Culling through this year’s fest schedule to find seven films to tour art house theaters, the 2019 Sundance Shorts Tour prioritizes racial and gender diversity over any predominant theme or style. Shorts packages rarely stick to a single mood, of course, but this one — with one documentary and one animated film sitting awkwardly alongside five varied narratives — is quite a hodgepodge, occasionally stirring or charming but offering few thrills.
The doc, Alexandra Lazarowich’s Fast Horse, singles out an event most viewers will never have heard of — the “Indian Relay,” a form of racing that centers on the traditions of indigenous horsemanship — but explains nothing of its origins or current practice. Instead it watches as a single young rider, about to enter his first event as a jockey, selects his horse and trains it. A quick investigation shows that a longer doc by Charles Dye premiered on Independent Lens in 2013, perhaps answering some of the questions we’re left with here.
An uneven showcase offering some distinctive voices.
The animated entry requires little explanation, despite its happily weird conceit: Aggie Pak Yee Lee’s Muteum, an Estonia-Hong Kong co-production, follows a troupe of identical schoolboys as a shushing teacher leads them through an art museum. Stylish in a minimalist but organic way and cutely avoiding dialogue, it builds to a transgressive fantasy of communion between art and observer. Don’t leave these kids unattended, lady.
Of the handful of live-action pictures, the only unambiguous charmer is Robert Machoian’s The Minors, a fragmentary look at a grandfather’s playful relationship with three young kids. Together, they form a raucous guitar-based band, but don’t expect School of Rock.
Abandoning expectations is also wise when approaching Nikyatu Jusu’s Suicide by Sunlight and Stefanie Abel Horowitz’s Sometimes, I Think About Dying, neither of which is necessarily leading to its protagonist’s demise. The latter film observes a painfully nervous loner who is making peace with the idea that life holds little promise for her and may be over soon. That attitude is challenged when a co-worker shows an interest in her; but Horowitz’s closely observed film is too respectful of its protagonist’s emotional handicaps to pretend she’ll be fixed after one good date. In Jusu’s enigmatic, moody version of race-conscious fantasy, black vampires stalk Brooklyn streets in the daylight, their melanin making them freer than white counterparts we don’t meet. The film’s approach to genre recalls the on-my-own-terms boldness of executive producer Terence Nance’s Random Acts of Flyness; but Jusu is most interested in how one woman’s bloodthirsty benders threaten her relationship with the daughters living under the protection of her ex-husband.
The longest film here, Meryam Joobeur’s Brotherhood, also concerns an estrangement between parent and child: A Tunisian shepherd’s quiet life is disrupted when his oldest son — who fled, against the family’s wishes, to fight with Daesh in Syria — returns home unexpectedly with a wife at his side. Visually beautiful and emotionally complex, it explores the different reactions father, mother and brothers have to this return. A perhaps overly ambiguous ending will leave many viewers wanting more.
Christopher Good’s surreal palate-cleanser Crude Oil brushes away the program’s heavy vibes, viewing what might’ve been a dispiriting subject — the ways too-close friendships can sometimes wind up with one personality dominating another — through a comic conceit. Suffice to say that the women here are superheroes of a sort, but ones unlikely to be adopted by the Marvel universe or any other — even if their bizarre interpersonal conflict would spice up life in Charles Xavier’s school for adolescent mutants.
Distributor: Sundance Film Festival
Directors: Stefanie Abel Horowitz, Alexandra Lazarowich, Nikyatu Jusu, Aggie Pak Yee Lee, Christopher Good, Robert Machoian, Meryam Joobeur