Sundance 2022 Dispatch: 892, Call Jane, Fire of Love, Happening, Watcher

892

From Vietnam to Iraq, America’s woeful treatment of its returning soldiers has always been a dark stain on the country’s history. Co-writer/director Abi Damaris Corbin taps into America’s systemic failure of veterans’ affairs with a pertinent and important true story ripped straight from the headlines. Led by a powerhouse performance from John Boyega and a terrific ensemble cast, 892 is a tense thriller with a powerful narrative that’s damaged by Corbin’s melodramatic TV Movie of the Week direction.

In the summer of 2017, Lance Cpl. Brian Brown-Easley (Boyega) walks into an Atlanta Wells Fargo bank and calmly passes a note to bank teller Rosa (Selenis Leyva) that simply reads, “I have a bomb.” While Rosa fumbles with Brian’s request to call the police, bank manager Estel (Nicole Beharie) senses something is wrong and begins quietly evacuating customers and staff.  Strangely, Brian allows this to occur and keeps only the two women as his hostages. As it turns out, Brian isn’t there to rob the bank or blow it to smithereens. The government has unfairly robbed this veteran of his disability cheque and he simply wants his story to be told to the biggest audience possible.

America asks so much of those who serve, yet treats them so poorly upon their return. Sadly, Brown-Easley’s story of neglect at the hands of the U.S. government is just one of thousands. It’s one I had personally never heard before, so it’s pleasing the veteran’s narrative is potentially being broadcast to millions. Corbin clearly has the absolute best of intentions with presenting this crucial tale that deserves this adaptation. And the end result is still gripping and heartbreaking enough to land an impact. But it’s a shame everything is presented in a rather hokey fashion that damages the overall intent.

While it remains to be seen where 892 will end up, it feels more like a made-for-TV movie you’d find in the 90s than a gritty theatrical drama destined for awards season. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s simply too conventional for its own good. The dialogue is exposition-heavy and lacks the authentic emotion it’s desperately attempting to manipulate from its audience. Brian’s narrative is strong enough to work on its own without the need for excessive editing and melodramatic music to create tension and drama that would exist naturally without either.

Ultimately, it’s Boyega that saves this film with a performance that continues to highlight why he’s a star on the continual rise. You feel Brian’s frustration and trauma through Boyega’s exasperated and desperate performance. In the hands of a lesser performer, the veteran could easily be seen as a villain. But Boyega finds the pathos in Brian’s plight, allowing an audience to instantly sympathise with his predicament. Beharie and Leyva are both also terrific, while the late Michael Kenneth Williams delivers his final performance as a hostage negotiator. It’s a generic character beneath what Williams deserves, but he still brings his trademark gravitas to the role and almost steals the whole damn film.

Call Jane

It’s been 50 years since the landmark Roe v Wade case protected a woman’s right to choose. Yet, somehow, that notion is once again under attack. The timeliness of an abortion-themed film like Call Jane can’t be understated. That’s why it’s so tragically disappointing this important and relevant story is treated in such a conventional and surprisingly light manner. With her feature-length directorial debut, Oscar-nominated screenwriter Phyllis Nagy presents a well-intentioned look at life pre-Roe v Wade that needed more depth and less gloss.

Set in 1968, Call Jane centres on Joy (Elizabeth Banks), a two-month pregnant Chicago housewife who learns a previously undiagnosed heart condition only gives her a 50-50 chance of survival should she carry the baby to term. When her pleas for an emergency abortion are denied by the all-male hospital board, Joy discovers a flier for the Jane Collective, an organisation of women who facilitate an illegal abortion at their makeshift clinic. It’s there Joy connects with the group’s leader Virginia (Sigourney Weaver), who sees the wealthy (and lonely) housewife as the perfect candidate to join their cause.

There’s a brilliant film hiding somewhere in Call Jane, but Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi‘s screenplay paints with such broad strokes and fails to truly delve into this potentially compelling subject matter. The film touches on misogyny, sexism, and racism without the nerve to explore any notion too deeply. It’s so busy highlighting Joy’s journey from timid housewife to confident activist that it forgets to honour the people and environment that allowed this evolution to flourish. When Nagy stops to consider the world surrounding Joy, the film shines. It’s a shame this doesn’t occur more often.

Banks is rarely afforded the opportunity to showcase her ability to lead something other than a goofy comedy and she’s wonderful here. She delivers a career-best performance that’s unfortunately stuck in a generic historical drama that will likely disappear into streaming obscurity. Banks carries this entire film as an engaging and likeable protagonist you instantly empathise with. Weaver steals focus at every turn as the unwaveringly feminist influence Joy so desperately needs in her life. Call Jane is a story that absolutely demands to be told. One just wishes it was handled with more deference.

Fire of Love

A documentary centred on a pair of married volcanologists hardly sounds like the most engaging of films. And I’ll freely admit Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love was not on my Sundance schedule until its world premiere drew rapturous love on social media. Sometimes the hype is real. Featuring utterly stunning archival volcano footage, a love story that will warm your heart, and a fascinating dose of education, Fire of Love is an absolute gem and one of the best documentaries you will see this year.

