Sundance Day 1: Ghostlight, Girls State, Veni Vidi Vici
Thoughts on my first day at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.
I’m on the ground in Park City, Utah this week to attend the 40th Sundance Film Festival and I’m writing about it on Decoding Everything (plus recording a few audio diaries for my Patreon). I return home on Monday and am hoping to bring you some thoughts on the online portion of Sundance as well. Welcome to my coverage of the festival!
I haven’t been to Sundance in about a decade, when I was last covering it for /Film. I have a lot of fondness for those days when “film bloggers” were still considered young upstarts and the digital media industry wasn’t in the throes of an intense collapse. Plus there’s always something special about being one of the first people on the planet to watch a film and react to it and Sundance is one of the few festivals that can deliver that experience consistently. I’m excited to be back.
I woke up on Day 1 to discover that they were detonating explosions on the mountainside to trigger controlled avalanches. Hope I don’t get caught up in one of those, Force Majeure-style, but either way, it was lovely to wake up to sun and with beautiful mountains around me.
I made my way to the press office at Sundance Headquarters at the Sheraton to pick up my press badge. The badge entitles me a place in line at any Press & Industry (P&I) screenings. But it’s also a lot of fun to attend the public screenings at Sundance. That’s often where the energy and excitement (and the stars) are. The kind people working at HQ explained to me how the waitlist system works for public screenings: a couple hours before a movie premieres, people have the option to press “Join waitlist” in the app, then wait in line to see if a spot opens up. Seems cool, I remember thinking to myself.
I immediately tested the system by heading to an early screening of Ghostlight. After waiting in line with a few dozen other people, I was one of the last people let into the theater and I’m really glad I made it. Ghostlight is a delight! It’s a movie about a construction worker (Keith Kupferer) who decides to act in a Shakespeare play at a local theater to work out some unprocessed feelings about his life. Dolly De Leon (who was wonderful in Triangle of Sadness) is one of his scene partners and watching these two actors bounce off each other is magical.
Ghostlight is notable not only because it reveals Kupferer as an incredible talent (something people familiar with his theater work can already attest to) but also because it offers a great rendition of Shakespeare. I read Shakespeare obsessively in college but his work can often be inaccessible. It takes talent to take his words and infuse them with the emotion and gravitas that can bring them to life and make them relevant to modern audiences. This movie achieves that in spades.
Ghostlight is funny and moving, and I could feel the entire audience weeping along with me during some of its emotional heights. It was a wonderful start to my festival. I hope this movie gets distribution and that everyone gets the opportunity to experience it.
I was able to snag a ticket to the world premiere screening of Girls State at the Eccles Theater — one of the larger and more prestigious venues for the festival — so I decided to head that way after Ghostlight. The Eccles has premiered many spectacular movies and there’s always great energy in the room. Heck, I’m old enough to remember when Kevin Smith premiered Red State at the Eccles and then went on a diatribe against traditional film distribution.
Girls State is Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s spiritual sequel to their Grand Jury Prize-winning film Boys State, which chronicled the Texas edition of the Boys State event put on by the American Legion every year in states all across the country. I loved Boys State (listen to our review here) and was excited to see what footage the girls version of the same event might yield.
Girls State is a solid follow-up to Boys State, but it lacks the narrative momentum and cohesion of its predecessor. The throughline isn’t quite as neat and as a result some of its biggest climactic moments feel like they come out of nowhere and without any build-up (When the film was introduced, it was mentioned that the directors were tweaking the film up through the last few days. I’m curious if further tweaks will be made after the festival).
What Girls State does feature is a lot of what made Boys State great: candid footage of young folks trying to figure out their place our society and how to make the world a better place. There’s also some material in here about the inequalities between the Boys State and Girls State events that’s meaningful and important. As with Boys State, the subjects that are followed in this one are memorable and likable, and you can’t help but root for them to succeed.
Girls State was funded by Apple and I imagine it will hit Apple TV+ sometime in the next year. For those who liked Boys State (which is currently streaming on Apple TV+), you’ll probably find Girls State one worth checking out.
The Sundance waitlist system broke down
After Girls State, I decided to try my luck at getting into Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s latest film, Freaky Tales. This movie starred Pedro Pascal and was sure to be one of the most popular films of the festival. I put my odds of getting in at roughly 10%, as I had no ticket and was going to try my luck the wait list.
Unfortunately, it was at this point that the Sundance wait list system revealed itself to be horribly broken. People got assigned multiple numbers on the waitlist (instead of just one), and sometimes the waitlist QR code refused to load in the Sundance app. I got in line with 100-200 people and we waited for about 1-2 hours in a poorly ventilated room just for a chance at catching a glimpse of Pedro. It started to get tense towards the end, as people just wanted answers about whether or not we even had a chance of seeing the film.
Finally, 30 minutes after Freaky Tales showtime, we were told the bad news: not a single one of us would be getting into see the film this evening. On the plus side, I did meet several listeners in line, including Jared Lewis from Cineflect. The below video gives you a sense of what the scene was like.
I later learned that some passholders were turned away and ticketholders were also having a difficult time getting in. That kind of thing is basically unheard of in most film festivals, let alone Sundance.
All the volunteers/staff at Sundance were frazzled but nonetheless remained incredibly polite and professional. They were clearly working in a very challenging situation — the festival’s tech had failed them. I’m hoping the Sundance waitlist/app situation gets solved in the coming days because my sense is that the volume of filmgoers is only going to increase over the weekend and it could become a problem for staff if it’s not taken care of.
I’m very privileged to be able to attend the festival at all so I bear no ill will towards anybody but it was an unfortunate situation for all involved.
Veni Vidi Vici
Chastened by my failed attempts at getting into a public screening, I ended the evening in the P&I theater where I watched Veni Vidi Vici, which had premiered just hours earlier at the Egyptian Theater. Daniel Hoesl and Julia Niemann’s film is a social satire that asks: What if rich people treated poor people terribly and with impunity? No, like, seriously, like, what if these rich people were really, really bad?
Veni Vidi Vici is a gorgeous film with an incredible cast. The production design is exquisite (there’s an indoor pool in this film that is probably going to end up on my vision board). But its narrative is pretty unsatisfying and it offers virtually no insight into class conflict. We live in a golden era of “Bad Wealthy People” media right now — there’s Succession, The Fall of the House of Usher, and the recently-wrapped Fargo Season 5 (listen to our Decoding TV review of the latter right here). Every single one of these shows had something unique to add to the conversation either stylistically or thematically.
Veni Vidi Vici’s satire is so obvious and on-the-nose that the movie felt like a bit of a slog, even at a brisk 87 minute runtime. While I think this movie’s extreme depiction of evil rich people will find some fans, it wasn’t for me.
That’s it for day 1! Hope you enjoyed this post. You can follow me on Instagram, Threads, and Tiktok for more real time updates. If you’re at Sundance, feel free to say hi if you see me. And in the comments below, feel free to let me know what you think I should check out this next week!