On Set: Second Virtual Sundance Fights Through COVID Fatigue with Top-Notch Competition

KHOL film critic Jeff Counts reviews the U.S. Dramatic category at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Still from the film "Nanny"
"Nanny" took the top honor in this year's U.S. Dramatic category. (Sundance Press)

by | Feb 4, 2022 | Film & TV


Up to about two weeks prior to opening night, the 2022 Sundance Film Festival was committed to a hybrid experience, with a mix of digital and in-person screening options. But the Omicron variant made other plans, so the team in Park City had the incredibly difficult job of moving the entire slate of movies back into our living rooms. I can only imagine the work that took, and I heartily applaud the institute staff for pulling it off again.

Like last year, I viewed the 25 films on my docket using the Sundance Apple TV app and everything worked perfectly. Also like last year, the festival planners tried to manufacture the “sold out” vibe of real premieres by setting specific show times and limiting the number of virtual tickets for each screening. I understand why they keep doing this—they have to—but the frustration of not being able to get a seat does feel worse in an arbitrary digital context.

First up in my 2022 coverage is the U.S. Dramatic category. The 10 films of this section intersected thematically in interesting ways. American racism was very forward in this year’s field, as was a more general but pervasive sense of dread that breached the walls of privacy, trust and the other presumed safe spaces of everyday reality. We were also asked to consider romantic relationships with big age and maturity gaps, from both sides of that possibility. We got crime, death, class, immigration. There was a lot of innocence to mourn, but very few opportunities to laugh. All in all, the level of the group was very high and competitive.

In 2021, “CODA” emerged as an early favorite and rode its accumulated inevitability straight through to awards night. But 2022 had no frontrunner. It was strange to approach the end of the week with absolutely no idea which film would win the judges’ top honor. I wasn’t even sure which film I thought should win.

In the end, “Nanny” took home the hardware. Apparently, this is the first horror movie to win the top prize in this category. It tells the story of Aisha, played wonderfully by Anna Diop. She’s a Senegalese immigrant who works as a caretaker for the child of a wealthy white couple in New York. As a sinister overlay to that set-up, Aisha’s life is increasingly challenged by dangerous spirits from West African Folklore and the steady unravelling of her sanity is masterfully rendered by director Nikyatu Jusu. I loved “Nanny” and support the win, but there were others I would have been equally happy to see prevail.

“Emergency,” which won the screenwriting award, was a genuinely surprising (and unflinching) look at being a young Black or brown man in this country, and a testament to how often that baseline reality makes doing the right thing impossible. The writing is indeed great, but the performances are even better.

I also adored “blood.” This title earned an Uncompromising Artistic Vision award for director Bradley Rust Gray, and he deserves it. “blood” is a Terence Malick-esque mediation on human interaction that is so quiet, so gentle, it defies the gravity of grief. It’s a space to be inhabited more than a story to be told, and an incredible cinematic expression of comfort.

Last on my personal list is “Cha Cha Real Smooth.” Nothing about this film looked particularly interesting to me on paper. But director/actor Cooper Raiff used his effortlessly hilarious charm to turn a throwaway concept (listless but lovable college grad falls for older woman) into an expert study of family, wisdom and responsibility. The general Sundance audience agreed and voted “Cha Cha Real Smooth” their favorite entry into the category.

Top to bottom, the 2022 U.S. Dramatic field was one of the strongest in years, with several films destined for mainstream success over the next 12 months. The fact that half of these films could have won the day says it all.

Stay tuned next week for my report on the U.S. Documentary section. That category might have been even better.

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About Jeff Counts

Before moving to Jackson in 2019, Jeff spent five years reviewing movies as co-host of the public access television program "Big Movie Mouth-Off." When not focused on film, Jeff writes about opera and co-hosts the classical music interview podcast "Ghost Light."

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