‘Palm Springs’ and ‘Zola’: The Yin and Yang of a Still-Vital Sundance (Column)

Owen Gleiberman

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The Sundance Film Festival is fighting a battle that’s been building for several years, and what it’s fighting for can be summed up in one word: relevance. What makes a Sundance movie relevant? In a sense, the old criteria still hold. It’s some combination of box-office performance, awards cachet, and that buzzy, you-know-it-when-you-see-it thing of penetrating to the heart of what we used to call the conversation.

But the way all that stuff now works has undergone a tectonic shift beneath the ground Sundance sits on. If I said that the glory days of Sundance were once defined by films like “Reservoir Dogs” or “Crumb” or “Welcome to the Dollhouse” or “Winter’s Bone” or “Whiplash,” you’d probably say, “Sure, those are all great movies!” But what made them relevant? With the sole exception of “Whiplash,” none of those films reached $7 million at the box office (most came in below $5 million) — and “Whiplash,” an extraordinary drama that launched the career of Damien Chazelle, made less money than “The Farewell” did last year. So if you think that Sundance movies now look awfully “small,” please know that with rare exceptions, like “Manchester by the Sea,” they always did. That’s the nature of Sundance, not a strike against it.

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The trouble is that small, or smallish, can appear to mean less than it once did in an entertainment landscape that’s now so fragmented even the most acclaimed movies and television shows are competing for eyeballs in a way they never had to before.

And there is one insidious way that Sundance is now a victim of its own success. The awards season as we know it has become a six-month juggernaut of hyper-drive campaigning that’s launched by a triumvirate of fall festivals (Venice, Telluride, Toronto) as surely as the Iowa caucuses kick the presidential campaign into orbit. This permanent state of awards-season-on-steroids was driven, in essence, by the independent film revolution. It was never about the major studios deciding to flog their potential Oscar product to within an inch of its life. It was about the indies hooking their movies to the awards train because that was now the surest way to sell them. (It was also about Harvey Weinstein’s voracious Oscar mania, which he imprinted onto the landscape.)

As a result, the awards season now represents an ever-thicker forest of competing companies, so that even the independent films that do cross over find it tougher to gain ultimate traction. There was a great deal of talk a year ago that “Eighth Grade,” a Sundance sensation that made $13 million at the box office, would receive an Oscar nomination for best picture; it should (and could) have, but didn’t. This year, “Uncut Gems,” not a Sundance film but most certainly a pure indie breakout, will make $50 million at the box office, and it inspired the kind of awards chatter for Adam Sandler that film executives and marketers dream of. The result? Zero Oscar nominations. That’s an indication of what a rough terrain the beautiful but quiet blossom of a good Sundance movie is now trying to root itself in.

But the other thing to say about Sundance is that hanging its success primarily on the awards game can be a distorting lens through which to view the festival. The essence of Sundance today is what it always was: Each year, the festival gives birth not just to films but to filmmakers. On some level, who cares if “The Farewell” didn’t snag a best picture nomination? The movie was a triumph, and it launched the career of Lulu Wang, who will be making films, one hopes, for the next 25 years. That’s what relevance is. And this year, despite some grousing — where’s the hit? where’s the Oscar hopeful? (actually, it’s the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner “Minari,” which could turn out to be both) — there was a white-hot current of electric talent running through Sundance. No, my trolls, this is not wishful thinking on my part. It was right there; people saw and felt it.

To put it in terms of relevance, the Sundance Film Festival was defined this year, at least for me, by two movies that came from opposite sides of the art spectrum. One is a super-smart popcorn comedy that could, with proper handling, make a splash. The other is a drama so audacious and of our moment, and so mesmerizingly crafted, that it announces the arrival of a major film artist.

To all the observers who’ve said that Sundance is losing its mojo (and there are lots of them, though what they’re really talking about is how the streaming revolution now threatens movie culture, period), I would point to the contrast between “Palm Springs,” the Andy Samberg “Groundhog Day”-on-nihilist-downers comedy that sold for a new festival record (thanks to a cheeky add-on of 69 cents), and the endless roster of empty “crowd-pleasers” that have seized headlines at Sundance for 25 years.

I was there, and I saw them all: the leaden and twee “Happy, Texas,” which was picked up by Miramax in 1999 for a then-astronomical $10 million (out in the real world, it made just $2 million), or the excruciatingly contrived and mirthless young-boys-imitate-“First Blood” British comedy “Son of Rambow” (2007), which was bought for $8 million (and grossed under $2 million), or “Tadpole” (2002), a glib romantic farce that was like “The Graduate” remade by the Disney Channel, or the granddaddy of them all — “Little Miss Sunshine,” the scripted-by-index-card sitcom in indie clothing that did, in 2006, succeed in breaking out of the pack, in part because it fooled so many critics who should have known better into thinking it was a family comedy with a downbeat “edge.”

There’s a simple way to describe the history of Sundance “crowd-pleasers”: Most of them suck. They have the life-through-a-synthetic-lens quality of bad TV that festival audiences tend to eat up like comfort food, even when that quality is everything that independent film is supposed to be standing against.

