The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sundance kicks off with robots, warriors and ‘The American Society of Magical Negroes’

Kristen Stewart, Pedro Pascal, David Alan Grier and Steven Soderbergh are among the celebrities generating buzz at this year’s film festival

Director Kobi Libii, center, appears with actors David Alan Grier and Justice Smith on Friday at the Sundance Film Festival premiere of “The American Society of Magical Negroes.” (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)
8 min

PARK CITY, Utah — Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun are robots yearning for connection in a post-human world. Pedro Pascal beats ne’er-do-wells in 1980s Oakland to a bloody pulp, while Jay Ellis slashes neo-Nazis with a samurai sword. David Alan Grier teaches Justice Smith to embrace playing the role of a “magical Negro” to navigate life in a racist country.

The Sundance Film Festival is back for its 40th edition (through Jan. 28) — and boy, does it want to get people talking.

Is it just the altitude getting to folks, or did “The American Society of Magical Negroes” really premiere to thunderous applause Friday at the prestigious Eccles Theater? Those who were online when Focus Features dropped the trailer in December might remember widespread backlash to the idea of a rom-com playing with the trope of “magical Negroes,” a term Spike Lee coined to describe Black characters who solely exist to aid their White counterparts. It didn’t help that the plot of writer-director Kobi Libii’s debut feature involved Black people using magic to alleviate White discomfort.

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None of those naysayers had seen the film, mind you. Yes, there is a love triangle, but Libii doesn’t shy away from highlighting the unfairness of what the young protagonist (Smith) is asked to sacrifice. Grier — whose character recruits Smith’s to a society of magical Black people who help solve the problems of upset White “clients” who might otherwise commit some heinous act — told The Washington Post on Thursday that the movie had been prematurely misconstrued.

“Some people thought it was going to be like ‘Get Out,’” Grier said, referring to Jordan Peele’s 2017 Sundance hit. “And it’s a trailer, so with no one having seen the film, you can just read into it.”

What you can assume, at least, is that an Eccles premiere intends to provoke its audience. Earlier on Friday, the theater screened “Love Me,” co-directors Sam and Andy Zuchero’s film about a smart buoy and an orbiting satellite who fall in love years after humanity goes extinct. Did you ever think you would hear Stewart’s voice come out of a metal object floating in water? Or witness artificial intelligence take on the form of Sims-esque animations of Stewart and Yeun, a bizarre visual courtesy of motion-capture suits? (The actors later appear in live-action.)

Stewart certainly didn’t. The actress, fresh off being honored as a “visionary” at Thursday’s opening gala, struggled to find the words to describe the film about navigating romance and identity online. “This is the most honest relationship movie slash ‘people movie,’” she told the crowd before trailing off. “Wow, that was really … glad I’m here!” The murmurs of audience members exiting the theater suggested that many shared Stewart’s charming confusion on what to make of it all.

Did the film work? Did it not? Do the directors at least get points for trying something new?

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It doesn’t get more Sundance than that. Actually, scratch that. It doesn’t get more Sundance than brothers David and Nathan Zellner premiering a feature at the festival for the fifth time, this one tracking a year in the life of a sasquatch family. The “Sasquatch Sunset” cast includes Jesse Eisenberg and Riley Keough, though neither is recognizable in a hairy suit, nor do they utter a word beyond wails and grunts. Keough still shines, because she can pull off almost anything.

Bleecker Street is already set to distribute the film this year, so American audiences are in for a wild ride. As is to be expected with such a conceit, not everyone will embrace the absurdity of what tries to be a Steinbeckian tale of blundering sasquatches grappling with death and the human destruction of their habitat. Following a Q&A in which the cast raved about the ingenuity of David Zellner’s screenplay, a disappointed viewer boarding a shuttle bus back to Park City’s Main Street mused to friends that the writing merely “strives to do that” but ultimately fails.

“I’ve written a movie script,” the man said. “I would know.”

You have to wonder what screenwriters — beyond that guy — will make of “Freaky Tales,” a sci-fi flick weaving the stories of four underdogs in 1987 Oakland. The film by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (“Half Nelson,” “Captain Marvel”) stars Pascal as a mob debt collector who becomes entangled in a crime plot that ropes in neo-Nazis, rappers, punk teenagers and a fictionalized Eric “Sleepy” Floyd (Ellis), the former Golden State Warriors player and, in this, martial arts aficionado.

Fleck and Boden refer to their film as a mixtape, fusing all sorts of ’80s genres and influences. While introducing it, Fleck noted that he had a safety warning for audience members sitting next to fans of the Bay Area hip-hop and punk scenes. Watch out, he said, because their heads might explode. He might have extended the advice to people jumping out of their seats to clap for Pascal.

No one seems to know how to classify “I Saw the TV Glow,” another genre-bending feature and, as of Saturday, one of the best-reviewed titles at the festival. Not-so-scary horror? Moody ’90s coming-of-age thriller? We would argue that it feels like a deeply Goth mystery — and a poignant allegory for the pain of embracing your identity.

Produced by A24 and directed by Jane Schoenbrun (“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair”), the film is rooted in the perspective of two misfits, high school freshman Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and seventh-grader Owen (Smith, again). They meet in a school gym and she introduces him to a cult late-night TV show on the Young Adult Network with an intricate mythology that seems to be written just for them.

Critics have pointed out the clear influences of “Twin Peaks” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” as well as Schoenburn’s transition (they started hormone therapy just before filming began). But as the lines blur between the characters’ real world and that of the television show they love, the film dips into heady questions of whether we are even living our own lives. Could we instead be trapped in someone else’s show?

Smith wasn’t the only actor pulling double duty. Eisenberg stuck around Park City for the premiere of “A Real Pain,” which he directed and also starred in. No longer in a sasquatch suit, one of the most endearingly awkward actors in Hollywood received a standing ovation for his film about odd-couple cousins (Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin) taking an organized tour through Poland to trace their late grandmother’s roots. Culkin steals the show — including during the Q&A, when he was asked what it was like to be directed by Eisenberg.

“He’d say, ‘Cut,’ and start giving me notes,” Culkin said, “and my first thought was, ‘B----, I’ve got notes for you, too!’”

No festival is complete without stories of people walking out of theaters, and the early honor this time around — according to Variety — went to Steven Soderbergh’s “Presence,” a family drama set in a suburban haunted house. It follows a teenager (Callina Liang) rocked by the recent overdose of her best friend, whose spirit she believes to be haunting the property. The girl’s parents (Lucy Liu and Chris Sullivan) are on the brink of separation, and her brother (Eddy Maday) is a jerk. His pretty-boy friend (West Mulholland) with a troubling drug habit only adds fuel to the fire.

Soderbergh sat on the edge of the Egyptian Theatre stage Saturday, as he did after premiering “Sex, Lies and Videotape” 35 years ago, and explained the process of shooting the film from the point of view of the house’s ghostly presence. Liu joked about the stealthy “martial arts shoes” Soderbergh wore while chasing the actors from room to room. The entire film takes place in the two-story building.

“I love limitations,” writer David Koepp added, “which is why I have so many.”

Even if the filmmakers at Sundance try to stay humble, rapt audiences more than make up for it. During the Q&A portion of the “American Society” premiere, for instance, a woman raised her hand with less of a question and more of a comment — usually a nightmare scenario, but in this case a blessing for the artists involved.

“The trailer failed on X, formerly known as Twitter,” she said. “Everybody was questioning what type of movie this is. So now [we] can go and tell everybody, ‘This is a fantastic f---ing movie.’”