three men of colour are not given such free passes. It’s this hypocrisy and injustice that Williams and screenwriter K.D. Dávila use as the backbone for the film’s astute drama and tension.

In a post-George Floyd world, Emergency couldn’t be more timely. We know exactly why Sean and Kunle can’t call the cops, which is as depressing as it is damning. These young men will go to any length to avoid turning to those who are meant to help. It’s a predicament white people will never find themselves in, which just highlights the juxtaposition of being Black in America. Ignorance and racism flow through every frame of this film as it exposes how change is still a work in progress.

Cyler and Watkins make a terrific pairing with a friendship that feels entirely earnest. The evening’s proceedings highlight their characters’ differences and create conflict that threatens to tear the duo apart. Sean is a realist and wants to cut and run from the drunk white girl as soon as possible. Kunle is more naive and still believes justice will always prevail. The night’s proceedings will reveal hidden truths about both young men and change them forever. The dichotomy between the pair offers both drama and levity and both Cyler and Watkins create hugely sympathetic characters you genuinely root for.

While Emergency runs a tad longer than it really needs to, it’s an experience that’s equally thrilling, amusing, and unnerving. Williams takes the buddy cop formula and flips it on its head with a shrewd injection of racially-charged themes. It’s a film that shows how a perfectly innocuous situation is viewed entirely differently through the lens of people of colour. There’s enough dark comedy to brighten this film’s heavy mood, but never at the expense of denying what Williams is trying to say.

Fresh

Dating in the 21st-century sucks. From traversing the hellscape of apps like Tinder and Hinge to dealing with ghosting, catfishing, and game-playing, it’s a minefield of frustration for anyone looking for love in all the wrong places. Even when you meet someone who seems normal, there’s always that nagging thought in the back of your head that something isn’t right. And then a twisted film like Fresh comes along to perfectly encapsulate the dangers and disasters of the dating world.

It’s hard to talk about something like Fresh without entering spoiler territory. How Searchlight Pictures/Hulu will ultimately market this film is anyone’s guess. The story centres on Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a twentysomething Los Angelino who is exhausted by a barrage of disappointing dates. Everything appears to change when Noa experiences a chance encounter at the supermarket with the charming and slightly goofy Steve (Sebastian Stan). As their relationship blossoms at a surprising speed, Steve invites Noa for a romantic weekend away…and that’s when this film becomes something else entirely.

In her stellar directorial debut, Mimi Cave brings Lauryn Kahn‘s astute screenplay to life in terrific style. A sharp critique of the horrors of modern dating and a clever allegory for the exploitation of women’s bodies, Fresh is a deliciously nasty treat. There will be inevitable comparisons to Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, given this film also gleefully blurs the lines between romantic comedy and revenge horror. If you enjoyed what Fennell had to say about toxic masculinity, you’ll love what Cave and Kahn serve up. It’s around the 40-minute mark the penny drops as to what direction Cave is taking this film and there’s really no looking back from there.

Stan and Edgar-Jones both knock it out of the park. Their initial chemistry is warm and engaging, but that quickly dissolves when the sinister elements of Kahn’s screenplay are unveiled. Edgar-Jones refuses to play Noa as the typical damsel in distress archetype this genre said goodbye to years ago. She’s incredibly wily and rejects the inevitable fate that appears inescapable. As it turns out, Noa is as equally adept at manipulation as her oppressor and it’s a joy to watch Edgar-Jones delve into Noa’s layers. It’s hard to discuss Stan’s performance without ruining the sociopathic surprises Steve has up his sleeve. Let’s just say Stan plays with light and shade in ways we’ve never seen from him before.

There’s always something so refreshing about a film that takes familiar genre tropes and twists them out of shape to create a piece of cinema that feels entirely new. Fresh is appropriately titled. It’s an ambitious undertaking by a first-time director, but Cave nails it. If you’re feeling low on being single, this film might just make you appreciate your marital status. And it may just have you second-guessing the handsome stranger in the grocery aisle.

Master

It’s been five years since Jordan Peele’s Get Out subverted the hell out of the horror genre by injecting it with racially-charged social commentary. And it’s still sadly inevitable any film that seeks to do the same will see parallels drawn with what Peele created. It’s the reaction writer-director Mariama Diallo’s Master instantly received on Twitter after its Sundance premiere. To be fair, these comparisons are somewhat broadly accurate. But Diallo seems far more inspired by works of Giallo like Dario Argento’s Suspiria than Peele’s style.

A slow-burn thriller with an ominous aura of dread hovering over every frame, Master is an auspicious debut from Diallo that heralds the arrival of a fresh voice in the world of horror. While the film bites off more than it can chew in a narrative sense, Diallo’s screenplay still shrewdly poses a question to which there is no easy answer; how do you escape an unseen evil when it’s permeating everywhere?