Yet “Palm Springs” sidesteps the curse of the hip-but-trashy Sundance crowd-pleaser. Samberg, as funny as ever but displaying a newly smooth and commanding leading-man panache, plays Nyles, who is caught in a time loop, just like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day.” Each morning, he wakes up in a motel room with his ditz of a girlfriend and heads off to a wedding in Palm Springs; then he does it again, and again, and again. I confess that “Groundhog Day” isn’t exactly my favorite comedy, because I find it (yes) ­repetitive. I realize that’s the essence of the film’s comedic engine, but it still wears me down.

Yet “Palm Springs” takes the anxiety and tedium of one-day-after-the next repetition and injects it right into the film’s satirical DNA. Nyles, unlike Bill Murray’s Phil, isn’t out to change or improve his situation. He knows he’s stuck — and, what’s more, that his life is meaningless. So he’s just coasting through it all, a weirdly invulnerable existential party clown in a Hawaiian shirt. At least, that’s true until Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the dissolute sister of the bride, gets stuck in the loop along with him. (J.K. Simmons, as a hilariously angry third wheel, is stuck too.)

The $17.5 million (and 69 cents!) that was ponied up for “Palm Springs” is part of a deal that will see the film distributed by Neon and Hulu. In other words, it has one foot in the old world and one in the new, and it’s anyone’s guess how that will play out. Properly placed in theaters, I think the picture could easily make $30 to $50 million. But is that the plan? Or is Hulu too eager to offer “Palm Springs” as a prestige gift to its streaming subscribers?

Whatever happens, there’s no doubt that the $17.5 million paid for “Palm Springs,” though I think it’s justified, is part of the new, post-Netflix, how-big-is-your-deal? Sundance era, one that’s been fueled by the topsy-turvy priorities of the streaming giants. It’s not just that the pockets of companies like Netflix and Amazon are beyond deep. These companies aren’t quite buying movies — they’re buying entertainment products that they turn into billboards to advertise their credibility. (“The Irishman” is a fantastic movie; it’s also the world’s most expensive billboard.) And this trend has been a major disruptor when it comes to the traditional process of Sundance deal-making.

Just before the festival this year, Sony Pictures Classics acquired the rights to “The Father” for an undisclosed (but, from all reports, relatively sane) sum. It was a smart pick-up: Anthony Hopkins, as an 80-year-old man slipping into dementia (and you’ve never seen a dementia movie quite like this one), gives a stunning performance that is sure to be an awards contender. But in the new world, if you buy a movie at Sundance for less than $10 million, you suddenly don’t look like a player. The streaming services are making these headline purchases, in part, to parade their might. They keep insisting that in their subscriber-based economies, the individual movies don’t have to perform (they just have to exist), and that’s a wealthier-than-thou way of bragging that they’ve defeated the law of supply and demand. That kind of moxie can derange the reality of a place like Sundance, which is still about little movies trying to grab a crevice and hang on. That’s what it was always about.

That said, if the Sundance mission is to showcase artists who can break out of the box, changing the way we look at cinema, then the quintessential film of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival was “Zola,” because it has what movies like “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Thirteen” and “Fruitvale Station” had: a boiling-over-with-talent visionary quality. It’s a tale of two strippers, and it’s based on an outrageous true story that came to prominence through a tweetstorm, but the film’s director and co-writer, Janicza Bravo, uses this as an entrée into the sex industry as it’s actually lived in the age of digital disconnection. She has made a drama that packs such an off-kilter, combustible, and dangerous punch that it makes a movie like “Hustlers” look like “9 to 5.”

Bravo tells the story of Zola (Taylour Paige), a stripper who’s got her head screwed on straight, and Stefani (Riley Keough), a stripper who doesn’t. From the opening shots, where the two are sizing each other up in a backstage mirror with unspoken cool paranoia, you’re not just watching a movie. You’re in the grip of a filmmaker. Zola and Stefani become wary comrades, conversing in what may be the first example of contempo movie dialogue so realistically degraded it’s the verbal equivalent of texting. Stefani, with her white-girl-meets-homegirl put-on personality (her entire being is appropriated), asks Zola to ride down to Tampa for a weekend engagement at an exotic-dance emporium, and as they crowd into an SUV along with Stefani’s idiot boyfriend and her imperious pimp, the film takes a slow dive through the looking glass into the mind-bending tawdriness of the sex-industry inferno.

“Zola” is a drama, a ride, a raw piece of midnight journalism, a youthquake as real as “American Honey,” and a portrait of a newly degraded, digital-souled America in which every last thing has been commodified, and role-playing is now the coin of the realm. Taylour Paige and Riley Keough bring to life what may be the most authentically portrayed sex workers the big screen has ever seen, and Colman Domingo gives the headiest performance as a pimp since Morgan Freeman in “Street Smart.” But the ultimate star of “Zola” is Janicza Bravo, who invests every scene with such an electrifying sense of discovery that she emerges from Sundance as a new minimalist Scorsese. In a word, that’s relevance.

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