You’ve likely never heard of volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft or their pioneering work in filming, photographing, and recording volcanic activity all over the world. By the conclusion of Fire of Love, you’ll be captivated by both their gorgeous romance and shared determination to help countries prepare for volcanic eruptions. Katia and Maurice’s bond was formed over a mutual love of volcanology that soon led to the couple becoming leaders in the field. That passion consistently placed them in harm’s way on their mission to document and study one of the most dangerous (and unpredictable) natural activities on earth. It would also tragically cost them their lives.

The pair captured their life’s work through hundreds of hours of footage and thousands of photos that Dosa beautifully stitches together to make a genuinely touching documentary. The footage is truly astonishing and places the viewer closer to volcanos than ever before. Dosa keeps it simple without adding unnecessary talking heads or modern footage. She wisely lets the Kraffts tell their own story with occasional twee Wes Anderson-like animation to provide educational material that will likely prove illuminating. Miranda July’s raspy and evocative narration perfectly compliments everything Sara Dosa has ingeniously constructed.

Fire of Love is a beautiful love letter to a couple who revolutionised the study of volcanoes in a quest to help humanity co-exist with a volatile natural phenomenon. Katia and Maurice knew the immense dangers of their work, but they faced them together. There’s some comfort in knowing they died doing what they loved. More importantly, they left this world side by side with their soul mate. I’m terrified their story will be turned into a gooey, weepy biopic that won’t come close to capturing the beauty, emotion, and heart of what Dosa has created here.

Happening

As fate would have it, Call Jane isn’t the only Sundance film centred on abortion rights. Audrey Diwan’s courageous Happening is the film Call Jane should have been. An unflinching and harrowing portrait of what occurs when you remove a woman’s right to choose, Happening pulses with urgent resonance. Led by a sublime Anamaria Vartolomei as a young woman desperate to save her future, Diwan pulls few punches here. And nor should she. This is as necessary as cinema gets.

Set in 1963 France, Happening tells the story of Anne (Vartolomei), a promising young student who dreams of a future as a writer. With the world about to be at her feet, Anne’s life is thrown into turmoil when she discovers she’s accidentally fallen pregnant. At this point in France’s history, abortion is illegal, leaving Anne with no choice but to turn to a series of unsafe and potentially fatal methods in a desperate attempt to terminate the fetus that threatens to completely derail her future.

Happening can be a difficult film to endure. Frankly, that just makes it that much more powerful and essential viewing. Diwan refuses to shy away from the brutal nature of illegal abortion and the agony the process unnecessarily put women through for decades. There are moments of graphic imagery that highlight the startling nature of a procedure that’s like something from the middle ages. Again, this is crucial at conveying everything Diwan is highlighting regarding why legal abortion is a necessary medical procedure we cannot allow to be taken away.

Diwan often films Anne’s plight in tight close-ups that capture the panic and desperation on Vartolomei’s wildly expressive face. She’s wise to paint Anne with a sympathetic gaze, allowing an audience to connect and understand the tragedy of the situation she’s in. None of that works without Vartolomei’s compelling performance that transforms Anne from a carefree dreamer to a despairing survivalist. As time continues to tick, Anne’s desperation and isolation grow as her future slips further from sight. It’s a heartbreaking portrait of a young woman forced into an unimaginable position with dire consequences.

This is a stark reminder of a time when women had no control over their own bodies. And an urgent warning as to why it should never happen again. With a woman’s right to choose under attack again in America, Happening couldn’t be more timely. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It’s why we need cinema like this so we never forget.

Watcher

After her breakout role in 2014’s It Follows, it’s quite ironic to find Maika Monroe star in a Rear Window-esque paranoid thriller like Watcher. While the film is a fairly stock standard affair and follows too many familiar tropes to be something truly special, Monroe’s boundless charisma keeps you totally engaged. It may be a touch too predictable and safe, but it’s tight and effective enough to be worth your time.

Monroe plays Julia, a former actress who has recently moved from New York to Bucharest with her half-Romanian husband, Francis (Karl Glusman) to further his career. Julia doesn’t share her husband’s ability to speak the native tongue, leaving her feeling isolated and alone. With Francis working long hours, Julia is left to kill time by herself in their grand apartment. While gazing at the building across the street one evening, Julia notices a shadowy figure seemingly staring right at her. Her paranoia grows when she believes the same man (Burn Gorman) is following her around town. When news reports emerge of the crimes of a local serial killer named The Spider, Julia is convinced she’s the next target.

As you can gather, this is a rather cliché setup we’ve seen many times before. Director Chloe Okuno tries earnestly to bring something new to Zack Ford‘s conventional screenplay. Cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen often films from low angles to accentuate how the apartment’s high ceilings and imposing windows are inflaming Julia’s sense of isolation. Okuno highlights Francis’ gaslighting of his wife as an allusion to how men are so quick at failing to believe women. She wisely doesn’t cast Julia as delusional or unstable, allowing her audience to connect with the frustrations of an entirely trustworthy protagonist.

But there’s no avoiding the stereotypes of this genre and you’ll likely see the narrative twists and turns coming from a mile away. You’ll believe the ending is taking an unexpected route that would have been incredibly bold. Alas, it’s not to be. The saving grace of Watcher is the luminous Monroe, who is so deeply committed to her performance that you can’t help but remain entranced. She plays this kind of role so incredibly well and that’s just enough to save this film from itself.