‘Users’: Film Review | Sundance 2021

Filmmaker Natalia Almada’s latest documentary offers an oneiric mix of imagery from intimate moments with young children to bird’s eye views of various landscapes.

Winner of the directing award for U.S. documentary at Sundance, poetic, painterly work Users looks and sounds stunning, but remains thematically a little too diffuse for its own good as it meditates on our children and the future they will inhabit, where perfect machines replace imperfect parents.

It’s hard not to admire the ambition of director Natalia Almada (who has made several documentaries in Mexico as well as feature drama Everything Else) to grapple with the big, profound ideas of the day. There is also something very likable about the fact that this is a family affair, employing Almada’s husband Dave Cerf, who designs the fusion of sound and music (parts of which are performed by storied classical group the Kronos Quartet), and her brother-in-law Bennett Cerf, who has captured the limpid digital imagery. Even Almada’s own adorable two little boys, a toddler and an infant, are core to the movie, filmed with both obvious love but also an unsettling detachment at times.

The Bottom Line

Lovely to look at, but never quite coheres thematically.

Some of the film’s most striking, how-did-they-do-that interludes are just long held shots of the kids sitting completely still, their faces bathed in an eerie blue light as they look straight at the camera. It turns out Cerf set up the camera behind a teleprompter so the kids were actually watching TV or playing video games while they were being filmed.

Nevertheless, this freeform and free associative bricolage of images, however niftily cut together they are by Almada herself, doesn’t coalesce around a coherent set of ideas. Almada’s voiceover talks as if she’s describing our present from the perspective of some long distant future, marveling at a time when people didn’t choose the sex of their children, carried the fetuses themselves and fed them with fluids from their own bodies. The idea seems to be that the film imagines a world to come where children are raised by machines (the electronic babysitters that we see the kids staring into), lacking the warmth of human parents.

That sounds, in many ways, like a very neo-Luddite, knee-jerk middle-class anxiety, and it’s hard to square with the film’s obvious fascination with the technology that makes the thing we’re actually watching possible — creating immaculate straight-down drone shots that turn breaking waves into lacey patterns, or perfectly synchronized traveling shots of trains racing down tracks.

The deep-breath pacing, vague environmentalism and modern classical musical vibe will, to some viewers, inevitably suggest the work of Godfrey Reggio, the maker of such montage movies as Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi. Certainly, there are parallels with Reggio’s Big Idea form of documentary making, but Almada’s work has a more intimate feel, to its credit. You get the impression that this was a project born out of a very sincere need to grapple with notions of parenting, the future and the nature of love, but that the director and her team hadn’t quite worked out what they wanted to say. But if the film’s reach exceeds its grasp, at least it’s bracing to see it straining to say something grand.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)  
Production: A Department of Motion Pictures, Altamura Films production in association with XTR, Atlas Industries, Just Films | Ford Foundation, No Ficcion, Simplemente | FCPworks
Director: Natalia Almada
Producers: Josh Penn, Elizabeth Lodge Strepp, Natalia Almada
Executive producers: Sean O’Grady, Bill Stertz, Charlotte Cook, Tony Hsieh, Roberto Grande, Mimi Pham, Kathryn Everett, Bryn Mooser, Noah Kadner, Rune Hansen, Mónica Reina
Director of photography: Bennett Cerf
Sound designer/composer: Dave Cerf
Editor: Natalia Almada
Sales: Film Constellation

81 minutes