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Opinion: A film fest focus: Recapping Sundance

David Schwimmer appears in Little Death by Jack Begert, an official selection of the Midnight program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

This year marks the 40th year of the Sundance Film Festival. Like every other year, the festival is home to showing many new independent feature films and short films. The festival ran from Jan. 18-28.

Here are a few films that premiered at this year’s festival:

“Handling the Undead”
“Handling the Undead” is a new Norwegian drama/horror film from filmmaker Thea Hvistendahl, starring Rensate Reinsve. Adapted from John Lindqvist’s book with the same title, this film follows the story of three separate people dealing with their loved ones coming back from the dead as “zombies.”

It should be noted that the phrase “zombie” is never used to describe the reanimated corpses. They can be described as semi-alive shells of what a person used to be.

The story takes place on a warm summer night in Oslo, Norway. Unexplained electric fields in the city cause recently deceased individuals to come back to life. The film makes an effort to cover the themes of grief and letting go, but does include some more horrific and intense moments during its third act.

While a “zombie” film about grief is an interesting premise, the film struggles with its pacing and characters. There is a constant sense of dread and gloom over the entire runtime, even when the characters are in daylight, the clouds are always gray, creating a bleak look and feel that never goes away. This element of filmmaking assists the somber tone of the film but does not help with the slower moments that make up most of the scenes.

The reflective aspects of the film are impactful from an emotional standpoint, but “Handling the Undead” struggles to balance this with having remotely interesting characters. Dialogue is used rather sparingly, which could be one of the reasons the characters lack dimension . Despite this, the cast still makes the most of what they have been given, with worthwhile performances across the board.

Even with the monotone look of the film, the cinematography and score assist the film with what it is trying to say about grief. For a film about the undead, it would benefit from a bit more life.

“Handling the Dead” is distributed through Neon and while no release date has currently been set for the United States, it will be available later this year.

“Suncoast”
“Suncoast” is a coming-of-age, directorial debut from Laura Chinn. The film is largely based on Chinn’s own experience of being a teenager in the 2000s. “Suncoast” has performances from Nico Parker, Laura Linney and Woody Harrelson.

“Suncoast” is a film about how we value the people in our lives and is told through the story of Doris, a teenage girl living in Florida. Doris and her mother have spent the past several years caring for her brother who is dying of cancer. The relationship between Doris and her mom starts to become strained as Doris begins to make new friends.

This new coming-of-age film is by no means doing anything that the sub-genre has not already seen before, but the film certainly has a lot of heart and emotion that makes for a touching story once the film ends. For a directorial debut, Chinn does a good job expressing the themes of the story while also showing what youth was like during this time. The performances between Parker and Linney are another highlight of the film, the dynamic between their characters is the most compelling part of this story.

Harrelson’s role in the film is an interesting one. Harrelson plays the mentor character in the film who has a strange father-daughter relationship with Doris. Managing this character’s position in the film seems difficult. If the film cut Harrelson’s character from the story and simply focused more of its time on the relationship between Doris and her mother it would be a much more effective story. On the contrary, if Harrelson was more present than he already is, the film would probably work better in that sense too.

For the most part, “Suncoast” sticks the landing as a compelling drama about a mother and her daughter. Laura Chinn is an upcoming filmmaker that movie audiences should keep an eye on going forward.

“Suncoast” is coming to Hulu on Feb. 9 via Searchlight Pictures.

“Little Death”
The directorial debut from Jack Begert, “Little Death” is a dark comedy about a struggling TV writer who has an encounter with two teenagers searching for a stolen backpack. This film stars David Schwimmer and Dominic Fike and has won an Innovator Award at this year’s festival.

For a first-time feature, “Little Death” is quite ambitious with its style and narrative structure. To say that it hit the mark is not as easy. The first half of this film follows Martin Solomon, played by Schwimmer. Solomon is a cynical and unlikeable TV writer who cannot quite seem to find a way out of his general unhappiness. This first half of the film makes statements about the state of the entertainment industry and addiction, and does so with a strange sense of style. We follow Solomon until a surprise twist that happens at the midpoint of the film. From there “Little Death” becomes an entirely different film.

After the midway point, the story focuses on the young adults who are in search of some stolen property. While the second half of the film is arguably stronger and less jumbled, the film struggles to shift into a new point of view, making for two stories that do not reach their full potential.

Despite the strange narrative swings the story makes, the most glaring creative decision is the heavy use of AI images during the first half of the film. The film relies on a handful of montage sequences that come from AI. This is a bold choice considering how polarizing AI art is at this point in time. The use of AI is often distracting and unappealing to look at.

Somewhere in here there is a well made and interesting first feature film. Unfortunately the use of AI and messy narrative structure hold this film back from reaching the heights that it should.

“Little Death” does not currently have a set release date but will have a wider release this year.

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Cooper Hatsis, Culture reporter

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