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The Screen Scene: Sundance Film Festival 2021, Part 3

The Screen Scene with Scott Phillips

Last time on The Screen Scene I looked at a pair of crowd-pleasing films from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.  This time I’m turning my sights toward a pair of heavy dramas. Obviously, every Sundance narrative film features quality performances, but the two films I’m looking at this week offer acting showcases that should not be missed.

Mass is a character drama set at a reconciliation meeting between the parents of a school shooter and the parents of one of his victims.  The majority of its runtime is spent in a Sunday School classroom at a small church where this tense meeting takes place.  The set consists of a table, four chairs, a few pieces of upholstered furniture and a table of refreshments.

There’s nowhere to hide, physically or emotionally.

Mass focuses on the power of words to hurt and to heal and the difficulty of offering true forgiveness when the emotional wounds run deep.  Mass explores the responsibilities and inherent helplessness of parenting, the burden of shaping a young mind and then hoping it can cope with the cruelties of the world.  Ultimately, the film is about trying to make sense of the senseless, trying to find a purpose or a point to acts of random violence.         

Mass is an acting showcase.  The quartet of performances from Jason Isaac, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney and Ann Dowd are flawless.  If I had to pick an MVP from the cast, it would be Ann Dowd as the mother of the perpetrator.  Her haunted eyes reflect the agony and the guilt that never leave her.  She lives in a perpetual state of wondering what she could have done differently.  How did she fail as a mother?  She has been bent and broken by relentless self-examination and criticism.

Many stage plays have been adapted into films recently:  Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and One Night in Miami to name a couple that I’ve reviewed on The Screen Scene.  Mass is the first film that I’ve seen that I wish would be adapted into a stage play.  The screenplay and its construction of the four lead characters are brilliant.  The film is driven solely by dialogue.  No action scenes.  No special effects.  Just words.

Mass is a heart-breaking piece of work.  Bring the tissues.  Mass does not have a release date yet, so stay tuned to The Screen Scene on WRBL.com for updates. 

In Jockey, character actor Clifton Collins, Jr. gives the performance of his career as Jackson Silva, a man whose decades in a saddle have taken their toll on his body.  Jackson wants one last championship season before he retires, but his efforts are complicated when a rookie jockey arrives on the scene claiming to be his son.

Jockey was written and directed by Clint Bentley, whose real-life father rode horses professionally.  The writer-director grew up on the racing circuit and spent his childhood around the men who risked life and limb to be showered in roses in the Winner’s Circle.  The film smacks of authenticity and uses some real-life jockeys as supporting characters. 

The film has the verité feel of a documentary, blending the real people who travel the racing circuit with the actors and actresses playing their written parts.  It’s reminiscent of director Chloe Zhao’s 2019 film The Rider which tackled similar subject matter on the amateur rodeo circuit.

The older I get the more moved I am by films like Jockey.  As you age, as your career enters its second or third act, thoughts turn toward your legacy.  What have I accomplished?  What will I be remembered for?  Jackson Silva is wrestling with these same issues.  What do I have to show for a life on the racetrack other than a collection of healed fractures and a bad back?

The cinematography is beautiful.  The visual compositions are so natural.  They aren’t manipulated by exaggerated lighting or filters.  It’s no coincidence that Jockey features numerous gorgeous sunsets.  Jackson Silva is in the twilight of his career.  He only has a handful of sunsets left to watch from the back of a horse.

Jockey is not to be missed.  The film was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for a theatrical release later this year.

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