Gail (Regina Hall) has just been named the new “master” of students at Ancaster, an elite New England university with a dark history centred on a student who suicided by jumping from her bedroom window. Taking residence in that very room is freshman student Jasmine (Zoe Renee), who is horrified to learn of the urban legend of the witch who haunts her new abode. As Jasmine hears further stories of tragedies that have occurred in her dorm room, she butts heads with her literature professor Liv (Amber Gray), who is attempting to woo the college’s board for tenure approval. As the lives of these three Black women intersect, they’ll each face racism, prejudice, and sexism plus the sinister elements that seem to hover along every hallway of Ancaster.

What Diallo is attempting to achieve in her first feature film is wildly ambitious. Maybe a little too so. Master fluctuates between a psychological thriller, a supernatural horror, and a race-based drama. It’s attempting so much that some elements are less developed than they may have been with more focus. Diallo is deft at setting an eery mood to keep her audience on its toes. The halls and dwellings of the university offer a cavalcade of opportunities for spooky activity that plays on the mind of our protagonists’ psyches.

It’s the social commentary in Diallo’s screenplay where Master truly shines. The villain of this story is not a slasher killer or a demon poltergeist. Racism flows around every corner of Ancaster. The student body is almost exclusively comprised of entitled privileged white brats. The tenure panel boasts Gail as its token member of colour. And the school’s history is drowning in white supremacy. The urban legend of the witch is the very personification of systemic oppression that nobody seems willing to talk about. It’s a perfect parable for modern American culture in the same wheelhouse as what Peele gets so right.

The ever-reliable Hall is perfectly cast as a woman who’s played by the rules to achieve such a level of status, but as she witnesses the school’s treatment of Liv and the terror haunting Jasmine, it’s clear she won’t keep biting her tongue for very long. Diallo focuses so heavily on Gail that Jasmine and Liv never feel like fully fleshed-out characters, particularly in the final act where the narrative falls into a rather confusing mess that may or may not be intentional. Regardless, Diallo shows a great knack for delivering chills with a blunt message that will be ringing in your mind for days.

When You Finish Saving the World

Sundance is famous for being a platform for actor-turned-directors to premiere their debut feature film. In 2017, it was Jordan Peele and Get Out. In 2020, it was Emerald Fennell and Promising Young Woman. In 2021, it was Fran Kranz and Mass. This year, it’s Jesse Eisenberg and When You Finish Saving the World. Sadly, unlike his contemporaries, Eisenberg is unlikely to see the same acclaim. A disappointingly shallow film with a wobbly screenplay that isn’t quite sure what it wants to say, Eisenberg’s debut is too unfocused to land its intended impact.

The film centres on the contrasting lives of workaholic mother Evelyn (Julianne Moore) and her self-entitled son, Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard). Evelyn runs a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Ziggy spends his hours creating folksy music in his bedroom studio for thousands of adoring social media followers. Over the years, the mother and son have grown apart from an inability to understand each other’s chosen passion in life. When teenage Kyle (Billy Bryk) arrives at Evelyn’s shelter, she takes the youngster under her wing, attempting to create the bond she lacks with her own son. Ziggy’s online following has given him an inflated sense of self-worth that’s rocked when he realises his crush Lila (Alisha Boe) is more impressed by activism than viral music.

Moore and Wolfhard could read a phonebook and somehow still make it interesting, but even they struggle to save these hollow characters from coming across as terribly insufferable. Eisenberg’s screenplay can’t authentically create fully-dimensional characters that he clearly doesn’t understand. There’s possibly a touch of teenage Eisenberg in Ziggy, but there’s so little in this character for an audience to grab on to. Likewise with Evelyn, who’s a bleeding heart attempting to make her life valuable by helping others. Both mother and son believe they’re changing the world but can’t find a way to connect. Frankly, no matter how hard this film tries to pull its audience into yearning for the duo to find a path back to each other, it’s actually easy to understand why they’re so disconnected.

There is a great film hiding here somewhere, but it’s drowning in privilege that lacks the nuance to effectively create an engaging familial drama you actually care about. These self-obsessed characters are unredeemable. Eisenberg bends over backwards to offer them a path to enlightenment and reconnection, but it all feels unearned and inauthentic. Both Evelyn and Ziggy are terribly exaggerated caricatures without any real depth. A filmmaker should only cast two unlikeable characters as their protagonists if they’ve got the experience to spin them into something engaging by the closing credits. And that’s a skill Eisenberg clearly hasn’t grasped just yet.